Six years ago, Stephen Hueffed, ’88, ’95, and his family traded in life in the city for pastoral pursuits and a dairy farm in Pe Ell, Wash., in the southwest corner of the state.
The move marked more than a dramatic geographical shift. For Hueffed, it was an opportunity to start anew professionally. After years working in administrative roles for religious organizations and churches, he decided it was time to go into business for himself. While he found his work rewarding after the birth of their first child, Hueffed and his wife Amy—a naturopathic physician in private practice at the time—decided to take stock of their lives.
“You start to do a little soul searching,” he says. “Both of us looked at our hopes and dreams, considering that our lives were evolving.”
They thought about what types of businesses would be both practical and profitable. In the end they went for one that was agricultural in nature, which led to their purchase of a historic 146-acre farmstead in southwest Washington
“We settled on cheese,” Hueffed says, matter of fact. “The idea had taken root on our trips to the wine country in California.”
Three years ago, they opened a creamery on site and soon, Willapa Hills Cheese was born. Hueffed wasn’t deterred by the fact that he had no experience in the cheese making business. After taking a class, working with a consultant and obtaining a Ph meter, “a modern cheese maker’s best friend,” Hueffed and wife Amy were soon making cheese. Sure, there was plenty of trial and error, testing recipes and experimentation.
Some of their most popular cheeses in the blue family are Two-Faced Blue, a blend of sheep’s and cow’s milk, and Big Boy Blue, a classic cow’s milk blue cheese.
“On one level it is very much like following a cooking recipe,” he says. “But to make good cheese, there’s a science behind it but also an art to it. The real fabulous cheese is closer to an art. There’s an old saying that some of the best cheeses come out of mistakes.”
Willapa Hills’ specialties are natural rind farmstead and artisan cheeses. They have become known for their line of fresh and aged sheep’s milk blue cheeses including their “Willapa White,” “Fresh With Ewe” and “Ewe Moon.”
Why sheep’s milk? Hueffed wanted to develop cheeses that were different than the mass-produced varieties on the market.
“There are only a few sheep’s milk blue cheese like ours being produced in any volume in the continental United States. The farm’s sheep’s milk blues are one of a kind,” says Hueffed, adding that there is little head-to-head competition for the types he produces.
Willapa Hills’ cheeses are made in small batches and by hand. Hueffed’s efforts have paid off, with national recognition and growing interest in their offerings—the cheeses have been picked up by consumers, chefs, restaurants and the like throughout the region and beyond.
Being a farmstead cheese producer means that the entire cheese making process happens on the farm—Hueffed even makes his own hay.
Originally the plan was to offer only sheep’s milk cheeses but because of the short, seasonal nature of sheep’s milk, available six months of the year, Hueffed had to diversify and did so by adding cow’s milk into the mix. Some of their most popular cheeses in the blue family are Two-Faced Blue, a blend of sheep’s and cow’s milk, and Big Boy Blue, a classic cow’s milk blue cheese. In addition to their line of blue sheep’s and cow’s milk cheeses they also offer artisan spreads and yogurt cheeses in both sweet and savory varieties. The cream cheese-based blue cheese dips and other spreads have enabled Hueffed and company to reach a broader market.
“...To make good cheese, there’s a science behind it but also an art to it. The real fabulous cheese is closer to an art. There’s an old saying that some of the best cheeses come out of mistakes.”—Stephen Hueffed, '88, '95“Classic cheese making is still the heart and soul of what we do,” he says, “but these tub products have helped us access retail in a different way.”
Despite the challenging economy and a few tough years, Willapa Hills is now doing well, with plans for significant growth in the next 12 to 18 months, Hueffed says. New equipment will be added to the operation along with additional selections of artisan spreads in time for the holidays. Early next year there are plans to introduce a Pecorino Romano-inspired sheep’s and cow’s milk cheese called “Ewe Old Cow”.
The cheeses and spreads are available on location on the farm, at various farmers markets, Whole Foods, PCC Natural Markets, Metropolitan Markets and smaller area grocery stores throughout Washington, Oregon and in San Francisco. Recently, the cheese was shipped to New York City.
The ultimate goal for Hueffed, Amy and their children, Lillian Grace, Willem and Lucas, is for Willapa Hills Cheese to be a strong regional artisan cheese producer with national appeal.
Does he ever miss the bright lights and hustle and bustle of the big city when he’s on the farm? Not a chance.
“We are building something as a family,” Hueffed says. “I appreciate the family time. I love the city but never need to live in the city again. This is heaven on earth.”
In the Family
Seattle University’s roots run deep in the Hueffed family. In addition to Stephen, his mother Marilyn, ’57, his father Jerome Hueffed, ’53, ’65 MEd, his brother Joseph, ’93, ’98 MBA, and his sisters Julie, ’98, and Jean Hueffed Causbie, ’89 MEd, are all alumni of SU.