Commercial Dairy: Dairy Goats and a Sustainable Future

By Rona Sullivan, reprinted from the Dairy Goat Journal

Editor’s note:  Rona Sullivan lives with her husband, Tim, and son, Cole on Sullivan’s Pond Farm located on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, where the Rappahannock River meets the Chesapeake Bay. It is on this farm that they designed and built their $16,500, 12′ x 24′ micro-goat dairy to Grade A specifications several years ago, for the manufacture and aging of their “Bonnyclabber” raw milk goat cheese. Rona has begun teaching her basic cheesemaking method during her “off-season,” for home or commercial cheesemaking. Her lactic method is an old one, and does not require rennet, starters, cooking, storing or freezing of milk. “The Bonnyclabber Road” publication about her method is in the works, and Tim has the floor plans for the micro-dairy in PDF on CD’s available for purchase through their website. In this column, writing from her own personal commercial dairy experiences, Rona will share some of the reasons it is imperative to start more goat dairies now, in the United States. She feels the time has come for more small sustainable operations and hopes to better equip those with an interest in the goat dairy industry with her hints, lessons, and resources, as well as cheesemaking history and recipes in future issues.

Why get started?

In this technologically advanced, yet ever-changing world, I believe personal power is going to be in the information and skills acquirable for sustainability and survival. I wanted to make a difference by creating a practical and affordable template for others, but realize now that it goes beyond that. Even more important than helping others get started, it is necessary to develop the skills and the thought processes that it will take for dairy goat owners to set a foundation to stay in operation, once up and running with a commercial Grade A goat dairy.

I am convinced that we are in the throes of a necessary food revolution. Threats of terrorism and natural disasters bring to reality the need for a resurgence of independence and self-sufficiency. Given a catastrophic event, most Americans are only a few weeks away from homelessness, although most of us are buying a home with plenty of space, central heat and air, and indoor plumbing. We have tvs, computers, Internet, and cars. In order to keep and use them however, we are dependent upon banks and government infrastructure, fossil fuels, power plants, and the transport of food, clothing, and household goods. Many of us think we pay dearly for all kinds of insurance, but often can’t afford the co-payments and deductibles. It is not incumbent upon us to be pessimistic; but it is imperative to utilize the wisdom and skills of our ancestors. It is time to renew our health, revive community, and be responsible environmental stewards. Americans can live without many things, but not without water, food and shelter. Think small. Stay small. The most important work begins in the backyard.

Those hit by disasters know that survival depends on the help of neighbors, friends, community organizations, and personal ingenuity and sheer determination. There is much national and international conversation across the Internet about reviving the production of clean healthy food and dairy products. Our seasonal dairy, as an example, cannot produce enough for the market demands, supplying only enough milk and cheese for our household, with limited amounts of cheese, soap and lotion for local markets. There is no one around us from whom to buy goat or cow milk during our “off-season.” Initially, I believed we were taking advantage of a passing trend, but now I am sure that this is not a passing trend. This is good news for those considering getting started in a legal dairy.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, it was brought home to me with great clarity that there is very little that I can do immediately to help those people. Here on our own farm it’s taken two years to complete the cleanup from the visit of a mere category two storm named Hurricane Isabel, to our Atlantic Coast and inland two years ago. I lost $3,000 worth of cheese that fall, and suffered mass destruction on the farm, though not to our house. We lost our new greenhouse, suffered damage to the goat housing, and lost many trees, some over 200 years old. FEMA seemed to be available only for those whose homes were destroyed or severely damaged by fallen trees, and to reimburse those who could immediately afford to go out and buy chain saws, generators and building materials. Our only help from FEMA would have been to accept an SBA loan, but we were not in the position to be able to afford another loan. Insurance help was very uneven, and we even witnessed some receiving large insurance settlements by deception. Why and how did we survive it? We survived it not through government help, reimbursements, or insurance, but because we were small and not dependent upon them. This is how I now encourage others to think. Not because I am disparaging about government help, but because others in trouble will more likely make it through tough times by not being dependent.

We can regain personal power by taking control of our own health, and the health, education and welfare of our nation’s children; wherein lies our future. Through educating ourselves about water reclamation, clean produce, natural and low impact livestock and crop management, identification and harvest of wild foods, hunting, fishing, trapping, and food preservation skills, we can insure that future. Many “old ways” are still “good ways.” For example, if there is a power outage and I have a below-ground cellar, a spring house or well storage, then I, and others like me, would be less likely to lose product since the below-ground, year-round temperature runs about 55ºF.

Just think what an investment we would make in the future of America, if each of us passed our sustainable skills to at least one family, along with the gift of a couple of goats, and that family in turn passed it to someone else.

10 questions to answer before getting started in the commercial dairy goat industry.

If considering starting a small goat dairy/cheesemaking operation, first ask (and answer) these 10 questions. Some may sound tongue-in-cheek, but all are important considerations.

  1. Do I already have goats or experience in managing dairy goats that produce good milk, or my family already has a dairy in place?
  2. Is there a ready market in my area?
  3. Do I like working with goats more than I like working with people, and enjoy doing something that is thought to be “different?”
  4. Am I resourceful, independent, self-motivated, and have even been described as opinionated, strong-willed or stubborn?
  5. Am I optimistic, even unrealistic, about my goals in life and what I can achieve, even believing that I can make a difference in the world?
  6. Have I been known to work on projects beyond my endurance, often into the wee hours of the morning?
  7. Am I often more comfortable making my own recipes and rules, than following directions?
  8. Do I have a way of turning most any conversation into one about goats, and the products that can be made from them?
  9. Am I bored with the security and regularity of a paycheck, retirement, and the idea of a single boss, with an inflexible 8-5 schedule Monday through Friday, 40 hours a week, 50 weeks out of the year?
  10. And last, but not least
    Would I gladly trade the common workplace “rat race” for the flexibility of working for myself, and a bunch of goats and customers, with hours that often include more than eight hours a day, more than 40 hours a week, with unlimited income possibilities (eventually), but no regular paycheck, retirement, and vacations? (You may need the vacation and have the time, but then you probably can’t afford it, and you’re not willing to leave goats that are ready to kid!)

If you answered yes to most of those questions, you are probably not independently wealthy, and are still considering this crazy venture. So read on:

Hints, lesson, and resources

The best advice that I can give to anyone dreaming about owning their own goat dairy or cheese production operation is to be prepared for the inevitable adversity by planning small, starting small, and staying small. Some of the adversity we experienced in our first five years could have put us out of business, like larger, local operations. Fortunately, there is more and better information available now than there was for us, even six years ago, with the recent successes of small goat and sheep dairy and cheesemaking operations. Here are some of the important resources:

Grant money: First and foremost, look for grant money. It will take some work on your part, usually through writing about, or educating others with your written research, but it doesn’t have to be paid back, and may be work that you’re interested in anyway. Read about completed projects through SARE (sustainable agriculture research and education), like:

Local extension agents: Make a stop at the local county extension agent’s office. It is best to have a long and positive relationship with these people. They often are the first to hear of money coming down the local pike, and will pass the information along if they know who needs it. They can get in touch with FSA, (Farm Service Agency), the USDA, (U.S. Department of Agriculture), and those in turn work with FEMA after local disasters, as well as the SBA, (Small Business Administration). If you’re in one of the former tobacco growing states, you might inquire about money available from the federal government. Each state was to earmark that money for education, or agriculture, etc. Some of the states are using the money to support new agricultural enterprises, like sheep and goat dairies.

Your state’s Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services… Office of Dairy and Foods. Use this contact early and often, developing a long and positive relationship. They are the people who can decipher the unknown languages which are the PMO (Pasteurized Milk Ordinance), and the Standards of Identity, within which you need to comply. They are the ones who will need to approve and oversee every step of your commercial operation. Be kind, patient, and cooperative.

USDA: The USDA has programs specifically designed for starting or refurbishing small farms, in conjunction with FSA (the farm service agency), and the SBA (small business administration). They often work together to make these programs work within each state, for those unable to get conventional mortgages for farmsteads, because many institutions will not loan money for farmland with a home!
We are extremely grateful that we qualified for one such opportunity, through a USDA program that Tim found on the Internet in January of 2000. We probably could not have gotten this particular farm in 2000 any other way. There are some problems with receiving government money, in our experience, which I will share with you later on.

The plan included a low interest 40 year Farm Ownership Loan which would supply the mortgage, plus two small loans which included an Operational Loan, and a Start Up Loan for building infrastructure. Applicants must have at least three years agricultural experience, and must submit a viable business plan with a farm layout design. If approved, you are expected to keep up with paperwork that includes record keeping and projections, inspections and monthly payments. The small loans are paid off within the first couple of years, (our total was about $11, 500 without interest), while you are also making monthly payments on the FOL, (farm ownership loan). The mortgage must be refinanced within 10 years, as the program is designed only to keep your payments low while you get established. On the positive side, there is some leeway in the payment schedule in the case of family or farm emergencies.

On the negative side, we were not able to get the full amount of mortgage needed to purchase the property, so we had to take out a private second mortgage. Another problem is that in government terms, it seemed success was measured only in large numbers, which can also translate to “easier to go under.” This mindset is beginning to change somewhat, but you can use this to your advantage, since farmsteads and used equipment are readily available. Be prepared to do most of the building yourself, or with the help of friends and family, unless you already have, or purchase a place, with most of the infrastructure already in place.

Do not believe that a profit can only be made with over 100 goats, as I was told. I’m topping off at only milking 10, which I think is the maximum for one person managing, milking, and making the cheese. You can always expand later, probably at 10 years if you are truly viable, or if you receive an inheritance! The first five years are filled with experimentation, and probably no profit. Sustainable? Yes. Quick profit? No. In fact, quick profit in a dairy business is a misnomer. There is a quicker turn around in a raw milk cheesemaking operation than a milking or bottling operation. That is, unless your family already has the dairy farm, in which case you are lucky enough to be able to move right to “value-added” cheesemaking.