What do you do with two Alpine goats? You milk them – in your garage. Your family likes the goats and their milk, and soon you have four goats. You have extra milk so you make cheese and cajeta (goat’s milk caramel) in your kitchen and give it away to family and friends. That was 2007, the first year of your experiment in family food production.
By the second year, 2008, you have eight goats. You continue to make cheese and cajeta in your kitchen and you continue to give it away. Late one night you awaken to the realization that you now have eight goats and are giving away free cheese and cajeta to more than 40 people, some of whom you don’t even know. It is time to either get in or get out. You decide that your experiment has grown to a business! You begin building a milking parlor and cheese room/commercial kitchen and obtaining food processing and agricultural licenses.
That’s how Fat Toad Farm began. Next Steve Reid and Judith Irving, husband and wife owners of the farm, began going to the Montpelier Farmer’s Market. By the end of their second year, they were going to market once a week, a 50-mile, hour-long round trip. By the end of the second year, more goats had joined the herd and Fat Toad Farm cheese and cajeta were being sold in a handful of stores in Vermont. Goat cheese has a three-week shelf life so Irving was driving it to market – 15 to 20 Vermont stores – the day after it was made. In 2012, Fat Toad Farm stopped making cheese, opting instead to focus on cajeta with its shelf life of a year or more.
By their third year of goat dairying, Reid and Irving had begun selling to stores outside Vermont. They drove packages to the nearest FedEx office in Randolph, about a half-hour round trip. When shipping volume increased and justified pickup at the farm, Irving phoned FedEx. Pickups soon increased from several times a week to daily. During that time, it was unbeknown to Fat Toad Farm that FedEx would later send them a check for $25,000.
Just what is cajeta?
Cajeta is made by simmering and stirring large copper pots of goats’ milk with some sugar added. As water evaporates, the milk and sugar caramelize. Cajeta is eaten alone as a sweet treat, as a spread or filling for breads and pastries, and as a topping for ice cream. Cajeta is a confection found all over Mexico. It was originally made in Celaya in the state of Guanajuato and is still made there by artisan producers. Fat Toad Farm’s recipe for cajeta came home with Josey Hastings, Steve and Judith’s daughter, who lived in Mexico for five years after college. Now an acupuncturist, Josey lives nearby and helps keep Fat Toad Farm people and animals healthy. Soon after Fat Toad Farm began making cajeta, daughter Calley Hastings joined the Fat Toad as a partner in the farm.
In Fat Toad Farm’s Caramel Room, cajeta is made five days a week. Visitors can watch through a picture window as the milk of the farm’s 60 does is simmered and stirred every five minutes in 12-gallon copper kettles. After some five hours, the goats’ milk, together with cane sugar and a bit of baking soda, has caramelized and Original Cajeta is ready to be poured into jars. Fat Toad Farm’s six other types of cajeta (Vanilla, Cinnamon, Salted Bourbon, Cold Brew Coffee, Spicy Dark Chocolate, and Vermont Maple) are made by adding vanilla beans, organic cinnamon sticks, Kentucky Straight Bourbon and sea salt, cold brew coffee, spicy dark stone ground chocolate and cayenne, or Vermont maple syrup. Because caramel goes into jars at from 218 to 220 degrees Fahrenheit there is no need for hot water processing to seal the jars.
Beginning with grass and forage
Cajeta begins with goats grazing on timothy, fescue, orchard and native white clover on 30 to 35 acres of mostly leased pasture. Fences are moved and the herd rotated every one to three days. Goats forage in the woods along their familiar afternoon route from pasture to milking parlor, led by one farm worker and followed by a second who always carries a familiar pink cane. Among the goats’ favorite places to graze are blackberry bushes. During the year, the goats also consume about 3,000 small square bales of hay purchased from a local dairy farmer.
A new feeding program includes a much higher percentage of protein. Higher protein percentage is attained by feeding bypass protein. Bypass protein, which is inaccessible to the rumen, enables goats to have the benefit of increased protein, especially in early lactation, while avoiding the problems associated with too much protein in the rumen. Benefits of bypass protein may include increased yield, increased milk protein, or both. The high protein feed, primarily corn and soybeans, is mixed to yield 50 percent bypass protein. Reid, working with a consultant from Poulin Grain, a Vermont farm specializing in livestock feeds, to help increase Fat Toad Farm’s herd average above the current 2,100 to 2,200 pounds. (The average is based on figures compiled for seasonal, rather than staggered, breeding with dam-raised doelings.) Each goat receives 2 pounds of grain pellets with flake corn as she is being milked. Does raising kids get extra grain.
Does are milked at 6:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. in an elevated platform, 10-stall parallel parlor. Sixty percent of the day’s milk comes in the morning and takes about 20 minutes per string of 10 goats; the afternoon takes 15 minutes. Each goat’s milk is sampled and checked for mastitis before it goes into a three-port covered can. Milk is also checked monthly for the Dairy Herd Improvement Association. Volume, fat, protein, other milk solids, and somatic cell counts are checked and recorded. The Vermont Department of Agriculture conducts monthly inspections of the dairy and checks milk for somatic cells and raw milk bacteria. The entire cajeta making process is also inspected yearly. Because it sells no fluid milk, Fat Toad Farm is not required to hold a milk handler’s license.
Milk is cooled from 102 to 103 degrees Fahrenheit to 35 to 38 degrees Fahrenheit, and stored in two 66-gallon bulk tanks. Sixty-six gallons of milk make one batch of cajeta, enough milk to fill the six large copper kettles.
Kids, kids, and more kids
Reid, Irving, daughter Calley Hastings, and “three perfectly invaluable employees Christine Porcaro, Joe Pekolk, and Colene Reed” operate Fat Toad Farm, making cajeta and maintaining a herd of 60 mostly French Alpine milking does along with a couple of Saanens mixed in for hybrid vigor. Does are bred to one of four bucks in the fall and kid five months later. First-time Alpine and Alpine x Saanen goat moms-to-be are bred with a Nigerian dwarf goat, the object being to create offspring weighing about three pounds less than the usual full-size kid so that the moms will have easier deliveries. Older does are bred to a Saanen, an Alpine, or a Boer meat goat. (Meat-goat-cross kids are raised by Pine Island Farm.) The goal for Fat Toad Farm is to create F1 hybrid Alpine x Saanens. F2 hybrid daughters are not kept in the herd.
Of the new doelings, 15 to 20 are raised annually as replacements for older, lower-producing does. All replacement does are dam raised. “One of the least known challenges of goat dairying,” Reid said, “is that of finding homes for the nearly 110 goat kids that our 55 adult does deliver each spring as they begin a new season of milk production. No kids, no milk; no milk, no caramel – so it’s a critical phase of our annual cycle.”
Because theirs is a high-producing herd, it is possible to sell about 40 of the doelings. That leaves 55 bucklings. Since 2013, however, Fat Toad Farm’s bucklings (and a few doelings) have gone to Pine Island Farm in Colchester, Vermont, to be raised for several New American communities who treasure goat meat and have a hard time finding it.
The 2015 kidding season was particularly difficult. In order to extend the cajeta making season, bucks were put in with does a week earlier in September. The first kids arrived February 24, 2015. In the next four days, when temperatures never got above -20 degrees Fahrenheit, 80 kids were born. Despite being rushed from their hoop house barn to the milking parlor to dry and warm, 16 of 90 kids died. Reid, Irving and their staff were devastated. In no other season had more than one or two kids died on their watch.
Far and wide
Fat Toad Farm, once an experiment in family food production, is still only five acres in size, but its value-added product is nationally known. Fat Toad Farm cajeta is sold in 300 specialty food stores nationwide and is also available at www.FatToadFarm.com. It has been featured in newspaper articles, including The Boston Globe (2012). In 2013, Fat Toad Farm was a Good Food Awards finalist in the Gift Category, one of 182 from 31 states chosen from among 1,366 entries. This year, they are finalists in the Best Dessert Sauce and Best Product Line categories.
In 2014, Fat Toad Farm was a finalist in the Martha Stewart American Made contest which honors “makers, small-business owners, and creative entrepreneurs in the fields of crafts, design, food, and style.” Fat Toad Farm’s products are Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) and labeled. The AWA label is reserved for meat and dairy products that come from farm animals raised to the highest animal welfare and environmental standards.
The farm has become a tourist destination, one of only a few small Vermont family farms always open to visitors. Visitors are invited to book tours via the farm’s web site or to take a self-guided look at the goats and cajeta production. The farm’s honor system self-serve store is accessible every day and gives visitors a chance to try all the flavors of Fat Toad Farm’s goat’s milk caramel sauce.
About Fat Toad and that $25,000
From among 5,000 businesses across the United States, Fat Toad Farm was selected to receive the FedEx 2014 Small Business Grant grand prize of $25,000. The grant was used to upgrade Fat Toad Farm’s caramel production room.
And the Fat Toad? When Irving and Reid discovered that the name they had chosen for their farm had already been registered to another farm, they listed other possibilities. Fat toads, plentiful on the farm, seemed a whimsical and memorable symbol.
Cover and all photos by Kathleen Hatt