They’re not just kidding — goat cheese is profitable
Kathy Larson and Connie Lawrance are on a first-name basis with each of their four-legged workers. And when production is completed each day, everybody gets treats and hugs. But every once in a while, one of the workers might get ornery and decide to sit down on the job.
The workers, of course, are the 22 goats that provide the milk Northern Prairie Chevre LLC turns into about 100 pounds of goat cheese products each week at Larson’s farm near Woodward.
Formed five years ago, the small company remains the sole goat cheese producer in Iowa, according to state agriculture officials. Named for its most popular product, a soft cheese called chevre (pronounced shev), Northern Prairie wholesales a variety of specialty cheeses to restaurants that include the Embassy Club, Phat Chefs and 43 Restaurant and Bar, as well as to wine shops and gourmet grocers such as the Wine Experience and Campbell’s Nutrition.
“We started off with two 2-year-old baby goats, and after having them several years decided to buy a couple of bred does,” said Lawrace, who is a co-owner in the business along with Larson and Wendy Mickle. “We wanted to continue to have more goats, because they’re wonderful pets. … Goats are like puppies, only with longer legs and ears. They enjoy being held and petted.”
Because each doe produces milk for about a year after giving birth and the kids need it only for two months, there’s plenty of excess milk to work with.
“We decided if we were going to have them, they had to pay for themselves,” Lawrance said, “so that’s why we started thinking about the cheese business.”
The business, which the partners began with six milking does, has added to that number each year as more kids were born. Larson and Mickle co-own a separate company that owns the herd of Nubian Bubbies and sells the milk to Northern Prairie. The partners make and age the cheese in a converted two-car garage, which is a state-certified cheese production kitchen.
Typically, farmers in Iowa who raise goats sell the excess milk to Wisconsin dairies, which send their tank trucks on a regular route through the state to purchase the milk, which becomes Wisconsin goat cheese. Northern Prairie’s partners decided it was time to begin producing Iowa-made goat cheese. They’re one of an estimated 135 goat cheese production operations in the United States.
“Basically, it’s all been learning, because other than one goat cheese business back in the 1980s, no one else (in Iowa) had done this,” Lawrance said. Learning numerous aspects of the business, from packaging and marketing to initiating relationships with restaurant and retail outlets, has been a challenge, she said. The business has been profitable — though not a huge income producer — from the start.
“We’ve been real fortunate that a lot of people have gotten to us by word of mouth,” Larson said. “We’d like to hit the niche markets as well as the upscale restaurants. We find that these restaurants like the idea of a fresh, farm-made product, and they like knowing who the producer is.” Because the larger chain restaurants will typically purchase only through distributors, Northern Prairie works directly with the chefs or owners of small, independent restaurants, wineries or specialty grocers.
The varieties they make range from the chevre, which is sold both plain and flavored with 10 fresh herb mixtures, to French-style feta, mild queso blanco, gouda, manchego, cheddar and parmesan. They also make goat’s milk fudge and hot fudge sauce.
Shelly Richardson, a co-owner of Phat Chefs in West Des Moines, began featuring Northern Prairie’s products after Lawrance brought in some samples about a year ago.
“I think their product is great,” Richardson said. “We have a lot of customer comments on how fresh and good it tastes.” Phat Chefs uses the products on its cheese plate and in its homemade pasta, as well as with a mushroom chevre toast point appetizer.
Local demand for goat cheese has been growing, said Diane Lahodny, owner of Campbell’s Nutrition, particularly since The Maker’s Diet, which uses goat cheese in many of its recipes, came out last year.
“We were thrilled to put (Northern Prairie) in our stores because they’re a local-based business, they’re women-owned and their products are awesome,” Lahodny said. The chevre and the mozzerella are their top-selling goat cheese products, she said.
Expanding the business has been a slow and steady process for the partners, who must constantly weigh the benefits of further equipment upgrades against the costs. After the first 18 months in business, for instance, Northern Prairie invested in a 50-gallon mixing tank and a 60-gallon vat pasteurizer. They’re now approaching more decision points as their current equipment reaches its capacity.
“As we continue to grow in the barn, we’re looking at growing here in the kitchen as well,” Lawrance said. One improvement they’re considering is to build a new barn closer to the kitchen, and pipe the milk directly to the equipment. That would be a step forward in the involved process of becoming a Grade A milking facility, which would enable them to make other products such as yogurt, cottage cheese and bottled milk.
However, “there are a great number of hurdles to get over to accomplish that,” she said. “That would be a goal, but not necessarily immediately. It’s a considerable expense.”
They’re also considering ways to make it possible for visitors to observe the cheese-making process from a separate viewing room.
State agriculture officials, who don’t even attempt to quantify the amount of goat milk that leaves the state for Wisconsin, are upbeat about the prospects for more goat products being made in Iowa. At least two other Iowa creameries — Farmers’ All Natural Creamery in Wellman and Naturally Iowa, a start-up that plans to begin operations in Clarinda this spring — are planning to launch goat cheese or milk production, said Jake Wakefield, chief of the Dairy Products Control Bureau.
“There’s really a lot of interest in the state in milking goats,” Wakefield said. “I’d really like to see that take off.”
For more information on Northern Prairie Chevre, visit www.northernprairiechevre.com, or call 438-4022.