After we made the decision to start the farm, we experienced a brief period of relief. The knowledge of what we were doing next brought resolution to over a year of anxiety about our future. But we knew that a love for nature and a desire to be outdoors does not a farmer make. We had to find out if we could hack this life. So we did some research and made a connection with a goat farmer in Atlanta named Mary Rigdon. This generous soul not only refrained from laughing at us when we told her what we wanted to do, she applauded us. She told us we were brave and offered to train Nick on her farm. Here was our opportunity to find out what farm life was really like. We packed the kids up and drove to Atlanta for Nick’s apprenticeship at Decimal Point Farm.
On his first day, he rose early and left our hotel when it was still dark. Thinking that farmers pull some pretty long days, I’d planned to entertain the children until early evening. We drove to the Georgia Aquarium, prepared for a day of overpriced food and entertainment. I’d just settled us into our seats at the dolphin show around 2pm when my phone rang. It was Nick, saying he was done for the day. I’m sorry, what? I was used to his corporate position, which demanded long hours and plenty more from him. And now he was free for an afternoon with his family in the middle of the week? Farm life was looking better! (We have since learned that farming never stops. Mary was just offering him a break, but it was fortunate timing, as it improved my view of family farming considerably.)
We spent the rest of the week in Atlanta, with Nick gaining more knowledge each day about animal husbandry, milking, and goats. We realized that running a goat dairy actually meant managing three businesses: the farm, the creamery, and the marketing of our products. Nick’s passion was for the farm…he loves animals and working outside. My passion was for the education of our children: homeschooling and homemaking. While I totally supported Nick following his dream of farming, I wasn’t exactly sure where I fit into this new life we were creating.
We returned home and started reading textbooks on raising dairy goats. Nick consulted frequently with Mary, who was a gold mine of information and ended up supplying us with our herd of Saanen goats. He also found two suppliers of parlor and creamery equipment that specialized in helping small dairies work. They ended up being amazing consultants who came to our farm for extensive on-site work and walked him through the process of milking and pasteurizing. And as fate had it, a local long time family friend and experienced livestock farmer just happened to be in a similar life phase and crossed paths with Nick just as the work was starting. He agreed to help us out and has been in the trenches with us ever since. Don Parrish has been a God-send to us and continues to add his knowledge and skills to our ever-developing venture.
With Nick gaining confidence and knowledge in the farming field, I remained uncertain about my role in it. How would I homeschool our children, run a household, and farm at the same time? I wasn’t particularly interested in goat farming; I just wanted a lifestyle conducive to family time and living close to nature. Nick suggested I take over the role of cheesemaker. True, I loved cooking and felt most at home in the kitchen. But how would this work? After attending her presentation at a She Creates Biz convention in Thomasville, I decided to reach out to Jessica Little of Sweetgrass Dairy for some advice. She pointed me in the direction of Sterling College in Vermont, where I signed up for a class called The Art of Natural Cheesemaking. Taught by David Asher in Sterling’s quaint, old-fashioned kitchen, this one-week course changed the way I thought about cheese and milk. It was revolutionary and entirely providential that David’s methods of making cheese were exactly in line with my personal ideology: look at the way things were done hundreds of years ago. Did it work? Then keep doing it that way. Did European cheesemakers in the Alpine hills use freeze-dried starter cultures, laboratory-created rennet, or milk so heated and pasteurized that it could hardly be called milk anymore? No? Then let’s don’t. He taught me how to keep cheesemaking as close to its natural process as possible, turning cheese from a luxury item on my grocery list to a health staple in our family kitchen. Made with David’s methods, cheese is actually highly nutritious and beneficial to naturally-occurring flora in our digestive systems. This course awakened a passion in me for taking cheesemaking from the industrialized science it is now (in the “big dairy” industry) to the handcrafted art it used to be. I came home from Vermont spouting facts about microbiology and obsessed with raw milk, dying to get into the kitchen to experiment with my new-found knowledge. The class was exactly what I needed to find my role within our new life of dairy farming.
God’s hand has been in every aspect of this venture, and every success feels like a huge blessing. I am learning the art of gratitude, which ironically is something I had little practice with in our former life, where material gifts abounded but happiness was scarce. Maybe it takes stripping down life to the basics and stepping into the unknown to build up the things that really matter: community, family, trust, humility, and thankfulness.
We still feel like novices in the farming world. Perhaps we always will. Most people we know who farm are from families who have been in the agricultural field for several generations. While our grandfathers were both farmers, our families both skipped a generation, and it lands on us to prove ourselves. But we are not alone. The Wehner and Little families from Sweetgrass Dairy have been extremely generous with their wisdom and experience, consulting with us on everything from best practices in the kitchen to marketing and animal husbandry. Our friends and neighbors have offered their expertise in photography, sales, graphic design, and taste-testing. We have found that whenever we need help, there is someone willing to provide it. In contrast to the competitive culture of business, farming is a cooperative community. There’s a sense that we’re all in this together…which, in fact, we are.