A love for goats, a great appreciation for goat milk and an entrepreneurial drive inspired Jennifer Poirier to start her Shepherd’s Gate Dairy Goat Farm several years ago in Holland, Massachusetts.
Nestled away in a forest of pines and oaks on seven acres, Poirier, her husband, John, and their three sons, Joshua, Caleb and Jonathan, share the responsibilities of managing their herd of 70-plus LaManchas. As is the case with many goat dairies the milking is seasonal, starting in February with kidding and running to about Thanksgiving. Throughout the year Jennifer processes nearly all the milk into gelato, chevre, feta and yogurt. Along with those products she makes puddings, pumpkin cake rolls, cheesecakes and a variety of different flavored fudges, all of which have goat milk included in the recipes.
Poirier’s love of goats goes back to when she was a young girl and her mother kept a couple goats for milk because her brother was allergic to cow milk. Then, when the Poiriers’ oldest son, Joshua, was a young boy he had a few health issues that disappeared when he was given goat milk. No one thought too much about it, thinking that perhaps it was just a coincidence. Then when Caleb got a little older he developed hives from regular dairy milk.
Jennifer displays an assortment of her dairy products.
"That’s when we decided to get a couple of goats for ourselves," Poirier said. "Once we got Caleb on goat milk he never had another case of hives."
Back when the family was still young, Poirier pasteurized the milk on her stove in the kitchen and made enough yogurt for the family’s needs. They also made ice cream the "old fashioned way" with an ice cream bucket.
"During that time I was also making a lot of ricotta and mozzarella cheese, because they were easier cheeses to make," she said.
The goat herd grew to about a dozen does producing 13 gallons of milk per day, far more than the family could use, and Poirier had to make a decision as to whether she should cut back or start a business. In 2000 she and John began looking into what it would take to set up a commercially licensed milking and processing facility on their property. Doing most of the work himself, John, with the help of a few friends and contractors, built, in the Poirier home’s basement, a spacious and squeaky-clean facility for milking, pasteurizing and processing.
Always the creator and innovator, Poirier, in the meantime, was developing her product lines and in 2003 the Shepherd’s Gate Dairy Goat Farm became a reality. This past season the Poiriers milked about 40 LaManchas which produced from 20 to 30 gallons of milk per day for much of the season. Her mature does milked up to two gallons per day during early lactation while the yearlings produced a couple of quarts. During the winter things slow down when the does dry up, giving the family a break. But once kidding starts in spring the pace quickly picks up, again.
"Things get really crazy around here during the summer," Poirier said. "When we’re in full production mode there’s not much time to do anything but work and sleep and go to church. I’ve got to balance my marketing days with the days that I have to be here to make cheese." She added, "John has a full time job off the dairy, so that leaves me and the boys to do the lion’s share of the work. The boys do most of the milking and I do all the processing. John takes care of the maintenance needs."
If life isn’t busy enough, Poirier has home-schooled her three sons all these years, taking the time to make sure they get a well-rounded education. Joshua, who is now 18, will be starting college the spring of 2007.
Poirier has an amazing gift for taking care of her goats and addressing any and all health needs. She trains her sons well in the art of goat husbandry.
"But as much as I love working with the goats," she said, "I’ve found I really like the processing and marketing side of this business."
This comes as no surprise to anyone who meets her. Jennifer Poirier is a real "people person" who readily shares her love for goats and the products she makes. The majority of her marketing is done through farmers markets in Massachusetts, which are all about meeting people who have an interest in locally produced products. The first farmers market she sold her products at was in Belchertown, Massachusetts.
Jennifer Poirier in front of the Gelato machine collecting a tub of Pistachio Gelato
The following year she started participating in the Plymouth Farmers Market (yes, where the Pilgrims landed) and the Boston City Hall Market, right in the Boston Commons. She has also developed a few local wholesale markets in towns not too far from the dairy and this past summer she became a market vendor at a rest stop on the Massachusetts Turnpike.
"It sounds like a funny place to be setting up a stand," Poirier said, "but I sold a lot of product at that rest stop. In the summer when people are traveling, they’re looking for a unique and cool treat like my gelatos."
Poirier’s gelato is an Italian style ice cream fitting somewhere between regular ice cream and sherbet. While regular ice cream must have a fat content between 10% and 16%, the fat content of gelato is between 0% and 8%. She makes an amazing selection of flavors including vanilla, strawberry, coffee, mint-chip, coconut brittle, pistachio and more.
"By far, my most popular flavor has grown to be the coconut brittle," Poirier said.
The chevre and yogurt made at Shepherd’s Gate Farm are equally delectable. The chevre comes in plain, herb, garlic, bacon, chili, curry and even a tropical fruit, just to name a few. The chili flavored chevre has a real kick to it. The yogurts also come in a number of delicious flavors and the feta has a nice salty zip to it. And then, there’s the fudge. It should be a crime for anything to taste so good.
The Shepherd’s Gate Dairy Goat Farm is a family affair that is run on faith and love and a commitment to making a high quality product. Especially in New England, where it’s becoming increasingly more difficult for people to make a living in agriculture, the Poirier family is out ahead of the pack in finding niche markets for their delicious and alternative caprine dairy products.
The Poiriers are working on a web site. Meanwhile, they can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.