Superfluous Milk Yields Goat Cheese Business

12/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant New York Correspondent

PINE BUSH, N.Y. — Joyce Henion didn’t plan on founding a goat cheese dairy, but she did: Acorn Hill Farmstead Cheese.

Twelve years ago, Henion thought owning two Nubian dairy goats would provide fresh, wholesome milk for her family. A friend sold her two does and her dairy aspirations came true.

Her husband, Ray Valent, and daughter, Aleah, now 15, helped by drinking their fill, but the trio couldn’t consume a gallon of milk a day.

That’s when Henion became interested in making goat cheese. She had made yogurt before, so it wasn’t difficult for Henion to learn cheese making from the friend who sold her the goats and showed her how to care for them.

Henion was soon hooked on cheese making. She began experimenting and trying different recipes and using leftover curds for new ideas, such as blending in herbs she has grown, soaking cheeses in merlot to make “Purple Moon” semi-soft cheese and other ideas. She also makes tomme aged in wine must, cheddar-style cheese, feta, Italian pasta filata and whole milk ricotta.

She raises her herd of 35 (25 are currently milking does) using organic methods, though Acorn Hill isn’t certified organic. When she can, she also uses organic ingredients, such as herbs she raises.

Henion is a member of NOFA-NY and thinks that her customers like the fact that they can know more about her products than if they shopped at a mainstream store.

“People are concerned about food safety,” Henion said. “There have been so many food-borne illnesses that have been frightening. Even salad greens and peanut butter have made people sick. Food is coming from myriad places, and clearly it’s not safe every time. They want a food source where they know where the food is coming from.”

Consumers also learn more about agriculture if they know where their food comes from and can chat with the farmer and food maker. Henion often finds herself in the role of agricultural educator.

“People ask me about how I care for my animals and they want to know that they are well taken care of, that they’re outside and have a good life,” Henion said.

The fact that she’s teaching others about farming is ironic, considering Henion didn’t come from a farming background. But she always enjoyed gardening and animals. When she and her husband purchased their land about a decade ago, the existing horse barn seemed to beckon her to try her hand at farming.

“I’d spent some time with a friend’s herd of goats and I loved them,” Henion said.

Once she began making cheese to use up her superfluous milk, a friend who had just organized a farmers market urged Henion to sell it at the new market. To perfect her cheese, Henion began visiting other cheese makers in the state to learn about their equipment, facilities and methods. Their mentoring helped a lot.

“I’m eternally grateful to the folks who spent time with me and helped me feel my way through doing this,” Henion said. “I’d never imagined I’d be doing this. There was a lot of generosity from folks as I tried to find my way.

“I started off in the dark, and now I’m coming up with my own inventions,” she said. “There have been an equal number, if not more failures, compared with what’s being sold.”

She based the Purple Moon cheese on a German cheese recipe. Her heritage drew her to this idea.

“My mom was half German and she had a very stern German grandmother, so it’s neat I can make this traditionally German cheese,” Henion said. “Some of the other stuff, the most recent successful experiment is a washed rind cheese with rosemary infused balsamic vinegar as the wash.”

Henion continues to market her cheese at the local farmers market and also sells through farm stores, and through Winter Sun Farms CSA in New York City.

Henion hopes to expand the farm next year by clearing some of the wooded acres to increase the current 1.5 acres of grazing land.

Henion also raises a few ducks and sells their eggs, and grows her own herbs and produce in the family garden.

Valent works in auto sales, but helps on the farm when he can, as does Aleah.

In addition to the pleasure of caring for animals, “I like the fact that I get to switch things up or that my day can throw me a curve,” Henion said.

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