Maribeth Ritchie of Sangha Farm in Plainfield, MA makes goat cheese: chevre, feta, brie, St. Jerome, cheddar and Trappist, plus 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 1670 house and land, growing organic vegetables under animal power — two oxen purchased at 48 hours old, Moses and Abraham. That was 2004.
Derek learned farming on Claudia’s Herbs in Orleans, CA in 1995, and he worked in vineyards. 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,” she said.
In Ashfield, Maribeth’s asthma worsened, irritated by living in the old house with a dirt basement, and she had to increase her asthma medication, some of it steroids. When her young son became restless at night, she determined some medication was passed to him during nursing, so she found an alternative: goat milk.
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 so 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 he was building for the land’s owner Tamsen Merrill. Merrill said yes. The couple obtained a loan for equipment from Franklin County Community Development Corporation. Then the hard part began: regulations regarding dairy wastewater.
On working with the EPA, DEP, and inspectors, Maribeth said, “State inspectors were great. The local health inspector was unfamiliar with wastewater regulations. It was a matter of finding the right language. Washing water and whey from the cheese was a really big deal; I couldn’t let it go down the drain,” and enter their septic system.
They had planned to use the five gallons of whey produced as compost. The local inspector considered it toxic wastewater. 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. People raved about the taste of the lamb meat they sold.
Also in 2007, a lamb so small it fit inside their palms was born, needing hourly feeding. It 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, as, “Outside, we reached another hurdle we had to jump.”
This year they didn’t breed any sheep, as they are phasing out lamb. Maribeth’s letting go of her dream of making sheep cheese. Too many other dreams came true.
In September 2011, Miller inquired if the Ritchies 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 started having babies — 15 or 20 goats in a two week period. My husband and I basically lived in the barn,” said Maribeth.
Jayden, now 10, does the feeding, saving his allowance to buy a laptop. Maia is 12. “They love them. As they get older they get more responsible for the babies.”
If less than 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. In summer, making 25 pounds of feta and 200 of chevre produces 150 gallons of whey weekly.
Grain-fed, the goats are moved every few days on pasture in summer. They 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 — but never deficient in possibility.