HOLLAND, MA – It took some gentle ribbing from a local inspector to act as a catalyst, but that was the final nudge Jennifer Poirier needed to turn her hobby into a full-fledged career.
Shepherd’s Gate Farm, located on Union Road in Holland, MA, right on the Connecticut border, was originally a gardening and dry floral business which was much more prosperous before décor trends changed, shifting away from flowers for homes. Poirier had grown up raising Nubian goats, so transitioning into having her own was no big deal . . . but the market wasn’t her only reason to make the change.
This particular agricultural journey began in 1990 when one of Poirier’s sons was fighting a number of health issues, and along the way she figured out he might have a severe lactose intolerance problem. “Our pediatrician was of Italian descent, and having grown up with it himself, he agreed to letting us try goat milk to see if that made a difference,” Poirier explained.
“After we got our first two goats it was like a miracle. It was life-saving,” she said. “The ear infections, the bronchitis, the asthma all cleared up.”
Later, after her and her husband’s youngest son was born in the late 1990s, she decided to come back to the goats, and this time around she was being sold on LaManchas. “They don’t photograph well,” she joked, “but the first one I saw was black, white and tan, and elf-eared. Its personality entranced me.” She added that in general LaManchas are “calm and demure, with a sweet spirit.”
Shepherd’s Gate underwent its transformation in 2002, when Poirier began to work on making it a “real” dairy. “We really love the animals, and we were working on supporting what we loved. The town inspector, for three years, kept telling us we were selfish, keeping this wonderful product to ourselves,” she said. At that point, her family had 12 animals producing 13 gallons of milk a day. “We reached a turning point where we had to decide if we were going to go all in.”
Poirier was all in, and said her first goal was to call a list of other local dairy producers for information. In her research she found that about 75 percent of them were out of business, due to stress, injury, divorce or debt. “I believed we were strong enough to make this work, and we have survived our ups and downs. (Her husband John has a full-time job, so the farm is Jennifer’s enterprise.)
She admitted she was “bitten by the Nubian bug again in 2007,” but for good reason. “I did it because I wanted to increase the butterfat content in the milk,” she said.
The LaManchas, which do produce leaner milk, are easy, Poirier said. “You bring them into the dairy, and they just jump up on the milk stand, squat a little, and they’re good. I had to lift the big Nubian up there, who was belligerent the entire time.”
There are a few crossbreeds in her herd, and she keeps a couple long-eared babies each year. She makes sure she names every one of her goats. Today, Shepherd’s Gate is milking 35 goats, with 25 kids still on the farm in the first week of July. They also have seven alpacas and free range chickens. In addition to the animals, Poirier continues to garden and dream up new ways of keeping her small farm productive.
She said she is working on creating lodging for those really interested in goat keeping so they can stay on the farm for a while, and she hopes to keep their new farm stand open with full-time hours, with a goal of opening an online farm stand as well. Shepherd’s Gate offers a full range of products created from their goat milk – truffles, feta, chevre (in a variety of flavors), mozzarella and ricotta cheeses, yogurt, gelato and fudge – which they also sell at farmers markets and to restaurants.
What makes goat milk fudge different? “The creaminess makes it so much better,” Poirier said. “It doesn’t have that gritty sugary feel you get sometimes with other fudges. I also have a secret recipe from the first farm I bought goats from.”
The product quality speaks for itself. Poirier described a touring band that made a special trip to her farmers market booth on the Mass Pike after having last stopped there seven years prior.
In addition to the dairy and the creamery, Poirier teaches goat farming and cheese making classes and gelato making classes, as well as career classes at UMass Amherst and serving on UMass Extension’s Crops, Dairy, Livestock and Equine Advisory Committee.
The mission statement of Shepherd’s Gate states that it is “committed to offering the highest quality natural products, diligently produced from healthy livestock that enjoy the advantages of pasture and woodland and the freedom and nurturing to attain their full potential.” The property has been farmed by her family for five generations, and as long as Poirier can keep evolving, she and her goats will keep the tradition alive.