Northern Vermont has always had a special appeal to the rugged among us. Winters there are not casual; one has to be prepared for isolation, cold, self-reliance. Good jobs are not plentiful. Besides the school and town, employers tend to be small and frugal. Yet the benefits of settling there are many. Land is relatively less expensive than it is farther south, and the less attractive marks of civilization – power lines, billboards, railyards, strip malls, pipelines – are fewer and farther between.
It was to Bakersfield, about an hour northeast of Burlington, that George and Kristin Van Vlaanderen turned in 1997. They had just finished grad school in the University of Maine Sustainable Agriculture program in Orono, Kristin’s family was from Fletcher, the town next door, and 130 acres of mostly hillside, wooded land was available for a price that wouldn’t break the bank. They had a dream.
“We had decided on goat cheese way back then,” George recalls. “We knew nothing about farming or goats or cheese making when we started, but we had taken agriculture courses (laughs). We identified Burlington as our main prospective market and decided to look for land within an hours drive from Burlington.”
They moved the yurt they had lived in at school on the land and set up housekeeping. In the early years they made use of their masters degrees by teaching school while building the goat cheese business.
“For the first 5 to 6 years we didn’t make any money on the farm,” sighs George. “It was so complex – making a product, managing the goats and the pastures, marketing. You know, it is infinitely complex and getting a handle on it, especially the financial part of it, is hard. Our production efficiency wasn’t very good – it took us a long time to make a product. The product has always been very good, but our cheese has improved since we started out. We have always had high quality milk. But the nuances of producing a product economically and productively and getting it to market in a profitable way are complex. And they make such a big difference.
“It is an ongoing process, learning,” he continues. “We made a ton of mistakes. We rebuilt our entire cheese facility because we didn’t do it correctly the first time. We didn’t understand the functions! Our cheese room used to be half of what it is now. And our goats were housed in the other half! When we got ready to do it right we increased the size of our cheese room and thought a lot about flow so all our products come out and go right into the fridge, and then we back our truck or car up here for deliveries.”
In addition to the 130 forested acres they bought initially, five years ago the couple picked up a small farm next door and added its 25 acres, plus a farmhouse which now houses their employee. That new acreage, plus 10 or 15 more acres which they rent, is open land, enabling them to begin making their own hay.
Finding the right mix of land for their operation is a challenge for George and Kristin. Most of their original land is still forested. George logs it with horses in the winter and sells saw logs besides putting up 20 to 30 cords of firewood for themselves. Generally he leaves the stumps in so as to not disturb the soil profile. In 10 or 15 years they rot anyway, he says. The coppicing stumps create good browse for a few years, as well. George uses pigs to help clear land he timbers. The animals have relatively small paddocks and are moved every 5 to 7 days. They help renovate a lot of the more marginal land by depositing their manure. The couple then goes through with a chain harrow to smooth the manure and then seed the area.
Getting the mix right between grass and browse is not easy.
“Seventy to eighty percent of our goats’ diet is from grazing,” George states. “The balance is grain. Of course in the winter that 70 to 80% is hay, although in the summer they get no hay at all. They rely then on grass and browse. Most goat dairies have a lot more confinement and just a few acres of pasture. But we probably have about 50 acres between browse and hay. Maybe we have 40 acres of really open land, and 25 of that we make hay from.
“In general you can say that goats are browsers,” Van Vlaanderen continues. “But we found that they really like variety, which is what we manage for. So for us that includes browse and straight grass. We have different paddocks and it is a constant management thing to shift them around depending on the temperature, how much shade is in a paddock, what we feel they might need. If we put them on grass straight through they would, of course, eat it. But they would get bored and go for browse if they could.”
The pair don’t ever plant forage. They have straight grass meadows from which they take hay. But the browse areas are full of saplings, raspberries, goldenrod, forbs, whatever comes up. George and Kristin have to be careful not to overgraze a pasture because the goats will kill the browse, eventually, and transform it to grass. So they manage their pastures accordingly. Since the goats have preferences for certain plants, and will tend to eat those things, they are kept in small paddocks.
“We use portable net fencing within the perimeter of high tensile fencing,” George explains, “so we can make paddocks on demand. They are not fixed. Depending on the time of year and the stocking density it changes the size of a paddock. We use poultry manure and spread lime, of course, for fertility. And we compost our manure and use that.”
When the Van Vlaanderens started selling cheese they hadn’t yet figured out what their best markets were. They tried everything. They started off doing 4 or 5 farmers markets, but found that the fees and time involved were not always a wise investment. They also signed on with a distributor in Vermont and New Hampshire, Black River Produce. While the company did a nice job for them, it was painful to sell wholesale when the margin took almost half the value off the top of the sale.
“While selling through Black River,” recounts George, “we were also continuing to do our own distribution locally to stores and restaurants in Burlington. But we found that we couldn’t meet the demand for both. In 2007 or 2008 we decided to make the break from Black River. Our goal was to move all of our milk into the Burlington area.”
But when they dropped distribution by Black River, the pair found demand was sometimes not enough to take all their cheeses. Rather than come up with new cheese varieties, they thought a better strategy would be to develop another, non-competitive product using their milk. So instead of coming up with new and different varieties of cheese they decided to make goat milk kefir. People were more likely, they thought, to buy a cheese and some kefir than to buy two cheeses.
“Now we wholesale both cheese and kefir to City Market and Healthy Living,” Van Vlaanderen explains, “which are in Burlington and South Burlington, respectively. They are natural food stores. Then we do a dozen or so restaurants in the Burlington area for the cheese. We do a few other, smaller stores. Maybe 40% of our sales go wholesale to stores and restaurants. Maybe 30% we sell through the Burlington farmers market, our only farmers market. Then the balance we sell through CSAs. Our cheeses are an add-on, which people can choose to have put in their bag on a regular basis as either a weekly or bi-weekly share of cheese.
“This is a real trend in Vermont, now,” he continues. “People can get breads and eggs, too, from different producers. It is good for the CSA because they can offer a variety of products, and it is certainly good for us. The CSA gets roughly 10% of the retail price, so it is better than wholesale for us. The customers get the ‘cheese of the week’ so we can move our inventory that way. The customer pays a little less than they would in a store.”
As a result of the process of analyzing the best strategy for distributing their products, George and Kristin paid a lot of attention to how they used their time. They found that transporting product outside of Burlington was a real costly idea.
“We only deliver to the Burlington area, now,” George says. “If there is a CSA outside Burlington that wants our cheese they have to pick it up at the Burlington farmers market. We have several farms that do that. It takes time and money for us to expand our delivery area.”
Another time sink was weighing and packaging wholesale cheese. While the CSA cheeses are individually packaged, stores and restaurants buy Does Leap soft cheeses in bulk and repackage them with labels supplied by the pair. George feels that being careful about these little uses of their time have made a big difference in their efficiency.
The couple started out with Nubian goats which, George suggests, are kind of like the Jerseys of the goat world with the milk full of butterfat and protein. But they soon moved to Alpines which have lower fat and protein but have higher overall production. Alpines have worked out much better for Does Leap. They are much hardier and at the end of the day produce more cheese.
The farm milks about 50 does a year, keeps 2 bucks, and raises 8 to 10 kids per year as replacement does.
The kids gets goat milk for 8 to 12 weeks after birth and are then bred at about 8 months.
Goats have a five month gestation period. Once bred in the fall, a doe is normally milked for three months, then cut off for two winter months, and the cycle starts over in the spring with kidding.
George says the farm’s breeding schedule does not follow this pattern, however: “We do extended lactations on half our herd each year. We don’t breed them at all one year but keep milking them for the equivalent of two lactations, sometimes more. Then, the next year, we alternate. So half the herd we breed in the fall and let them freshen in early March. Thus we are not totally seasonal but keep a limited cash flow coming in throughout the winter, and keep our products on the shelves year round. This gives us continuity. Also, we don’t have to deal with more kids being born than we can use. It takes a goat a lot less energy to have an extended lactation compared to having offspring. So their body condition is really good when they do freshen. Rather than being bred every year, they are set up for a really good lactation.”
Does Leap kids are separated right after birth, but do drink goat milk. It is pasteurized before they get it, however, because the farm is on a caprine arthritis encephalitis (CAE) prevention program. CAE is a viral infection that is very prevalent in goats and is just starting to be recognized as something that commercial dairies should be aware of. Some of the farm’s early goats had positive CAE tests, but showed no clinical signs of arthritic conditions. Nevertheless, that is why the kids are separated at birth and given pasteurized milk – to help control the disease.
The farm has a “double four” milking parlor system that enables one person to milk 8 goats at a time. The goats come into a central pen then, attracted by a scoop of grain, enter the parlor through an inside door. The milker has a device enabling him or her to milk two goats on each side.
“We are pretty busy,” George asserts, “prepping, dipping, stripping, and wiping them, then putting the machine on two of them before we then go to two over on the other side to do the same. We used to go with just a straight four, but having a double four has hugely increased our efficiency. Many dairies go with a straight eight, rather than a double four. But that is much less efficient because you have to get all 8 goats up and done before you let them out and bring new ones in. But one person can handle a double four, if he or she is moving – you prep them, do the iodine dip, strip them, wipe them, get machines on two, go over to the next side and do the same thing so you are milking four of them, then you do the next and also get grain ready for the next set, transfer the machines over, let this group out and bring the next ones in.”
The does get a fresh paddock of grass and browse at least every 12 hours, after every milking. The bucks have a separate grazing operation. In the summer the does aren’t cycling and the sexes can be kept together in a paddock. But in the late summer or fall they have to be kept apart. The bucks will hop fences to get at the does and have to be kept in the barn and fed hay. The kids are managed separately, too, to keep them from nursing and possibly perpetuating CAE.
Goat cheese is made pretty much like other cheeses, says George: “There are different styles with goat cheese, but the process is the same: you heat the milk up, add bacteria and rennet, process the curd in various ways depending on the style of cheese. There is as much variability between goat cheeses as between goat and cow cheese. Culture and rennet, plus the time it ages make all the difference.
“Our biggest seller is chévre,” he continues, “which is a soft, spreadable, fresh goat cheese. It is cultured for a 24 hour period, strained for another 24 hours, then packed. In contrast, we do a couple of raw milk hard cheeses that are cultured and renneted in a four hour period, then are put in a mold where they don’t mature for 2 to 6 months. So each cheese has its own process. A raw milk cheese needs to be aged at least 60 days. We don’t pasteurize for hard cheeses because the raw milk flavor is so much better than those made from pasteurized milk. Raw milk is a better product. There is also a lot less time and energy for using raw milk. It takes four hours to pasteurize a big batch of milk like that.”
Between the fresh and the aged, Does Leap makes a Camembert, which is aged about three weeks. That has to be pasteurized, of course. They measure out and package the cheese by hand. They sell chévre, their most profitable variety, in 5 pound packs, feta in 3 pounds, and also do 5 gallon buckets of chévre.
The hard cheeses are seasonal. In the winter the farm has more milk than later in the season because the markets are better in the summer – the CSA, farmers market and seasonal restaurant demand all factor in– so George and Kristin use some of the winter raw milk to start cheeses that will be ready in the summer.
George is proud that their goat operation and cheeses are organic, but is not sure the market cares that much: “We certify our cheese because we believe in organic agriculture, but I’m not sure the majority of consumers care too much if it is organic. It is not that big a deal for them. It is now important to be local. Hopefully some day it will come around to being local and organic!
Does Leap kefir is not certified, but only because they use a pectin that is not approved for organic products. George feels that the pectin, a thickening agent which comes from citrus peels, makes a nice thick product. It is possible to make a cow’s milk kefir without pectin, he says, but not a goat’s milk one. They spent a lot of time experimenting with organic pectins, but were unable to find one that satisfied them.
I asked Van Vlaanderen if many of their kefir customers were attracted to it because of problems digesting cow’s milk. He didn’t think that was the case, however.
“They just try our kefir and love it,” he said”. “It is competitively priced, about the same as Jack’s [Jack Lazor, a nearby farmer’s cow milk kefir]. Our plain kefir retails for $5.00 a quart, the maple for maybe $5.50. When you compare organic kefirs I don’t think we are that far off from Jack’s prices. Maybe he does pints and we do quarts. I don’t know exactly.”
Besides the kefir, George and Kristin have developed one other product which is a natural for a cheese making dairy farm – sausage. Sausage is the solution to three of their problems. One was the need to make more income from their participation in the Burlington Farmers Market, one was the need to market their goat culls, and the third was the need for using their whey, a cheese making byproduct.
“The sausage is some from culled goats,” he explains. “We process all them that way. But mostly it is from our pigs. We raise 26 or so pigs a year on our whey. I do three or four sausages from pork, and one from goats. The bulk of the sausage we serve is pork. The original purpose was to sell sausage from our goat culls, but when I started putting sausage on the grill at the farmers market it started selling well. So it is a business of its own. I get a nice crusty bun from a local baker and a local sauerkraut. People just love them. I haven’t had to give out a sample of sausage ever.”
The animals are slaughtered at an inspected state facility, as is required by state law. But the meat is frozen and shipped back to the farm where the Van Vlaanderens built a processing plant to make the sausage Their license covers their taking an inspected cut and processing it into sausage.
“I grew up in New York city,” George recalls, “eating great sausages from Italian delis. We had our sausage here made at first by a commercial butcher. It was fine, but they used dried spice packs and made it in huge batches. People liked it fine, but I knew it could be better. So I started experimenting with my own recipes with fresh herbs. I’m super careful about keeping everything really, really cool. That is a big part of sausage quality. So all of my equipment is frozen before I use it and the meat and fat that I grind is right at 33 degrees. The quality is great.”
The couple had 26 pigs last year, raised from feeder pigs purchased throughout the winter and spring. They are not ready to get a sow and boar and start their own breeding operation year round, however, and have been unable to find a source of certified organic piglets for their operation, so the sausage is not organic despite the fact that the pigs eat only organic grain. They are slaughtered in batches of 6 or 7 animals starting in the spring and continuing in 6 week intervals throughout the summer in order to serve Burlington’s 25 Saturday markets from May thru October. Seventy-five percent of the pork goes to sausage for sale at the farmers market (last year they sold about 2700 pounds of sausage there) with the rest sold as retail cuts.
All the whey for the pigs is gravity fed to a 55 gallon tank at the barn, and then pumped a quarter mile to wherever the pigs are. They have a moveable house, a grain feeder, and a whey feeder with two nipples. Since a cheese’s yield is anywhere from 10 to 20% of the milk used, there is a lot of whey left, which is perfect for pigs.
One of the ways in which the Van Vlaanderen’s operation shows most clearly the careful attention to detail they bring to it is their use of dogs. They have three breeds of dogs, each ideally suited for the particular job they do on the farm.
“We have a Maremma guard dog for protection for the goats,” George explains, “two border collies to herd, and a Jack Russell for rodent control. The Marrema bonds with whatever livestock you have. The breed is from northern Italy and I think primarily were used with sheep. Ours never leaves the goats — she lives with them in the barn. If you came down here alone she would challenge you. They can be quite aggressive. We used to have a Great Pyranees that was getting older and we actually lost four goats to coyotes. The Pyranees are much more domesticated that these Marremas, I think. Anatolian Shepherds are also good. We found our Maremma in New Hampshire. She has been incredible. Coyotes are our main predator but we haven’t had any losses since then.
“The border collies,” he continues, “herd goats but are also good at getting pigs back in their fencing if one gets out. They are absolutely essential. I don’t think we could do what we do without them! And of course wherever there is feed there are rats, so the Jack Russell is invaluable.”
The dogs stay in with George and Kristin at night, except for the Maremma, who is always with the goats. She never comes inside. If they are all outside, George says, they get to barking together and the cacophony is too much. So the others come in at night.
Van Vlaanderen loves horses and has four of them for various purposes around the farm. The main team is composed of two bay Percheron-Belgian crosses. Then there is a Paint-Percheron cross as a relief worker, and a black Canadian which Kristin and their daughter like to ride.
“The horses fit in well with our grazing situation,” George explains. “Parasites are a problem with goats, and they mostly reside in the first two inches of the grass. So part of our strategy is to size the paddocks so the goats aren’t forced to graze real tight and can just top graze. We then bring in the four horses as kind of the clean-up crew. They follow the goats and bring the grass down more. Horses and goats are each dead-end hosts for each other’s parasites, so it works well. We used beef cattle for years for that same function.
“I’m a huge proponent of draft animal power for small farms,” he continues, “but our main reason for having them is that I love horses, I don’t like working on a tractor! But if you take hay, I have maybe $2500 invested in all my haying equipment. The horse drawn mowers are from the 1940s, I have ground-driven rakes and an old baler. But they produce the equivalent of $5000 of hay per year. If you compare that to tractor drawn equipment, rotary rakes and so forth, you can’t get those economics. The scale of horsepower is very appropriate for small farms.”
He logged with a winch for years, but says he can log more efficiently with a team of horses than with a tractor and a winch. The hot water for the pasteurizer and the entire facility is heated by wood. All that is harvested with the horses!
George feels that their business is at a really good spot.
“A big mistake in a lot of cheese operations,” he warns, “is to grow, get more employees, more distribution, a bigger facility. I think you can get in trouble in that middle area, unless you get really big. My personal theory is that you have to have relatively low volume and high margin, or the opposite – high volume and low margin. That means be relatively small with your own distribution, or pretty big. That is not to say that you can’t be profitable in the middle area. But I think from an economic standpoint that is a tougher spot. We’re avoiding that by staying at a size where we can manage it ourselves, mostly. We’re profitable, we live comfortably, and there is no real reason to change that.
“Of course we were at that point 4 or 5 years ago,” he admits, “and I decided to add the sausage component on, just because it interested me. And I may continue to have side projects. But I think we are at a fairly good size. So we don’t aspire to become bigger so much as to become better managers in a finer system. When we started we were one of the first small scale cheesemakers in Vermont. There were a handful of others around, but very few. There was one other goat cheese operation, I believe, at that time. Now I think Vermont has the highest number of cheesemakers, per capita, in the country. So there is competition and it increases. Am I worried about it? Not particularly. I think we have a really good product and a dedicated clientele.”