Monday, February 7, 2011

South Dakota ‘Goat Lady’ Wants Everybody to Say Cheese!

Source: The Brookings Register
BY: Vicki Schuster

Joan Williams of Arlington demonstrates how goat milk is pasteurized to make a soft cheese called chèvre.

There’s an extra dozen kids – give or take one or two – running around Joan and Gordon Williams’ farm these days.

They aren’t human – they’re the “goat kind” of kids, a mixed herd of Alpine and Saanen dairy goats.

They’re there because Joan Williams has a dream – a cheesy dream.

Over the past decade, Joan has been adding to her herd of goats at the family farm southwest of Sinai in hopes of making and marketing chèvre – a creamy, tart cheese made from goat milk.

Being creative and ambitious by nature, Joan was turned on to the idea of starting a goat-cheese business after watching an episode of the “Martha Stewart Show” that featured small U.S. cheese producers.

“It just kind of looked like fun,” she says. “So (my husband and I) found some goats, and I started playing around with my idea.”

What she makes is called farmstead or artisanal cheese, which means that the cheese is made from the milk of animals on the property. Joan says her goats provide the milk not only for fresh chèvre (which is French for “goat”) but feta, crottins, St. Maure and other varieties.

Looking out the window of her bakery and smiling at the sight of her 20 hoofed friends (many of whom have been born on her farm), she says she couldn’t be more than satisfied with her career choice.

The bakery, by the way, is another part of the couple’s well-known Cider Hill Farm business.

The Williams family started Cider Hill, now a 120-acre produce operation, about 14 years ago when Joan wanted to find a way to make a living and stay home with her kids (the human kind). She had run a small graphic design company in Sioux Falls, but her yearning to return to the house and area where she grew up brought her back to Brookings County. (The farm’s location is usually given as Arlington.)

“We had little kids at the time, and I was looking for something to do that allowed me to stay home with them,” she says.

Inspired by trips to France, Joan began baking bread to sell at area outlets.

“I started out with gardening and going to farmers’ markets and very quickly decided that was too short of a season, so I expanded into bread.”

The bakery has taken off like wildfire. She bakes at least 300 loaves a week – and as many as 100-200 loaves a day during her summer “busy season.” In all, Joan has about 19 artisanal varieties from which to choose.

“If I had my way, I’d spend all day making sourdough,” she jokes.

She uses locally produced ingredients in her breads whenever possible, giving preference to organic items.

She also makes pies, lefse, scones, caramel rolls and cookies and bars.

She added “80-proof pies” to her line in 2009. She jokes that she was “unable to find lard that doesn’t taste like bicycle grease,” so she had to find a replacement recipe for her mom’s never-fail pie crust.

Another product the company markets that customers can’t seem to get enough of is a tasty wood-fired pizza. (Gordon and Joan even haul their wood-fired pizza oven to special community events.)

Cider Hill now has outlets not only in nearby Brookings, but in Madison and Sioux Falls, and the Williamses even sell products at the farm.

Lots of Red Tape

Implementing the cheese and milk into her business has been a slow and gradual process, Joan says. The demands that come with raising five (human) kids, her bread sales and “government red tape” have slowed her down.

About eight years ago, she got a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant to help underwrite some of the costs of developing her cheese operation. She said there isn’t really a lot of farmstead cheese being made in South Dakota, so the state is working on the criteria for her licensure. Currently, Dimock Dairy Cooperative in Dimock is the state’s lone producer of artisanal cheese, distributing its product in a five-state area.

“(The S.D. Department of Agriculture) doesn’t quite know what to do with me,” says Joan. “It seems like every time I’m ready to start selling, they throw something new at me. Hopefully, by the summer they’ll give us the OK.”

But she will wait patiently. Joan, who happens to be a Brookings Farmer’s Market vendor, is keeping her fingers crossed that she will be selling cheese by May 1.

In the meantime, to help her business remain successful, the whole family pitches in. When husband Gordon, a registered nurse, isn’t helping dialysis patients at the Brookings hospital, he takes charge of daily farm operations such as maintaining equipment and feeding the goats.

Over the years, the family’s noticed that the animals have a “real personality” to them. “Yeah, if you walk by them and don’t say something to them, they give you this look like they’re almost mad at you,” says Gordon.

No More Chickens, Cows

At one time, the family had chickens and tried cows, but Joan says it was “more than we wanted on our plates.”

Her son, Zach, 23, does most of the milking of the goats, once a day using a vacuum pump. Son Andrew, 11, helps take care of the goats, too. Max, 21, makes wood-fired pizzas and takes them, along with her breads into Brookings.

Daughters Anna, 32, and Molly, 28, have left the farm, but in the past helped with production and marketing.

During the summer, which is Joan’s busiest time of the year, she also employs two part-time helpers.

Although phasing in the goat milk and cheese operation has been a gradual thing, Joan has been able to make some money in the meantime off “Billy and Nanny.” A change in state law last year has enabled her to get a license to sell raw goat milk. Goat milk is appealing to many – especially to those people with cow milk allergies – because goat milk fat is easier to digest than cow’s milk. It’s more similar to human milk than cow’s milk, too.

In most of the non-Western world, goat milk and goat cheese are the preferred dairy product. In fact, goat cheese has been made for thousands of years and is probably one of the very first “manufactured” dairy products.

Once Joan’s cheese operation is in full swing, she says it won’t take long to crank out the final product. The one-day process requires pasteurization of the milk, letting it cool and then adding some culture and rennet. Rennet allows protein components in milk to form (curd) and permits liquid components to separate and run off as whey.

The mixture is left to sit overnight and then is drained using cheesecloth or a colander.

Approximately one gallon of milk can make one pound of cheese. Joan estimates her goats produce a half-gallon of milk per goat per day.

20 is Enough

Although she considers herself a creative individual, she says once the State of South Dakota gives her the green light, she doesn’t anticipate adding to her herd.

“I don’t think I want to milk more than 20 to 25 goats per day,” she says. “I’ve got enough of them for what I want to do.”

But she hopes to bring her love for the local food culture full circle, especially to consumers who crave a new, and unique dining experience. In the past, Joan and Chef John Gilbertson have organized an outdoor event called HarvesTable near Renner. Its purpose is to get the chef, guests and producers together for a special meal in an outdoor, rural setting. Only locally produced foods go on the menu.

Joan and Gilbertson hope to organize more of them in the future, perhaps in the Brookings or Arlington areas.

And she may even take the idea to another level by using the back area of her bakery to someday put in a small restaurant.

“I love the idea behind what I’m doing,” she says. “The possibilities are endless.”

Until the Brookings Farmer’s Market opens in April, Brookings-area shoppers can get Williams’ Cider Hill breads locally at Nature’s Paradise Health Foods every Tuesday. Cider Hill is also a producer on the South Dakota Local Foods Cooperative. For a complete listing of products, prices, locations where customers can buy Williams’ goods and other product inquiries, check out the company’s web site at

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