Who’s Here: Art Ludlow, Turkey Farmer, Cheese Maker

Arthur Ludlow is best known as “Art the cheese guy” at area farmers markets including Sag Harbor, East Hampton and Westhampton. Assisted by his wife Stacy and sons Peter and John, Art has built a solid reputation as the only modern cheese maker on the South Fork. Art’s brand is appropriately named for its birthplace, Mecox Bay Dairy. People can’t get enough of his Shawondasee (mold ripened tomme), Mecox Sunrise (washed rind tomme), Camembert-style Atlantic Mist, Gruyere-style Sigit, Blue Cheddar, Farmhouse Cheddar and fresh ricotta!

The Ludlow family is relatively new to farming in Bridgehampton. Art’s great grandfather Gurden Pierson Ludlow, after a career in whaling, first farmed on Mecox Road in 1875. His brother Harry bought an adjoining 10 acres, which he farmed. Today Art’s brother Harry Ludlow and his family still farm there. [expand]

It’s not just first names that this family perpetuates; sustainable agriculture is an age-old way of life. The first Ludlow farms were essentially subsistence farms—growing crops and raising animals to feed and clothe the family. Of course the Ludlows also fished for food. In the 1920s the Ludlows bought more land and started a dairy herd, raising potatoes as a cash crop. In the 1960s milk prices dropped too low to turn a profit, so potatoes became the main cash crop for East End farmers. 

Potatoes required that the Ludlows lease over 100 acres to farm. Given the rising land values, the Ludlows realized that they needed to develop an intensive agricultural model that would include selling their farm products locally. The gourmands were at the hedgerow and ripe for the picking.

Brothers Art and Harry are both Cornell graduates. Harry’s degree is in vegetable culture, he came to raise vegetables and flowers for local sale. Art’s degree in agricultural economics told him to stop growing potatoes in 2001 and buy three cows. Art’s plan was to sell cream line milk—the kind of milk that used to come in a glass bottle in which you could see the cream floating on top. He did sell that delicious milk to a ready audience, but modern dairy cows produce a hell of a lot of it. In the off-season you better have a plan for what to do with milk because your cows HAVE TO BE MILKED morning and night. Cheese was the natural answer.

It takes 10 pounds of milk to yield one pound of aged cheese. Art sold his first homemade cheese in 2003. Art’s Mecox Sunrise won second place in the Washed Rind category in the American Cheese Society competition the very next year! That’s some kind of progress. Art modestly says, “This is an evolving thing.”

The Ludlow dairy herd now numbers 40 Jersey cows. Sixteen are milking right now. Dressed in a long white lab coat and white rubber boots, Art heats and cures their milk in a spotless state-of-the-art creamery on the farm. Separating the cheese curd from the whey is the first step in making most cheeses. The whey is often discarded but not at Mecox Bay Dairy. Several years ago Art started raising a drove of Berkshire pigs. Fed on whey and refuse from the vegetable crops, these piggies live LARGE.

At this time of year many locals are stuffed with another of Art’s traditional products, TURKEY. Art has kept a flock of turkeys since he was a boy. Currently Art raises 250 Nicholas White turkeys a year and the demand for these local birds has become overwhelming. When I contacted Art last month about this article I figured he’d be nonplussed to have this coverage run a little too late to promote his Thanksgiving turkey sales. Far from it—at my first mention of a write-up Art said quickly, “We’re out of turkeys this year.” If you call the phone at his farm you’ll hear Art’s recorded voice saying in even tones “We’re out of Thanksgiving turkeys this year.”

Poultry farmers are limited as to how many birds they can slaughter on site each year. Despite the productivity of its farms, Long Island has long had a dearth of slaughterhouses and skilled butchers. Art has made it his practice to slaughter all of his birds himself. However, there’s big news in Turkey Town: Last week, for the first time, the Ludlows packed up all their retail turkeys and trucked them up to Stamford, New York for slaughter. With this new paradigm Art will be able to raise more birds for sale. I’ve signed up for a bird for next year!

Forget Kosher and free-range turkeys, serious foodies today are going “beyond organic” to HERITAGE. And, once again, Art Ludlow is right there with them. Today’s heritage birds are descended from America’s early domesticated turkeys, which were bred long ago for flavor, beautiful plumage and “thriftiness,” a good yield of meat from the food provided. Art now has a small flock of Bourbon Reds coming up. Some may be available for next year’s Thanksgiving. Heritage birds were displaced by industrially raised Broad-Breast Whites by the 1960s. Twenty years ago the striking older breeds like Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish and White Holland were nearing extinction.

While supermarket turkeys grow to an average of 32 pounds over 18 weeks, Heritage birds take anywhere from 24 to 30 weeks to reach their market weight. Modern Broad Breast Whites have been so specifically engineered for meat production they cannot mate naturally. They cannot even walk well. Their narrow genetic base makes them vulnerable to catastrophic disease and you know what they taste like.

Heritage turkeys have to meet strict requirements, they are traditional, standard breeds of turkeys, listed by the American Poultry Association in its official Standard of Perfection in 1874. These turkeys have not been “industrialized” for efficient factory production at the expense of flavor and the well-being of the turkeys. They are mated naturally and have regular access to the great outdoors.

So local birds cost more. But it’s not just connoisseurs who are now in the market for them—if you’ve ever tasted one you know that the flavor produced by hundreds of years of breeding is well worth the price. Do your family a favor and order one today—so that when you carve your special bird you’re carving the fine art of Art Ludlow.

Meet Art Ludlow at the Sag Harbor Farmers Market this Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 pm. To order your next Thanksgiving turkey visit www.mecoxbaydairy.com or call 631-537-0335.

Specials thanks to John F. Stacks and the Bridgehampton Historical Society for historical information relating to the Bridgehampton Ludlows.

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