Evolution of a Cheese Maker
Charuth Van Beuzekom stands in a field of Chicory, Birdsfoot Trefoil and Timothy. Her tiny 5-foot 5-inch frame looks comfortable and content among a sea of ivory, brown and charcoal goats nibbling on the pasture grasses at her feet.
Nearly seven years ago, Charuth set out on a path to own one of only five goat dairies in Nebraska. Hers is one of only two such dairies on the eastern side of the state. She and her husband, Kevin Loth, own Shadow Brook, a 34-acre organic vegetable and flower farm just outside of Lincoln, Nebraska.
Today, Charuth’s goat’s milk dairy, Dutch Girl Creamery, sells seven different types of cheeses, and will christen a new cheese plant on the farm by June.
Charuth and I recently took a ride in her dusty farm truck filled with books on diversifying for a successful business, bags of raw almonds and random tools. She parked the truck, and we sat there on a cool morning discussing the monumental effort it took to free a deer that was caught in a now mangled fence line and how she evolved into a cheese maker.
We walked the sparsely limestone-covered driveway toward the barn as chickens meandered and pecked their way across our path like a group of stumbling drunks. Along the way, a few rambunctious goats were climbing a nearly dead tree. Finally, one prevailed and claimed its spot above the others in the aching branches. “How could a person not enjoy working with goats?” Charuth asks. “They are always doing something that makes you laugh.”
If looked at through the eyes of a weekend visitor, one might assume farm life is full of peaceful evenings and kid-like play. The truth of making a living as a goat dairy and cheese maker, however, lies in issues of economics, the value of life and death, crow’s feet and work-worn hands.
THE UNITED STATES OF CHÈVRE
The United States has a love/hate relationship with goats and their byproducts. It took awhile for Americans to welcome the idea of anything edible coming from such an odd and unruly animal. Cheese created from the milk of these wily, knobby-kneed creatures was imported from France and sold at specialty shops on the East and West Coasts prior to the 1970s. Producing it stateside didn’t happen until 1980.
A California woman named Laura Chenel was the first commercial producer of goat cheese in America. She, along with Alice Waters, the famed chef and restaurateur who gave Laura her big break, are often credited with introducing goat milk cheeses to the broader American market. Laura retired in 2010 and sold her business, which started in her garage and grew into an operation that sells upwards of one million pounds of cheese per year.
Since Laura’s first year of production, the number of goat dairies in the U.S. has slowly and steadily climbed, even during economic downturns. Th ere are 31,000 dairy goat operations in the United States today. By January 2011, there were approximately 360,000 head of milk goats, which is about 12% of the total commercial goat population in the United States. Th is is a 24% increase in milk goats over the number from the 2002 Census of Agriculture, and an 8% increase over the 2007 census. Goat dairies, although growing, remain the smallest part of the goat market behind meat goats. Meat goats are supported primarily by ethnic markets, while f ber goats are used for cashmere and mohair.
Choosing to create commercial goat cheese wasn’t something Charuth came upon lightly, although it seems she was destined to do it. Her relationship with goats began as a child when her mom gave her a Toggenburg goat named Penny Royal. Years later after Charuth married her husband, Kevin, and moved from the West Coast to Nebraska, her mom, once again, gave her a goat. “My mom drove with a goat in her car all the way from California,” Charuth says with a slight grin on her face. “I’ve always had goats in my life.”
She maintained a few goats for her own personal use, and often made cheeses for farm parties and friendly gatherings. Her professional focus remained concentrated on farm and family, however. Even still, she always felt like vegetable farming was really Kevin’s passion. So after more than a decade of following one path, she set out to fi nd another. “I was getting burned out and I wanted to do something creative. Kevin and I had lots of long conversations about what that might look like. He asked, ‘What would make you happy?’”
Thanks to help and encouragement from a friend for whom she named one of her first cheeses, and a partnership with a nearby cow dairy, Charuth embarked on a path to commercial cheese production. Starting a full-fl edged dairy included a cheese-making operation for the retail market would include extra layers of regulation, a hefty amount of research and investment and value-added concepts such as teaching classes.
Charuth’s original partnership was forged in 2006 and included Krista Dittman, a friend and neighboring farmer. Krista produces cow’s milk cheeses at her place, Branched Oak Farm. The two women traveled to Europe to take cheese-making classes, then wrote grants and worked together to build a cheese-making facility on Krista’s farm.
When Dutch Girl Creamery began, Charuth was milking 17 goats and making two cheeses; she now makes seven cheeses and milks 100 goats. She estimates that Dutch Girl Creamery will make 10,000 pounds of cheese in 2013.
Within six short years, it was apparent that Branched Oak Farm, which now ships cheese throughout the United States, and Dutch Girl Creamery had become so successful they’d outgrown the small space that the two women had built together.
In 2011, Krista and Charuth decided to amicably dissolve their partnership to make room for growth as separate entities. Later that year, Charuth received a $31,000 grant to help build a cheese production house on her farm. In 2012, she launched a successful kick-starter campaign (an online funding platform for creative projects) that raised an additional $27,000. The shell of the building was complete by the end of 2012, and Charuth expects the finishing touches to be in place by June 2013.
“I think I’ve reached my limit at milking 100 goats. When I look at our five-year plan, my hope is that we can purchase milk from other goat dairies and expand into sheep’s milk and cow’s milk cheeses,” Charuth says. “But first we have to get the plant finished.”
HALF THE HERD
“Come girls, come girls!” she calmly hollers to bring them in from the field. It’s kidding season, and with only yearlings left to give birth, Charuth is now tending to more than 100 babies. This is in addition to her 100-head milking herd, who are at home in a big white wide-mouthed barn on their property.
Inside the aging but sturdy structure, tiny and energetic bundles climb pallets of organic feed four feet high and leap off to tackle or tame their cohorts. It’s a vision of joy and kid-like play.
Such bucolic images, however, often shadow the harsh realities of farm life. When put in the context of a goat dairy, the milk has the most value. The female goats, the does, are the ones that produce it, which makes kidding season a time of birth—but also a time of death.
Goats are considered late-season breeders, meaning that when they breed and when they birth is directly impacted by the amount of sunlight. The gestation period is about five months, which makes spring baby goat season. Many goats have twins or even triplets. Does are saved to replace aging members of the dairy herd, or they are used to increase the size of the herd, as Dutch Girl Creamery has done. But the bucks, the male goats, have little to no value when milk is the golden ticket.
A dairy needs only a few male goats. According to Charuth, to grow to a good slaughtering weight of 30 to 40 pounds, a buck will need to drink $250 worth of milk. But the most she can earn on a buck is approximately $1.50 to $2 per pound. If she were to grow them to that size, she would sell them at a financial loss.
“If you raise meat goats it’s different, because the value of the milk goes to the meat. But in our case, we are trying to make our money off of the milk. Another problem is that the processing plant charges the same price, whether you slaughter them at 20 pounds or 40 pounds,” explains Charuth. “There are a lot of factors to consider. Maybe we should figure out a way to make young bucks a delicacy and create a market, solving two dilemmas with one product.”
George Kazas, co-owner and chef at the Parthenon, a Greek restaurant in Lincoln, is trying to do just that. He first met Charuth and Kevin four years ago at an area farmers market. The 10-yearold restaurant has always featured local produce and protein on its menu, so adding local goat meat seemed like a logical next step.
By the time of publication, Charuth’s 2013 kidding season has produced 80 bucks. George, who prefers the bucks at the smaller 20-pound size, has purchased almost all of them. A younger, smaller goat, George says, has tender meat, which is easier to prepare. “We’ve tried to buy local as much as possible since the day we opened. Over the last five years it’s become a lot easier,” says George. “The quality of local food is incredible, and it keeps the money right here, close to us.”
For Charuth, her relationship with the Parthenon provides a solution to a sustainable farmer’s problem: How to make a living from the land and the animals without being wasteful, careless or cruel. It also creates a learning opportunity for consumers to understand the full cycle of food. As goat cheese continues to grow in popularity, perhaps local goat meat should as well.
If you’re interested in cooking with goat meat, you have three options: Call a goat dairy such as Dutch Girl Creamery and make arrangements to buy a buck; contact a meat goat farmer and make arrangements to buy a goat; or seek out an ethnic market such as Farm Fresh Market, which opened in January at 119th and Pacifi c streets in Omaha. It specializes in fresh—never frozen—goat meat. A Google search of “halal butchers” with the name of your city will likely provide additional meat goat options.
Dutch Girl Creamery cheeses are available directly at its on-farm Country Store, or at any number of farmers markets in Omaha and Lincoln. For a complete list, visit the website at ShadowBrk.com.