The Goat Ladies Speak

Is small-scale farmstead goat cheese a viable business in the U.S.? Prominent goat-cheese producers share some thoughts:

Allison Hooper, co-founder of Vermont Creamery, Websterville, VT

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“You hear this same story from others who have tried to raise the animals and make the cheese and go to market and do everything right on a small scale. The owner/operators have to be expert in many things or develop that expertise, and people kind of run out of gas.

“A chronic problem in the goat world is that the labor cost is very high compared to cow’s milk because goats don’t give much milk. Consumers say they only want to eat cheese from pasture-raised animals, but it’s hard to raise goats on pasture and optimize their milk production. The key to profitability is efficiency—like a milking parlor that gets animals in and out quickly—and selective breeding. Building in efficiency may cost more up front, but it’s going to save labor down the road. Whether you’re milking 100 goats or 500, you still have the cost of that cheesemaking room. And your product has to be different, not another fresh chèvre. Come visit us and we’ll show you what not to do.”

Mary Keehn, Cypress Grove Chevre, Arcata, CA

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“In almost 35 years of cheesemaking, we have watched many of our own (supplier) dairies fail—even though we pay the highest prices for milk and offer loans and even some subsidized vet care.  It takes eight to ten does to produce as much milk as one cow. Also, because the goat cheese industry in the U.S. is only about 35 years old, the infrastructure, the milk supply and demand, and the technical knowledge are not always in sync with needs. Many costs remain the same regardless of how much you are producing. You have to clean the tanks and keep the refrigerators on whether you have one or 1,000 goats. Sadly, it is often not a viable model unless a large family is working the farm.  That's the primary reason we started our own farm almost six years ago. We don’t want milk from animals that are not humanely treated or employees that are not paid a living wage. We think the number (of goats) needed is close to 1,000. After six years, our farm is close to breaking even. But most people can’t afford to lose money for five or six years, as we have done.”

Veronica Baetje, Baetje Farms, Bloomsdale, MO


“Wendy is spot-on with the problems producers of our size are facing. The playing field is very uneven between farmstead artisan and industrial producers. We have to have the same level of insurance coverage, complete the same third-party audit and comply with the same laws. But we are not backed by endless working capital. We can’t buy millions of labels or containers and get the cheapest cost. We don’t have financiers to guide the company. We have hurdles we never expected. For instance, I never expected to have to compete with colleagues that purchase imported frozen goat curd and add 5 percent water. I can’t change these facts; I can only adapt. However, our corporate competitors sure get jealous of our brands and typically want to purchase our companies. That’s the one type of karma that finally enables the farmer to have an edge.”

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