BLOOMSDALE — A lot of love goes into each six-ounce heart-shaped piece of artisan goat cheese made at Baetje Farms.
Owners Steve and Veronica Baetje, who have been married 20 years, like to joke that they have 120 kids — baby goats born each spring at their Bloomsdale farm.
"They are great companion animals, and then they provide milk, too, to make this awesome cheese with. Without them, it would be really boring. I wouldn't want to just buy milk and just make cheese without that connection," Veronica Baetje said. "They are so enjoyable to be around. They are very affectionate and very intelligent."
The Baetjes milk about 60 Saanen goats daily from February through November and turn the liquid into artisan cheeses.
This winter, they're doubling the size of the barn on their family farm to meet the growing demand for their cheeses. One variety named Bloomsdale placed in the top 16 in the World Cheese Awards.
The couple were asked to be among 200 international judges who tasted more than 2,500 cheeses from 30 countries Nov. 23 at the World Cheese Awards in Birmingham, England. Bloomsdale cheese is a pyramid-shaped surface-ripened cheese seasoned with pine ash and salt. The shape reminded the couple of the scenic hills surrounding their farm.
They also received silver medals for their Sainte Genevieve cheese, inspired by the smooth and creamy French cheese Chaource, made since the 14th century. Three varieties of Baetje Farms' Coeur de la Creme cheeses also won silver awards.
The goats that provide them the milk to make the cheese are pampered. They're fed an antibiotic-free organic whole-grain ration that includes sunflower seeds, oats, corn and molasses. They drink filtered spring water from a natural spring at Baetje Farm. They also eat pumpkins and apples for a special sweet treat. If one gets sick, the Baetjes give them warm herbal tea, usually camomile with medicinal herbs mixed in.
"We try to do everything as organically as possible, so when they're sick, instead of giving them antibiotics, we'll try to do it with herbs. You can put whatever you want into a tea form, and since they like that warm liquid, they'll suck it up," Veronica Baetje said.
Their goats are not tied in stalls or confined. They roam from the barn to the pasture.
"They all have different personalities. They all have quirks," Steve Baetje said. "They're really funny. The expressions on their faces, the looks in their eyes, they're almost like people."
The Baetjes got their first goat in 1998. Since 2007, the couple have been commercially producing goat cheeses sold to restaurants and wineries and at farmers markets in the St. Louis area. In the Cape Girardeau area, their cheese was sold at Jones Heritage Farms, but they're looking for new retail outlets here.
The couple, along with one full-time employee and a few part-time workers, produce 400 pounds of cheese a week.
"A lot of people think 400 pounds is not a lot of cheese because they're thinking of 40-pound commodity blocks from Wisconsin," Steve Baetje said. "The cheeses we produce all have a lot of hand work to them."
Fresh cheeses are molded by hand. Washed rind cheeses are constantly being flipped and washed with a saline solution for the duration of their aging to help develop the rind and the cheese's flavor. Their cheeses with moldy rinds, like Brie, lie flat on a rack but have to be turned a little every day so they don't stick.
The Coeur de la Creme cheeses are seasoned by hand, individually wrapped in folded waxed paper packages and sealed with a Baetje Farms sticker.
The Baetje family had long believed in the importance of being self-sufficient and eating wholesome foods by growing and canning vegetables and raising their own pigs, turkeys and chickens.
"We enjoyed it so much, I started to think, 'How can we make a business out of this?'" Veronica Baetje said. "We looked at a number of avenues, but in the end our heart went with the dairy because we enjoyed the rigorous schedule. You have to milk twice a day, and we liked that every day waking up and having this work to do."
She was intrigued by dairy products because she still had to go to the store to buy milk, yogurt, cheese and butter.
"It was neat to watch the milk completely change into another substance," she said. "It's really quite scientifically mind-boggling to think you can take this liquid and turn it into a solid, a complete other substance, and there's so many variations on that theme."
She went to the library and started reading books on making cheese and butter. They discussed buying a cow, but she didn't know what she was going to do with five to 10 gallons of milk a day. They settled on a goat instead, which produces about a gallon of milk a day.
A couple of years after they started their business, the Baetjes took the Operation Jump Start class offered by the Southeast Missouri State University's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
"It helped us put our thoughts into concrete ideas," Steve Baetje said. "We did a lot of homework. It helped us realize we were on the right track. It refined some of our skills and also brought new perspectives into sight for us."
The Baetjes spent seven years researching goat husbandry and cheesemaking before they ever sold their cheese commercially. They've attended cheesemaking courses in Vermont and Wisconsin.
Although his father called him nuts, Steve Baetje knew their business plan was going to work, but he said he could have never imagined how popular it has become.
This winter, the couple will finish the barn expansion and next season have plans to purchase milk from another goat dairy to increase their production to 800 pounds per week. They'll also add at least two full-time employees.