4-H project helps a woman farmer develop her goat dairy business
Occasionally, 4-H youth will find a project that interests them so much, they continue on with that project well into their adulthood. Sarah Pinet owned her first goat when she was in 4-H, and although she sold her small herd when she was in high school, she never forgot how much she loved goats.
As an adult, she decided to purchase some goats, and has built her herd into a successful dairy goat business. “I have always liked the idea of owning goats,” Sarah said. “After I bought three foundation does, I have kept a closed herd except for the bucks. For many years, I would keep every doe, only culling for personality. The bottom line for me is production. My goats are registered with the American Dairy Goat Association as an experimental breed, but they are a mixture of the dairy goat breeds. We use purebred bucks, but I have found hybrid vigor is very beneficial in the dairy goat business. The foundation does were nothing to look at, but they were very sturdy animals. So, over the years, I have bred does with better udders, but have maintained the sturdiness in them.”
As Sarah’s herd expanded, so did her interest in the dairy animals. “I was hand-milking 16 goats each day, and selling the milk for bucket calves. Many people asked me if I would start a dairy. After checking into it, I found out there wasn’t much money in the dairy business without having a value-added product, so I decided to make cheese,” she explained.
While building the herd, Sarah took schooling and educated herself in cheese-making. “I contacted another goat cheese maker in Nebraska,” Sarah explained. “I went to their place to intern for them. They were also just getting started in the cheese-making business, so I did what they did, and followed how they started their business. I also went to some schooling in Wisconsin. It took a couple of years of research and education before we got started,” she said.
Now, Sarah runs a small grade A goat dairy north of Scottsbluff where 50 goats are milked each day with a milking machine. “I bottle fed all the does so they are all tame,” she said. “They act much better in the parlor when they’ve been hand-raised,” she explained. “There is just a certain amount of training that is needed to teach them how to act in the parlor. Of course, it helps that we have experienced older goats now that can help with the younger, fresh yearlings.”
“We milked twice a day for the first 10 years, and then last year decided to change to once a day,” Sarah said. “This season, we started out with once a day. It is much easier for me to handle since I don’t have any employees. It takes about 2 1/2 and 3 hours to milk them, since only six can be milked at a time,” she explained. By milking once a day, Sarah has about 30 percent less production, but 50 percent less work.
“I am not only the herdsman, but the marketer, bookkeeper, and cheese-maker,” she said. “It takes a lot of time to run a business like this.”
Sarah makes cheese twice a week. “Cheese has been around since the caveman,” she explained. “It is an easy, hard thing to make. It is easy to make cheese, but to make a good cheese takes cleanliness and knowledge,” she explained. My cheese room is a very sanitary place. We use hair nets and make sure we’re clean down to our shoes when we work in there.”
The cheese Sarah makes is considered Artisan cheese, because it is handmade in small batches so each cheese tastes a little different. “Everything is done by hand in our small cheese plant,” she said. “The milk is poured into the vat using muscle power. The culture and enzymes are measured and stirred in by hand. The curd is cut by hand, stirred by hand, and then hand-packed into moulds to drain the whey. Then, the cheese is hand-packaged for sale,” she explained.
Only about 50 dairies in the United States can claim Farmstead status, and it is a title Sarah is very proud of. “Farmstead means the milk used to produce the cheese has come from animals milked on-site,” she explained. “Because we have a dairy and a cheese-making operation, we can claim the rare title of farmstead cheese. It also means that we can control the quality of the milk from the animal to the cheese,” she continued. “Factors such as barn cleanliness, feeding practices, animal husbandry, and milk handling are monitored because good practices produce a better cheese,” she added.
Different types of cheese appeal to the tastes of different customers. Currently, Sarah makes Gouda, Feta, Mozzarella, and both traditional and flavored Chevre. “By offering different types of cheese, it has expanded our customer base. I can even add olives to the feta to give it more flavor,” she said.
Sarah also offers Chevre in different flavors from dill and jalapeno, to orange and raspberry. “Chevre is a light, soft, somewhat crumbly goat cheese that is similar in consistency to cream cheese, but has a sharper taste,” Sarah explained. It can be melted, or used on crackers or bread. It can even serve as a substitute to cream cheese.
Most of the cheese products Sarah offers are sold through farmer’s markets. “It gives me an opportunity to educate potential customers about goat cheese,” she said. “The biggest challenge is many people think goat cheese is going to taste terrible. People have the misconception that goat cheese is this stinky, buck smelling, icky cheese,” she continued. “By talking to people face to face, and letting them try some free samples without buying it has been a tremendous benefit to my business. Most people that try it, will buy it,” she added.
Goat cheese also appeals to many people who can’t tolerate cows milk. Goats milk has a smaller protein than cows milk that makes it easier to digest. Goats milk also has less fat, Sarah said.
As her business continues to grow, Sarah is hoping to start retailing more cheese, by offering it in some stores and expanding her online sales. The cheese can be shipped, and she sells some in a cheese shop in Los Angeles. The cheese is also available in some stores in Ft. Collins and Windsor, Colorado.
This year, Sarah hopes to open a e-commerce store on her Web site, and will continue to sell the cheese at area farmer’s markets. To learn more about Victory Hill Farm, see her Web site at: vhfarm.com. Sarah can be reached at 308-630-0530.