Open Farm Day Saturday, Sept. 27
Noon – 5 p.m.
Free Goat Lady Dairy
3531 Jess Hackett Road, Climax

Steve Tate explains that there are three kinds of farms.

There are hobby farms, where owners dabble in growing produce or raising animals with the goal of feeding themselves and sharing the abundance with friends. There are lifestyle farms, where the dabbling expands to active selling—first to break even and then, perhaps, establishing a successful, even sustainable business model.

“And then there are livelihood farms, which are the only kind you can pass on,” says Tate, co-owner of Goat Lady Dairy, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month in the Randolph County town of Climax. “We’re not quite there, but that’s what we’ve been building toward for the past three years. We want to retire, and we don’t want to just turn off the lights here, which is what happens to so many small farms.”

It doesn’t appear that it will happen at Goat Lady. During the last half-decade, the Tates have taken considerable steps to ensure that the farm will outlive their tenure on it. In turn, one of North Carolina’s pioneering goat cheese outlets has upped its output considerably, becoming a leader in small-scale cheese production. The journey, though, has rarely been certain.

The award-winning operation started as a hobby farm in 1984, when Tate’s sister, Ginnie, bought 42 acres of land in northeastern Randolph County. Located about an hour west of Chapel Hill, the abandoned tobacco farm became her refuge from the demands of her job as a nurse administrator.

She’d grown up on a corn farm in Illinois, so the parcel—complete with a 200-year-old log cabin and barns in ruin—felt like a perfect fit. She originally called it Nubie Acres, a nod to the two pet Nubian goats she acquired while living in Conetoe, a tiny community near the state’s eastern end. While living there, she had acquired a nickname for herself as the herd grew.

“It was unincorporated and didn’t have any rules,” Tate recalls with a chuckle, one of several that bubbles up when talking about his older sister. “When she got home from work, she would take the goats from their pen and walk them through town, like you’d walk your dogs. That’s where she first got her reputation as ‘the goat lady.’”

Eventually, in Climax, locals first got to know Ginnie when she opened her farm to the public for basil and garlic festivals intended to help visitors appreciate the importance of small-scale farming. She later held events to demonstrate the appeal of raising affectionate goats and using their milk for cheese. She’d drive around with gleefully shrieking goats loaded into her Toyota Tacoma pickup truck, too.

“She was a very curious, energetic person,” Tate says of his sister, who died from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 2009, the same year she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Conservation Trust for North Carolina. “You never quite knew where her passion would take her.”

Agricultural leaders in Raleigh soon began to understand as much after she mastered volume milking and making artisan cheese. By the late ’80s, Ginnie was consulting with experts at N.C. State University and the state Department of Agriculture about turning her hobby farm into a bona fide cheese business.

“They laughed at her,” Steve recalls. “They said, ‘No one in Central North Carolina wants goat cheese—or even knows what it is.’”

Confident they were as wrong as the naysayers who believed the U.S. could never produce wine that would compete with European labels, Ginnie forged ahead. Steve says there was just one artisan cheese maker in North Carolina at the time, Celebrity Dairy in nearby Siler City. That provided inspiration, as did a trio of women achieving critical acclaim making goat cheese: Mary Keehn of Cypress Grove in California, Allison Hopper of Vermont Creamery and Judy Schad at Capriole in southern Indiana.

“She was a pioneer here just as they were in their states,” Steve explains. “They all were eccentric, ambitious women who started making great cheese with little goat herds. She was convinced people would buy good goat cheese, and she was right.”

Goat Lady Dairy became a licensed cheese-making business in 1995. Steve and his wife, Lee, moved their family from Minnesota to join the operation. They now live in a cabin across the street on an additional 15-acre parcel acquired to give the growing herd more room to roam.

A decade later, some of those same agricultural consultants and professors invited Ginnie to lead a workshop for farmers who wanted to add value to their farms by producing cheese or other signature products. This amused her.

“She said she would,” Steve remembers, “but she’d also tell the story how they laughed at her.”

Indeed, Goat Lady was on the leading edge of the artisanal cheese movement, particularly for North Carolina, which now has at least 30 licensed cheese-producing dairies. Tate believes that moderate weather and exceptional grazing land help North Carolina dairies produce such outstanding cheese.

“And most of those have goats,” Tate notes of the farms. “I like to say North Carolina has become the Vermont of the South, because we have more cheese makers than any other Southern state.”

In July, Goat Lady’s savory Roasted Red Pepper Chevre nabbed an award at the American Cheese Society’s annual conference and competition. Another entrant, Providence, took third place honors, too, bringing Goat Lady’s tally of highly competitive ACS awards to nine. Not bad for a cheese that stemmed from a blunder, says Tate.

“Our Providence cheese was a mistake. I was trying to make a washed rind cheese, like a taleggio,” Tate explains, laughing as he describes the resulting aged goat milk cheese that, unlike a semi-soft taleggio, is firm enough to grate like Parmesan. “Thankfully, it became something even better.”

In general, however, Goat Lady has grown more deliberate. While Ginnie Tate lived to see her dream become a successful business, her passing led Steve and Lee to focus on the company’s long-term viability. They intend to sell the farm and retire in 2016. Alexander Kast, Goat Lady’s head cheese maker, and Carrie Bradds, the cheese room manager, are among several parties interested in the purchase.

“Whatever happens,” Tate says, “the current managers will take a leading role in carrying the business on. It will be part of the deal.”

This process has been in the works for years. In 2012, Goat Lady launched a major transformation, including a significant building expansion that remade a clayfloor goat barn and milking parlor as a high-tech production center. Customized pasteurization machinery and other precision devices allow Goat Lady to better monitor processes and ensure more consistent outcomes.

A year later, they hired Kast, an internationally trained cheese maker and a former cheese monger and buyer for Southern Season. And later in 2013, a $300,000 USDA Value-Added Producer Grant pushed the business’ consistency and quality even higher.

“If we hadn’t gotten that grant, I don’t know if we could have made it,” Tate says. “People want to see the romance of local food and farming, but it’s a very risky thing.”

The risks are yielding rewards, at least. Goat Lady is poised to produce 90,000 pounds of cheese by the end of 2015, a massive jump from 40,000 pounds in 2012. It recently picked up a major new account, Chop’t, a fast-casual salad chain opening soon in Charlotte, with Raleigh and other North Carolina locations to follow in 2016. Tate also anticipates expanding from Whole Foods’ Southern market to the chain’s mid-Atlantic and Rocky Mountain regions.

Such achievements give Goat Lady plenty of reasons to celebrate its 20th-anniversary milestone. The party started Monday with a dinner for industry partners prepared by an all-star group of North Carolina chefs. And on Sunday afternoon, a public party will welcome fans back to an annual Open Farm Day event. Visitors will be able to meet the farmers and cheese makers, as well as some of the goats that produce the milk for the Goat Lady’s award-winning cheeses. Ginnie Tate, Climax’s Goat Lady, would have liked that.

“It’s important for people to visit farms and understand where their food comes from,” Tate says, recalling a befuddled tour participant who asked sincerely if they have to kill goats to remove their cheese. “When we change a person’s relationship with food, we change them and the world for the better.”

A day at the farm

The day started early at Goat Lady Dairy, with head cheese maker Alexander Kast leaving his Pittsboro home around 4:40 a.m. for a 40-minute drive to the bucolic farm in rural Randolph County. Steve Tate’s commute took only about two minutes, from when he filled a coffee cup in his kitchen to when he arrived at his office across the street.

The pair was working on a batch of its top-selling Lindale cheese, a Dutch-style gouda. They began with 240 gallons of buttery yellow cow milk from Williams Dairy, their neighbor two miles down the road.

“It doesn’t get much fresher than that,” Tate offered with a grin.

Pumped into stainless steel vats, it frothed like a child’s bubble bath. After warming and swirling it with a propriety blend of culture and rennet, they expelled much of the milk’s content as watery whey, retained for use as pig feed and pasture fertilizer. After four months of controlled cave aging, the process will produce 20 10-pound wheels of smooth, creamy cheese.

The chevre on which Goat Lady first built its reputation is still produced at the facility. Hundreds of tempting rounds, like the ash-lined Sandy Creek and lightly smoked Smokey Mountain, age in temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms. They will be hand wrapped for sale in perfect folds of breathable paper, though the countless logs of fresh chevre are no longer individually rolled by hand. Thanks to the 2013 USDA grant that helped fund Goat Lady’s expansion, the cheese is efficiently piped into shrink-wrapped logs that rest on rolling shelf carts while awaiting packaging.

The aging room held a few mystery cheeses, too, experiments for established or prospective clients.

“It’s going to be a fetaI think,” Tate said, tapping a square of cheese firming up on a top shelf. “Or, who knows? It might be something even better.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Getting their goat”