October 27, 2011
By Allan Nation
FORT WORTH, Texas: The tony neighborhood of Westworth Village in Fort Worth is hardly where you would expect to find an artisanal cheese, no-grain goat dairy.
And you have to look hard to find it down its unmarked cul-de-sac, but it’s there.
Deborah Rogers’ palm tree studded 20 acre farm is located on the banks of the Trinity River deep inside the city of Fort Worth.
The farm was originally her grandparents’ farm and is responsible for her farming bug.
“From my earliest childhood I have always wanted to farm,” she said.
However, Rogers took a rather roundabout route to fulfilling that dream.
At age 18, she moved to New York City and was discovered by Eileen Ford of Ford Models. She became a fashion model and moved to Paris.
While in France, she fell in love with French goat cheeses and learned to make them while living there.
At age 22, she left modeling for the corporate finance world in London where she worked for a venture capital firm.
Her financial career eventually returned her back to Fort Worth as a stockbroker.
Bored with the world of high finance and disgusted with local industrial cheeses, she decided to make her own cheese but found that quality cheese was impossible without a quality source of milk.
This led her to buying two does in July 2003.
Trying to remember her French cheese training, she made her first cheese and took it to a French-born chef in Fort Worth to see if it tasted anything like a real French-made cheese.
He tasted it and immediately placed an order for 12 rounds a week for his restaurant.
This convinced her she could make a business out of it and began to expand in numbers.
“One of the things I learned first-hand is that 90% of what is taught about dairy goat production is total rubbish,” she said.
She started out following convention and fed alfalfa hay and grain to the goats but this led to reproductive problems.
“I had terrible kidding problems in my goats and was totally mortified. Causing animals distress was not what I had dreamed about.”
She said this led her to study wild goats and what they ate.
“I learned that hay and grain are totally unnatural to a goat. What they thrive on is browse.”
This led her to start taking her goats on a daily “walk” along the brush covered banks of the river where the goats could pick and choose from a wide variety of plants.
This browse diet not only quickly cleared up the goats’ health problems but also vastly improved the quality of their milk.
THE TASTE OF THE LAND
“I found that the milk made from browse tasted so much better than that made with hay and grain. Milk from browse has a real floral quality to it. “You can taste what they are eating in the milk. For example, there are hints of pecan in the milk in the fall.
“The French has a word for this, terroir, which translates as the taste of the land.
“Cheese is like wine. It is a product of the land and it should reflect the nuances of the land in its flavor.”
To test whether others could taste these subtle flavors, she entered some of her browse diet cheese into the American Cheese Society’s national cheese tasting and won second place.
“This convinced me I was onto something and I began to transition out of feeding any grain at all.”
She has been able to lease 25 additional acres and has expanded her herd to 55 nannies of mostly Alpine genetics.
Her cheeses are marketed under the Deborah’s Farmstead Cheese label. She currently offers a fresh cheese in plain, herb, chipotle, ash and peppercorn flavors. An aged cheese will also soon be available.
She said that while a full-time farmer today she hasn’t forgotten her financial training.
“I have financed all of my expansion out of cash flow and am so proud of that.
“I have a farm that actually makes money. How many farmers can say that?”
She said current per head net returns were in the $900 a goat range. However, she still keeps a tight rein on expenses.
A good example of her frugality is that she converted a free-standing guest apartment into a dairy rather than building a new one.
This conversion includes a small 800 square foot cheesemaking room and an even smaller six-bail milking parlor. The goats enter the milking parlor through what was an apartment bedroom window.
Rogers makes cheese every day and said this is absolutely essential for a cheese with no “goaty” flavor or smell.
Unfortunately, the state of Texas considers goat milk cheese to be an “manufactured food” and requires that it be made from pasteurized milk.
A GREAT PRODUCT SELLS ITSELF
Still, she said the natural diet made her cheese’s flavor unique and has allowed her to grow strictly from word-of-mouth marketing.
“I’ve never had to promote at all,” she said.
She currently makes about 85 pounds of cheese a week and sells it to upscale grocery stores and fine dining restaurants in Fort Worth, Dallas and Plano.
“I could sell twice as much cheese if I had the milk to make it.”
She plans to have different labels made up for the various pastures, much like a vineyard to better reflect the flavor differences.
Rogers said she has learned to pay more attention to what grass-based cow dairies are doing than to what other goat dairies are doing.
In June of 2005, she went to once-a-day milking and said this has had absolutely no effect on her milk yield.
Her current goal is to go to seasonal breeding.
“I want to get out of Texas in July and August,” she said.
“I’m considering several options to get me through the time when the goats are dry so I can continue to supply my market.”
She is not interested in expanding or mass producing her cheese, but would rather produce a product that connoisseurs seek out, made in a very limited quantity.
“Goats like a lot of diversity and choice in what they eat so I am limited in the number of animals I can manage on this acreage. I don’t mind, however, as I don’t care to be a large producer.”
She said the ideal situation for a browse-based goat dairy would be to be to stay small or as a complementary enterprise to a large cattle ranch. “Goats like to eat things that cattle and horses don’t like to eat, so they are perfect companion grazers.”
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