Goat cheese producer hoofs it to market

By Cindy Atoji Keene
When the dairy milk market became unpredictable, Ann Starbard, proprietor of Crystal Brook Farm, added a herd of goats to the farmstead. The local production of making fresh chevre, or goat cheese, allowed her to quit her healthcare job and focus on operating the small Sterling farmstead full-time. This was 15 years ago, and today Starbard is in the vanguard of artisan cheese makers emerging throughout New England.

Q: While the craft of cheese-making might seem fun, what’s the reality?
A: Raising goats and manufacturing goat cheese has to be approached like a business or it won’t support the farm. There’s a tendency to romanticize farming but working with goats is very demanding. My husband Eric and I operate every aspect of production, from raising the animals, milking them, making the cheese, and packaging it on-site. We feed the animals with hay that’s cut from our own pastures. And food safety is critical, including following strict handling regulations of high-perishable milk and cheese.

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Q: Was there a big learning curve when you starting raising Saanen, Lamancha and Alpine goats?
A: I grew up on a dairy farm, so dairy animals are in my blood, and milking is something I’m very comfortable with. Generally speaking, dairy animals, whether cows or goats, are used to being handled ¬– goats need to be milked twice a day – so you really get to know their personalities. What I like to say is that goats are my co-workers and I’m their human. We work at this together.

Q: Making chevre, like making any cheese, is part art, part science. What’s the art part of it?
A: It takes three days to make fresh cheese, including the pasteurization process, blending of cheese culture and rennet, and draining whey from the curdling cheese. The art part of it is knowing what to add to the cheese, and understanding that the milk differs with the season; in the spring, it will have a lighter bouquet, while in the fall, it’s richer. And like wine, goat milk has a terroir, reflecting the geography and climate of the goat’s environment.

Q: What goes into goat management that most people don’t think of?
A: There’s no such thing as a sick goat; they are either dead or alive. Goats are very good at masking their illnesses, so you need to be aware of the slightest change to assess health problems. There’s more wiggle room with cows. For example, a hot goat topic lately is parasite control. We determine heavy parasite load by looking at their eyelids.

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Q: How has the heat and humidity affected their milk production?
A: Goats are ruminators, and with the heat and humidity, they don’t like to go out and eat. Rumination generates body heat as well. If it’s a hot day, I’ll put them in a shady pasture area and make sure they have plenty of water to drink. With the climate change, we are getting more invasive plants in our environment, but those are plants that goats like to eat, such as Japanese knotweed and poison ivy.

Q: How do goats show their individuality?
A: It’s like a high school class; there’s the class clown, the prima donna, the one that gets along with everyone. They haven’t read the no-bullying brochure, so they do have a social hierarchy as well. It’s interesting to watch.

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