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Posted: August 25, 2012 9:02 p.m.

Local farm to produce Italian cheeses

Russell Johnston is tired. He's tired of putting in 90 to 100 hours a week producing milk, bottling it, marketing and selling the popular beverage and driving it around the region. He's tired of missing out on his life and that of his two sons.

Johnston Family Farm, which has been around since 1940, recently sold off its processing facility to chef Antonio Lorusso, who will now use Johnston's cows' milk to make a variety of Italian cheeses, primarily Mozzarella.

Johnston, 41, will continue to run the dairy farm, and, in fact, purchased a partial stake in Lorusso's company, Izzy's Cheeses.

Lorusso hopes to produce burrata (a kind of Mozzarella filled with cream), Mascarpone and queso blanco, in addition to Mozzarella and other cheeses. Johnston said he hopes the cheeses will be sold at Noring Farms on Floyd, at area Whole Foods Market stores and at restaurants.

Johnston said Lorusso is New York chef with strong Italian roots who is passionate about food and cheese. The two have been working together for the past one and a half years to perfect the recipes and cheese making process and are now ready to start commercial production.

"He makes wonderful cheeses. It will knock your socks off," Johnston said.

One of the new company's biggest customers will be Fogo de Chao, the upscale Brazilian steakhouse with a location in Atlanta, that is expected to purchase 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of cheese a month.

Lorusso will own all of the processing equipment and will rent the plant from Johnston. The two men hope to produce 12,000 to 13,000 pounds of cheese initially and grow as demand does.

Shifting markets
The farm, which has a Newborn address but is just across the Morgan County line, was the one of only three dairy farms in Georgia that processed its own milk, according to Johnston, and the effort it took to make a living wasn't worth sacrificing much of his life.

Though he had many people tell him his milk was the best they'd ever tasted, Johnston was never able to develop a big local market. His 110-plus cows produced about 15,000 gallons of milk a month, but he sold less than 1 percent of that within the 25 to 30-mile radius surrounding his farm.

He sold about 30 to 40 gallons a month in Covington, and spent much of his time driving to Athens and Atlanta to market and sell his milk to farmer's markets and shops there.

"I enjoyed interacting with the public, and, of course, I took some pride in having people tell me it was the best milk they'd ever had in their life and that they'd never had anything like it," Johnston said Friday. "Real milk tastes nothing like the grocery store milk. That stuff tastes pretty nasty actually. People go crazy over real milk.

"I've gotten calls from people, but they understand when I say it's affecting my family and that I'm putting my family first. It's disappointing that I'm not going to be able to get my product out to people...but that's not nearly as upsetting of my depriving my children of their father."

Unlike Newton County, which has only one active dairy farm and one more planned to start up, Morgan County around 20 dairy farms; however, Johnston said a number of them are on the verge of folding.

"Farmers don't want to fight commodity prices that are going through the roof. With the drought, corn prices are almost doubling, soybean prices are up 50 to 75 percent. Milk prices are going up a little bit, but not as much as everything else," Johnston said.

Johnston will still sell some raw milk, which is used in the growing pet milk industry. The owners of the Marks family farm in Newton County are considering getting into that same burgeoning business themselves.

Johnston's grandfather bought the farm in 1940, and Johnston bought out his own father in 1992 and then started bottling and directly selling his milk in 2008.

"Anyone who produces a commodity or a product wants to take the middle man out and deal directly with the consumer, because it gives you better control over what the price is what the profit is," Johnston said. "The reason (I'm selling the processing part), just to be blatantly frank, is that I'm tried. I'm tired of working seven days a week for 12 to 14 hours a day.

"You can definitely work all the life out of life... My 12 year old is about to go through a lot of changes in life, and he needs somebody there he can talk to and spend time with and who can guide him in the right direction. Between the two of (my sons) that was just the determining factor."

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