Second Careers, First Place Ribbons
Though the name of his family’s business is Goat Lady Dairy, Steve Tate says their success perhaps lies more accurately in chickens and pigs.
“That is a big secret of being a good cheesemaker,” Tate says. “When you do a batch that turns out to be valuable only as an experiment that didn’t work, you don’t feel bad because the chickens and pigs get fed.” And initially at Goat Lady Dairy, a rolling, tree-lined property in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, the animals got fed a lot; no one at the dairy had experience in cheesemaking in the early days.
The goat lady herself—Steve’s late sister Ginnie, who purchased the farm along with two floppy-eared Nubian goats in 1984, and who passed away in 2009—was a nurse administrator by day at a hospital about 30 minutes away. And Tate, who relocated to the property from Minneapolis in 1995, had a doctorate in counseling. His wife, Lee, was a teacher. But together, the three thought they could make a go of running a farmstead dairy.
“I do think that education is transferable. You learn how to think creatively, problem-solve, be strategic—all of that,” Tate says of their early confidence in one another. “We didn’t do this because we failed in what we did before.” Instead, he says they wanted to work the land and connect others to it. The Tate siblings reared on a corn farm in Illinois, which Steve credits with providing them with a “farm ethic”—though not the experience for the kind of dairy farming they entered into. So they enrolled in workshops and found mentors. And just in case things failed, Ginnie kept her nursing job. “That was our exit plan. We knew if the business didn’t work, we wouldn’t starve.”
In fact, Goat Lady did the opposite, taking off at a time when all of North Carolina boasted no more than three other artisan cheesemakers. “We were the only show in town, and we tried real hard to make a good product,” Tate says.
Today there are approximately 40 operations in the state. Among them, Goat Lady Dairy is a leader. From two farmers’ markets and 90 in-state retail outlets and restaurants, the dairy consistently sells out of its cheeses. And this year its Smokey Mountain Round took first place in the Open Smoked category at the American Cheese Society’s competition (their fifth ACS award since being in business). The cheese is lightly toasted over apple-wood coals sourced from a neighbor’s property, but the tanginess of the goat’s milk still prevails. And though creamy, the cheese holds together. Such consistency is achieved by drying drained, hand-formed curd for two to three days before smoking it. “The trick there is just the right amount of time,” says Tate. “If you’ve lost too much moisture, they turn into hockey pucks. If they haven’t lost enough moisture, they fall apart.”
The odd-shaped cheese—flat on the bottom and rounded at its top—is smoked behind a large wooden building at the dairy that houses a massive dining room where ticketed farm dinners are regularly held. There is also a six-goat milking parlor and a small cheese room. “One of the things we’re most proud about is how much cheese we make in such a little space,” Tate says. With the help of two cheesemakers, Carrie and Bobby Bradds, Goat Lady produces 40,000 pounds on average each year, from fresh chèvres to several soft-ripened and aged cheeses.
Next year Tate, now 61, hopes to up production to 150,000 pounds. It’s part of what at first glance appears to be a counterintuitive retirement plan for the dairy’s owners.
“If there’s not growth, then there’s not enough business for anybody to buy into it,” Tate explains. So the cheesemaking room will expand, and the 30-goat milking herd will move to nearby Lindale Organic Dairy, where it will increase by approximately 345 members; Lindale has long provided Goat Lady with cow’s milk for mixed cheeses. In addition, several partners have invested in the business and will begin by overseeing sales and marketing, as Goat Lady makes a push to sell its products beyond the region for the first time.
“We’re looking forward to being free to travel and not have the commitment of milking goats twice a day. We’ll miss it,” Tate says, “but our expansion is the only way we figured we can retire and still have what we built go on.”
For the former teacher and counselor, that kind of forward thinking is the point. It’s why they placed almost all of their 75-acre property in a conservation easement that will protect it against future development. And it’s the reason that they’ve planned to continue their time at the dairy training and working alongside others for another ten or so years. They’ll share stories at farm dinners. Steve will develop new cheeses, and Lee will raise a small herd to keep on-site. Because, as Steve puts it, “you’ve got to have goats at Goat Lady Dairy.” Though the next decade will be something of a new experiment, chickens and pigs alone won’t do.
Written by Emily Wallace
Photos courtesy of Goat Lady Dairy