Tough Challenges for Goat Farmers
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A 100-year-old 24-acre historic tobacco farm, turned into a cull-free goat dairy in the beautiful Piedmont region of North Carolina, is home to 70-plus mixed, free-range dairy goats comfortably browsing amid old trees, barns, and around a natural lake.
Sandra Vergara and Ted Domville purchased Elodie Farm four years ago. “The farm was pretty run down,” says Vergara, who is a geneticist and a Duke Alumna. “We fell in love with the animals. I guess you could call us ‘farmers by accident.’”
Vergara and Domville, he a Master Chef, began to turn the farm into a remarkable, innovative enterprise, emphasizing community cooperation, healthy, natural produce, and animal welfare, all carried out through inventive forward-looking attitude and practice. Unexpectedly, the couple faced COVID-19.
According to Roland McReynolds, executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, a survey of Triangle Farms showed roughly 35% had lost over $1,000 weekly to the pandemic shutdowns, which is huge for farms with $50,000 to $100,000 revenue. Many small-scale older farmers closed to slow the spread of the virus and put more money into searching for creative ways to transition from on-site sales to online sales. Some local farms went online as a solo operation or in cooperation with others, thereby connecting with clients, taking orders, and delivering produce.
“This system worked well for farmers with access to broadband and cellular service,” says Vergara, “but what happens to those older farmers who don’t know how to use online marketing or how to sell other than at market?”
Many of these farmers shut down their customer service because they were unfamiliar with establishing online sales or unsure how to create new markets using the internet.
After much deliberation, Vergara came up with a plan. The decision was to ally with other farms to find ways to supply customers with products. Thus, a little co-op was born, including organic-producing farms such as Pine Knot Farms, HT Farm, Sankofa Farms, and Xpended Mama Spring Farm. “I really kind of stumbled on these people who are so invested in sustainability and education by accident,” says Vergara, “but I love it because I believe in our mission and especially because they’re African American, and they are trying to contribute to mending a really big gap in terms of the nutrition of this particular demographic.” Vergara paused, then said, “We had to keep our farms running.”
To increase profitability, Vergara created an online store for her farm, along with the others. They assembled a variety of products and notified customers online and through various media, and the little co-op began receiving orders. Delivery was offered to all customers throughout cities across the Piedmont. Vergara contacted the non-profit Rural Advancement Foundation, which helps support farm families and rural communities who need assistance. The Foundation assisted in paying Vergara to pick up products from community farms and deliver them to customers. “We pick up, box all of it, and deliver. We sell the products and help other farmers who didn’t have an outlet or didn’t know how to sell their product have joined us. We believe in community.”
Vergara also received a grant from the North Carolina Agventures Tobacco Trust. This cooperative extension program provides opportunities to strengthen agriculturally dependent families in communities impacted by loss and help support family farms to develop new and innovative agricultural projects that will increase farm profits.
Elodie offers many homemade food products, using milk exclusively from the farm goats, such as fresh blackberry goat cheese, and crackers made from leftover whey and flavored with sea salt. The farm also offers a goat cheese mousse and spreadable goat milk caramel. “We make a Mexican confection known as cajeta,” she announced. Currently, the farm is making plain and flavored chevre: garlic plus herbs, jalapeño, sour cherry, fig plus honey, and fleur verte.
Aside from food offered to the public, there is a major focus on consistent and loving animal welfare. “We diversify to include an agritourism operation where visitors can interact with our sweet animals and learn about them,” she explains. “We rely heavily on farm visitor tours, special events, and sit-down dinners where Tom provides savory dishes from the farm, including specialty goat dishes and North Carolina pasture-raised meats from farms that are verified Animal Welfare Approved.”
At Elodie, older goats, males, and animals with special needs live happily on the farm instead of being culled from the herd or sent to auction. No goats are slaughtered. “Our goats are healthy, happy, and have individual meal plans, regular vet care, and plenty of human interaction,” Vergara elaborates. “Mama goats are allowed to raise their kids and not subject to annual pregnancies. Baby goats and moms are kept together following natural breeding cycles. We do not want to hurt any animal. Our animals come first. We are never thinking about selling cheese versus their health.”
Recently, the community came together and raised funds for a new goat barn at Elodie that was constantly being flooded. “Friends and community are what it’s all about,” says Vergara. “We needed a lot of money for the barn, but it worked out by helping each other — and our mission is to continue to do just that.”
Elodie Farms is located at 9522 Hampton Rd. Rougemont, NC 27572
Originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.