"Our first goat came from the Fryeburg Fair. We were looking for a companion animal for Cara's horse, Petey, which she had for over 20 years. We didn't want him to be alone, so we got Gracie."
So begins the story of Flying Goat Farm (www.flyinggoatfarmmaine.com
) in Acton, Maine, and its owners, Cara Sammons and Devin Shepard.
Shepard is a goat farmer, and Sammons is a veterinary student at Tufts University in Boston. Shepard uses milk from the farm's Nubian goats to make artisanal goat cheese.
Petey and Gracie were stall companions for about two years before he passed away. Shepard says, "You can't just have one goat, so we went back to Helen Ramsdell, the breeder we purchased her [Gracie] from, and bought another goat, Ruthie." Then, with the help of their breeder, Gracie and Ruthie had kids in 2008, and the herd started to grow.
"This farm has really grown," says Shepard. "The goats multiply so quickly."
Shepard and Sammons have a philosophy that remains consistent in all they do: "Go big or go home." Even in the early days when they purchased their goats, they only bought those with blue ribbons--champion pedigrees. "Right from the start, we made a conscious decision to buy the best goats," Shepard explains. "You have to do things right, right from the start, as much as your knowledge will allow you." They learned that buying the best goats gave them a lot of milk, too much for two people, which was the impetus for their artisanal cheesemaking.
Food has always played a big role in Shepard's life. He says, "We had a crazy amount of it [growing up], and there was always a cake. It was a celebration."
Two of his brothers are chefs, but Shepard says he never thought he could make a living out of it. Several of Shepard's uncles tried hard to convince him to stay away from farming. "Even in high school, I knew I wanted to be self-sustainable. My uncles kept asking me if I knew how much work it was to grow organic and live off the land. Of course I had no idea, but it didn't matter, because I wanted to do it. I didn't care what it was. I thought it'd be vegetables, as I was not an animal person."
The key word: "was."
Now there are goats, pigs, chickens and three purebred dogs. There's also the boar, Othello, a Large Black pig, and the sow, Ophelia, a Duroc-Hampshire cross, that dispose of the whey from the cheesemaking. They also eat the cheese "mess-ups," of which there are a lot less now that Shepard understands the intricacies of making cheese.
Shepard and Sammons see the work on their farm as more than a job. "It sounds cliché to say, but raising goats completely changed our lives," says Sammons. "I was teaching art, and now I'm almost done with my fifth semester of vet school. I never would've done this if we didn't have our goats."
Although they have separate roles, they are a team, and as such they are committed to raising happy, healthy animals, which they believe makes their cheese taste so great.
"Everyone has always said how good our cheese is," says Shepard. "I was really surprised. I still am." Yet the demand for their cheese and the recognition it receives support the praise it gets, as evidenced at the 2013 Big E (Eastern States Exposition), where Flying Goat Feta won bronze. It was the first time they entered this cheese, and it was the only feta that medaled.
Flying Goat Farm is one of three Nubian goat farms in New England. Nubians have a high percentage of butterfat in their milk, so although they don't make as much volume, the cheese is creamy and tasty.
Everything the goats eat is local. They have quality cut hay and plenty of it, as it's cut within 10 miles of the farm. They're free to do as they please. They have wood and pasture for forage, a barn to go in and out of, and enough space "to have their little cliques and their hierarchy," which, according to Shepard, is something that goats naturally do. There are 30 does in the barn, which makes for a young herd.
It's a closed herd, as they're committed to keeping the animals free of problems. It's all about biosecurity.
"There are a lot of things people don't think about, like tuberculosis and brucellosis. Our generation assumes those are things of the past," Sammons explains. "Maine requires us to screen for these; at this point, the state is considered free of both those diseases, so it's worth it to keep on top of this to avoid anything that might happen. We get kind of crazy about it, but it matters, as so much depends on the health of the animals. It's worth the stress, the sleepless nights, and the monetary investment in testing the animals and quarantining them before bringing them here. Whatever it takes."
The cheesemaking season goes from March or April until late November. This is another reason why the goats are so happy. Their breeding season is from late October to early December. Although the goats can be milked up through early pregnancy, Shepard and Sammons choose to dry them out. As a result, goat cheese is a seasonal product.
"They need the break, and so do I," notes Shepard. "Some of the older does really benefit from the time off."
The products made at Flying Goat Farm include:
- Chèvre: a soft, spreadable, fresh goat's milk cheese.
- Feta: lightly salted, packed in brine with a creamy texture and the crumble of feta cheese.
- Scapegoat: a fresh chèvre round with a line of local organic garlic scape powder through the center.
- Blueberry Mint Roll: a fresh chèvre, lightly sweetened with local honey, local blueberries in the center, and rolled with fresh mint on the outside.
- Chèvre Noir: a fresh chèvre round with a line of wild, local black trumpet mushrooms through the center.
- Bloomy Goat: a chèvre round, aged for two weeks, aromatic, nutty and sweet.
- Yogurt: available in Greek style or regular.
Having recently received funds via Kickstarter, and with an investment of funds from Sammons and her family, the business purchased milk and cheesemaking equipment that includes a 40-gallon bulk tank and a 30-gallon pasteurizer acquired from a nearby dairy goat owner who recently retired from cheesemaking.
Although the goat cheesemaking season is nine months, Shepard is going to experiment with making cheese year-round. "There's a local Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association [MOFGA] cow dairy down the road who I've been friends with for a bunch of years. He wants me to make cow's milk cheese exclusively for his farm. If this goes really well, I will make cheddar and mozzarella in the winter and sell it back to him," explains Shepard.
This still gives Shepard his break, since the milk will be delivered to the bulk tank in their basement. However, as he has never made cheese from cows' milk, this will be another learning experience. He believes the dairy has the perfect cows to produce mozzarella cheese because of their early lactation/high-lactic-acid milk. In addition, since the farmer grows all organic feed on his property, the circumstances are ripe to produce good, stretchy cheese. When this endeavor succeeds, then Flying Goat Farm will become the Creamery at Flying Goat Farm.
For now, the business plan includes regional sales of their artisanal goat cheese, with the Portland, Maine, market being one of their targets, as it's approximately 50 miles from the farm. The farmers' market in Portsmouth, N.H., is also in the plan.
Flying Goat Farm's focus is about keeping it local and knowing where your food comes from, and it works. Shepard says, "My last name is Shepard, so it's all a matter of going back to my roots."
The author lives in Exeter, N.H., and is a marketer, freelance writer and documentary photographer.
Photos by Cynthia Tokos.