Maribeth Ritchie of Sangha Farm in Plainfield, MA makes goat cheese: chevre, feta, brie, St. Jerome, cheddar and Trappist, and more. Feta sells so quickly she can’t keep it in stock at the Western Massachusetts stores where she and her husband Derek Ritchie deliver it.
In 2000, they raised and sold organic vegetables in Maine at their Sangha Farm, then relocated to Ashfield, MA, renting a 1600s era house and growing organic vegetables under animal power — two oxen, Moses and Abraham. That was 2004.
Derek learned farming on Claudia’s Herbs in Orleans, CA in 1995. Maribeth’s father was a ‘farmer at heart.’ Given the choice between cleaning house or helping him in the garden, she always chose the garden. After working with special needs adults in therapeutic recreation for 15 years, “I married a farmer and became a farmer.”
In Ashfield, her asthma worsened, irritated by living in the old house with a dirt basement. She ended up having to increase her asthma medication, some of it steroids. Her breastfeeding son Jayden became restless at night. Determining that some medication was entering her breast milk, she found an alternative: goat milk. “Goat milk is as close to breast milk as you can get.”
She weaned him and fed him unpasteurized raw goat milk. “My daughter had raw milk too. When they had their first drink of pasteurized milk, they didn’t like it — they were used to the freshness of goat milk.”
Their supplier was John Miller of Goat Rising Farm in Charlemont. Finding it cheaper to buy a goat than buy milk, they purchased a goat, accompanied by a sheep, and learned how to milk her. By 2007, they had four Nubians and so much extra milk she learned to make cheese, and raised Finnlandish sheep.
Contractor Will Elwell liked Maribeth’s cheese so much he suggested adding a milking parlor and cheese room in the barn that he was building for the land’s owner, Tamsen Merrill. Merrill said yes. Maribeth and Derek obtained a loan for equipment from Franklin County Community Development Corporation. Then the hard part began: regulations regarding dairy wastewater.
They worked with the EPA, DEP, and inspectors. “State inspectors were great. The local health inspector was unfamiliar with waste water regulations. It was a matter of finding the right language. Washing water and whey from the cheese was a really big deal; they couldn’t let it go down the drain and enter their septic system.
Maribeth and Derek had planned to use the five gallons of whey produced as compost. The local inspector considered it toxic waste water. Working with the Natural Resource Conservation Services (NRCS) and the local health inspector, they came up with feeding it to their animals and making it into bread.
Everything from the milk facility had to enter a separate drain. The sheep loved it. “Some of the goats would drink it too, didn’t like it as much as sheep do.”
Also in 2007, a lamb so small it fit inside their palms was born, needing hourly feeding, and lived inside their house for three months. Naming her Tava, they labelled the cheese after her. Slowly she was able to lift her head, stand, then walk.
This year they didn’t breed any sheep, as they are phasing out lamb, and Meribeth is letting go of her dream of making sheep cheese. Too many other dreams came true.
In September 2011, Miller inquired if they wanted to buy his property and business. Already having chosen a farm in Plainfield, they said yes only to his business. They closed on Goat Rising in October, closed on their 11 acre farm in November, and moved in December.
“In February 2012, we starting having babies, 15 or 20 goats in a two week period. My husband and I basically lived in the barn.”
If under 10 goats need milking, Derek hand-milks them, each producing a gallon daily. Otherwise he uses a milking machine. Of 30 goats, eight are kids, nursed by seven does until they are weaned. Meanwhile, they buy milk to make cheese.
Grain-fed, the goats are moved every few days on pasture in summer, and love kale, parsley, carrots, winter squash, squash seeds, and cucumbers. They are fed kelp meal and a selenium salt block as the soil is selenium-deficient.
Maribeth makes and sells goat milk truffles. The only other person she knows making them is a woman in New Brunswick, Canada, who taught Miller how to milk his goats.