More Vermont dairy families
are thinking outside the cow
Polymeadows Farm in Shaftsbury.
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN GRIEGER
sk for a glass of milk, and you expect cow’s milk. Would you notice if the milk came from goats, not cows? A growing number of people drink goat milk, describing it as creamy, rich and slightly sweet. Vermont has long been known for our dairy products, and goats are rapidly becoming a major fixture in our dairy landscape.
According to Dan Scruton, dairy programs section chief of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, there are 25 goat milk dairies currently in Vermont, up from 12 in 2000. He believes that goat dairies offer a diversification opportunity for farmers who are looking for value-added products. While much of the goat milk is made into cheese, there’s a growing demand for fluid goat milk as an alternative to cow’s milk.
Jan Kelley, owner of New Morning Natural Foods in Manchester, notes that many people prefer goat milk as a more readily digestible form of milk. Some customers are interested in trying new, local food products, and she even has one man who buys goat milk for his cat. Gail Acosta of Peru describes it as very thick and creamy, and uses goat milk in tea and on cereal.
Nutritionally, goat’s milk is very similar to cow’s milk. Scruton explains that goat milk contains short-chain fatty acids, which are easier to digest. According to the USDA, the lactose and protein content are statistically the same in goat and cow milk. Goat’s milk contains slightly higher amounts of vitamin C, calcium and potassium; cow’s milk is higher in vitamin A and B12. All goat milk contains 10 grams of fat per eight-ounce serving, while cow’s milk is available in a variety of fat content levels from whole to fat-free.
I visited two goat dairy families on opposite ends of Vermont, one in the Lake Champlain Valley and the other in southern Bennington County. They share a love of goats and a commitment to producing high-quality goat milk.
Melvin in the milking parlor at Polymeadows Farm.
Look to the east as you drive along Historic Route 7A in Shaftsbury, and on a warm day you’ll see goats, often quite a lot of goats, browsing in the fields ringed by old stone walls with a backdrop of the Green Mountains. Polymeadows Farm is owned by Jennifer and Melvin Lawrence, who started out with Jersey cows and transitioned to milking goats seven years ago. When I visited in February, the curious goats came out to meet me as I drove up toward the farmhouse, jumping over the fences and surrounding the car. Jennifer laughs that goats have no sense of shame, and wreak havoc over the entire farm. She no longer bothers with a garden or flowers, which quickly become favorite goat foods.
Melvin grew up on the family farm, and when the low price of cow’s milk started squeezing them financially they decided to switch from cows to goats. After working with a consultant through the Vermont Farm Viability program to develop a business plan, they purchased 150 baby goats in 2003. Jennifer says “goats are way cooler” than cows, and that she can more easily move a 150-pound goat than a 900-pound cow. Plus, the Lawrence’s have more control over the price of their milk, especially since they began processing and marketing their own value-added products—chocolate milk, maple smoothies and yogurt—enabling them to continue working the farm.
Fall and spring are kidding season at Polymeadows, and over 100 pregnant goats keep Jennifer busy. She brings the newborns into her kitchen to make sure they’re warm and has learned how to bottle feed.
After two days they move outside in groups of up to 10 kids into one of two barns specifically for the babies, where bales of hay and group body warmth insulate them from the cold. Three times each day they drink warmed milk from a nipple bucket, which is exactly what it sounds like: a sturdy five-gallon white plastic bucket ringed with nipples. The goats are also fed hay from the fields at the farm with a little grain, and are pastured during warmer months.
As we walk outside from barn to barn, adult goats gather curiously around us, tasting the straps on my backpack and bumping into our sides, asking to be petted. The baby goats frolic in their pen, jumping straight up into the air and chasing each other in circles.
At 2 months old, the babies are weaned and moved to a second barn. When they’re old enough to breed, at about a year old, they move into yet another, bigger barn with a good-sized yard and meet the boys. After their first kidding, they move into the main barn.
Twice each day, 24 goats at a time move into a holding pen in the main barn to be milked. They’re sanitized before Melvin hooks each one to the vacuum-pump milking machine. He demonstrates how to attach the vacuums to each goat, giving me the chance to clumsily try out the process. The goat doesn’t mind my first attempt at milking, perhaps because she’s happily munching grain.
Air never touches the milk during milking as it’s pumped directly from the goat into the bulk tank in the milk room to quickly cool down. When it’s time to process the milk, it’s put into 10-gallon milk cans and brought down to the Grade A dairy plant they built next to the farmhouse. The milk is heated in the 50-gallon pasteurizer to 150°F. for 30 minutes. Once pasteurized, the milk is cooled, bottled and put into a chest freezer kept at 32°–40°. Melvin turned an old double garage with a dirt floor into a modern micro-dairy, processing an average of 30 gallons of milk per day to sell locally at the Walloomsac Farmers Market in Bennington or distribute to stores throughout Vermont, upstate New York, western Massachusetts and New York City.
They’ve found help from neighbors and customers who enjoy being around the goats. Alan, a neighbor across the street, is a big help putting in around 12,000 bales of hay in the summer, in exchange for hay for their animals. Carol purchased hay for her donkeys and milk for her cats. When she discovered the cats preferred goat milk to cow milk, she figured they must know what they were doing and starting drinking it herself. She comes in to help bottle and label the milk. A family moved in across the street, and because the 13- and 11-year-old boys missed living on a farm, they started helping with the afternoon milking and stall cleaning. There were 11 dairies in Shaftsbury when Melvin was a boy, and Polymeadows is the only one left, thanks to helpful friends and neighbors and the frolicking, friendly goats. Polymeadows Farm is located on 75 Lawrence Road in Shaftsbury. Phone: 802-379-5734. Visit the Website for additional information and store locations that sell their milk. Polymeadows.com
TRILLIUM HILL FARM
Sara Armstrong Donegan and Ada at Trillium Hill
I drove past Trillium Hill Farm—twice—because I didn’t expect a working farm and dairy to be located at the stoplight intersection of Route 116 and Charlotte Road in the middle of Hinesburg. The family farm is sandwiched between Lantman’s Market (Hometown Proud est. 1925), a line of condos along the southeast edge of the property and the municipal office building across the street. As I finally pulled into the driveway, I spotted the weathered barn behind the farmhouse, with fields and the sugarbush stretching out into the distance. Sara Armstrong Donegan and her husband, James Donegan, live in the old farmhouse with their 3-month-old daughter, Ruby. The farm was settled in the mid-1800s, and Sara tells the story that James’s great-great-great-grandmother said the sugarhouse they still use today looked old when she was a child.
Sara and James started growing vegetables, wanted to add animals to help manage the fields and initially thought about cows. Their interest in organic, natural foods including raw milk led to Sara doing an internship at Doe’s Leap Farm in East Fairfield and falling in love with goats. She started with two goats five years ago, and this year expects to milk eight. Sara prefers a seasonal dairy that she can handle by herself, milking the goats once each day. This year she’s started using a small milking machine to milk two goats at a time, averaging about one gallon of milk per goat per day.
Sara shows me into the milking parlor, built into the old barn. The wet red tile floor smells freshly sanitized since she recently finished milking. The goats are milked in one room, and the milk is filtered and sealed into quart, half gallon or gallon plastic containers, which are placed in ice baths in a chest freezer in the second room. State regulations stipulate that the raw milk must be cooled to 40° within two hours; Sara plans for it to cool within one hour. The milk stays fresh and sweet for at least one week, and often up to one month. After touring the dairy parlor, we climb down a wooden ladder into the lower level of the barn where the goats live. The baby goats are in one pen, their mothers in a second, and the pregnant goats in a third area. Sara lets the babies out, and they immediately start hopping into the hay where their mothers are eating, springing onto straw bales stacked to the sides, and butting up against us. Sara’s right: It’s easy to fall in love with goats!
Trillium Hill is a seasonal raw milk dairy, and unlike Polymeadows Farm their goats are all on the same breeding schedule, with all the kids born in March. Goats have a five-month gestation period, and the last two months is a rest period where they’re not milked. This also gives Sara a break from milking in January and February, and when March and kidding season roll around she’s excited to get back to work. She bottle feeds the kids for eight weeks, first feeding each one individually by hand and then transitioning them to the nipple bucket. This way the goats enjoy being around people, never learn to nurse their mothers, and can be put out to pasture together.
According to Rural Vermont, Act 62 of 2009 created a tiered regulatory system for farmers producing raw (unpasteurized) milk based on the quantity of milk sold. Trillium Hill is a Tier 1 dairy, producing less than 50 quarts of milk per day and selling directly to consumers who come to their farm. Sara notes that each year more people are interested in raw goat milk, enjoying the taste as well as finding it easier to digest. Raw goat milk is available as part of their CSA, or purchased through the farm store tucked into a corner of the barn.
Goat milk is not only a delicious and often more easily digestible alternative to cow’s milk, it’s a growing labor of love for the local families who own goat dairies. As I sipped the maple smoothie from Polymeadows Farm on a warm spring day, I thought about the baby goats tucked into a box for warmth in Jennifer’s kitchen, the smile on Sara’s face when she picked up each of the kids born in the past two weeks for a quick cuddle, and the line of naughty goats springing over fences in their hurry to meet a newcomer to the farm. I’m smiling still.
Triullium Hill is located at 10643 Rte 116 in Hinesburg. Phone: 802- 482-4139. They only sell milk at their farm and welcome visitors during daylight hours March–November.
Upper: Lovina, Mabra and Owl enjoying hay. Lower left: Keeping the
goat’s milk cold. Lower right: Sunning goat.