WASHINGTON COUNTY The goats who stare at men were ready for Jeffrey Bowers.
Morning sunlight had filled the hilly pasture at Sweet Spring Farm in Argyle when Bowers and a visitor walked by the open door to the animals’ barn. The goats quietly filed out of the building and followed Bowers into the deep green.
“They consider me the herd master. They’ll follow me anywhere,” he said. “They’re very much herd animals. They really enjoy being close to one another and close to people.”
The goats will see hundreds of humans this weekend — Sweet Spring is one of five farms participating in the Washington County Cheese Tour, scheduled from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The open houses will let people learn about and sample the artisan cheeses, and see the goats, sheep and cows that supply milk for the homemade products.
“It just raises awareness of the fact we have these high-quality, locally produced products right here in the neighborhood,” said Bowers, who runs Sweet Spring and makes both raw milk and pasteurized milk cheeses with partner Milton Ilario. “And of course, for our individual farms, it’s a big promotion for each of us. It gets our name out there and exposes customers to our products.”
Other farms on the drive-yourself tour are:
- Argyle Cheese Farmer at Fairview Farm, 990 Coach Road, Argyle, which produces cows’ milk cheeses.
- Consider Bardwell Farm, 1333 Route 153, West Pawlet, Vt., a goat and cow operation.
- Homestead Artisans at Longview Farm, 177 County Route 43, Fort Edward, also goats and cows.
- 3-Corner Field Farm, 1311 County Route 64, Shushan, a sheep dairy farm.
Bowers is bullish on his goats. Marge Randles of Argyle Cheese Farmer appreciates her Holstein cows and 3-Corner Field Farm’s Karen Weinberg adores her sheep.
“We have some tips in the tour brochure and one of them says don’t pet the animals unless you’re invited to do so because sometimes they may not be as friendly as these goats,” Bowers said.
“I always invite visitors to pet the goats because I feel there’s really no danger. I don’t allow people to go into the pasture because I think that might be a little overwhelming to deal with. The goats will always go out to the fence and people can pet them.”
Bowers’ goats are pure-bred Nubians — “Cossayuna” is the herd name — with shiny brown and black coats and floppy ears. They’ll eat grass in the pasture and leaves from low tree branches. One ripped a piece of paper from a reporter’s notepad and started to chew it.
“They get very good, high-quality protein forage in the pasture — minerals too,” Bowers said. “All that leads to a nice glow of health and it shows on their coats.”
People who visit Sweet Farm can ask Bowers about the names and personalities of his livestock.
“There’s Lilly, she’s the herd queen and she’s very much a commanding presence, very regal,” he said. “And Elis, spelled the Brazilian way, she’s very, very naughty. And Sofie, she’s just playful, she wants to play all the time, jump around and run.”
Working with animals was not Bowers’ original career plan. He used to work in consumer research at Citibank in Manhattan, but was downsized out of his job in 2002. “I don’t know where the idea of goats came from, but it popped into my head,” he said. “It was just a fantasy thing to think about.”
He and Ilario bought their 105-acre farm, which dates to the 18th century, in 2004. They’ve been making cheese — herbes de provence and black pepper chevres and a Camembert-style called “White Lily” among them — since 2006.
“Goat cheese has a very tart, buttermilk-like flavor,” Bowers said. “It’s a mild cheese and it’s very suitable to a lot of applications. You can cook with it or you could just simply spread it on a cracker and eat it as a snack.”
Sweet Spring produces cheese from April through December. “At the height of my production, I produce probably about 70 kilos a week,” Bowers said.
His prime outlet is the Saratoga Farmers’ Market, where he is president of the Saratoga Farmers’ Market Association. Buyers can also find him at Garden Works and Sheldon Farms Market, both in Salem, and the Cambridge Food Co-op. A 4-ounce round of plain chevre costs $4. An 8-ounce plastic tub is $7.75.
“I would like to get into the Greenmarket in Schenectady, but they don’t have room for me,” he said. “Hopefully one day I’ll be there. I’m also considering going to New York City next year.”
Buyers are not hard to find. Bowers said the demand for artisan cheeses has been rising for the past five years.
“It really drives around people wanting to know the providence of their food,” he said, “where it came from, what happened to it along the way and what’s in it, basically.”
Doing the numbers
Marge Randles knew about numbers before she knew about cheese curds.
“I’m a trained accountant, tax practitioner and financial planner,” she said, taking a break outside the cheese-making room of her Argyle Cheese Farmer operation. “For 20 years, I did taxes and financial planning for small businesses and a lot of farms. It became pretty evident to me as I watched things change that there wasn’t going to be a place for farms our size in the future.”
Marge’s husband, Dave, and his brother Will own the 225-acre Fairview Farm. Starting a cheese business, Marge Randles said, was a way to generate new funds and support two families. Cheese helped solve a vexing financial situation for a dairy farmer.
“If you’re selling to the wholesaler, which 99.9 percent of the farmers do around here, the price is set and you have no control on that side of the financial statement,” Randles said. “But yet, you have to deal with all the expenses on the other side.” That’s the production side of a dairy business, and production costs often rise.
Making cheese allows Randles to set her own prices for the Havarti, mozzarella, cheddars, yogurt and cheese curds made in her small factory. “Caerphilly,” a semi-firm, aged cheese with Welsh roots, is also stocked in Randles’ cool cheese room. People are buying, at prices that range from $8 to $20 per pound.
“We didn’t realize the market that was out there, the interest there was in local foods,” she said. “We caught the wave just at the right moment. If we had tried to do this 10 years ago, I don’t think it would have gone.”
Argyle Cheese Farmer only uses about 15 percent of the 1 million pounds of milk produced annually by 55 Holsteins at the Randles’ farm. They deal with processor Dairylea Cooperative, and their milk from Washington County is sold in the Boston market.
Like Bowers, Randles said people who take the cheese tour want to see how their foods move from farm field to dinner table. “They love to know about the cows, they want to know how you make different cheeses with the same material,” she said. “They like to see the equipment. We open up our make room so they walk in. Dave talks to them and walks them through. I think they enjoy talking to Dave because he’s an authentic farmer.”
Argyle Cheese Farmer products are sold at farmers’ markets in Saratoga Springs, Troy and Glens Falls, the Four Seasons Natural Foods store in Saratoga Springs and the Cambridge co-op. Like Bowers, Randles does not sell at the Schenectady market.
“Schenectady is on a Sunday, and we try to keep Sunday for rest and worship,” she said, “although we milk cows at both ends of the day.”
Karen Weinberg is glad to give people a trivia answer about sheep’s milk.
“A lot of people don’t even know you can milk sheep,” she said, walking a field of green at the 3-Corner Field Farm she runs in the Battenkill Valley with her husband, Paul Borghard, and daughters Emily and Zoe, “even though they’ve been milked for thousands of years, just like goats. It’s just much less common here in the U.S.
“There’s a tradition behind it,” Weinberg added. “In a lot of countries that are very old, whether it’s Europe or North Africa or Bulgarian countries, they couldn’t support cows because of their topography and climate. They always had goats and sheep, and that milk would be used for cheese making.”
She said there are only five sheep dairies in New York, maybe 75 in the whole country. The 3-Field outfit, which includes 120 East Friesian milking sheep, has been producing raw and pasteurized milk cheeses on site since 2004. Weinberg and Borghard bought the farm, which dates to the 1840s, in 1990.
“We had an opportunity to live in France a few years,” Weinberg said. “We ate a lot of sheep’s milk cheese . . . their culture appreciates artisan food. We thought, ‘Now we’re getting a little closer to what we would like to do.’ ”
Between 20 and 25 new lambs — about 325 are born at the farm each year — are annually added to the milking flock. Others are sold for meat, and the same thing happens with some of Bowers’ goats. Weinberg’s business plan also includes markets for raw wool and sheepskin.
“They’re lovely animals,” she said. “They’re gentle, they’re inquisitive, but they’re also a little skittish. You have to learn how to be around them because they can be easily frightened since they have no means of defense.”
The sheep herders have figured out ways to keep their staffers in serene moods.
“We don’t raise our voices, we move slowly,” Weinberg said. “They react to things that are different, so we try and keep situations the same, especially when they’re being milked.”
The sheep are milked twice a day, morning and early evening, May to October. Daughter Zoe, 15, is in charge for most sessions, attaching milking hoses to each udder.
“The milk itself is more nutritional, ounce for ounce, than other milks,” Weinberg said. “There’s less of it, but it’s got twice the protein and about 50 percent more calcium and about twice the fat of, say, cow’s milk. It’s milder than goat’s milk, it’s sort of nutty and sweet tasting. It’s almost a little bit, especially at the time of year, the consistency of a half-and-half. So when you make cheese from it, ounce for ounce, you get more cheese than you do from cow’s milk or goat’s milk.”
Cheese lovers who visit Shushan will see a riccota-making demonstration at noon on Saturday and Sunday. They’ll see sheep in the pasture, the milking parlor and get the chance to taste cheese like the camembert-style Shushan Snow and the Basque-style Battenkill Brebis. Weinberg also makes yogurt — her products are available mostly in New York City-area markets and restaurants.
She also wants people to get a taste of rural life, farm life. “So when people are stuck behind that manure truck or stuck behind a tractor, they maybe have a little bit more understanding of what it takes to keep the agricultural community vibrant, to support agriculture in this area,” she said.