With more than 5,100 farms throughout the county, Lancaster leads the commonwealth, representing about 10 percent of all PA farms, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2017 Census of Agriculture (and the most recent statistics available). This is the first installment of an ongoing series from Lancaster Online with a focus on small independent farms and creative use of farmland. We hope it serves as a reminder that the food grown and raised in Lancaster County is both diverse and extraordinary and that the people tending the land have stories worth telling. Join us in saluting our neighbors.
The welcome committee at Linden Dale Farm in Strasburg Township is about 100 large, a choir of nonstop bleaters huddled at the gate’s edge. They’re curious about this human visitor and whether her jacket might be a tasty midafternoon snack. It’s a busy time of year for the goat girls and their human shepherds, also known as the Mellingers. From now until summer’s end, each nanny requires twice-daily milking service and produces 8 to 10 pounds of milk a day. That milk is the medium for the family’s artisanal line of hard and soft cheese, yogurt and sweets. Last year, Andrew Mellinger and his sons Andy and Abe produced more than 10,000 pounds of cheese and dairy products.
“We are truly farmstead,” Andrew said. “We grow all the crops for the goats and use only their milk for our cheese.”
The 93-acre property at 127 Herr Road has been in the family for more than 200 years, and Andrew Sr., who is 59, is the sixth generation to farm the land. Growing up, he learned how to raise dairy cows and grow commodity crops like peas and beans, as well as tobacco. Until the early 1970s, says son Andy, now 33, they did cigar rolling on the property. In 2005, the senior Mellinger sold the family’s herd of 55 cows and decided it was time for a change – to goats.
“I’ve always liked goats,” Andrew said, introducing me to a black goat named Delilah, and her daughter, Doris, while they chomped on winter rye.
Together, with his wife, Mary, and six children, Mellinger realized his dream in 2008 with a herd of seven goats, while he moonlighted as barn manager at Sight & Sound Theatres, just down the road. In the 13 years since, Andy and Abe (now 31) graduated from the prestigious Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (also Andrew’s alma mater) and have become equal partners in the business. They deepened their study of artisan cheesemaking in Canada and France and grew their herd exponentially. And, Andrew said, “We did everything ourselves.”
Because milk production drastically falls off in the fall (from 100 to 15 gallons per day), the Mellingers produce several kinds of hard, aged cheese — Gouda, tomme and Romano, to name a few — as a way to extend the cheese season and manage the logistics of milk production. In fact, the girls make no milk at all in December and January.
And then, like clockwork, the cycle begins anew, with the seventh generation poised to take the farm into its next chapter.
“My dad always said, ‘You won’t make a whole lot of money as a farmer, but you can do a little bit of everything,’ ” Andy said. “He said that you’ll never get tired of doing just one thing, that there’s always a new challenge and problem to work on. And he’s right, especially the way the farm is now. We’ve maximized the variety of tasks, from growing hay to making cheese, and it’s exciting to see how it all works.”