This is the last in a four-part blog series about Raw-Milk Cheese. After three posts of agonizing over raw-milk cheese, it was recently time to put my dairy where my mouth was. Pathogens or no pathogens, it was time to get gritty, gonzo, and goat-cheesy. I took my pen on the road to the Little White Goat Dairy, where raw is proudly on the menu. Missed last week’s post on the culture of raw? Check it out here!
I arrive at Little White Goat when the road runs out. Upon first glance, it feels uncommonly settled. There is a bigness to the place. Pastures expand north and west out of sight, yet there is only the house up the hill, the modest yet solid barn, and the frame of a building under construction. I see no signs of goats, let alone people. Everything seems like it belongs there. Even the yellow wood of the building-to-be gives the impression that, once upon a time, all of this was discovered—not because it is rustic or overgrown, but rather because of its simple integration.
A shuffling noise next to the barn indicates a single tawny goat who has come to investigate this city-slicker. Within moments, the whole herd is staring from the safe distance of 20 feet, each wearing identical expressions of goat-wonder. Several urinate, I assume out of awe.
When I turn, I see Rachel Scherer approaching from the house on the hill. Even at a distance, Rachel has an unimposing self-assuredness that is suited for the farm. With little introduction and even less prompting, we set off on an ambling tour of the facilities. Though she began raising goats for homestead 30 years ago, only in the last ten has she made the dairy an operation for profit. According to her, it was the only logical choice.
“We are what they eat” is a mantra of the Little White Goat, and the entire farm rings with this notion. We immediately walk downhill from the barn, passing a chicken coop. The hundred or so chickens eat any parasites out of the fields, fulfilling an important role in the ecosystem Rachel has built. I give up trying to write down the different names of grasses that bubble endlessly in conversation. Everything has a place and a purpose. Everything nourishes the goats, who in turn nourish us. We reach the fence, where the electricity has been turned off. Crossing over to the pig enclosure, we stand still for a minute, waiting for pigs to materialize. The pigs eat whey and clear land for pasture. They complete the livestock triumvirate.
Rachel at this point looks me squarely in the eye and launches into an explanation of goat care. The herd consists of 20 goats, all of whom she knows like her children (who, fully grown, have settled within shouting distance of the dairy). She explains how she can catch certain diseases with a glance under their eyelids, by the slightest change in their behavior. Large operations have to wait for evidence to occur in the milk itself. There is no question of safety, she tells me. The pigs show up, and they are big and rambunctious.
I sense the raw milk question hovering. “I read you blog post,” Rachel chuckles at one point, unembellished. I smile but stiffen a little. Oh jeez, she thinks I’m an idiot. About at this time, I realize that the honey bees are clearly attracted to my hair gel, a problem that does not affect Rachel as well. “Oh yeah,” she continues, “I’m glad you came so I can straighten you out a bit.” A pig snorts somewhere behind me.
We walk back to meet the herd. Four goats approach and begin nuzzling us. They smell clean, and they press against us with a loving urgency that reminds me of my cat back home in Denver. Lamancha goats are bred for their disposition. Little White Goat (the name of the dairy as well as a particular goat), Rachel explains, is the queen. She milks me for all the attention she can get. The goat hierarchy is strict. The other three flanking her are her lieutenants. A fifth goat stands between the royalty and the rest of the herd. She is trying to uproot number four and get in the inner circle.
Upon entering the barn, Rachel’s tone absorbs a steely sarcasm straight from the decor. I don sterile crocs and wash my hands vigorously just to gain entrance to the processing rooms. The milk room and the cheese room, Rachel informs me, are inspected by different agencies, though their proximity makes this laughable. Rachel doesn’t sell outside of Massachusetts, so state health officials alone monitor her operation. She explains that much of her equipment she had special ordered, for her production quantities are so much smaller than the norm. All of this information is proud and prickly. Rachel gushes about eating locally, and she keeps her commercial scope small on purpose. She is also quick with the facts and history of how federal and state law intentionally favors the massive scale of the dairy industry. Most of Rachel’s business is conducted from the storefront attached to the barn. She could practically name each honey bee that pollinates her pastures. For Little White Goat, the best revenge against arbitrary intrusions is farming well.
Between dry appraisals of the various ways health standards shaped the construction of her operation, Rachel is vivid in her defense of raw milk. “My grandchildren drink this,” she says at one point, conclusively. If there were ever a pathogen that caused some trouble in the milk, it would be the result of gross negligence of the herd or careless hygiene during production. Rachel is neither negligent nor careless. I don’t think pathogens would have the gall to contaminate anything she touched.
Sitting in the storefront, which contains a pair of refrigerators and a shelf of t-shirts, the conversation meanders. Her customers, Rachel tells me, commute to take large stockpiles of dairy back with them. Curiously, people find it easier to drive two hours from the Boston suburbs than 20 minutes from the next town over. I nod at this, but it confirms a stereotype I’ve developed for who will really make the effort to get raw milk. For safety reasons, Rachel doesn’t let her clientele leave without a cooler. “People don’t understand that you can’t leave raw milk exposed in a car,” she says with polite exasperation. Rachel is optimistic about the future; her business is booming, and the demand is growing. She links her experience to the rise of artisanal products, to locavorism, to the slow foods movement. As she draws these connections out of the air, I think of the succession of pigs, chickens, goats, and endless grasses, all sustaining each other, all related. For Rachel, everything is related, and she keeps it that way.
Standing up vigorously, Rachel declares its time to feed me raw milk. She seems to expect me to be nervous, but I’ve long since accepted a fundamental trust in her work. I feel like I’m living out a passage from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. She stocks an enormous cooler with cheese, milk, and yogurt. As an afterthought, she includes some kefir on top. Kefir is going to be big soon, she tells me. It hits all its marks as organic, healthy, and snack-able.
We walk to the house, and I’ve barely sat myself before the feast is ready. The bread was baked next door. The honey was from her friend’s hive down the road. As Rachel explains this, her neighbor walks in and presents us with fresh-baked muffins made with her yogurt from yesterday. The blueberries were picked that morning.
Rachel hates rubs and flavorings. She would rather her product speak for itself. Sure enough, the cheese is just as outspoken as her. The chèvre is incredibly light and airy, and the flavor is mild with hints of grass and sunshine. Caciotta, a hard shepherd’s cheese, is a special treat. It’s resembles parmesan, but its flavor is nuttier and not quite so sharp. My favorite, though, is the feta. Unquestionably sublime, it is salty and tangy with a dense texture. I pick pieces out of the brine, which is how all feta should be eaten. All of it is proudly unpasteurized, and you can taste it.
I left the farm full and smiling. It’s hard not to smile at the Little White Goat Dairy. There is such an irresistible goodness to the place. But I still felt like I hadn’t really pinned raw-milk. I certainly trusted and respected Rachel’s operation, but it was the only one I had seen. The stickiest idea I encountered was that you don’t just consume a product—you consume the entire farm. I, like Rachel, believe in what she makes because it’s reinforced at every juncture. It isn’t just about whether dairy is pasteurized or unpasteurized—it’s about whether or not the product is well-made. Not pasteurizing the milk from a factory farm would not make it better. Pasteurizing Rachel’s milk wouldn’t do much good either. The right to not pasteurize is earned through being wiser, nimbler, and more incisive than big dairies. How this could be a model for large population, I don’t quite see yet. Farms like Little White Goat are great in part because they don’t have to reach the entire country, just their own small corner. It would take some restructuring for every nook and cranny of the country to have its own Rachel Scherer.
Nonetheless, I can’t stop the optimism I contracted from drinking raw milk, and I don’t know if there is a doctor who can cure that.