by Kara Lynn Dunn
GLENFIELD, NY – Early planning prior to purchasing their first farm in 2015 proved providential for Andrew and Blake Place when the coronavirus pandemic shut down dairy demand this spring.
“From the start, Andy wanted to have a Grade A-certified facility that would allow us the flexibility to ship milk, bottle milk – to have options so they we would not limit ourselves. Inviting the state inspector onboard early in the process helped us with a clean slate to build upon immediately and into the future,” said Blake.
The Places began reclaiming a former cow dairy in Lewis County in northern New York in 2016 for dairying with goats. Andy designed and built a bright and spacious new milkhouse and milking parlor with a closed system that does not expose the milk to air.
Both Andy and Blake grew up on dairy farms and are Cornell University graduates with animal science degrees. They settled on goats because “they are easy animals to work with and goat milk is nutritionally comparable to cow’s milk for protein but with smaller fat molecules that make it easier to digest,” Blake explained.
In early May 2020, Hidden Pastures Goat Dairy had approximately 210 adults and 40-plus kids grazing on eight acres. One hundred acres are rented to a neighboring dairy. They currently buy-in feed.
Their planning took into account that goat dairies largely have to find markets on their own.
“Goat dairies do not have co-ops to sell their milk so we knew we would need a plan for doing something with our milk ourselves in times when there would be no market for fluid milk,” Blake said.
Local product startup award
By 2017, the Places had kidded out the herd and were milking the goats of different breeds selected for their dairy production quality. They shipped the milk to creameries making high-end goat milk cheeses. By year’s end, the couple had their sights set on making goat’s milk gelato and had won the $10,000 Farm Bureau Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge Best Local Product Startup Award. The award money went to the purchase and installation of a freezer unit.
In May 2018, Hidden Pastures Dairy launched its first branded product with online sales of vanilla goat’s milk gelato. The gelato is made with minimal sugar and no added fat or cream.
“We always wanted to do value-added and, because cheesemaking held most of the value-added focus for goat dairies, we saw gelato as a way to fill a gap with opportunities to sell to restaurants and retailers locally. We knew if people tried it, they would love it and they do,” Blake said.
Today, the farm ships milk to Mercer’s Dairy, six miles away in Boonville, to make several flavors of gelato: vanilla, vanilla with a cow’s milk caramel swirl, maple made with locally-produced syrup, chocolate and mint. The product is sold as single pints and in a four-pint sampler.
The farm’s network of buyers includes nearby retailers and restaurants as well as resort areas, college towns and sites in New York State’s North Country, Thousand Islands, Adirondacks, Finger Lakes and Southern Tier regions. Distributors and retailers interested in selling Hidden Pastures’ products can request info via the farm’s website.
Adapting to a changing marketplace
Hidden Pastures’ ability to adapt to changes in the marketplace, including the pandemic impact, was facilitated by the couple’s interest in developing markets close to home as a better marketing strategy for the long run and with help from another nearby processor.
When the Places’ cheesemaking creameries began slowing their requests for milk in 2018, Blake learned how to make small-batch cheese at Black River Valley Natural Creamery in Lyons Falls.
“Black River Valley Natural provided an incubator-type opportunity that helped us add chevre to our product line,” Blake noted.
The farm now works with co-packers making various sizes and flavors of Hidden Pastures Goat Dairy cheese rounds that are available fresh and frozen.
When the creamery demand slowed, the Places began thinking about bottling milk. Their label for liquid milk sales was approved in May 2019, but they were not quite ready to start bottling at the time.
“This March, when the markets dried up due to the coronavirus pandemic, we were faced with the heartbreaking choice of dumping milk. It was time to start bottling,” Blake explained.
The pasteurized, non-homogenized bottling is done in small batches at Black River Valley Natural Creamery. The first run was 25 gallons. To get people to try the product, the Places gave away free pints and quarts. The next week they bottled 50 gallons.
“Lewis County is a traditional cow dairy county, but our neighbors have been onboard with the farm-based business we are trying to build and the community has supported us. People who have never tasted goat’s milk are pleasantly surprised, say ‘it tastes great,’ and we see repeat buyers,” Blake said.
Recently, their largest bottling of 100 gallons was converted to quarts to be donated to the local school district for families in need.
“We have formed a Lewis County Farm to Community group with a GoFundMe page that supports the purchasing of farm foods at or below cost to give to families in our South Lewis school district along with the regular meal delivery drop-offs for families during this time,” Blake explained.
In late April, Lively Run Goat Dairy in Interlaken, NY, with donations from another crowdfunding campaign, began buying Hidden Pastures milk to make cheese that is donated to food banks.
The Places’ longer term plans include buying their own dry ice machine, adding retailers, participating with the developing North Star Food Hub led by Black River Valley Natural co-owner Bethany Munn and advocating for farm-to-school opportunities to include goat milk as an option for students.
The farm is New York State Grown and Certified and participates in the New York State Sheep and Goat Health Assurance Program. To see photos and videos, visit the Hidden Pastures Goat Dairy Facebook and Instagram pages or www.hiddenpastures.com.