Four local women bet their farms on the underappreciated goat
By Deborah Luhrman
Photography by Geneva Liimatta
“There was just too much testosterone in that room,” says Hollister rancher Lisa Knutson, recalling her first meeting with the Cattle- men’s Association. So she went home, sold her cattle and bought a herd of cashmere goats. The goats, which now number 127, roam grassy hillsides east of town, guarded from mountain lions by 12 enormous Anatolian dogs and moved from pasture to pasture by a pack of border collies that Knutson trained herself.
Goats are believed to be the world’s first domesticated animal and, globally, more goat meat and goat milk are consumed than any other kind, but here at home goats remain underappreciated. Knut- son is one of four local “goatesses” who are discovering the joys of the Capra hircus as well as their tremendous versatility. In addition to milk and meat, artisanal goat products made here in the Monterey Bay Area include cheese, kefir, yogurt, soap, body lotion, face cream, milk bath, fleece and even paint.
With the exception of the reclusive Charlie Cascio of Sweetwater Farm in Big Sur, all of our local goat herders are female and there seems to be a certain something between women and their goats.
“There’s a femininity to goats, an air of grace that complements a woman,” says Dee Harley, who has been raising goats and making award-winning goat cheese in Pescadero for nearly 20 years. “High- strung racehorses often have a goat companion to keep them calm, and when I’m upset I always go out to the goats to calm down,” she adds. “I love to watch their breath in the cold at night; it’s almost meditative and makes you feel fortunate to be there.”
Knutson says she likes goats because they are personable, sweet and easier to manage for a woman. “They want to be a companion and oh, my god!” she gushes, “nothing is cuter than a baby goat!”
Since starting her goat herd four years ago, Knutson has added 55 Merino sheep to her tribe. They roam alongside the cashmere goats and are shorn each spring.
At the bottom of the hill, she raises heritage chickens and gathers some 250 organic eggs a day, which she sells through the Live Earth Farm CSA, the Morgan Hill Farmers’ Market and Star Market in Salinas. She calls the farm Pasture Chick—not for the chickens—but “because it’s a girl’s ranch.” (see EMB Winter 2011)
“I’m a little oddity in this world,” she says, laughing. “I shave my legs, wear nail polish and tie the gate closed with a bow. We talk to the animals and we have meltdowns.”
Each goat produces only six ounces of precious cashmere, while one sheep gives enough wool to knit a sweater and a scarf. Although Knutson enjoys spinning and likes to knit, most of the fleece and wool is sent off to a small mill in Pennsylvania. Young male goats and sheep are processed at J&R Natural Meat and Sausage in Paso Robles and sold.
On top of all that, Knutson has been experimenting with milking goats. She now keeps a separate herd of nine French Alpine dairy goats and two bucks named Amidee and Casanova. She is trying to grow the herd to 50 does and has drawn up plans for a raw milk creamery to be built between her house and the barn by summer 2014.
Since she hasn’t been licensed yet, she currently feeds the milk to her chickens and to runts born to the cashmere goats, which are brought into the barn and bottle-fed.
She’s also working to perfect her cheesemaking skills and tries out fresh chèvre on foodie friends who act as taste testers. “I don’t want to be a legend in my own mind,” she jokes. Among those lucky taste testers is Chef Carlos Canada of Jesse Cool’s Flea St. Cafe in Menlo Park, who proclaimed her latest recipes “amazing.”
Goat cheesemaker Dee Harley says she’s always looking for some- thing new “to keep the creativity going and not get stagnant.” Her farm in Pescadero was full of activity on the chilly weekday morning I visited. In the barn, the herd of 192 American Alpine goats was being milked while llamas stood guard. Next door, visitors kept stop- ping by to sample a vast array of beautiful cheeses in the tasting room. And up in a hayloft dining room, pewter was being polished in preparation for an elegant farm-to-table dinner.
From an original herd of six goats, passed along to her by Nancy Gaffney of Bonny Doon’s now defunct Sea Star Farms, Harley Farms has expanded far beyond farmstead cheese to become a mini-empire of goat-based products and back-to-the-land experiences.
Harley is originally from a small hamlet in Yorkshire in the north of England, and while traveling down the West Coast as a young woman, she happened to stop at the youth hostel at Pescadero’s Pigeon Point. She fell in love with the area and ended up marrying Tim Duarte, who manages his family’s landmark tav- ern there.
All of Harley’s stories seem to have that same element of serendipity. She was pasturing Sea Stars’ goats when Gaffney decided to go out of business. By 2009, demand for Harley’s cheese had sky- rocketed and the delicate, flower-decorated rounds were being shipped all over the country. Her herd had grown to 350 does, but that wasn’t sustainable on the 9-acre farm, so she decided to down- size, cut back production and just sell locally.
That coincided with the growing locavore movement and Pescadero’s popularity as a day-trip destination for people from the San Francisco Bay Area. So she started the tasting room and then farm tours. “Due to our location, the farm has become a huge destination just by responding to people’s interests; it wasn’t planned that way,” she says. Currently seven full-time employees and 22 part- timers work as tour guides and clerks in the new mercantile shop that sells everything but the cheese. Exquisitely displayed wares include Harley Farm soaps and lotions, as well as imported goat fleece socks, soft blankets and a collection of stunning European farm tools.
Last year, Harley started hosting monthly farm-to-table lunches and dinners in the hayloft that go on for five hours. While not in- expensive, they are wildly popular and booked months in advance. This spring she is adding a series of classes on foraging for wild foods and cooking with herbs, led by local herbalist Suzanne Elliott.
But her most exciting new project may be a line of goat milk paint. It’s a classic chalk and milk protein (casein) recipe that dairies have used forever to whitewash their barns. But pigment specialist Alex Warren of San Francisco’s Sinopia has created seven pure, bold colors that look especially good on the walls of rustic buildings.
“The dinners and tours and now the paint are a kind of lateral expansion,” Harley says. “It allows us to keep the farm small and alive, but we must never lose track of the fact that the goats are at the center of our circle.”
The Milk Mama
Goats have always been at the center of family life for Lynn Selness, who runs a sweet goat dairy farmstead called Summer Meadows in the hills of Watsonville. “I got the first goat in Minnesota when I was pregnant with my first child, because I wanted her to be well nourished,” she recalls. But seven children later, Lynn and her husband decided to move west with their offspring—and a Nubian named Nora.
Eventually they bought 23 acres and established a herd of 65 Nubian goats, milking about 20 of them each day by hand for two hours in the morning and one hour each evening. Fresh raw goat milk is delivered twice a week to 50 families who are shareholders in her herd. On the in-between days, products such as kefir, yogurt and chèvre are made for shareholders and for the Live Earth Farm CSA.
Selness tries to let her goats live as “naturally as they were in- tended to live,” which means keeping kids and does together and letting older goats remain with the herd even after their milk production has declined. She feels it improves the taste and the healthfulness of the milk.
“Every time I touch one of them, there is such a connection,” Selness says. She lays her head against the side of a doe when she milks and listens to its rumen rumbling, which is comforting to her but can also relay digestion issues in one of the goat’s four stomachs.
“Goats trust in you, they want your comfort when they are in labor, they birth with you and then they give you nourishment,” she says with a certain reverence. “Maybe it is something really special with women.”
Her low-yielding herd is barely profitable and the work is formidable, but the milk is delicious and Selness keeps going because of her customers. “Raw goat’s milk helps many people with health is- sues,” she maintains. “Colicky babies are cured by the milk. Customers with autistic kids following the GAPS diet are finding that the milk helps dramatically, and a little girl named Clara who has Rett syndrome has been able to stay off a feeding tube because she gets enough nourishment from our milk.”
Selness’ youngest daughter, Meadow, is now 19 and a student at Cabrillo College. She takes care of the goats when her mother is away and seems to share her affinity for animals—a gift that makes her namesake farm such a special place.
The story of how Jeannie Wholey got her goats belongs under the category of “if you can do it, I can do it.” While on vacation in Maine six years ago, she sat on the beach reading Barbara King- solver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle along with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The books spoke to her, so she returned home to California and set about building her homestead.
“As a mom it was important to me that my daughter know that milk and eggs don’t just come from Safeway,” says Wholey, who had been living in Los Altos Hills.
After searching up and down the Central Coast, Wholey and her husband found an affordable two-acre parcel in Bonny Doon with a rambling house and a slice of ocean views. They named their new farm Fish Princess—a reference to Wholey’s nickname, be- stowed by her husband because of her love for surfcasting. Fish Princess started out with one Swiss Alpine goat but now has four: Hemmy, Periwinkle, Walle and Crazy Daisy.
“The first time I made cheese from their milk I nearly cried,” she recalls. “They are out there in yard eating blackberry brambles and poison oak and turning it into delicious milk and cheese for us. It’s like a miracle.”
Wholey suddenly found herself with more milk than she could use. It didn’t make sense to go through the licensing process to be- come a commercial dairy with just four goats, so she turned to making goat’s milk soaps.
She crafts each soap by hand in a tool shed that she shares with her husband’s beer-making equipment and wraps them in beautiful flowered tissue on her dining room table. The business really took off last summer and she now has a line of goat’s milk body lotions and 18 varieties of scented soaps—all made with a rich mixture of goat’s milk, locally produced olive oil from Paicines in San Benito County,
avocado oil, pomegranate oil and shea butter. Shaving soaps and goat’s milk bath sachets were introduced for Valentine’s Day.
Fish Princess Farm is part of Santa Cruz Local Foods, a unique online CSA that sells eggs from her flock of heritage chickens and ducks, as well as items from other small-scale farms. Fish Princess wares can also be found in SLOWCOAST gift boxes of local, sustainably produced products. In summer, Wholey grows 300 tomato plants and provides produce to local restaurants like the Davenport Roadhouse and Gabriella Café.
Despite the romance of having a farm, all of our local women goatherds agree that it’s hard work. “You’ve got to really want this type of life,” Harley says. “You can’t go away; you work seven days a week; and if the pump breaks, you need to go out and fix it.” But they don’t complain very much. They clearly adore their animals and their contentment suggests that once you get a goat, the goat may just get you.
Deborah Luhrman is a lifelong journalist who has reported from around the world. She returned home to the Santa Cruz Mountains a few years back and enjoys growing vegetables, but she hasn’t gotten a goat, yet. She also edits EMB’s electronic newsletter.
Additional reporting by Jamie Collins.
Spring is the perfect time to see adorable newborn baby goats on the farm—and get to know our local goat herders and their products.
Goat visits: Harley Farms, 205 North St., Pescadero. Cheese tasting and farm visits daily from 10am–5pm. Full tours available on weekends for $20, reserve online. www.harleyfarms.com
Cheesemaking: Dee Harley says it’s the sea air that makes her cheese especially delicious. For those who want to try making cheese at home, she recommends the online recipes from New England Cheesemaking Supply. www.cheesemaking.com
Raw goat’s milk: Summer Meadows sells raw goat’s milk through its goat herd shares, 831.786.8966. Claravale Farm in San Benito County sells it retail at the Downtown Santa Cruz Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays, New Leaf Community Markets, Shopper’s Corner and Staff of Life in Santa Cruz.
Goat meat, fleece, roving and yarn: All this can be purchased from Lisa Knutson’s Pasture Chick Ranch in Hollister, 831.801.9765. www.facebook.com/pasturechickranch
Goat’s milk soaps and lotions: Fish Princess Farm’s line can be purchased at Staff of Life, the Food Bin/Herb Room and Westside Farm & Feed in Santa Cruz, or online at www.etsy.com.
More reading: City Goats: The Goat Justice League’s Guide to Backyard Goat Keeping by Jennie Palches Grant (Mountaineers Books, 2012), founder of the Goat Justice League. A primer chock full of guidance, resources, photos, (and even recipes) to tell you every- thing you need to know about keeping goats in your own backyard.
Garden Variety Cheese and Schoch Family Farmstead
Cow and sheep milk dairies taking off in Monterey County
Once people taste European-style, raw milk farmstead cheese— which is to artisanal cheese lovers what estate wine is to oenophiles, because it’s produced from a cheesemaker’s own herd—there’s no going back to the supermarket stuff. So lucky for us, two local farmstead dairies, one that rears sheep and another that raises cows, are dramatically ramping up their production.
Garden Variety Cheese in Royal Oaks has just installed a pasteurization machine that will enable owner Rebecca King to start selling sheep’s milk yogurt and fresh cheeses like ricotta in addition to her popular aged cheeses. At the same time, Schoch Family Farmstead, which is in nearby Prunedale and is currently the only maker of a true Monterey Jack Cheese—as well as several other sought-after aged cheeses—has just upgraded its operation to en- able it to produce 1,200 pounds of cheese a week—about five times its current level. And the Schoch family (pronounced “shock”) also hopes to soon start bottling raw cow’s milk and Swiss-style drinkable yogurt.
Holsteins hold back the subdivisions You’ve probably seen the whitewashed Schoch dairy barn on the east side of Highway 101 just north of Salinas, looking like it be- longs more in the Midwest than next to a California freeway. The 100-acre, 100-cow dairy has been preserved by the Schoch family for 70 years, and there’s evidence that the same land has been used for milk cows since the times of the Spanish land grants.
“We’re just one mile from the Salinas city limits, and if we were to go out of business, this would all become houses,” says Ty Schoch, as we climbed over a fence and onto rolling, green pastureland.
Faced with skyrocketing feed costs and declining milk prices, Ty and his brothers Beau and Seth are determined to make the historic dairy economically viable using a different business model.
“You can’t make it as a small dairy anymore—it’s either go big or go home and we didn’t want to do that,” he said. “We want to go back to the way my grandpa did it, with less feeds and more self-sustaining pastures.”
Cheese is a big part of the equation. A new vat will allow the family to use about 50% of its milk production right on the farm—rather than selling much of it off at low prices to a co- operative, which the Schochs do now. The milk goes straight from the cows to the new 460-gallon cheese vat. It’s still warm and there’s no pasteurization.
Beau is the cheesemaker and Ty is in charge of ripening, or affinage, while Seth and their father John take care of the cows. “This is the only way to go forward,” admits John. “But it couldn’t work if we were not all hands-on.”
The Schochs produce seven varieties of raw cow’s milk cheese and sell them at Star Market, New Leaf Markets, the Aptos Farmers’ Market, the MPC Farmers’ Market and the Carmel Cheese Shop. There are two tangy Swiss-style cheeses: Junipero and Gavilan; the milder Dutch-style East of Edam; Tomme; Feta; and the only Monterey Jack actually made in Monterey County. There is also a combo cow and sheep’s milk cheese called Beau’s Blend, made in collaboration with Gar- den Variety.
“Making cheese is half science and half art,” says Ty. “It makes a big difference how long you stir it, how long you leave it in brine and the temperature in the make room.” The family hopes to start bottling its raw milk this spring, once the permits come through. It’s also eager to start making its planned all-natural, Swiss-style drinkable yogurt, with no emulsifiers and no added sugar.
Then there are plans afoot to rejuvenate the pastures, add irrigation for the dry summer months and build a certified compost facility to process and sell the manure. “We’ve got enough plans to last us the rest of our lives,” he says, grinning.
While an undergraduate studying environmental science at UCSC, she worked on Nancy Gaffney’s Sea Stars goat farm in Bonny Doon—the very same one that gave Dee Harley her start (see preceding article). After earning her degree and working on organic farms on the East Coast, King decided to attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, where she studied to be a chef and interned at Alice Water’s famed Chez Panisse, as well as at nearby Cowgirl Creamery—a great place to learn about cheesemaking.
She returned to Santa Cruz and worked two years as chef at Gabriella Café before buying her first flock of 50 sheep in 2006 and raising them on rented land near the county fair- grounds in Watsonville. “I was working up to this for a long time, but finally decided there were no more excuses and bought the farm,” she says.
“I chose sheep because there were such a lot of great European sheep’s milk cheeses out there and not many people doing it here,” she explains. “Ossau Iraty, a sheep’s milk cheese from the French Basque County, is my favorite cheese, and the other consideration was meat—lamb is my favorite meat.”
The farm, which she named Monkeyflower Ranch, was only the third licensed sheep’s milk dairy in California. Currently she makes four types of raw sheep’s milk cheese, each named for a flower that grows on the farm. Black Eyed Susan, which was a gold medal winner in the 2012 Good Food Awards, is the mildest and most popular; Moonflower has a washed rind that gives it more pungency; Hollyhock, with a longer aging time, is rich and tangy; and Cosmos, which is a feta.
Sheep only give milk for 6–8 months each year, so to extend the cheesemaking season, Garden Variety sometimes buys raw goat’s milk from Claravale Farm in San Benito County to produce the feta. And with the new pasteurizer, Garden Variety will be able to make soft cheeses and sheep’s milk yogurt this season. The cheeses sell at the Aptos and downtown Santa Cruz Farmers’ Markets, as well as Star Market, New Leaf and Staff of Life.
King’s 6-month-old, pasture-raised lambs—which are fed on barley mash left over from the beermaking process at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing—are mostly sold through her unique adopt-a-ewe CSA that includes twice monthly deliveries of meat, cheese and dairy products. (Pigs are also raised on the farm and sold as pork in the fall, after feeding on the whey left over from cheesemaking.)
Other benefits of King’s CSA for both her and her members are the open houses and barbeques Garden Variety holds on the ranch during lambing season.
“Having people come out to the farm and getting to know the people we are raising food for is the most rewarding part for me,” she says.
Schoch Family Farmstead 831.596.8828 • firstname.lastname@example.org
Garden Variety Cheese 831.761.3630 • www.gardenvarietycheese.com