For Earth Day, we’re releasing a three-part miniseries on sustainable farming in North Carolina. Elias Guedira ’26 and Stella Smolowitz ’26 of the Morehead-Cain Scholar Media Team traveled to Tryon (Polk County) to understand more about the food we consume and those who produce it. The two co-hosts spoke with representatives of a farmer’s market, the founder of a creamer, and Carolyn Roff Henry ’87 of Tryon Mountain Farms. In the episode, Elias and Stella chat with Jen Perkins, the owner of Looking Glass Creamery (Columbus County). Jen shares about why visitors are one of the most important parts of her business model, as well as her close-knit relationships with Carolyn and other farmers in the area. This interview took place at the creamery after Jen gave a tour of the cheese cellars.
For Earth Day, we’re releasing a three-part miniseries on sustainable farming in North Carolina.
Elias Guedira ’26 and Stella Smolowitz ’26 of the Morehead-Cain Scholar Media Team traveled to Tryon (Polk County) to understand more about the food we consume and those who produce it.
The two co-hosts spoke with representatives of a farmer’s market, the founder of a creamer, and Carolyn Roff Henry ’87 of Tryon Mountain Farms.
In the episode, Elias and Stella chat with Jen Perkins, the owner of Looking Glass Creamery (Columbus County). Jen shares about why visitors are one of the most important parts of her business model, as well as her close-knit relationships with Carolyn and other farmers in the area. This interview took place at the creamery after Jen gave a tour of the cheese cellars.
The Scholar Media Team trip (the first of its kind!) was made possible by Carolyn, who hosted the scholars for the visit. Thank you, Carolyn, for your hospitality and support!
The intro music is by Scott Hallyburton ’22, guitarist of the band South of the Soul.
How to listen
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The Catalyze podcast is a series by the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The show is directed and produced by Sarah O’Carroll, Content Manager for Morehead-Cain.
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It is Friday, and we just talked to the people from Travelers Rest, Maranda and Jessica, and now we are with Jen Perkins at her Looking Glass Creamery, and we are sitting in, we just got a little bit of a tour of the cheese that she makes and the three cellars she has, and how they make their cheese. So now, Jen, would you be willing to tell us a little bit about how you got into this business and whether it was something that you inherited from your family or something like, how you started making cheese?
I was born in D.C. and grew up in Northern Virginia. My husband was born in Denver, so we were definitely kind of city suburbanites and did not have experience in agriculture. But about 20-25 years ago, I took an internship at a goat dairy, and the rest is history. I loved the work and just started on that path of gaining knowledge, taking classes, and making cheese at home. And it got to a point where it was time to make it a career. And at that point, we opened our business in 2009, just outside of Asheville, making cheese, buying milk from other farms. And then in 2018, we grew to a point where we needed to kind of secure our milk supply. So we bought the Harmon Dairy, which is a historic property in Polk County, and we took over operation of the dairy, and started cheese production down here in 2018, and the rest is history.
On the car drive here, Jen was telling us a little bit about the history of the Harmon Dairy. Would you like to elaborate on that for listeners?
Sure. So this farm was bought in three parcels in 1947 by Fairfax Harmon. He had children, but two of his sons took over operation of the dairy. It’s been a dairy since 1947. There’s been cows milked here. And we bought the farm in 2017 and started production for cheese. And that was one of the only ways that small dairies can survive is to bring production in-house and to kind of control the whole process and sell directly to the public. And that’s something that Doug Harmon really saw. And back in 2013, he put this property under a conservation easement. It’s 226 acres. And part of our mission as a business is to encourage people to come out, experience the farm, come see the cheesemaking process, take your dog for a walk, have an ice cream cone. Everything’s been made here on the property from the dairy that we operate as well. So a lot of people don’t have that kind of window into agriculture and what that life looks like in the process, and we’re trying to open that up and make it transparent.
Yeah, I think that’s awesome. I’m wondering how many visitors you have on a typical day, and what do you feel like they’re most surprised by when they come? And I’m sure most people have eaten cheese and dairy, so what do you think they’re most surprised by when they come to see where it’s made?
I think one, they’re just surprised that we’re here, and they’re like, “Wow, this is really cool.” You can look into the production floor, see the cheesemaking process. If we’re making cheese that day, you can also peek underground. We have 1000 square feet of cheeses underground. We also encourage people to get out and see the cows. And if we have calves, you can see them running around the field. So I think mostly it’s just a surprise that we’re here and that we’re doing what we’re doing because it’s getting to be more rare. But then I think it opens the door to provide knowledge and explain about the process and how important bacteria is and cheesemaking and how we manage them underground and how the aging process impacts the flavor of the cheese and all that stuff. So I think opening the door just, wow, they’re here, this is so cool. And then it expands to learning from there, and they get engaged.
And you talked about earlier bringing the dairy production in-house, as well as opening up your business to agritourism. What are some sustainable technologies or practices that you’ve implemented in recent years, and how have they impacted your production?
I don’t know that we’ve invented anything new, but what we have done is reduce the number of cows so that we can operate our cheese operation sustainably with the number of cows on the property. We’ve also fenced off several thousand feet of creeks and ripped out invasives and got the cows out of the creek, from crossing the creek, which is better for water quality. And we’ve added, we take the whey—it’s all kind of a full circle approach, which is what we’re trying to do here—so we have whey left over from our production, which is kind of the byproduct of cheesemaking, which is a lot of water, but it has a lot of minerals and other things in it. And we spread that on the grass, which acts as a fertilizer. We have transitioned what were annual fields, where they were planting them several times a year, which can get pretty intensive, into pastures. So we use that for hay production. Everything the cows eat comes from this farm. We’re not buying anything outside. They do get grain in the parlor that doesn’t come from here. But other than that, we’re living within the boundaries of what we can produce here on the farm, and then taking those outputs from what we make and spreading them on the farm. And we do that with a lot of other things, too, because we also make hard cider. We buy apples from Creasman Farms in Hendersonville, and we feed the spent apples to the cows. They love that. But I think just closing the loop and keeping your resources living with inside that is a sustainable part of what we’re doing, as well as trying to preserve the creeks and encourage wildlife habitat around the farm and things along those lines.
Thinking about those sustainable practices that you’ve implemented, and I’m sure it was not easy to implement them, and especially just like, I’m sure it was a very trial and error. Is there any story that you have that something like totally went wrong, or you tried something new, and it just did not go the way that it was supposed to, and how did you overcome that challenge?
Everything’s always going to go wrong and just start from there. That’s where I start from, and you just have to learn to adapt. And we’ve certainly done that with the business and what we’ve done here. You won’t succeed in business if you don’t have the flexibility to kind of overcome whatever challenges present. You either need to go over them, around them, or under them. But you just got to find a way, and know that where you are going isn’t necessarily where you intended, but be flexible in that approach as you evolve.
But in terms of something specific, the creek restoration has been a bit of a nightmare. It is coming to a close. It’s been years of difficulty on the farm and a distraction in a way, when we had all these other moving parts to manage. But that is finally coming together. We got the fences up; the work has been done. There were some problems with the creek crossing with an incredible amount of erosion that was happening because of the way that they were designed. So that had to go and is being redone. So just a constant kind of dealing with those problems as they come along. But we’ve had all kinds of learning curves.
This isn’t necessarily on the sustainable front, but, for instance, our cheese, when we first started, that we were using, the farmers were feeding silage. And silage is a fermented feed that gets fed to cattle. It’s pretty typical. You can run into problems with cheesemaking in that you can get some gas production and some food safety issues with that. And that happened to us, and we ended up throwing away $40,000 worth of cheese and swearing off silage. And that’s why we transitioned the annual fields over to hay production, too. So it’s dry hay that’s fed year round, and that eliminates that problem. But you get probably a little less production with less intense feeding. But it’s just a difficulty we didn’t want to have to deal with. And I think it does help with just keeping grass on the ground instead of constantly either tilling or replanting or having to spray back crops for the next crop. So, anyway, permanent pastures, there’s been challenges there, too, but now they’re working, and so that’s good.
I wanted to ask about how you first met Carolyn and how you guys have been able to connect on the work that you’re doing. Are there any lessons that you’ve learned from Carolyn’s business?
Carolyn and her husband have been a great supporter of what we were doing from the very beginning. They were excited that we were here. They’ve come to events we’ve had on the farm, that’s important in terms of building community among farmers. And they approached us about selling their products in our store. We do sell their selection of salts with the herbs from the farm, and it’s a great complement to our grass-fed beef. And so that’s part two of what, the store that we have, everything that we have in there is either from a farmer that we know personally, or just something that we’re passionate about that kind of complements what we’re doing. But most of it is local. We have grits from Pauline, South Carolina, that are the best grits I’ve ever had. You should go out and find Colonial Milling if you’ve never had them. Carolyn’s salt is amazing, goes with the beef. That’s fantastic. We have crackers from The Accidental Baker. They’re actually in the Triangle area, but they’re some of the best crackers that we’ve had. Biscuit Head jams are here. We also make our own lines of jams and pickles.
Anyway, I think us being successful and being able to promote Polk County and what we’re doing here as a destination is good for both of us. And they have definitely been very supportive from the beginning about our presence here and excited about what we’re doing. And it’s really building here in Polk County, I think, with new producers coming and this becoming kind of a center backyard for Greenville and Charlotte and Asheville, that’s really still the rural way of life is still happening and people are having businesses making products from their farms, and we want to kind of highlight all of that in the store. But, yeah, Carolyn’s been a great supporter from the beginning, and we sell a lot of her salt in the store.
Carolyn was telling us on the way here, you have lots of events, like concerts, and you invite people to your farm to have an ice cream cone, you were saying that earlier. The first thing I noticed when I came was those big pictures of the cows on the farm doors and, like, the big looking glass sign. And Carolyn has a much smaller operation where she doesn’t, she likes to have her own space with Tracy, and she just kind of grows her products and then brings them to a farmers market where she meets her consumers. So I’m wondering how you decided, why that was best for your farm to bring the consumers here rather than go to the consumers, if that makes sense.
Well, it’s a good question. And we started our business outside the Asheville area 20 years ago, but that was a very crowded market for cheese. There were a lot of producers. And much to my surprise, we couldn’t get in a farmers market because they all had the number of cheese vendors they thought they should have, which was a little bit of a surprise because that was kind of our business model. I thought, we’re going to make this cheese, and we’re going to take it to the farmers market. Well, all those doors were closed. It did end up, we were able to get into a couple of the smaller markets, and that was a very good experience. It’s a great way to connect with customers. But that also was the driving force behind in 2013, we opened our store up in Fairview and brought people to us. And there are challenges because you have to be open when you say you’re open, you have to have people working it. But it did grow slowly over time, and that worked really well. And it became a very favorite destination for a lot of people. And I think it takes both ways, because there’s a lot of farms where they don’t have the personnel, they don’t have the space, or the desire to have the public on their property.
And so I think we’re part of kind of a puzzle piece in that process where you can come to the farm, you can experience, and we can sell those products for those smaller farms who either only want to be at farmers markets or can’t have people on their farm. It just helps their distribution as well. Farmers markets, we’re not opposed to them, we definitely would do some in the future, but it’s not our focus. Our focus is having the store here, bringing people here, and also on a secondary thing for us, but highlighting other producers locally also, who may not have their own store or want to have their own store.
I really appreciate you, Jen, for sitting down with us. This has been a great experience, and I think it does contrast Carolyn. But I also think that it’s really awesome to see that you guys work together, and you’re not very far apart, so that’s really cool.
And there is a lot going on in Polk County, a lot of small producers, and we have the wineries, and there’s a small meat processing plant that’s getting up on its feet, Melvin Hill Meats. So there’s a lot happening. And I think having people work together and promote each other is the best path forward for success for all of us.
Yeah. So if any listeners are interested in really good cheese or ice cream, come to Looking Glass Creamery in Polk County and meet Jen.
And we’re open every Thursday through Sunday starting April 6 from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. And we do make our own hard cider, jam, cheese, we do cheese plates, bring your dog, walk trails, all that good stuff.
Awesome. Thank you so much, Jen.
Thank you so much for joining us.