By Marianna Spence, CFSA’s Membership Coordinator
Their children, Fermin and Fiamma, were four and five years old when the Lujan family moved to the United States 16 years ago to an apartment in Burlington, NC.
In Argentina Fabian and Sandra were beekeepers, with more than 80 hives at one point. Even so, they considered beekeeping a side job and wanted to take the next step as farmers.
“We were about to move to a very isolated farm with the idea of being self-sufficient,” said Sandra. “We got the place ready to move and a gigantic flood ruined the space. We lost 20 hives and couldn’t access the farm for three months because of washed out roads. It wasn’t a good way to start.”
After losing that momentum, Fabian started working as a photographer but the economy in Argentina lost stability. The family decided to move to the United States in 2000 and didn’t farm for four years.
“I had two or three tomato plants in some pots, and that was all my farming,” laughed Sandra.
In 2004, the family moved to a house and added bees, chickens, and a garden with the idea of starting an herb farm. Fabian and Sandra mastered herbal jellies – rosemary and orange, thyme and merlot – to sell at market with honey but noticed that the jellies and honey didn’t equal weekly return customers.
“People were excited when we first came to market, but we weren’t selling products they needed every week,” said Sandra. “That’s when Fabian started making artisan breads – also because we really missed fresh baked bread from Argentina!”
In the early 2000’s artisan bakeries weren’t common; Sandra doesn’t remember any in Burlington. The only bread the Lujans liked was a take-and-bake loaf from Harris Teeter.
“It’s funny. Now we always sell out at the farmers’ market so we STILL don’t have our own bread,” said Sandra. “One day we went from the farmers’ market to Harris Teeter to buy bread to eat with dinner!”
The Lujans had developed a customer base and began considering their next step. Sandra had recently read a story about a Georgia meat farmer who raised everything from cows to rabbits. This farm experienced more success by honing in on cows and producing cheese. Sandra mentioned the idea to Fabian one summer as they were playing with their family at the beach.
“It was something we could do no matter the weather, and it would pair well with our current products, creating a cohesive storefront of goods” said Fabian. He was ready to run with the idea.
One small challenge – Fabian had never made cheese, they didn’t have a license, they didn’t have cows or a creamery or a cheese aging room. Nothing to make cheese.
They met with their friends, the Gerringers of Calico Farmstead Creamery, and worked out a plan to buy their cow milk and rent use of their creamery on Sundays. Jackie Gerringer also gave them books and moral support. Fabian set out to create raw cow’s milk cheese, which requires an aging process of two months.
“In order to have a real idea of what was going on with the cheese, we had to wait two months,” said Fabian. “After only a month waiting and making new cheeses along the way, we couldn’t wait anymore. We sliced into a wheel and it smelled like cheese! We tried it and we were like ‘Look at that! It’s real cheese!’”
After they got a license, Fabian started making eight wheels of cheese at a time using 50 gallons of milk. Their fridge was packed within three weeks. First batches were ready to sell in November 2013 and sold out by December (without selling at a large farmers’ market because most were finalizing the season).
They have continued making small batches of 8-10 wheels per week of three varieties. They’ve also continued selling out.
The Lujan’s shared a traditional recipe for Gnocchi with their Don Gabino cheese – yum!
“We have Don Agustin, a manchego –inspired cheese named after my grandfather who was from Spain,” said Fabian. “We have Don Gabino, a montasio-inspired cheese named after Sandra’s grandfather from Italy. We have Old Glencoe, a simple homestead cheese, and finally, Italiano, a cheese with some bite!”
A year after their first cheese had aged to perfection, they moved to Piemonte Farm and saw endless possibilities for the 1880’s Greensboro farmstead, which hadn’t been loved in a quite a while. Again, Fabian and Sandra tried their hand at new things.
“We wanted to eventually have sheep’s milk so we bought a ram, wether, and 5 ewes – all were pregnant and we didn’t know,” said Sandra. “When we went to see them before buying, Fabian said the ram was so sweet – this fat, fluffy, friendly sheep that looked like something you put your feet on by the couch!”
Turns out, that was the wether (castrated male sheep), not the ram. Then came two goats, a calf, and a pig to the farm. Finally, a plumber who helped with leaks in the basement also noticed the menagerie of animals and the care they received. He asked Fabian if they want to rescue a horse…the answer was no, then yes. Then they got some more books.
The Lujans give a lot of credit to the community for their success, though clearly the family’s faith in each other has had more than a little to do with it.
From using their church kitchen to bake their bread and a friend’s creamery to make cheese, to receiving Slow Money loans for their first cheese cave and being awarded the beginning farmer’s scholarship to CFSA’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference, the Lujans say it’s easy to see how community has helped Piemonte Farm grow.
Last but not least, the Lujans recognize the weekly support from customers at the farmers’ market. In appreciation for this, they started a monthly pizza club which anyone can join – for free. Friends, customers, neighbors gather for wood fire pizza, made by Fabian using ingredients grown at the farm. At the last pizza night of 2015, 60 folks celebrated community, fresh food, and this wonderful family.
Now young adults at 20 and 21, the Lujan’s children help out with everything – daily farm chores, customer service at the farmers’ market, photography and marketing. Fiamma’s fiancé loves the farm, too, and just got a goat named Onion from the Lujans as a Christmas gift.
While Fabian and Sandra aren’t sure yet if their children will be second generation farmers, they are sure their kids and their community love Piemonte Farm as much as they do.
Full disclosure: The Lujans sent me home with a bag of Piemonte Farm goodies including a wedge of their Don Gabino cheese. It barely made it back to Pittsboro.