There's a public romance taking place between Americans and their food these days, and sometimes it appears to be annoying the hell out of Kipp Valentine.
A college-educated former U.S. Naval Reserve officer who has been a farmer for 38 of his 53 years, Valentine calls himself a dinosaur. He's civic-minded, professional, opinionated, and proud. First things first, he says as he tromps through the hay shed toward the milk room, this is a commercial dairy on Johns Island, not some feel-good hobby farm. He's in the goat business to make money — enough money to send his four children to private school, he says — and he's not going to apologize for that.
There's a list of things that bug the blunt-spoken Valentine ("idiot youth," lazy people of any stripe, complainers, "recreational farmers," and so on), but his first concern this particular morning is whether Dirt will portray his product fairly in light of the fact that Valentine refuses to conform to popular stereotypes of how a trendy, local-first goat farmer is supposed to think and talk.
So enough, for the moment, about Valentine. What does his product say for itself?
For starters, the raw milk that his milking machines collect from 30 lactating does is so pure that there's only one way to distinguish a used milk filter from a fresh one: the used filter in the milk-room trash can is slightly damp.
And the taste? He dips a stainless-steel ladle into his spotless cold-storage tank. The taste is sweet, smooth, and substantial, with more complex flavors than the homogenized bovine product that has become America's frame of reference.
His pasteurized Burden Creek Dairy soft chevre cheese? It's a hit at the Charleston Farmers Market on Saturdays, but also a gourmet staple in the dairy cases at local Harris Teeter, Earth Fare, Whole Foods, and Piggly Wiggly grocery stores (plus the Boone Hall Farms store on Highway 17 in Mt. Pleasant).
Whatever one might think of Valentine's rapid-fire commentary on the flaws of the modern world, you'd be a fool to argue with the man's milk and cheese.
The drive from Valentine's place off River Road on the east side of the island to Casey Price's homestead on the west side of Main Road is relatively short when you consider that the two dairy operations are worlds apart in terms of mindset and business model.
Valentine is in the commercial goat business "because the tomato business sucked." Price, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer, led by faith from Oregon to South Carolina. She and her husband Tim didn't purchase their 12-acre farm with goats in mind, and she doesn't sell cheese, in part because she considers herself a raw-milk advocate, in part because of the intricacies of state law. Their Jeremiah Farm & Goat Dairy typically produces less than 10 gallons of milk per day, and though Price sells everything the family doesn't use, the farm's milk income covers little more than the cost of the goats' field.
"My purpose isn't to provide Charleston with milk," says Price, opening the gate from the milking shed and stepping aside to let a just-milked doe saunter through. "It's to provide my niche with milk."
Even that description of her business doesn't give the full picture. Though she runs a licensed dairy and sells raw milk directly to the public, what Price does is at least an equal part education. Visitors come and go at the Jeremiah Farm & Goat Dairy (farm tours are $3 a person, goat-milking tours are $5), and on average a couple of groups a week will make the drive for private classes in cheese-making. The "quick cheese" class costs $10, but $30 gets you her popular "Three Cheeses in Three Hours" program.
This contrast between Valentine and Price hints at the problem with making general statements about goat dairies, whether you're talking about local producers on Johns Island or the goat industry across the United States. While the cattle dairy business is characterized by industrial operations, regional distribution networks, and controversy, the goat business is a tossed salad of small farms, hobbyists, artisans, foodies, back-to-the-land dreamers, and bottom-line businessmen.
Goats are adaptable, curious creatures raised for meat and milk around the globe, but the massive efficiency of bovine milk production in the United States puts up such staggering numbers that it's hard to fit the goat-dairy industry into the same picture frame.
This would normally be the place where you'd read a neat, authoritative number that puts goat milk in the context of the larger dairy industry, but good luck finding a reliable one. The American Dairy Goat Association doesn't have that number. Neither does the U.S. Department of Agriculture, although a number of its publications attest to the scale of goat milk production in a back-handed way. As an industry, goat dairying remains so independent, localized, and quirky that the government can't even estimate its size with confidence. It just doesn't register.
So to get some idea of the scale of these things, consider these figures. A healthy doe at the peak of her lactation cycle can produce four to seven gallons of milk per week. Meanwhile, with modern techniques and hormone supplements, a single Holstein heifer can provide up to 12 gallons of milk per day.
That cow-goat productivity gap helped make the United States cattle country early in its history. Goats have long hovered somewhere near the bottom of the nation's animal-husbandry pecking order, raised primarily for meat marketed to immigrants.
But something changed with the back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s. As the first American generation raised in the suburbs shrugged off modern life and tried its hand at homesteading, goats and chickens — typically raised for milk and eggs, not meat — were often the first and only animals in the barnyard.
The legacy of that goat revival isn't easily summarized. The phrase "goat-farmer" took on a derisive connotation within commercial agriculture circles, where it implied a hapless hippie greenhorn. Yet among the ranks of what would become the Slow Food, organic farming, and sustainable agriculture movements, dairy goat farmers assumed heroic status.
Kipp Valentine got his start in the goat business when he and his wife received some dairy goats as a wedding present in 2000. He liked the way the numbers stacked up, but even after the couple decided to give dairying a try, they went about the switch methodically, slowly improving their herd while collecting used stainless-steel equipment piece by piece.
The effort took "two or three years before it was worthwhile," he said, but by the time a competitor wiped out the couple's organic free-range chicken business in the mid-2000s, the Valentines were ready to take the leap.
Viewed from outside, the dairy operation in front of their home looks like a cleverly improvised jumble of shipping containers and converted chicken buildings. Inside, however, the milking parlor, milk room, and cheese room are each white, spare, and meticulously clean. He explains the operation with rapid precision and recites goat facts like he's memorized them for a quiz. A buck won't mate when it's too hot. A doe lactates 305 days a year. Ten percent of the U.S. population has some allergy to cows' milk. More than 20 percent of his does produced triplets this year.
Valentine initially figured the margins in the milk business would be enough to keep them afloat, but as the operation grew, he pivoted toward cheese. Ninety percent of Burden Creek's milk now goes into cheese, and with solid demand for the product, Valentine expects to expand his herd by 20 does next year.
His expansion into local groceries is a recent development, the result of a growing herd. Yet the core of Burden Creek Dairy's business remains direct sales to a dozen upscale restaurants in Charleston, which expanded significantly about five years ago when several restaurant groups signed on.
Valentine flies his pragmatic flag for all to see, but some of his brusque talk is at least part bluster. "The quality I care about is quantity," he says in response to a question about goat breeds. Yet as the conversation continues from that quotable soundbite, Valentine delves into his continuing search for the perfect combination of genetic traits like flavor, fat content, and productivity. In a different PR package, Valentine's approach might make him a local foodie celebrity. It's a fate he seems determined to avoid.
Valentine describes farming as "the most rewarding job, for me, that there is in the world," and speaks of the lost notion of becoming "a man of substance." Whatever the future holds for him, he'll clearly meet it on his own terms.
Over on Platt Road, the arrival of one of Casey Price's regular customers interrupts her morning milking routine. The two banter easily as Price cleans up after the final milking, sterilizes her equipment, and transfers containers of fresh milk to the refrigerator in her bottle room. The visitor, a health-conscious MUSC student who grew up in Eastern Europe, leaves with enough to last her a week.
Many of Price's customers reflect one of those two themes. Either they're "deliberate about their health" because of philosophy or digestive problems, or they grew up in cultures where drinking fresh, unpasteurized milk is a way of life. Either way, raw goat's milk is important enough to them that they'll make the drive to Johns Island and pay $12 a gallon for it.
Price herself is a partisan in an ongoing debate about the relative merits of raw versus pasteurized milk, but she's no ideologue. She readily acknowledges that a safe milk supply has been a boon to city dwellers who lack access to fresh, trusted sources of raw milk. But for those who can get it, she says, the benefits of safely produced raw milk far outweigh any dangers.
Critics say that's wishful thinking, citing communicable disease statistics. Raw-milk advocates respond with arguments about the complex biology of raw milk as a natural immune-system booster and challenge the neutrality of industry health studies that support pasteurization. Some focus solely on taste. Fresh, raw-milk goat cheeses speak a wildly flavorful language.
Price touches on several of those ideas but keeps her appeal simple. "It's just in my heart to educate people about how much better for you raw is. I honestly believe our bodies aren't designed to utilize pasteurized milk, and that's why so many people are lactose intolerant, because they're drinking what you get at the store."
That straight-from-the-heart style is Price's signature. A born raconteur, she spins one tale after another as she leads a tour around her idyllic little 12-acre spread, segueing between the story of how the family came to live on the land in 2001, the series of fortunate events that led to its purchase, and the eventual founding of the goat dairy. Along the way there were prayers, surprises, mentors, and Bible-verse revelations, and as the tour and storytelling pass through the goat pen and out into the woods, the herd surrounds her, bumping into Price and each other like an ADD family out for a stroll. A squabbling turkey bobs around the edges of the group like a frantic sheep-dog in drag. "Don't mind him if he pecks at you," Price advises. "He's just very protective of the goats."
Later, under the shade of the live oak that spreads above the family's farm house, Price slips into a reflective mood.
"If I had a bigger dairy and a few more goats, I'd probably retail at places that were convenient for people ... But that's not really my niche," she said. "I'm not here to be a commercial dairy. I'm here to connect people to their food.
"The government says [raw milk] is going to kill you. I say, know your farmer."
Casey Price's Whole Goat Milk Ricotta Cheese
1 gallon whole goat milk
1/4 c. vinegar
3 Tbs. melted butter
1/2 tsp. baking soda
Warm milk to 206 degrees F. Stir in vinegar. Milk will rapidly coagulate. Let sit a minute or two.
Pour the curd into a cheesecloth-lined colander. Drain for a minute. Place the curds into a bowl. Mix soda and butter thoroughly into curds. Serve immediately or place cheese in covered container and refrigerate until ready to use. Keeps approximately five to seven days.
Yield: 1 1/2 to 2 pounds. One pound equals 2 cups.