For the Love of Goats
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Deborah Niemann 0:18
Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode. Today is going to be a lot of fun, because I know so many of you dream about starting your own dairy with your goats. And today we’re going to talk to Leslie Cooperband of Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery. And she and her husband actually did that. Welcome to the show. Leslie!
Leslie Cooperband 0:38
Thank you so much, Deborah.
Deborah Niemann 0:40
This is really unique for me, because so far on the podcast every time I have interviewed someone about their business, it’s somebody that I just knew online, or remotely, or I even just discovered them online when I was looking for a guest. But I have actually been to your farm on a couple different occasions, and attended workshops there on stuff about agritourism, so this is really neat that I’m gonna get to talk to you today. So, I love the story of how you got started. Because, unlike so many people who just get a couple of goats for pets and then say, “I want to turn this into a business,” you were actually sitting in a professional job and decided that you wanted to leave that and start a goat dairy from scratch. And you had not ever even had a pet goat before. So can you tell us a little bit about how that worked?
Leslie Cooperband 1:35
Yeah, sure. So yes, my husband and I used to live in Madison, Wisconsin. We were both professors at UW Madison for seven years in soil science. And we moved to Champaign-Urbana—where we currently live—with the intention of working at the University of Illinois, and my husband was hired as a head of a department. So we moved here in 2003. And I had said to my husband, Wes, that the only way I would leave Madison is if we could buy a small farm. And, out of sheer luck, we found this incredible property that is five miles from downtown Champaign-Urbana. It was seven acres at the time, a log house with a metal machine shed on the property, had been in corn and soybeans for probably over 100 years, and the farm was for sale by owner. Friends of ours had just driven by, by chance, and saw the sign out by the road and contacted them. We met them, and we made an offer, like, in a matter of a week. And so, when we bought this place, our initial dream was to just have a small little farm where we could test out ideas about how to farm sustainably. A lot of the ideas that we had told other farmers what to do, we wanted to try ourselves. I had, while living in Madison, become enamored of French-style goat cheeses. There was a woman, her name is Anne Topham. She’s now retired. But she was one of the pioneers of bringing French-style goat cheeses to the U.S. And she had been making these gorgeous cheeses and selling them at the Dane County farmers market in Madison for… Oh gosh, close to 30 years. And I just was totally taken with those cheeses. And so the rationale for us getting some goats was because I wanted to make cheese with their milk. So, it wasn’t like, “Oh, I want some goats just to have some goats.” It was really with the intention of learning how to make cheese with that milk. And all of the research that I did before we purchased our goats was with this idea in mind, like, what breeds are best suited for making cheese? And it turned out that from what I had read and just talking with goat people that Nubians would be the place to start. And so, I found a breeder in Kansas, and she was the person who we bought our first three does and one buck from in June of 2004.
Deborah Niemann 4:26
Okay, and then that’s when the story gets really interesting. So, could you go ahead and talk about your first winter with those goats?
Leslie Cooperband 4:34
Yes. So, needless to say, we knew pretty close to nothing about dairy goats. My husband, Wes, had grown up on a small subsistence farm in Oregon, just west of Portland, and the family had always had brush goats, mostly because it’s hilly and there was a lot of invasive woody species, and it was a prune orchard, and so they used the goats to keep the… mostly blackberry brambles down. So, that was the extent of his experience with goats. Mine was zero, because I grew up in Boston. And so, we got these goats. Most of the knowledge that I had was just strictly from talking with people and reading books about goats and their general health issues and their seasonal breeding and all that. So these were dry yearlings. So they were a year and a half old already, as was the male. And, from what I had read, they would only breed in the fall. So, we had the does and the buck together in a small corral. And they spent the entire summer together that way. And then, my neighbor at the time, who used to come over with her little daughter every day, they had seen the male mounting one of the does and had come to our house and told me what was going on. So, this was in mid- to late-August, so we separated them right away. And come September, I noticed… Well, the plan was breed in October for kidding in March. And we had noticed that two of them were looking kind of chubby, and I was a little concerned, the way they looked, that maybe they were pregnant. And we had the vet come out and even ultrasound them, and he assured me that they were not pregnant. But Thanksgiving comes and goes. And, you know, we’re both working full time at the university at this point. I come home to do the evening chores the Monday after Thanksgiving, and I walk out to the little barn where we had them, and I hear a baby crying. And it sounds like a human baby. And I’m just like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, what’s happening here? This can’t be happening.” I really didn’t even want to look in the direction of where the crying was coming from, as it was beginning to dawn on me that somebody had just had a baby. But, at some point, I had to look, and there was a little buckling on the ground standing next to Chocolate, one of our does. So, two weeks after Chocolate kid, her sister Snickerdoodle had twins. So clearly this whole idea of, you know, seasonal breeding… They didn’t read the same books that I was reading.
Leslie Cooperband 7:33
And the silver lining of that story is that it gave me some milk to have in the winter and to start experimenting with cheesemaking in the house, and to try it on friends, and see what people thought, so that by the time spring came and the third doe—that had actually read the book about seasonal breeding—gave birth to twin does, we were pretty convinced that we could have a viable business. And we had submitted our plans to the Department of Public Health to begin construction for our Grade A goat dairy and on-farm cheesemaking facility. So, being the first in Illinois as a farmstead creamery, there were a lot of obstacles. The Department of Public Health reviewed our plans with a fine-tooth comb. They did not give us any recommendations as to where we could source materials; we had to get estimates from licensed contractors to do the electrical, the plumbing, the concrete work, the heating and cooling. Our initial estimates for our cost skyrocketed because of the need for licensed tradespeople to do the construction. We were thinking we could do most of it ourselves. But we managed to pull a loan together and began construction in May or June of 2005, and by August of 2005, we were finally licensed by the Department of Public Health as Illinois’ first farmstead creamery.
Deborah Niemann 9:15
Yay! It is so awesome! And now, I know, we’ve got quite a few, including mostly cow dairies.
Leslie Cooperband 9:23
Mostly cow. Yep, yep, there really aren’t that many farmstead creameries in this state.
Deborah Niemann 9:28
Right. So, you had to build your facility, and get the goats, and so how long did that take? Like a year, two years? And then, how did you grow your herd?
Leslie Cooperband 9:41
So, it took us about a year between getting our plans reviewed and accepted, and beginning the construction—a year to year and a half to get that whole process completed. And, since we had only purchased three milking does initially as kind of our starter herd, we had to buy more milking goats from the same breeder in Kansas. So we did in 2005, so that by the time our facility was licensed, we were ready and able to milk 20 to 25 goats. Initially we had to dump their milk because we weren’t ready to make cheese with it yet until we got licensed, which was kind of unfortunate. But, by August of 2005, we were using all that milk to make fresh goat cheese and selling it at the Urbana farmers market.
Deborah Niemann 10:38
Wow, that must have been heartbreaking to have to do that!
Leslie Cooperband 10:41
It was. It was heartbreaking.
Deborah Niemann 10:44
So much work, and then just too dump it.
Leslie Cooperband 10:47
Deborah Niemann 10:48
So, what were the first cheeses that you decided to make, and why?
Leslie Cooperband 10:53
Well, the first was the fresh chèvre, because the fresh chèvre that I had experienced with Fantome Farm was just such an out-of-body experience compared to the grocery-store chèvre that you find. And, at the time, you know, this was 2005 and goat cheeses around here were pretty unknown and quite scary to most people. So, I wanted to start with something that was really simple, that was a very basic kind of cheese, that didn’t have strong flavors, and kind of use the chèvre as the gateway to bloomy rind cheeses, which are the cheeses that we are most known for—that and our chèvre, at this point—the soft-ripened cheeses, like, you know, brie- and camembert-style cheeses. Between that and chèvre, those are the two families of cheese that we make the most of. And that’s what we did, for… Gosh, the first at least three, maybe four, years. And then I started experimenting with a semi-hard raw milk cheese, a Tomme-style cheese. We had actually gone to Italy for the Slow Food Terra Madre in 2007, I think it was, and met some fellow goat-cheese makers in Italy. And, I really wanted to make a raw milk cheese. So I developed a recipe for a Tomme-style cheese, and we made that for a long time, and tweaked the recipe from time to time. I added other cheeses, like feta and blue cheese. We’ve kind of waxed and waned in the diversity of cheeses that we make. And, currently, we’re mostly focused on the chèvre, the bloomy rind cheeses, and our goat-milk feta, because we know how to make those really well. We do make one raw milk cheese that we have made for Chef Rick Bayless’ restaurants in Chicago for a number of years. But, I feel like if we’re gonna make hard cheeses, we have to have the right aging conditions for those cheeses. And, we have to make sure that we can take care of them well, because to make those cheeses well, it’s not only about the quality of the milk and the procedure in the vat, it really has a lot to do with the aging conditions. And our aging rooms for hard cheeses are just kind of primitive for really properly aging those cheeses up to three to four months at minimum.
Deborah Niemann 13:46
Okay. Yeah, I’ve heard that. When I was working on my first goat book, we went to a cheesemaking workshop. And, I remember the person saying that “affinage,” which is the whole aging and finishing, he’s like, “This is a whole separate school, and you can completely ruin your cheese at this point, if you don’t do it right.” So—
Leslie Cooperband 14:13
No, it’s really true. It’s humbling, because you think, “Well, you know, it’s temperature, it’s humidity, what’s the big deal?” But no. There’s a whole ecosystem on those rinds. And it’s really a matter of understanding the ecology of the rind, and how to create the favorable conditions to maintain that ecology of the rind.
Deborah Niemann 14:39
One of the things that I think is really interesting to a lot of people is selling your cheese, like you’d mentioned starting out at the farmers market. So then how did you wind up getting into stores and restaurants and things like that?
Leslie Cooperband 14:53
You know, it was really… We could never afford a salesperson or a marketing person. So, it was really just literally walking into places, or word of mouth. We did add a farmers market in Chicago; we were at the Green City Market for a number of years. And a lot of our connections to the chefs happened through the Green City Market. A lot of the chefs that were into farm to table frequented the Green City Market. And so we developed the relationships with a number of those chefs by attending that market, and selling to a couple of key cheese stores in Chicago—Pastoral was really pivotal for us for getting our name out in the Chicago area at the time.
Leslie Cooperband 15:47
At the time that we started, too, there wasn’t a lot of competition coming from Wisconsin. So the novelty of being a farmstead cheesemaker in Illinois, which is… You know, when you think about Illinois and dairy, well, a) there’s very little dairy, and it’s kind of concentrated in the northern part of the state and the southern part of the state. There’s just not much dairy going on here in Central Illinois. But then the idea of milking goats, and then you add the farmstead cheese component to it. It just… We were kind of a curiosity and a novelty, but you can’t make sales on just being a novelty after a while if your product isn’t good. So really working on the quality of our cheeses, entering our cheese in competition through the American Cheese Society, and winning some awards fairly early on, that also helped develop credibility and getting our name out. You know, really, it was really about the one-on-one relationships with those stores, with those chefs… That was how we built our reputation.
Deborah Niemann 17:01
Okay, and then, as you were starting the business and everything, or maybe even in the middle of growing the business, what was one of the big surprises that you had in terms of goats, or the business, or cheese, or what what have you?
Leslie Cooperband 17:16
Well, you know, we were both professors; we didn’t know anything about business. And we pursued this dream because of the idea of raising goats on pasture, and just a lot, you know, a lot of our ideals about how to raise livestock in a more sustainable way. And then, the attention to the quality of the milk, and the quality of the cheese, and the seasonality of the cheese… All of those things were the drivers for us, and the business part of it—the money part of it—initially was secondary. And we still had our university jobs. Mine was becoming more and more part time, but Wes was still full time. So we were a little bit cushioned by the off-farm job aspect of not having to pay too close attention to the numbers until we both completely left the university, and then the business aspect of it became paramount. And just hiring the right people to help us, having employees, managing employees, how you impart your knowledge, how you maintain food safety standards, which were becoming increasingly important. You know, we came to the realization that our initial business plan of milking 30 to 40 goats seasonally was going to be profitable… That was completely thrown out the window. We had to expand. We expanded to 50 goats. We had to upgrade our infrastructure after only three years of milking. So, everything that we had put in place turned out to be way too small for what we were trying to do. Except for the creamery. The creamery—we were still using the same creamery, but were now milking over 100 goats. So, we’re still chasing after the profitability aspect of what we do, because we don’t want to let go of our ideals in terms of the husbandry, and being certified through Animal Welfare Approved, treating our employees well… All of those things result in higher costs. So we’re still struggling with this idea of “How do you maintain profitability while still maintaining your ideals?”
Deborah Niemann 19:40
That is a really, really great question, and I think something that a lot of people don’t look at the whole thing carefully enough. I was so lucky that there was that workshop at your farm. I think it must have been, like, around 2014 or so when I went, because we were thinking we wanted to have a dairy. And the thing is, like, most people don’t think about this, like, you really can’t have a profitable business with a small number of goats. And by small, you know, that means like 30 or 40.
Leslie Cooperband 20:11
Deborah Niemann 20:11
So just to get real here: How long does it take you to milk 100 goats in the morning?
Leslie Cooperband 20:18
It take—and this includes, like, setup, cleanup—about two hours with our current… We have a 14-doe stanchion and a pipeline milking system. And that’s one person with alternating sets of inflations.
Deborah Niemann 20:36
Okay. Yeah, that’s a lot.
Leslie Cooperband 20:39
Yeah. It’s a twice a day venture. And we’re still, like, we’re really trying to hone in on, “How do we make this more efficient?” Because a lot of our labor is spent in moving hay, getting rid of waste hay, moving manure, you know, there’s a lot of stuff that’s moved from Point A to Point B to Point C. And so, one of our guys is redesigning our hay feeders, a) to make it more elevated, because goats as browsers actually like to stand on something and have their neck totally stretched out while they’re eating. That not only is it their preference, but it turns out they digest better, their rumen works better, when they eat that way. So instead of them bending their heads down, we’re redesigning our hay feeders so that they’re reaching up to get the hay. So, I mean, we’re just constantly learning and revising and trying to figure out how to shave off time to do all the various activities. It’s like, after 15 years, we have ideas about how to make this more streamlined. But we still think that the magic number isn’t even 100 goats, it’s maybe closer to 150 to 200. And, you know, as you look to what’s happening in Wisconsin with the dairy goat industry, they’re in the 1,000s. You know, there’s a dairy that just went in, I think, that’s milking 9,000 goats, which is insane to me.
Deborah Niemann 22:18
Wow. Yeah, I have a hard time even imagining what 9,000 goats would look like. Wow.
Leslie Cooperband 22:25
I know. Me too.
Deborah Niemann 22:28
So, if you could travel back in time and tell yourself something before you got started, what would it be?
Leslie Cooperband 22:36
Well, I think I would really force myself to look at the numbers, and really try to make sure that the numbers are real, and that they are leading toward some semblance of profitability. It’s not like you necessarily need to make a lot of money, but it can’t be in the red year after year. You know, unless you have decided this isn’t a business, “I’m just going to do this, and I have other income that’s going to basically pay for it.” But if it’s a business, and you’re really wanting to be sustained by it, and to sustain your employees, then really understanding the numbers is important. Or having someone who, if you’re not a numbers person—because I’m not, I’m like, “I just want to make cheese.” You know? I just, I love making cheese. I love our goats. I love the husbandry aspect of them and the challenges of trying to raise goats in a pasture setting. So, I’m not a numbers person, but having a numbers person so that you’re able to kind of see where you are in close to real time. We often… We’re only looking at our numbers towards the end of the year and coming to the realization that, “Oh my God, like, how are we gonna get through winter?” Because with a seasonal milk supply, you have two months of dry period, and you still have bills to pay over those two months. So how do you… How do you make it work so that you can sustain yourself for 12 months out of the year?
Deborah Niemann 24:17
That’s a really good piece of advice. And, I think, something that a lot of people definitely need to look at, and perhaps don’t.
Deborah Niemann 24:25
I think this is gonna be so helpful for people who have been thinking about starting a dairy. We’ve barely chipped the surface here, you know, because I know you’ve also… You’ve added gelato, and I think yogurt, and you’ve got on-farm dinners, which didn’t happen this year. So like, your whole agritourism thing is really great. And so I’d love to have you back some time to talk about some of these other things—and silvopasture. Like, you’re just doing so much cool stuff.
Leslie Cooperband 24:53
Yeah, we’re very excited about the silvopasture. And, the other piece of the profitability equation is the openness to other kinds of milk. For a while we actually brought in sheep milk, and, more recently, we’ve been working with Kilgus milk. Their Jersey milk is beautiful. And we’ve been making some mixed-milk cheeses, and now our plan is to make cow milk cheeses in January and February. And that, I believe, is part of the ticket to a more sustainable economic situation.
Deborah Niemann 25:31
Wow, that’s exciting! Well, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a lot of fun talking about this.
Leslie Cooperband 25:39
Thank you, Deborah. Yeah, it’s been fun for me, too.
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