Meet Russia’s unlikely poster boy — and cheesemaker — for its embargo on Western goods

The World
Jay Close — Cheesemaker

On a farm a few hours outside of Moscow, you can find a hand-drawn sign that reads, “Jay's Organic Cheese Farm.” It belongs to Jay Close, one of the food producers in Russia who’s reaping the benefits of Russia’s embargo on Western foods.

Jay is an unlikely poster boy for Russian agriculture, though. For one thing, he’s American. Perhaps because of that, Russian media have showered attention on this local farmer who has the gift for gab in both English and Russian. 

Like the 30-odd European-style cheeses he makes, Jay comes in many varieties.

“Which one do you want?” he quips. That's Jay the Salesman, who's learned to make his pitch for quality farm-to-table cheese: “I live in Russia in a little town called Moshnitsa, 55 km outside of Moscow. And on this farm, we have some eco-friendly cheeeeeeeese. Come on over!”

There's also Jay the Life Coach: “You don't want to sell insurance, don't sell insurance! Find another job — knitting or sewing socks or whatever you like. [Only] some people have the wrong idea of what they like, so you don't want everyone doing what they like.”

And then there's Jay the (self-described) Badass: “Yo mother*&!#, this is Jay from Venice Beach! Come and try some cheese!”

Of course, there is also just Jay — the guy who's really, really tired right now: “Make cheese. That's all I got to remember [to do.] Never leave the house again, never leave the farm.”

Ever since Russia responded to US and European sanctions by banning Western foodstuffs, Russia's government has looked to Jay and other local producers to pick up the slack for cheese, dairy, meats and other banned goods. For Jay, that's meant long hours and little sleep.

“The mayor came to me and said, 'Jay, can you meet the demand for European cheese?'" he recalls. "Yeah, right. I got like six cows to feed the Russian masses on my little farm.”

Now, as you might imagine with a guy like Jay, there is a backstory. He was born in California — and then you have awakened Jay the Traveler. “I've been raised in a boarding school in England and the jungles of Papua New Guinea," he starts.

"I've been raised by hippies and carpenters and stained glass makers. I've jumped out of planes and cars and motorcycles, and dug holes and built houses and cooked for all kinds of people, including the Rolling Stones.” Somehow, all this eventually leads to Russia in the early 1990s.

“When I first got here, people asked me after ten days if I liked it. I couldn't say yes, I couldn't say no, but I wanted to know more. Then they said, 'I guess that means you're coming back.' And I scratched my head and said, 'I guess you're right. I want to know more.'”

And he wanted to do it by his own rules. So Jay bought a small farm, a neighbor gifted him a cow with a mean streak, and he picked up a few cheesemaking tips during a trip to Holland. 

The next thing he knew, he had a small crew of Cubans and Uzbeks helping him make cheese on his farm.

These days, they produce some 75 kilograms of cheese daily. Their stock includes familiar standards like gouda, cheddar, goat, mozzerella and ricotta — varieties many Russians are used to importing from the West. 

“I've been to a few stores and there's some European cheese left over, but I guess that's all coming to an end,” says Jay. He fields constant phone calls for orders.

As for Russia's current standoff with Ukraine, here Jay the Historian takes the wider view. In his opinion, there are some things a young country like the US can't understand.

“Ukraine is another country, and they're getting along or not getting along with their big brother Russia,” Jay says. “People forget history so fast. We’ve forgotten World War II and now we're ready to start World War III. For what? For Crimea? I really don't understand it. Because Russia doesn't go along with your decisions or your view of history? I mean, Crimea was a Russian port when America was born!”

And so while Moscow and Washington ratchet up the tension over Ukraine, Jay is working fast. “I'm just going to make cheese and relax, because there's nothing I can possibly do to change your mind about going to war.”

Besides, he says, making cheese is what keeps him out of trouble of these days. “Otherwise, I'd get in bar fights.”

Then there’s a good chance you’d meet yet another version of Jay — The Guy with The Short Fuse.

Invest in global news with heart!

The World is a nonprofit newsroom powered by listener support. When you make a recurring gift, you’re making an investment that allows The World to cover the most important international stories with nuance and care. Our listeners are at the heart of what makes The World such an invaluable source for global news. Will you create a recurring donation today to power The World all year long?