Argentina-born artisan lends his family's expertise to operation

By JENNIFER MOODY

Associated Press

SWEET HOME, Ore. -- Jan Neilson rarely gets in Mariano Battro's whey.

He sometimes gets in hers, but that's why he was hired.

Jan and her husband, Larry, produce goat's milk cheese at their dairy, Fraga Farm. Demand for their certified organic goat cheese has grown so much that they decided two years ago to hire extra help.

About that time, Battro, who learned cheesemaking at his family's dairy in his home country of Argentina, put a looking-for-work message out to the Oregon Cheese Guild. The Sweet Home couple offered him a job, and in March 2008, the partnership began.

Battro, 32, of Albany, helps the Neilsons produce Fraga Farm goat cheese. He also makes cow's milk cheese under his own label, La Mariposa.

The partnership is what keeps Fraga going, Jan Neilson said. "We kind of combined our efforts and energies. Maybe we can hang onto him a little longer that way."

Jan, 57, and Larry, 64, have always been attracted to farm life, and she in particular loves goats. But 20 years ago, neither would have foreseen the business that now consumes each week. In the early 1990s, Larry had a civilian job with the Naval Air Station in Alameda, Calif., and Jan worked as a massage therapist. Larry took early retirement in 1994 upon learning the base was soon to shut down, and the couple moved to Castro Valley to rent a farm owned by Jan's grandmother, Agnes Fraga.

The farm was to be demolished for a freeway, so the Neilsons stayed only three years. But both enjoyed farm life so much they began looking for a place of their own. They fell in love with Sweet Home on a visit to Oregon and have been there since December 1994.

The Neilsons kept the Fraga name when they moved to Oregon. Jan started with just two goats. Today, she has 60 Nubian, Alpine and crossbred goats, 40 of which produce milk.

The gaggle of goats led to a largesse of liquid, so with the help of a neighbor's recipe, Jan taught herself to make cheese. Having Battro at the dairy, she said -- someone who knew different recipes, styles and techniques -- has raised the process to a new level.

Battro, for his part, said he's glad to have a place to practice his craft. After marrying a girl from Oregon who came to Argentina as an exchange student, the two moved to the Pacific Northwest and Battro began looking for a job at a dairy.

Sure, he said, he could have followed a different employment path, but why? "I really like making cheese," he said. "When you're finished, you have a really nice product."

Battro purchases cow's milk from Lochmead Dairy in Junction City. The recipes for his chubut and cinco

esquinas ("five corners") artisan cheeses are the same ones still used by his family.

After a month of aging, the pasteurized chubut is a mild, hard cheese that can be used much like Monterey Jack, Battro said. The cinco esquinas, aged 60 days, is made of raw milk and has a sharper flavor.

Fraga Farms also produces chevre, farmhouse, feta, cheddar and "Rio Santiam" (same recipe as the chubut, but with goat's milk). Several grocers, farmers' markets and specialty stores across Western Oregon carry the cheeses.

Demand is on the rise. Because of a difference in molecular structure, goat's milk tends to be easier to digest than cow's milk.

Oregon artisan cheeses also are getting more attention. Cheeses from Oregon took 22 prizes in this year's American Cheese Society competition, including Best of Show. Three years ago, Fraga Farm's feta won a first at the competition.

Organic farm life is full and satisfying, Jan said -- but so busy she sometimes can't see straight. Larry takes care of farm maintenance and selling the cheese at market, but the goats are all Jan's -- and they must be hooked up to the milking machines every 12 hours, no matter what.

"If I knew what I was getting into, I probably wouldn't have done it," she said wryly. "People come up to me now and say, 'I'd like to have chickens and a couple of goats,' and I say, 'Yeah, so would I.'"

That said, Jan would be hard-pressed to part with any of the herd, all of whom have names. (This year, it's Greek mythology, so Daphne and Aphrodite are part of the flock. One year it was Indian spices, so the kids received names such as Coriander, Cumin and Cinnamon.) Nine babies are kept each year.

The goats produce 20 gallons each milking, enough to make 250 pounds of cheese a week. That's why Battro's help has been critical, Jan said. She could hire a basic worker, but he came in with skills and knowledge of his own.

"I'll find a way to take a vacation this year," she said.

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