For 4 Tin Fish Farm in Conquest, NY, timing has proven elemental to its success. When the hobby goat farm of Kim Fortin and her husband, Andrew Fish (Get it? “4 Tin Fish” Farm?) began to produce much more milk and cheese than they needed, they made a business of it, just as the local foods movement gained traction in central New York. And ever since, the busy couple scarcely finds enough hours in the day, especially between February and fall, when they’re making cheese, plus kidding and showing.
They care for their herd of 50 (20 milking) goats and work day jobs, Fortin as a licensed clinical social worker in private practice and Fish as senior vice president, business development for a business promotion organization in Syracuse.
The couple purchased their farm in 2006. They wanted a garden and a place to keep their horses and perhaps some other animals. When they spotted two goats in the local Swap Sheet community paper, they bought them and had them bred.
Fortin said the breeder recognized them as registered alpine dairy goats of good quality. Their milking prowess proved him right. Fortin and Fish had about two gallons of goat milk daily. Fortin started making goat milk cheese, learning through reading books and researching on the Internet.
When the couple had too much cheese for them to eat, they began giving it away to friends.
“We got really good feedback,” Fortin said. “Everyone liked it and they kept saying we should sell it.”
The local foods movement also helped the farm grow. As more and more people want to know where and how their food is made and that they’re supporting a local business and family, more small farms making farmstead goods like 4 Tin Fish Farm have been able to succeed.
To prepare for their foray into public sales, the couple talked with representatives from the Department of Ag & Markets and worked with a milk inspector about getting their milk house and cheese room inspected. By 2010, they were ready to go official selling 4 Tin Fish Farm cheeses and milk to the public, though cheese comprises most of their sales. They sell a small amount of milk and some of their cheese off the farm and most of their cheese to a few local restaurants and farmers markets.
The couple makes a few varieties of mild, creamy Chèvre — plain, peppercorn and herb — and feta, a salty, tangy, crumbly cheese.
“Chèvre and feta have been our standard cheese,” Fortin said. “Those are both really well known goat cheeses. People recognize it. This year, I’m starting to experiment with an aged cheese and mold ripened soft cheese. I haven’t gotten the aging process down yet. Chèvre and feta are soft so you know right away if they’re good. Aged cheese you have to wait at least two months.”
This fall, Fortin hopes to start online sales.
“We have a lot of friends and family out of state harassing us to do that,” she said. “This summer, we’ve met a lot of people through farmers markets and festivals visiting for the summer. They’ve been asking more and more, ‘Can I buy online?’ and ‘Do you ship?’ We feel that’s the next step.”
She hopes to grow the herd slightly bigger, but with few acres and just the two of them, the farm can’t grow much bigger. A few area youngsters help with cleaning and milking.
“It’s manageable now, but if we get too much bigger, we may have to expand the physical building,” Fortin said.
The barn is an old horse barn, so they place four to six goats per box stalls. She has also used calf hutches to expand their ability to house goats. That has worked out better than the shelters they had tried building themselves early in their goat adventure.
“Goats can be rough on things,” Fortin said.
The couple uses portable fencing for rotational grazing. The pasture has mixed grasses, but “they really like the hedgerow,” Fortin said. “That’s their favorite. Goats are browsers. They’ll eat grass, but they like weeds, too.
“We’ve tried different grain and hay. They know if you’ve changed their grain or hay. If they don’t like it, they rip it out of their hay feeder and throw it on the ground. They put anything in their mouths, but that doesn’t mean they eat it.”
Fortin kept horses and goats as a child. During her high school years, her family moved into town.
“My heart has always been in the country,” she said. “As an adult, I’m very happy to be in the country.”
Andrew grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, so his adventures in agriculture are all novel.
Fortin and Fish have been trying to ramp up their showing efforts to raise brand awareness for the farm, their cheese and their goat breeding.
“We strive to find that good balance of a strong show goat and strong milk production,” she said. “We want a good, all around hardy goat.”
At the New York State Fair, they set a goal to get to the top three of all the classes, and they met their goal.