Mid-July, just as the heat was becoming really beastly in Boston, I headed north on 1-95 to Maine, its ocean breezes, and a saltwater goat dairy farm. A life-long city-dweller who never quite got her getting-a-drivers-license ducks in a row, it wasn’t me in the drivers’ seat: my friend Betsy drove, while I stared out the window and snacked.
General competence and the ability to drive weren’t the only clues that Betsy was going to be a natural once we reached our destination: she’s also a former Cheesemaker, and she lives on a farm in the Berkshires (along with some very charming pigs, cows, and chickens!)
Our destination was Steuben, Maine’s Painted Pepper Farm, where we were to learn about goat farming, goat herding, goat dairy processing, and the general running of a farm from Farmer Lisa Reilich. We drove slowly up the coast toward Steuben, windows down, radio on, stopping for lobster rolls in Portland, Me and for ice cream (Moose Tracks, of course) a couple hours later, somewhere along the highway.
When we finally arrived at Painted Pepper, after rumbling up a winding dirt driveway, our welcoming committee was composed of two white dogs, one massive and ambling, a big dog who turned out to be the resident chicken-protector, one tiny and vocal, whose main purpose in life seemed to be snuggling and chasing barn cats, a couple curious chickens, and the distant bleating of goats. The air was salty, the trees tall, old, and very respectable; the barn, as promised, a kindly red. Most exciting, of course, were the goats. Back in their barn home after a day of free-range herding, the goats were nibbling on grain, butting each other merrily, and sleeping curled up with one another on the wood-chip covered floor.
Our first morning at Painted Pepper began at 6:00am sharp, when Betsy and I rolled out of our sleeping bags in our small, wooden apprentice cabin. She headed to the cheese room for a goat’s milk yoghurt making lesson, and I groggily pulled on my overalls for a morning of cleaning out stalls, feeding baby goats, and collecting free-range chicken eggs.
It was great to feel my muscles ache from raking hay and mucking stalls rather than from sitting at a desk or hunching over a computer for too long. Taking on such an active morning without my usual ginormous mug of coffee was a bit less pleasant, although early morning manual labor is a pretty good caffeine subsitutite. Later on that day, after a breakfast of the eggs I had just collected and spicy farm grown garlic scrapes (eaten with a heartier appetite than I was used to having in the a.m.), we were introduced to what quickly became my favorite farm chore: goat herding.
Goat herding, although a bit hard to describe, is a easily one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever done. Your aim when herding is both to sort of blend in with the goat group, and also to establish your dominance as leader of the pack, a dominance you use if the goats start going somewhere they’re not allowed, or try to head back to their cozy barn earlier than you want them to.
Your main objective is to see to it that the goats to eat as many different leaves, trees, flowers, ferns, grasses, and seaweeds as possible. The more variety in their diet the better, and if herding is done right, the goats will get all the vitamins and nutrients they need straight from the forest and the seashore.
This is the general theory and goal behind goat herding. In practice, what happens is that you head into the woods in your overalls, swatting mosquitos, and likely kind of doing some sort of strange combination of singing/humming/talking to the goats, who are excitedly following you. Eventually, you get deep into the woods, maybe even bushwhack down to the ocean, and then you just kind of sit down on a rock or a clump of moss, and let the goats do their thing.
Which is to say, eat. Eat way more than you ever thought possible, for such a slender and often graceful animal. Eat so diligently and so steadily that eventually the sound of their chewing becomes as much part of the sound of the forest as the chirping of birds and the humming of mosquitos. This lasts as long as the goats stay hungry. Which, again, is longer than you might expect. Think of a goat herd as a swim team: surprisingly hungry, and able to eat steadily for quite a long time.
What, exactly, is the point of bringing the goats out into the woods, and encouraging them to eat all this foliage? The simple answer is that a diverse, foraged diet means healthy goats, and healthy goats are not only happier animals, but also better producers of tastier, more nutritious milk. And the goat’s milk is really the star of Painted Pepper farm, and every other goat dairy farm. It is this milk that is used to produce almost everything the farm sells: yoghurt, gelato, fudge, and cheese.
All of these finished products are made in a series of intricate and exact steps in Painted Pepper Farm’s dairy processing room, an immaculately clean space off the families’ kitchen, into which all the milk goes after the morning and evening milkings. Many of these products are then sold by Lisa herself and her family at local Maine farmer’s markets.
Living on Painted Pepper Farm: beautiful, grueling (especially for coffee-loving night owls like me – perhaps less so for morning glories like Betsy?), smelly (male goats are known for peeing on themselves, and are thus particularly stinky), heart-wrenching (a sick baby goat, particularly, kept me up at night), relaxing (think sitting on a rock overlooking the ocean while goats prance around you and try to eat your shirt), long (5:30am-10pm, some days), and so very, very interesting (especially to this city girl). Eating goat cheese will never be the same.