March 22, 2010

(VIDEO LINK)  Susan Miller is quickly gaining popularity and widespread respect as Kentucky’s goat dairy pioneer. She was the first to have a certified dairy in the state. University of Kentucky Extension Associate for Goat Production Terry Hutchens said her brand, Bleugrass Chevre, is what many budding goat cheese entrepreneurs hold as the standard and that’s why her farm was recently the site of the first Kentucky Cheesemaking School.

 “In Kentucky, there’s a great deal of interest in locally grown, locally produced products,” said Hutchens, who organized the school. “This (cheese making) fits that, and it adds value to the price of milk. Unless you are producing an end product, there’s really nowhere you can sell goat or sheep milk. You have to process it into something to make a profit.”

Hutchens said participants in the school were fortunate to learn cheese making techniques from Steve Zeng, a food technologist and dairy extension specialist for Langston University in Oklahoma. Zeng travels around the United States and abroad teaching these techniques and promoting goat cheese as a way to add value to small farm enterprises.

“I’m very excited to work with goat producers and help them utilize goat milk,” Zeng said. “I try to make people understand they have to take good care of the animals because they are your main source of high-quality milk.”

Zeng, who came to the United States from China in 1986 to learn cheese making, said producers who want to commercially produce goat milk cheese need to have about 40 milking goats. Those wanting to sell cheese for supplemental income can buy from a local dairy or raise 10 to 20 milking goats themselves.

“I suggest small operations start with fresh cheeses, easy cheeses, like feta and mozzarella, and then as they gain experience, they can start creating more sophisticated, complicated cheeses like cheddar, Parmesan or chevre,” he said.

During the hands-on school, participants learned to make soft cheeses like cream cheese, Brie and Camembert, hard cheeses like Gouda, Colby and cheddar, and other cheeses like feta and Parmesan. They also learned to make yogurt and conducted a sensory/quality evaluation of their products.

Participants included individuals already raising goats, UK Cooperative Extension educators in family and consumer sciences and those with merely an interest in making cheese or raising goats of their own.

Jennifer Turner raises a small goat herd on 14 acres in Shelby County. She has experimented with cheese making for her family’s personal use and came to the school to learn more techniques and explore taking her craft to the next level.

“I came to the school because I wanted to learn it the right way,” she said. “If I choose to do this for profit, I’ll know how to get started. I’ve already made feta, Brie, mozzarella and (a few other cheeses) at home, but I want to experiment with different kinds of feta. I definitely want to sell at some point. I like to keep things local and small market, so maybe soon.”

Hutchens said many cheese makers might look to buy milk from local producers because it’s very difficult to raise the animals and produce the end products.

“Raising and milking goats is one job, one management system,” he said. “Making cheese is another job and another management system. Many producers don’t have the time and facilities to do both.”

Although the initial investment is quite high, cheese makers can expect good returns of about $1 per ounce of cheese at local markets. Goat cheese sells for between $15 and $20 at cheese stores.

Hutchens said interest in the school was very high, and they didn’t have enough space for everyone who wanted to participate. He plans to help organize another cheese making school for the fall.