My tenth farm was Sullivan’s Pond Farm in Wake, Virginia.
The farmers are Rona, Tim and their son Cole. Rona spent time on her grandmother’s farm when she was a kid. That experience stayed with her. When she grew up and lived in the city, she made cheese from store-bought milk and entered that cheese, along with her artwork in state fairs. One day after winning blue ribbons at the fair for her cheese and paintings, she passed by some pretty brown goats with white stripes on their faces. The woman who owned them remarked, “Those are Toggenburgs. They will steal your heart.” Soon afterward, Rona got her first goats and the woman became her goat mentor. The family bought eight partially wooded acres in 1999. Rona decided to learn how to make bonnyclabber cheese because this type of cheese has its US roots in southern Appalachia. Scots brought the technique to the US when they settled in the Appalachian Mountains. Bonny clabber is Gaelic for sour milk. Sullivan’s Pond started selling bonnyclabber cheese in 2003.
My Farm Experience
Sullivan’s Pond Farm was my first farm on the east coast. I’d driven across country from Seattle and I felt like Lewis and Clark in reverse. Everything was new to me. “Go pick fig and chestnut leaves to wrap the cheese in,” Rona instructed me. What do fig leaves and chestnut leaves look like? Those trees aren’t in the northwest. I had expected the east coast to be a never ending, crowded metropolis. Cement, houses and people everywhere. Instead I found the type of countryside with rolling green lawns and white picket fences that is in storybooks. The large country houses with old deciduous trees in the yard were like a dream I had as a child of a lovely and peaceful place to live. I was in awe of all the deciduous trees. While the trees were lovely in the summer and would be dazzling in the fall, it did cross my mind to wonder what they would look like in the winter.
While I’ve WWOOFed on four other goat dairy farms, this was my first on with the large, pure white Saanen goats. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart and that since they are all totally white, they’d be boring to look at. When I met them for the first time in the afternoon of my first day on the farm, I found them lying around in their barn. These goats certainly weren’t boring. With their big heads, large ears and what looked like happy smiles, they exuded a goofy personality. The next day as we dealt with the individual quirks during milking, I discovered that Rona’s herd was filled with personality.
Saanens are a popular dairy goat because they produce the highest quantity of milk of all the goat breeds. The amount of sweet butterfat in milk is correlated to the amount of milk that the goat produces: more milk, less butterfat. So Saanens do not have the tastiest milk, but they have a lot of it. To sweeten up the milk, Rona added la Manchas, Alpines and Toggenburgs to the herd. At the very beginning of the milking routine, I got to start seeing their individual personalities.
“She’s going to jump! Rona exclaimed. I looked over and saw a small, shaggy brown Toggenburg named Rosemary backing up near the fence. Sure enough, she ran forward and hurdled the fence. I had no idea that goats could jump fences. Rosemary was off after the sweet grain we had just given the llamas. She preferred it to the grain that was used to entice the goats to come into the enclosed area next to the milking parlor. We would need to deal with Rosemary later; the goats who wanted to be first into the milking parlor were impatiently waiting at the head of the line. Rona opened the gate and let in three goats. Giselle, a tri-colored Alpine, who was the pushiest of the herd came in first as usual. The three goats obediently trompled in, jumped onto the stanchion and stuck their heads through the gate to lock themselves in. “Winnie needs to come in the first group so she can eat; she’s skinny. She also needs a ramp to get up to the stanchion,” “Rona told me as she set up the short ramp. She went out in the pen to bring in Winnie. Rona showed me the routine she uses for milking: clean the udder with iodine, strip out the first bit of milk into a waste jar in case it’s bad, put on the suction cups that run to a vat in the milking room, wait until they are milked out, strip out any remaining milk, give the end of the teat a squirt of iodine, done. I carefully started learning the new routine. As I worked along, I noticed the goats getting restless and less cooperative. I looked up and found four heads looking at me. One let out a loud Maa! They were out of the grain they get during milking. After a refill of grain in their bowls, they stood quietly while I finished milking.
The first four were released from the stanchion. They walked down a ramp where they exited into the barn and pasture. Four Toggenburgs walked up to the exit gate. “The Brown Crew,” Rona told me. “They like to come in second.” The Toggenburgs came up the exit ramp and got into the stanchion. I could see why Brooke is known as Kissy Face. She reached out her long muzzle to give me a kiss when I put grain in her feeder. The Toggenburgs went well. After they exited, a single Toggenburg named Melody came over to the exit gate. “She likes to come in alone,” Rona explained. Group three included Melody, Amarillo-a large brown La Mancha with an attitude, Jupiter with a bad hip from jumping fences which she amazingly can still jump, and Jewell who had the most massive udder I have ever seen. As they were being milked, they jumped around a bit. When I looked up, I found that Amarillo, Juniper and Jewell were biting each other’s ears. “They deserve each other,” Rona commented. They were the only goats that did that. As the third group slowly exited nipping at each other, Giselle pushed her way through the exit gate and ran up the ramp, jumped on the stanchion and ate the remains of the grain. We pulled her back out.
The next few rounds went smoothly: the goats came in and the goats went out. Then Sue came in. Sue is a large white Saanen who looks like she’s smiling at you. When Rona gave a small tug on her collar to get her to go up on the stanchion, Sue laid her chin down on the stanchion. Her quiet gesture made her point clear. Rona tied her collar to a post and Sue was inconveniently milked on the floor.
We were getting to the last rounds of milking. A Saanen came in, looked at the last spot on the stanchion which was filled with another goat and then stood in a corner. “Weezie will only go in the last spot. We need to move the other goat,” Rona said while moving the head of the other goat down a spot on the stanchion. As soon as the spot was free, Weenie jumped in. “By the way, this is Holly,” Rona said pointing to another white Saanen. “She wants the first spot and takes twenty minutes to milk. She has small orifices.” We let the three faster milkers out when they were finished. A small, white and gold La Mancha strolled in. Goldie. She walked to the back of the stanchion and helped herself to grain. Goldie had been rejected by her tiny, black La Mancha mother Sprite and so was bottle fed in the house. Consequently, Goldie believed she was people. This made her incredibly cute and annoyingly stubborn. We gave her a bowl of grain so she’d get out of our way and Rona brought in the goat that is always last, Colleen. Once every goat that was in the enclosure was milked, grain was put back in the feeders of the enclosed area to entice the goats back in so we could try to catch Rosemary and put out hay in the hay feeders without being trampled by goats. Rona expertly caught Rosemary who fought being milked as if it were something indignant. I put out hay, cleaned the milking parlor and filled the water buckets while Rona cleaned the milking equipment. Finally, it was time for lunch.
During lunch I wondered how I would ever remember which goat had which idiosyncrasy. The first step was being able to identify the goats. I made a list by breed–Alpine, La Mancha, Toggenburg, Saanen–then I wrote distinguishing features for each one. There were a variety of collar colors which helped a lot, but some came down to whether they had wattles, dangly long fingers of skin that hung on each side of their neck, or not. So a description would look like “Saanen, blue collar, no wattles, needs ramp.” Their idiosyncrasies I could remember, I just needed to put them with the right goat.
After lunch, I went to the Make Room. This was where the cheese was prepared and refrigerated. The farm is known for its bonnyclabber cheese which is cheese that nature makes by itself, no culture or rennet is added. If an air tight jar of milk is left out at room temperature, the acid from the milk and the wild yeast in the air will cause the milk to sour and ferment. However, that type of cheese wasn’t made while I was on the farm. The main cheese that was being sold was a pasteurized soft cheese that came in a variety of flavors. I thought perfecting the different seasoning blends would be the hardest part in starting a cheese company, but for Rona it was actually getting the mouth texture just as she wanted it. She’s a visual artist and a musician, and she brought those artistic values to the development of her cheese. The first step in the cheese making process is pasteurizing the milk. This is also when the rennet, which causes the thick curds to separate from the liquid whey, and the culture, which helps the flavor development, were added. Once the curds had formed, they were scooped out of the large vat and hung in cheesecloth so the whey could drain out. When the curds were dry enough, they were put into a pan and salted. At this point the cheese needed refrigeration. Different spices and seasonings were added to make the various types of cheese. Tidewater had bay seasoning and tasted like seafood. Sandy Bottom had black pepper and was my favorite. The cheeses were named after places in Virginia. After I left the farm and was driving though Shenandoah National Park, I passed Sandy Bottom and Rocky Mount viewpoints and thought of cheese.
Making the cheese was the easy part. The hard part was wrapping it. Rona wanted to have wrappers that didn’t create a waste product, were sustainable, and also artistic so she wrapped the cheese in fig leaves, chestnut leaves or corn husks. She made the wrapping look easy. The room got very quiet as the other two WWOOFers and I worked on wrapping the cheese in the leaves and corn husks. Which leaf part should I use next? Where’s the best place to put it? Opps, there’s a part of the cheese that’s not covered. Augh, I didn’t tie the raffia tight enough and everything’s falling apart. These were all the thoughts going through my head. Dayana worked with quiet, German determination. Brianna moaned and groaned, and finally said, “I’m not crafty!” Rona’s son Cole went through the cheese we wrapped and fixed them up for us.
Rona gave the WWOOFers some extra cheese and we got to flavor it as we wanted. Dayana tried garlic. Brianna and I adding mint leaves. This was a good idea. My mint cheese was a winner. For my next concoction, I decided to think out of the box and try adding honey. It works with yogurt. It didn’t work with the cheese. I tossed it out.
Each morning I helped milk the goats. Eventually I learned who was who, and who needed what. The goats helped with that. If Weezie’s last spot was taken by another goat, she wouldn’t have anything to do with the stanchion. We milked her off the stanchion like Sue until I realized which goat she was, and, hence, why she wouldn’t go up on the stanchion. Holly, another white Saanen, would fool us by not taking her usual first spot on the stanchion. “Why is this goat taking so long?!” It must be Holly we’d realize. Goldie would saunter in towards the end of milking. After getting her fill of grain, she wanted to be part of whatever the people were doing. She had to be dragged back into the goat pen. She just didn’t get that she wasn’t people.
The first weekend I was on the farm was the yearly Goatstock music festival. Local musicians played on a small stage set up in the yard. Forty or fifty people showed up to watch. The Sullivans would like to develop a community of musicians and have regular performances on their farm. I’ve noticed an interest in community on the east coast.
I enjoyed being in a new environment. In the evenings, I watched as the fireflies lit up in the grass. Their greenish lights rose higher and higher until they were up in the broad trees. Thunder-and-lightening storms swept in with the wind. The booms of thunder made us all jump as we wrapped cheese. Were the goats scared of the storm?
On my days off I explored my country’s early history – Jamestown, the first permanent British settlement in 1607; Yorktown, where the Revolutionary War ended in 1781; and Petersburg, where the Civil War ended in 1865, were all within a day’s drive.