March is the beginning of spring, bringing newborn dairy cows, sheep and goats and the fresh local milk and cheese that goes along with them.

In Sonoma and Marin counties there are thousands of acres of dairy land dedicated to making cheese; Petaluma and the surrounding valleys are home to several award winning artisan cheese producers.

Some, like Two Rock Valley Goat Cheese and Achadinha Cheese Company, are long-term dairy farming families who have turned to cheese making. Others, like Weirauch Farm & Creamery, are new to the dairy industry, emerging as entrepreneurs to meet a growing demand for quality, local cheese.

Don DeBernardi, 74, has owned a dairy in the Two Rock Valley since 1976 and maintains a herd of 700 cows that produce certified organic milk. But for the past seven years, he has concentrated his energy on the production of raw goat cheeses.

What began as a gift of two goats to his grandchildren 15 years ago has become a herd of more than 115 Nubian and Boer goats, which now produces enough milk to sustain the production of 15-20 wheels of raw goat cheese every week.

Don's wife Bonnie sees to the management and milking of the goat herd, with the help of her grandchildren. She hand raises the goats so that they are easy to handle later when they are milk producers. This year she estimates that there are about 50 new kids to rear, and 38 does that produce the milk used in cheese processing.

Don learned about making cheese when he and Bonnie took a trip to visit relatives in Switzerland. It was there that he acquired the knowledge and tools necessary to start the new venture.

He now makes a Swiss-styled raw milk goat cheese year round and a limited amount of goat milk Brie. He jokingly refers to his cheese shed as the smallest in the state, but he manages to maintain two large shipping container-sized coolers of ripening cheeses.

Achadinha Cheese Company is located to the south, in the scenic Chileno Valley. It too started with a herd of dairy cows, but in 1997 changed over to goats. Realizing that there was not enough of a market for goat milk alone, the owners progressed to making goat cheeses. They now maintain a herd of 600 goats, and recently added back 50 Jersey cows to produce blended goat and cow milk cheeses during the winter months when the goats are not as productive.

Neither Jim Pacheco, who is a third generation dairyman, nor his wife Donna, who was raised in an air force family, had any real knowledge of cheese making when they started. Donna's father-in-law, who had emigrated to the U.S. from Achadinha, Portugal, had family that had made cheese.

Donna describes learning from Jim's dad, in broken English, what she needed to do to make the cheeses. By a process of trial and error, she said, they figured it out together. Donna stresses the importance of her entire family to this cheese-making venture – her four children are all an integral part of the process, helping tend the herd, and manufacturing and selling the cheeses.

Donna, whose passion for the business is clear, relates that she has far more control over the feed the animals eat by raising the cows and goats herself — which in turn affects the flavor of the cheese.

Joel and Carleen Weirauch were both raised in Santa Rosa, but arrived at cheese making from a very different path than the DeBernardis and the Pachecos. Joel was a chef for many years before deciding to go back to school, obtaining a degree in Mycology and Ecology Food Science from Evergreen College in Washington. He spent a year in France learning what makes a regional cheese. Upon his return he and Carleen, who has a degree in Environmental Studies from Sonoma State University, decided to invest in a creamery and make sheep's cheese.

They noted that Sonoma County has some of the best milk in the world. And their philosophy is that the cheeses they make should reflect the region in which it is produced.

They built their dairy on land off of Hardin Road near Sonoma Mountain. They repurposed two portable classrooms as a milk parlor and creamery shed, utilizing green building practices, and will soon install a new 200 gallon cheese processing vat, to keep up with the demand which exceeds their present supply.

The type of sheep necessary to produce milk for cheese were only introduced into the US in 1994; in California there are only about 9 or 10 sheep cheese makers. Joel and Carlene have bred an Animal Welfare Approved flock of about 65 East Freisian and LaCaune ewes, who produce high quality dairy milk, and out of that manufacture their St.Rose cheese, which in 2013 garnered a Good Food Award. This season they estimate that there will be 50 or more new lambs to add to the flock.

They also manufacture five other varieties of organic cow's milk cheeses, with milk that they purchase from surrounding organic dairies. However, they find that being a small producer means that they are often in competition for that milk supply. Carleen is hoping to find a more dependable supply, perhaps by working with other small creameries to secure supply.

For those interested in learning more about artisan cheeses, on March 22-24 the Sheraton Sonoma County Petaluma Hotel will host the seventh annual California Artisan Cheese Festival. The festival features artisan cheese producers, seminars, tastings, farm tours, and cooking demonstrations, along with a cheese marketplace

For more information, go online to www.arti sancheesefestival.com, or call 523-3728.

(Contact Lynn Haggerty King at argus@arguscou rier.com.)