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Putting His Faith in Cheeses

It's quite a leap from high-powered lawyer to dairy entrepreneur, but John Putnam's bet on following his heart is paying off

John Putnam has a far better view from his office now than he ever did as a corporate lawyer. It overlooks rolling hills and small road winding through the fields, absent of many cars. The smell of cut hay wafts on the cool, Vermont breeze and his "desk" isn't quite mahogany -- it's a decades-old John Deere (DE) tractor. This office without walls lets him keep a close eye on his "employees" -- his children and a few friends -- loading hay bales into the back of his truck. Stepping down from the Deere, he shows his friend and fellow corporate refugee, Ron Galotti, how to keep the tractor in fourth.

In northern New England, where many rat racers flee to pursue their real passions -- be it innkeeping or gallery owning -– Putnam is among a growing number of farmstead cheese makers. The owner of Thistle Hill Farms, in North Pomfret, Vt., he approaches his craft with the same focus he once brought to legal briefs. ("Farmstead" means that the product is produced, start to finish, in one location -- ion other words, from cow to cheese.) His cheese, called Tarantaise, has won several national awards and retails for around $15 to $20 per pound.

But what makes a man go from litigating corporate bankruptcy cases to milking cows and making cheese? Putnam didn't leave the law out of boredom, he says, but because he wanted a change before he got too old to make one. More simply, he missed the nearby farms and fields where he'd worked as a teenager. He says he might still look at a case for a good friend, if it interested him, but gesturing to the fields around him, the barns, and the cheese house, adds, "This is my priority."


He didn't give up lawyering all at once, instead slowly scaling back after he purchased the farm in 1986. A partner at Stebbens and Bradley in Hanover, N.H., he made a "no new clients, no new cases" rule. As his caseload decreased, he was able to spend time building and repairing the farm's several barns, maintaining his fields, and tending the cows, while still keeping his commitments to old clients.

"I can't tell you how many cases I settled from a cell phone in a hayfield or on a tractor," Putnam says. "The only time I got in trouble, I was on a conference call with 15 lawyers, multi-bazillion-dollar case, and one of the cows behind me started bawling for whatever reason. And one guy who knows me really well says, 'Putnam, are you in the barn?!'"

Putnam knew that farming was his passion, but it took him several years to settle on cheese making. He and his wife began raising beef cattle for several years before growing bored with the lack of challenges. They then began producing organic milk, and dairy production offered Putnam many of the challenges he sought, with the constant supervision of the cows' diet and health.


But being a dairy farmer was "a very low profit-margin business," he says. "The commodities market will kill you. [Being] value added, in our part of the country, is the only way to keep a small farm going." (Putnam declined to disclose his current revenue.)

So, the family began taking trips to Europe to visit cheese makers, to find a way to turn that high-quality milk into a value-added product. Putnam settled on a cheese made in Switzerland, from which his own cheese takes its name. He initially thought it would be best to learn how to make cheese by studying there, but the Swiss cheese makers told him that he needed to learn on his own farm, in his own climate, with his own cows.

So they sent over a young man studying cheese making in Europe to teach Putnam, and for months they worked together, building the facilities for his operation and getting the farm ready to make cheese. On July 5, 2002, they made the first wheel. "The very first cheese on the very first day was a very good cheese," he says. "That's what you get when there's four or five years of preparation in what you do."


As a milk producer, Putnam got 25 cents for every pound of milk out of the cow. Now, having turned that milk into cheese, he gets $1 per pound. The heavy demand from fine restaurants like Artisinal in New York, gourmet catalogues, and other consumers will allow him to raise his prices by 20% next year.

Putnam says it's not all dollars and cents. "The lifestyle part of our profits only shows up in the balance sheet that we carry around in our head!" he says. "I get to live and work at home in a place I love. I am near my family. I get to see the tangible results of every days work, whether that is cheese, hay in the barn, wood in the shed, or a well built fence, or a pasture that is healthy." As with many entrepreneurs, city and country alike, owning the process and the result is what he says matters.

Having found his version of the good life, Putnam has been willing to share his philosophy with others. Putnam's friend, Galotti, is of a similar mindset, though he's not a cheese maker like Putnam or even much of a farmer, he'll admit. A one-time prince of the New York magazine world, with high-level stints at GQ, Vanity Fair, Country Living, Vogue, and Talk, he was also the real-life inspiration for Sex and the City's infamous Mr. Big.


He came to Vermont a year and a half ago, trading A-list parties for a gig with North Pomfret's volunteer fire department. It's no surprise the two have hit it off -- Galotti helps out on the farm, and Putnam has been showing him the ropes. "You get caught in that fast-track, consumption side of life and there's no way out," says Galotti, 56. "I was sitting there one day and was just, like, 'Uh-huh, goodbye.'"

It's not, however, a life entirely free of stress. Putnam says he worries about every 15-pound wheel of his cheese -- that it won't have the deep flavor, that something will be wrong, that he'll have failed to anticipate some problem.

But as Putnam looks out over his family, Galotti now driving the tractor, and the sun falling low in the sky, he tries to summarize what he likes so much about being a farmer: "It's a hell of a lot more work," he says, "but it sure beats having a job."


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