Our goal was to set up a small cheese making operation on our 200-acre farm, using milk from our own herd of goats and from neighboring goats and cows. By adding value to our farm products we can show that staying on the farm is a viable option for fellow small producers.
In 1995 we planted our entire acreage to native grasses. This can be grazed or mowed, but never plowed and planted in crops. We felt the farm needed to pay for itself, so we explored several options. We began an on-farm bakery business in 1997, selling bread at area farmers markets along with garden produce. The food connection eventually led to cheese. Goats being much easier to handle than cows, we decided to buy a few to try milking and making cheese. We’ve taken advantage of our bread customers to test-market cheese and found enthusiastic positive responses. People like to buy local, especially when they can talk directly with the producer and get answers to any production questions they might have.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
While this project has certainly entailed more money and time than we had projected, we are well on our way and totally committed to our goal. Some grant funds will not be needed until we have full licensing, such as lab testing fees and printing expenses. Following is a breakdown of major expenses incurred so far. Not all of these were included in the grant. More information is attached. As you can see, we have exceeded our estimated contribution considerably.
• Increased milking herd from 5 to 20 – purchase of animals and breeding costs………….$525.00
• Fencing …………………………..2073.00
• Build cheese making facility…………8000.00
• Build barn ………………………..1643.00
• Purchase used cheese making equip…….7000.00
• Purchase 2 milking stands, misc. milking equipment…………………………….727.00
• Install cistern and septic system ……2800.00
• Grant funds to lease 52-gal. cheese vat 2850.00
• Additional funds to lease cheese vat….1950.00
• Shelter for milking …………………700.00
Some of these expenses were unforeseen. For example, fencing that kept in 5 goats proved inadequate for 20, and an old barn that housed them, we soon realized, would not work for long. We had planned to pipe water from the house to the cheese making facility but determined it would be easier to have a totally separate system. The used cheese making equipment came from a nearby plant that relocated. Most producers would already have buildings, and probably fencing. We’ve talked to several other cheese makers who have converted existing structures (such as garages) for cheese making. This would make star-up easier, cheaper and faster.
Fresh cheeses, while entailing the considerable expense of a pasteurizer, are versatile and easy to sell. They can be ready to sell within 48 hours of milking and so provide much needed cash flow right from the start. Aged cheeses ensure the availability of a product year-round. We have approached several chefs and specialty food retailers who have then contacted us to inquire how they might be able to buy our products.
We use the internet extensively to research all aspects of this operation. So much information is readily available from so many sources, private and public. We’ve made contact with several other cheese makers and gleaned technical and practical advice from them. We’ve visited some of them and toured their facilities to get ideas on how to set up our own. Their marketing successes and failures provide much helpful information. Especially because of our location in a comparatively sparsely populated area, we intend to make optimal use of our website to provide information and sell our product. We would definitely encourage any potential producer to make full use of the web at all stages of planning and implementation.
Our bakery has given us quite a bit of useful experience to apply to the cheese operation. We’ve learned how to package a product attractively, how to entice a reluctant buyer, how to deal with occasional dissatisfied customers, how to comply with regulations, inspectors, and suppliers, how to develop new products, and most importantly, not to be intimidated by the unknown.
The economic impact of our project is yet to be determined. This year (2006) we milked twelve does. In 2007 we will be milking about 20 does and expect to make up to 20 lbs. of fresh cheese per day. We would prefer to sell mostly fresh cheese since the cash return is so much better. We have proposed a stepped approach to retailers to allow a lower price for larger quantities, but farmers market sales will net the best return at $12-15/lb.
As expected, this project has involved most of our family. Our sons help with feeding, handling and milking the goats, fencing, construction, and markets. Our oldest daughter will help with market sales and website maintenance. Even our 7-year-old helps out with milking and feeding kids. Gordon has done all of the construction and repairs. Joan makes the cheese, is responsible for designing and producing print materials and labels, ordering supplies and generally overseeing the whole operation.
There isn’t much negative environmental impact from 20 goats. What’s cleaned from the barn is composted and added to our garden. We’ve fenced about 5 acres into 3 pastures. They are on pasture as long as possible, usually April to November. Their winter feed consists of corn from the local elevator and hay from our 200 acres of grass. The pasturing aspect is an important selling point. We’re investigating organic certification as this would help ensure the best possible price for our products, as well as open some additional sales possibilities.
Since we’re not fully operational yet (we’ll be applying for licenses and permits this winter), we have no concrete outreach to report. We have a website (ciderhillfarm.com) and will be formatting that to sell cheese. We plan to host an open house next summer or fall and will send invitations to existing and potential customers, local bankers and agribusiness personnel, extension agents, local dairymen, and SDSU dairy department personnel. Announcements will go to local TV and papers.
Through contacts at farmers markets, associations with local chefs, and people met through Gordon’s RN job at Sioux Valley Hospital in Sioux Falls, we have spoken to many people who have expressed interest in this project. Some are farmers who used to milk cows and could easily make the transition to goats, or to fewer cows for a more specialized market. Some already are milking goats, most just so they can show them. They are definitely interested in a market for the milk that they now dump. We always invite these people to visit our farm to see what we’ve done and where we’re headed. Right now we’re set to become the first licensed farmstead goat cheese facility in South Dakota and that is a label we can definitely use to our advantage.