Probably the most challenging aspect of making any business profitable is marketing the final product successfully. It can be particularly challenging for those in animal agriculture who not only have the primary job of working with their animals but then have to figure a way and find the time to sell what they have produced in order to make a profit. The buzzword in agriculture for some years has been “value added”—a term which means “taking the basic product produced and doing something to it to make it more valuable, for which the consumer will compensate accordingly.”
For those involved in goat dairying, merely getting the work done on the farm is often a full-time job in itself. And unless experienced in sales and marketing, getting a product to market becomes a second job, and for some a trip into unfamiliar territory. However, more dairy farmers are realizing the advantages of discovering and developing niche markets for their goat dairy products, particularly cheeses. The market for both soft and ripened goat cheeses is expanding all the time.
I never realized this market even existed until I met a goat dairyman on the big island of Hawaii about 15 years ago who was producing a soft feta and selling it to the big hotels throughout the state. This gentleman, whose name I have long since forgotten, was truly into sustainable agriculture, with his herd tucked away in a forest near Hilo. The electricity for both home and dairy was supplied by photovoltaic cells and storage batteries and his water was supplied totally from rainwater collected in a large tank on the top of his barn. Even though I was managing a cow dairy on Maui at the time, I thought his operation was fascinating.
About a quarter of the way around the world from Hawaii, Ann Starbard and her husband, Eric, have found a niche market for their goat cheese in New England. Some years back, when the Starbards were still milking cows on their farm in Sterling, Massachusetts, Ann became interested in making cheese. As she was in the process of researching the cheesemaking business a neighbor, who was milking goats and making soft cheeses, informed the Starbards that her herd was for sale. So they took the plunge and bought that business which also included existing customers. Since 1998 the Starbards have been marketing goat cheese under the Crystal Brook Cheese label and for much of that time they’ve been selling their chevré and feta to up-scale restaurants in and around Boston, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island.
Ann, who quit her job in a medical pathology lab so she could work full-time with her new business, said that from the very start, her plan was to reach a diverse set of markets with her cheeses. Today she sells products to six restaurants, a number of small local stores and, during the summer months, 10 weekly farmers markets. She feels she has something of an advantage compared to some of the other goat dairies in New England since she’s located only an hour from Boston, which allows her better access to her customers.
“The store and restaurant sales are sort of my ‘bread and butter’ income,” Starbard said. “They’re what pay the bills. My extra income comes from the markets during the summer where I still make the most profit on my products.”
The Starbards milk 70 Saanens and Alpines, which average about two gallons per head per day at the peak of their lactations and taper off to about one gallon in mid lactation. Cheese yield tends to be around a pound of cheese per gallon of milk.
“I sort of calculate that I get a pound of cheese per goat,” Starbard said. “When the milk production drops later in the lactation the fat and protein become even more concentrated which makes it more difficult to make cheese since the milk is almost too rich.”
The herd isn’t milked year round so she freezes some of the cheese for wintertime sales. She said that occasionally she may run out of cheese but often it’s not a problem since it coincides with the slow season for the restaurants and they’re really good about varying their menus to work around it.
Bill Brady, the owner of the Sonoma Restaurant in nearby Princeton, Massachusetts, has been a customer of Starbard from the very beginning. Brady, a chef with a degree in Culinary Arts who also sits on the board of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said he focuses on using artisan products from local producers.
“I’ve continued to buy Ann’s cheeses because of the exceptional quality and consistency of her product,” said Brady. “I’ve been very happy with her cheeses.”
Sonoma’s fine dining menu currently offers a Lobster Tart, Slow Roasted Beets and Sautéed Medallions—each of which has Crystal Brook Goat Cheese in the recipe.
“It’s all about sharing the local flavor,” Brady said. “Every region has locally produced products that are unique to that area. By incorporating local products such as Crystal Brook cheeses on my menu, it gives my customer a special dining experience knowing the items on the menu come from right around the greater Boston area.”
Nicks on Broadway is another restaurant, located in Providence, Rhode Island, that purchases Crystal Brook chevré. According to chef Tim Filippou, the exceptional quality of the product and a desire to support local agriculture keeps him doing business with Starbard.
Other goat milk and cheese producers have added value to their products by opening related businesses on their own property, to showcase what they produce.
On a cool and rainy morning in Union, Connecticut, I met with Nancy Kapplan who, with her husband, Barry, own and operate Bush Meadow Farm where they’ve been milking Nubians for 10 years. As with many folks with goats, the Kapplans began milking a couple of goats for family members who couldn’t tolerate cow milk and it grew from there. Barry, who retired from military service, and Nancy, who works full time as an RN, recognized over time that there was an increasing interest in the milk and cheese they were producing so about three years ago they decided to open a café on their property. The township of Union, located in the northeast corner of the state, is probably the most rural community in Connecticut with a lonely stretch of Interstate passing through it.
Today, the Bush Meadow Farm Café is a place where locals and non-locals alike can gather, be seated around tables in a family style—no booths here—and chat over a very reasonably priced menu that includes omelets, salads and sandwiches made with a selection of goat cheeses. I stopped in for breakfast recently and had an omelet with chevré, mushrooms and tomato. Excellent!!
The majority of the cheese the Kapplans make is chevré and feta. The chevré comes in tomato-bacon, horseradish, chipotle and garlic, dill herb, fire roasted garlic, and others. Their feta is advertised as a semi-soft farm-style cheese, available in 8 oz. containers. Moist, sliceable and lightly salted, it is unlike most you’ll find in the supermarkets.
Regular goat milk is available for $9 per gallon; a bargain compared to the local grocery store prices. All soft cheeses are sold for $5.50/half pound. When Barry makes ripened cheeses he sells them for $15/pound. Nancy said she would like to try her hand at kefir sometime but hasn’t yet gotten around to that.
Niche markets for goat dairy products are out there and their popularity is growing. But as with any product, quality and service are absolutely imperative for those who want to start and grow a business. Competition is intense and customers will go elsewhere if the price and product are not pleasing.
And, as both the Kapplans and the Starbards found, finding and developing that niche and adding value to their dairy products isn’t necessarily all about the money or the profit. Part of what makes these folks successful at what they’re doing is they’ve been able to incorporate those subtle aspects of service and quality, such as their personalities and characters and a love for what they do, into the mix, as well.
Nancy Kapplan said that part of the reason they began the café was to provide a place for community to gather and, at the same time, offer a menu with healthy choices and locally produced products.
One of Ann Starbard’s motivating factors is to help people understand that goat dairy products aren’t just a “specialty or health food” limited to a small segment of the population. It’s about getting goat dairy products out to the regular people and having fun doing it.