Local man takes agriculture to Italy — and back again

MONTGOMERY, MI — His adventure began in a small town of Montgomery, MI, in southern Hillsdale County, where he coveted the time he spent on his grandfather’s farm.

Brent Zimmerman grew up around the typical farm animals soaking it all up — pigs, sheep, cows, horses were all a part of his childhood.

Little did he know the deep love and passion for agriculture that was being cultivated on this back road farmstead.

After high school, he set off for a great adventure majoring in finance at a college in Florida.

With his sights set on being a New York stockbroker, after college he headed for the big city only to find he wasn’t suited for it.

“I was there 10 minutes and thought, ‘I cannot do this, it’s just not for me,'” Brent explained.

Not knowing what he was going to do, a friend called and invited him to Italy and off he went. With no job and no Italian language skills, he answered an ad that provided a room and a job with a Royal family playing ping pong with the children to teach them English.

“My interview was playing ping pong with a 10-year-old boy and I spent the summer in the castle and on the yachts playing ping pong.”

After a summer of ping pong in the palace, his agricultural roots were calling him and he began investigating the dirt-cheap, abandoned farms in the mountains of Tuscany.

It was then that he decided to dive into farming. He explained, “At the time, if you were willing to go up and raise sheep on a mountain, they gave you a stamp on your work permit and said ‘welcome to Italy.'”

Settled into his new home with his flock of sheep, Brent set out to get to know the neighbors, he explained, “To pass time, I began making cheese with my neighbor ladies. They were lovely, lovely women. We made cheese together and it was all very rustic and the best experience.”

After he renovated his farm, Brent decided to open up a bed and breakfast. “I wanted people to enjoy my little farm that I had built up and when more people began to show up, little by little I didn’t have as much time for the animals. So in 2003, I left the people at the bed and breakfast and bought another farm and began fulltime dairying and cheese-making.”

At his farm called Valle di Mezzo, meaning valley in the middle, he began milking 60 sheep by hand, and after 14 years, he switched to milking a herd of 80 goats with machines. A typical day on his farm began with milking the goats, taking the goats out to graze on the mountains for a few hours, bringing them back to the barn, making cheese from the goat’s milk and milking them again, and back out to graze.

What did Brent do while the goats grazed?

“I went out with them and wrote a book named, ‘Get Your Goat’ that ended up as number 35 on Amazon.com in the mammal section,” he said with a smile.

A successful author with an agent asking for another book, Brent kept his focus on artisanal cheese and fine-tuned his cheese-making to develop a market for cheese made with goat’s milk.

“At first people were interested in the cheese but when they heard my accent they realized I was American and were suddenly not interested anymore,” he explained.

The regulations for cheese-making in Italy are very strict.

Brent explained, “In Italy the inspectors are very, very tough, which is why all the old people quit making cheese, unfortunately.

“The European Union formed and the new rules put every old lady cheese-maker out of business. So I took them on and they came any time of the day to make sure I was doing everything correctly.” He continued, “They are only there to help you turn out a good product.”

Brent raised Camosciate delle Alpi goats, known as Oberhasli in the Anglo-speaking world. Medium-sized, dark red color, great mothers, wonderful foragers, friendly animals who give a sweet, “non-goaty-tasting” milk.

After perfecting his cheese-making skills and developing his market, Brent was able to produce several different cheeses that were popular among the natives.

Goats were not the only critters on the farm. Brent also had chickens that supplied meat and eggs, pigeons that supplied meat, and pigs that consumed all the whey from the milk room. He had occasional rabbits, turkeys and geese and the neighbor had forty beehives on his property, supplying them with fresh honey. Brent also produced olive oil from his olive trees and enjoyed a very large vegetable garden every year.

Brent enjoyed this European agricultural adventure for 23 years until someone knocked on his door wanting to buy the farm.

Shocked and surprised, he really didn’t want to sell, but thought at age 50 it was a wise decision.

“It was a lot of work to keep the farm going and I wasn’t getting any younger and my business partner convinced me that this kind of offer may not come along again, so I took it,” Brent explained.

Saying goodbye to his Italian friends and neighbors, Brent loaded up his luggage and his dog and moved back to Montgomery, buying his grandparent’s farm where his agricultural passion was birthed.

Brent has been asked to write a second book but hasn’t decided on a subject. For the time being, he’s enjoying reuniting with his family on the farm while keeping an eye on where his passion for agriculture will take him next.

He concluded, “It’s been a good ride, but I’m not done yet.”