Michigander Tom Chambers is using his family’s 124-year-old farm to develop a dairy goat business that is as modern as tomorrow. Chambers, who at age 19 has a decade of dairy goat breeding under his belt, sells shares in his pedigree Alpine herd to those who like the health and digestive benefits of unpasteurized goat milk.
In 1948, Michigan was the first state to require all milk sold to consumers be pasteurized. The Michigan Legislature reaffirmed the law in 2001 in an update of the state’s dairy rules. The Food and Drug Administration banned the interstate shipment of unpasteurized milk to consumers in 1987.
But Chambers’ business does not involve the sale of milk.
"You can’t sell raw milk in Michigan," he said. "There are a lot of people who really want it because it’s natural and healthy. They sign a contract with me that gives them part ownership of my herd, and that entitles them to the milk."
Chambers charges a one-time fee of $100 to buy into the herd and then $50 a month as a management fee.
The shareholders collect 1-1/4 gallons of milk a week from "their" goats. Since they are part owners this is strictly legal. There is no state law banning the consumption of unpasteurized milk by the animals’ owners.
Chambers said those interested in his milk often have children with cow milk allergies or digestive problems and the goat milk is easier to digest.
"Some of them just want to be healthier," he said.
Chambers began the business in 2008 and said he is still in the planning stages.
"I do have about 17 shares sold," he said. "By this fall I would love to have 30 and then just keep growing. But I don’t want to do it too fast and get out of control."
He said the share system has enabled him to turn what had been a hobby into a profitable career.
He began with goats 10 years ago through the local 4-H group, raising and selling market wethers at auction.
Then neighbors Nora and Lloyd Allen from nearby Stockbridge introduced him to breeding for improved quality.
"I started breeding dairy goats about six years ago, really striving for show quality animals," he said. "I started to go into open shows around the state."
"I was breeding the animals, but I wasn’t making any money at all. I was losing money," he said. "I am growing up now and I was thinking ‘do I have time to do this any more?’"
Shareholders collect their milk from a garage fridge.
It was then the idea of the milk share program was raised.
"It was perfect timing," Chambers said. "I was really debating whether I should cut back on my herd. I was ready to give up. I wasn’t making a dime. I was cutting even by selling the babies."
His herd now totals 19 goats, all registered—10 does, seven kids and two bucks.
"I have great show quality animals that are milking a lot. I don’t need a lot of animals to do this. As soon as I was told about the program I knew right away I was going to do it."
Chambers operates his Heavenly Dairy business outside Pinckney, 66 miles east of Detroit. The farm, owned by his parents Keith and Jennifer Chambers, was started by his great-great-great-grandfather, William Chambers, in 1875 and now consists of 20 acres along with more than 200 acres of leased land.
"It is my dream to some day get my own place and have cows and goats," the sixth generation farming Chambers said.
With summer approaching, he was milking nine goats and all of them were averaging more than a gallon a day.
"With how much my goats are putting out, seven shares worth a day, technically right now I could be at 50 shares," he said. "Right now I have nine goats producing as much milk as 20 regular goats usually do because I upgraded my genetics and bred to get the production."
The extra goat milk is being consumed by his family of six, and the rest is being fed to the farm’s pigs.
Shareholders who have purchased part of Chamber’s herd travel to the farm and collect their goat milk from a refrigerator in a barn. They leave their empty bottles, sign a receipt of the milk and, if it is due, leave their management payment.
"They come and pick up their milk on a weekly basis," Chambers said. "I am making money. I have few overheads. I work for my dad to get the hay and I plant my own corn. Really, there are no overheads—just a lot of profit. It is just the time I have to put into it, basically."
His father fattens cattle and pigs and grows corn and pumpkins, and Chambers said while his dad is more of a cow person, he sees his son’s dairy goat business as beneficial for the farm.
The bottle exchange.
"He thinks it’s great," Chambers said. "I am going somewhere with it."
The teenager wants to attend a dairy management program at Michigan State University, some 45 miles from the farm, but this has to fit in with his dairy goat business. The MSU program is a two-year degree in dairy management. Chambers said a lot of it is focused on the dairy cow industry, it could also apply to both.
"I would like to get into both so I would like the knowledge," he said. "I haven’t worked it all out but I think I am going to commute and just take a couple of classes each semester. I am not going to down grade the goat operation. This is what I want to do. It is just going to get bigger."
Although a couple of his 17 shareholders—down from 20 shares last year—live close by, most spend from 30 to 60 minutes driving each way to get their milk.
Chambers discovered the risks of running his own business when gasoline prices skyrocketed last year and a number of shareholders dropped out because they couldn’t afford the drive to the farm.
"I could easily fit 30 milking does here—that is my goal," he said. "Right now I am milking nine. I was milking 15, but I don’t have the shares I want to keep doing that. I was kind of disappointed because I ended the year with 20 shares, and it dropped down to 10."
This year his business has been affected by the economic downtown.
"There’s no point in producing milk if I don’t have the shareholders," Chambers said. "I have two new people just in the last month. It is kind of how it was last year, every month I would get one or two more shares."
Chambers’ goats won 4-H grand champion and reserve champion at the Livingston County 2008 Fowlerville Family Fair, but he now is too old to enter the 4-H competitions, which have an age limit of 18.
"I always try to make it to two shows each year," he said. "This year I want to go to a couple of out-of-state shows, probably Ohio. If I’m successful it goes on the registration papers. My goats are all certified and registered. I take them to shows to try to get my herd name out."
Chambers is developing a business model where he covers expenses such as traveling to shows, buying hay and other inputs, by selling his young goats.
"That way anything I make from the milk is pure profit," he said.
Chambers leads his goats into the sun.
This year the Heavenly Dairy herd produced 20 kids.
"I just sold two kids and two milkers and made $1,000."
He is keeping five does to breed along with two buck kids and bought two milkers.
"I want to be able to give the kids enough milk and keep the milk share program rolling," he said.
As a young businessman he rarely takes a holiday, although he dried up his milkers for about a month last winter and went to Florida and stayed at his grandparent’s house.
"This is usually a full time job," Chambers said. "You wake up Christmas morning and milk goats. When I am in a bind my dad will help me. When he’s not busy he will help me milk and things like that, but he’s got his farm operation to look after."
Chambers said he works about an hour and half in the morning and the same time in the evening milking his goats and looking after them.
"I have a lot of time during the day to work on the farm," Chambers said. "I have worked at a local veterinary clinic and done a lot of odd jobs for other farmers."
He said there’s no time for a girlfriend in his life right now but his mother said he does find time for the opposite sex.
Chambers said he was surprised because girls he invites to the farm think his dairy goat business is great.
"I was surprised because I thought being a goat man, that’s not very attractive, not the big romantic image of the American rancher."
Tom in the fields of Michigan with his goats.
The goats spend most of their time in the barn during the winter but have access to four acres of fields. They spend the rest of the year outdoors with access to the barn.
Chamber uses a two-goat milking machine but is making plans for a milking parlor.
He estimates the milking parlor is going to cost between $5,000 and $10,000.
"If you come back in a couple of years you are going to see a bigger herd," he said. "I have to build a milk parlor. We have it planned out. I would like to make a separate room for the milking."
His parents think it is wonderful the way their son is developing his business.
"It is really great," Jennifer Chambers said. "He is offering something to people that need help because of their allergies and things like that. As young as he is, it is pretty unique. We’re really proud of his dedication."