Creamery, foundation partner to create state’s biggest goat dairy

Allison Hooper and Bob Reese

Allison Hooper and Bob Reese, co-founders of Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery. Photo by Tim Calabro, courtesy of Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery

This article is by M.D. Drysdale, the editor and publisher of The Herald of Randolph, in which it was first published.

One of Randolph’s most prominent and scenic dairy farms is poised to become Vermont’s largest commercial goats’ milk dairy, milking 700 to 800 goats.

The Route 12 farm of Perry and Carol Hodgdon was sold March 14 to the Castanea Foundation, part of a new partnership that will supply goats’ milk to Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery (formerly Vermont Butter and Cheese).

The ambitious plans for the Ayer’s Brook Goat Dairy also include providing technical assistance and breeding stock to goat dairies all over the state, helping them become more efficient and profitable.

The big goat farm (equivalent to about a 200-cow farm) will also help Vermont Technical College take a leading position in the field of milk and meat production from goats and provide hands-on experience for its students.

On a community level, the Ayer’s Brook Dairy could also turn into a tourist attraction that would allow the public to observe the operation, watch an educational video, and purchase cheese and related products at the farm store.

The enterprise is the brainchild of Vermont Creamery’s Allison Hooper of Brookfield and Tim Storrow, the executive director of the Castanea Foundation.

Castanea is based in Montpelier and its core mission, Storrow said, is “conservation of the working landscape” in Vermont and part of New York state, through direct purchases of endangered properties and development programs that create economic opportunities in agriculture.

For Hooper, the impetus was simply the desire for more milk from Vermont goats. Vermont Creamery, which sells $15 million of award-winning cheese a year and which grew by 20 percent in 2010 alone, needs 10 million pounds of goats’ milk a year for its goat cheeses. Currently, it has to buy 70 percent of that from out of state — mostly from Ontario farmers.

“Our cheese is a Vermont product, and we would like to be able to say that most of the milk is locally produced,” Hooper explained in a Herald interview.

“A goat is not a small cow — it’s a different animal,” Hooper explained.

Her first thought was to create an outreach program to Vermont’s 20 dairy goat farmers, many of whom are struggling, offering help in goat genetics and management. There’s lots to learn, she noted.

“A goat is not a small cow — it’s a different animal,” she explained.

After she connected with Storrow a year and a half ago, the duo started to focus on using foundation money, and Vermont Land Trust conservancy funds, to start a brand new goat farm somewhere in Vermont.

“This was an opportunity — a well-established producer with a natural market (could) be a catalyst in this state,” Storrow explained, his enthusiasm apparent.

“We had the idea of buying a farm, where people could come and feel and touch, and know what a goat farm is like. So, we embarked on a search for a farm.”

They found the perfect one in the Hodgdon farm, where Perry and Carol had sold their herd of about 50 Jerseys in 2002 and were quietly looking to sell 116 acres of prime ag land along Ayer’s Brook, selling also the barns and the handsome, historic old homestead, built sometime before 1830.

Randolph had a good central location and interstate access, they explained, and it had one other big advantage — Vermont Tech. The Randolph Center college has made a name for itself with innovative agriculture programs pioneered by Chris Dutton, and Dutton was enthusiastic about expanding the focus to goats as well as cows.

“This will give students a hands-on experience, a completely different experience of dairying,” he told The Herald. “It’s truly exciting.”

Both the school’s dairy and diversified ag programs have increased numbers of students, he noted, and some of these students can be a “valuable labor pool” to the Ayer’s Brook Dairy.

Having found the perfect farm, Hooper and Storrow now needed a farm manager with enough experience in goat dairies to bring best practices to the enterprise, and be able to share them with other goat farmers in Vermont.

They found such a manager in René DeLeeuw, a native of Holland who currently is part of a huge goat operation in Pine Plains, N.Y., which milks 900 goats and manufactures butter, yogurt and cheese, employing 37 people.

Shortly after he emigrated to this country as a child, “Dad brought two goats” for their Colorado homestead, he told The Herald. “That’s where it started.”

DeLeeuw managed goats in California and later in Tennessee, selling cheese to the New York City market before moving on to the New York farm. He was ready for “a new level, and new endeavors” when he heard of the plan being hatched by Hooper and Storrow.

Together they have plotted a new layout for the farm: The existing barn will be used for raising kids, and a milking parlor will be built behind it.

Two long and well-ventilated barns will house the goats — without stalls. One barn will be for goats who will give birth in the spring, the other for goats who will give birth in the fall. This, Hooper explained, is a key factor, as dairies can get a better price if they have milk available all year.

The goats will have outdoor exercise yards, too, and they will include little rocky clumps that DeLeeuw calls “cairns,” which goats like to climb on. They make a popular attraction for goat-watchers, he noted.

The farm will pay great attention to genetics, he and Hooper said, and it will start with three breeds — Alpine, Saanens and LaMancha, which produce milk with the proteins that make superior cheese. No cheese will be made on the farm, as all the milk will be shipped to Vermont Creamery in Websterville.

If all goes well, construction on the new barns will be done this summer, and about 300 kids will be residents at the farm a year from now.

The target number of 700 goats, Hooper said, will be reached in about five years. That number, she explained, will allow Ayer’s Brook Dairy to populate other farms with replacement stock of high-quality animals.

“Can a goat farm be profitable?” she asked rhetorically. “We think it can, but it needs to be proven. Farmers learn by seeing-if it works for their neighbor, they become more interested,” she said.

“Our customers are very excited about this.”

Also excited are Perry and Carol Hodgdon, who will move into a new house on another part of the property in April.

“We’re very pleased,” Perry told The Herald. The negotiations went without a hitch, he said: “We’ve got the money, it’s in the bank.”

“We’re just happy Allison’s got it,” Carol said. “I think they’ll do good with the farm, and it will be good for the community. I think the land will stay open forever.”

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