Before You Start a Goat Dairy Farm …
Advice for Starting a Dairy Farm, from Those Who Have Been There!
Many goat owners, at some point, wonder about beginning a goat dairy farm, be it a hobby or to supplement income. It can be a daunting task to undergo, not to mention the laws of certain states make it nearly impossible to sell milk or dairy products. I interviewed established owners to discover what they did, what worked, and their limitations.
Doe’s and Diva’s Dairy
Janna and Tom own Doe’s and Diva’s Dairy, a Grade B dairy based out of Honey Creek, Iowa. They started with goats after adopting their daughter, Mia, many years ago from Guatemala. Mia was lactose intolerant and, shortly after conducting some research, they bought their first dairy goat. By 2008, Janna made so much cheese from her kitchen that she was giving it away. Her neighbor recommended they start a goat dairy farm together, but after three years the partnership ended. Janna, undefeated, opened a second dairy.
“Visit as many dairies as you can,” she advised. “Find one like what you’re looking for. You have to start with a good design.” Janna recommends working very closely with an inspector, even before getting the project approved by the state and beginning construction.
The biggest hurdle many people face is funding. Janna was lucky. The first dairy started from her savings, but after the failed partnership she didn’t have a cushion to fall back on. Amid the slow construction for Doe’s and Diva’s, a small group of people toured the goat dairy farm. Among them were Mary Ann Hanusa, regional economics director for the Iowa House of Representatives, and Dr. Carl Hienrich, former president of Western Iowa Community College where Janna and Tom had taken business classes that were fundamental for their operation. The visitors learned more about farm’s vision and, within two weeks, Janna and Tom had the funding needed to finish their dairy. Luck and networking that made it happen, combined with Janna’s and Tom’s unique dairy goat farming business plan to combine goat and sheep milk to make cheese, ice cream, lotion, and soap. Janna loves what she does and says it is the key to a successful dairy.
Split Creek Farm
In 1977, Evin Evans was gifted a single dairy goat as a companion animal for her horse. The goat was in milk, so Evin milked her, loved the taste, and bred the goat the following season. It was a small operation but a fire had been kindled and, in 1985, Evin began a goat dairy farm with three goats and a vision. To cover startup costs, Evin received a business loan in South Carolina. She became the first unmarried LGBT woman to get a loan from the state. Evin earned all the necessary certifications to become a Grade A dairy, giving her the right to sell not only cheese and other milk products but also goat milk.
Sadly, Evin passed away in 2014 and left her goat dairy farm to her partner, Patricia Bell. Patricia’s daughter, Jessica, currently runs the farm. She heads the milking, making goat cheese, selling, media, and even operates a shop on the property grounds. Jessica is proactive when it comes to goat education. She regularly offers tours of her farm to teach interested parties about raising goats for milk and to help secure extra income.
“It’s not easy,” Jessica told me. “We had to take out loans. A pasteurizing vat is thousands of dollars, and it takes a while to see a return.”
Today, Split Creek has quite the following. One of the few dairies that can sell raw goat milk, they also sell fresh cheese, specializing in chèvre, feta, and fromage. Jessica believes that the product speaks for itself. She recommends starting with good milk then creating the absolute best product possible. In addition to consistently winning gold medals in food competitions, last year they won a Good Food Awards for their feta marinated in olive oil, which can be found for sale on their website splitcreek.com.
“If you consistently produce high-quality product,” Jessica advises, “the following will come.”
This next goat dairy farm is Harley Farms, located in two miles inland in California. The owner, Dee, lived on an old derelict cow dairy that was lifeless at the time. 27 years ago, a goat-owning neighbor came to buy some dried tomatoes for cheesemaking purposes and loved the property. She suggested that Dee buy goats from her, milk them, and sell the milk back to her. It was a simple beginning with six American Alpines, but now she has over 200 and a family of employees who have grown with the farm over the last 20 years.
Dee had minimal knowledge other than working on farms, and over the years she learned how to run a dairy. She fixed fences and the barn, bred the goats, and bought the milking equipment. She began by selling in farmer’s markets then started talking to wholesalers. Once the farm became a little more attractive, they also opened a shop on the property.
Now she sells 95 percent of the cheese, truffles, oils, lotions, and other products from the farm and has four wholesalers within 20 miles of her. She organizes tours, farm-style dinners, and weddings. Dee attributes her farm staying small to multiple streams of income. She’s won national acclaim for her products as well as state recognition.
Dee warns that there are definite ups and downs. It is a way of life, and it is hard even when starting and staying small. “Seventy-five percent of it is running a business; you have to be prepared to be a business person. Compliance is crippling.”
Although not often considered, operating a dairy can be very political. The biggest hurdle is becoming a strong business owner and dealing with finances, inspection, and sales. If needed, Dee says, potential dairies should hire business people. It is essential.
Dee looks at the practical side of a goat dairy farm. “You are going to have to get a loan, your goat is going to die, your feed is going to go bad, and your cheese is going to be ruined.” She says you must absolutely love your cause and learn from the experiences, because this way of life, although beautiful, is also challenging.
As if starting a dairy was not hard enough, it is nearly impossible in states like Nevada. I interviewed Paula Terrell of Creamcup Mini’s, who explained that, to even “think about becoming a dairy,” a County Dairy Commission must approve it. If the county doesn’t have one, it won’t be possible to open a dairy. It is also illegal to sell milk across county lines. However, that doesn’t mean that someone looking to have a goat dairy farm has to give up or move to another state. In Nevada, owners can sell milk for animal consumption. There is also a market for personal dairy animals, so another route would be selling milk goats to people and teaching them about the animals so they can provide milk for themselves.
Regardless of the state you reside in, it is key to become familiar with the laws concerning dairies and milk consumption. One mishap can cause anything from a lawsuit to a loss of your existing dairy. The U.S. government is serious about their milking laws.
In short, the best advice I keep hearing is: Talk to all the right people. This includes existing dairies, inspectors, and financial and business advisers. Learn everything you can. Understand you’ll have to take out a loan, because goats and equipment is expensive. Find ways to sell, market, and champion for your product. Work hard. And finally, I’ve noticed successful dairies are always searching for added income, such as personal shops, weddings, tours, dinners, education days, and other agrotourism ideas, and a wide variety of product.
Remember: It’s not easy, but it’s absolutely worth it.
Originally published in the July/August 2018 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.