In the Field: The Sandvoss brothers of First Light Creamery
Photo courtesy of First Light
Regulars of Buffalo area farmers’ markets may have noticed two new faces at Bidwell and East Aurora this summer. Max and Trystan Sandvoss of First Light Farm and Creamery are the latest bright spots in the Western New York food scene and, and judging by their sell-out appearances, have launched a promising local business.
First Light is a twenty-acre, forty-nine-head goat farm in East Bethany, Genesee County. From their small herd of Nubian and French Alpine dairy goats, Max, thirty-one, and his older brother Trystan, thirty-three, make some of the area’s best and freshest dairy products, including a classic chevre, flavored cheese spreads, and cheese curds. Nearly everything uses a double-cream blend of milk from their own goats mixed with organic cows’ milk from a herd of Jerseys just down the road.
The Jersey milk has high butterfat solids, making it the best cows’ milk for cheesemaking, says Max. “There are a lot of people out there who have never tried goats’ milk cheese or may think they don’t like it,” he adds. “We want to be able to reach out to those people and offer them something both familiar and delicious.”
The Sandvoss brothers grew up in New York before moving to southern Washington State where they spent several years apprenticing at some of the area’s best creameries. Their passion runs in the family; their late father was a WNY dairyman, and they often returned to the area to visit.
A little over a year ago, they moved back east to pursue cheesemaking. “We’re still learning the landscape, but we hope to create a food distribution model similar to the rich dairy regions out west,” Trystan Sandvoss says. “The land here is incredible.” He and Max have set out to give WNY its own artisanal cheeses that celebrate terroir, or the indigenous characteristics that make our food as unique to this region as Tuscan wine and Roquefort cheese are to theirs.
To that end, the brothers are determined not to “sacrifice art or science.” With help from their mother, they spent the last year researching herds and purchasing goats from the top farms in the country, investing in cutting-edge new equipment and hunting down parts from shuttered dairy farms.
Ultimately, however, the Sandvosses rely on elbow grease. They hand-raise and breed their herd, provide their own veterinary care, rotate crops, move fences, and they transformed the property’s horse barn into a creamery. Their herds graze on naturally-managed meadowland to which locally sourced forage is added—the brothers grow their own sunflowers, kale, and Jerusalem artichokes to help the goats thrive and impart seasonal flavors to the milk. This philosophy of combining animal husbandry with land conservation makes First Light a truly diversified and environmentally sustainable farm.
This isn’t glamorous work. The family rises before sunrise every day to begin milking, processing cheese on a relentless seventy-two-hour cycle seven days a week, but this schedule gave the farm its name. “‘First Light’ represents possibility and potential,” Trystan Sandvoss says philosophically. “To me it speaks to that special time in the morning as the sun comes up, but also of what we produce. In its natural state, milk is both a liquid and a solid with zero shelf life. Turning it into something people can enjoy off the farm is sort of magical.”
The brothers constantly tinker with new types of cheeses and flavors, releasing their perfected results in small batches that change each week. (Terroir tip: If you buy it in late summer as the goats’ milk production wanes, the cheese has more creamy butterfat than in the spring, when new grasses lend delicate flavors.)
“Chevre is a nice canvas to paint on,” Trystan Sandvoss says of the classic plain cheese, which is selling more as people grow accustomed to the taste. First Light offers spreads spiked with blueberries, roasted garlic and dill, smoked paprika, white pepper and thyme, and Buffalo wing and is experimenting with autumn flavors like pumpkin and apple. They also invented Aurora, a creamy concoction with the same lactic curd as chevre but dried seventy-two hours longer. It’s shaped into elegant pyramids that are deliciously spreadable.
First Light sells its product line at several local markets, restaurants, and wineries. By bartering and networking with young farmers, the brothers hope to help pioneer a small-scale farming community that preserves land and creates high-quality food. “We want to stay tiny compared to commercial dairies and not grow past what our farm can sustain—about 100 milking goats,” the older Sandvoss says.
This fall First Light began offering cheesemaking classes and hopes to continue them throughout the winter. Limited to fifteen students, each full-day workshop is held at the creamery and teaches students how to make fresh and aged cheeses in a home kitchen, without specialized equipment. Included is a tour of the farm, a “meet and greet” with the goats, and a gourmet lunch—with a cheese course, of course.
First Light’s cheeses can be purchased at Lexington Cooperative Market (807 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo, 886-2667.)
Writer and foodie Lauren Newkirk Maynard also writes for UB publications.