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Sustainability

On a farm outside of Columbia, a family makes cheese, tends goats and seeks self-reliance
Wednesday, March 17, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:12 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, stop. The door drops behind the seventh goat as they file into the milking room. They line up along a raised platform, each grabbing a spot on the row where a mixture of grain, seed and soy awaits to keep them occupied during the milking process.

Ken Muno stands below them at about udder height, alternately spraying and wiping their udders with an iodine solution.

He attaches a milking pump to the udders of two goats at a time, and the milk flows from the goats into two stainless-steel jugs.

The seven file out, and seven more file in and out until all 50 goats have been milked. Ken finishes the 8 o’clock milking at 10 a.m. and will repeat the process in the late afternoon. He’ll repeat the process tomorrow, too. And the next day. The milking continues for 10 months of the year; the goats rest during December and January before the kidding season begins in February.

Ken and his wife, Jenn, own and run Goatsbeard Farm, a dairy that produces artisanal cheeses — cheeses crafted by hand rather than mass-produced — for sale across Missouri.

Goatsbeard Farm sits off Route J near Harrisburg along a stretch that also houses Boone County Ham, corn mazes and cattle farms. Of the bunch, Goatsbeard is the only cheese producer; only two other independently-owned dairies produce cheese in Missouri. Goatsbeard distinguishes itself even further by being the only one of these dairies to use goats’ milk.

The Munos’ goal is a combination of great cheese and a sustainable environment. What they’ve created is a goat dairy offering specialty cheeses produced by their hands and according to their values. Not bad for a couple in their early 30s. Many might be content to stop there, perhaps having fulfilled a lifetime dream. Not the Munos. They’re just getting started.

Creation of a sustainable environment spans a range of subjects including farming, architecture, design and the environment and doesn’t fit a tight definition. Mainly, it includes a respect for others and the environment to preserve nature. While the Munos aim for an operation that is sustainable in all respects, they know their goal is lofty; being sustainable is not the easy choice. In fact, it’s expensive.

For example, instead of buying a grain mixture from Purina to feed the goats during milking, the Munos opt to buy more costly feed from a local seller. Also, they have bought a green tank that sits on the hillside along the winding gravel and dirt front driveway that visitors see as they work their way to the white house, wooden barn, fenced pasture and red dairy. Whey, the liquid produced during cheese-making, drains into the green tank. The Munos store the whey in the tank until they’re ready to reuse it as fertilizer. Then they’ll load it onto the back of one of their trucks and spread it over their fields.

A wood-burning stove purchased by the Munos generates most of the energy and heat for the farm. Resting midway between the house and the dairy, the solid black stove doesn’t shout its vital role in the dairy’s operation. Even the stacks of chopped wood sitting beside it don’t reveal the stove’s importance to the dairy.

Heating the house as well as the dairy, the stove sends its heat into the dairy through the cement floors. The heat rises from the floor, eliminating the blowing air and temperature fluctuations that typically accompany furnaces.

The Munos have planted trees, a renewable resource, on their 80 acres of land with the hope they will be able harvest all of their own firewood and continue replanting from year to year. Right now, they must supplement their own supply with wood from other places, preferably wood that would otherwise go to waste if the Munos didn’t use it; some of their wood comes from trees the power company had to cut down.

Add another task to the list of chores that must be completed daily for the dairy to run smoothly: Load wood into stove two times per day.

A dog and a cat or two greet any visitors without barks or scratches but with a gentle sniff and nuzzle. The goats keep to themselves in the pasture, feeding on its grasses. Typically, the Munos don’t sell their cheeses from their home, so they don’t get a high volume of visitors.

School classes occasionally take a field trip to the dairy to see the goats and witness the cheese-making process.

“Once we even had a yellow school bus up here,” says Jenn as her blue eyes enlarge in amusement, “but it was one of the small ones. The big one had to stay at the bottom of the hill.”

Jenn looks forward to a time when they’ll be able to accommodate more tours. A long, open room with windows along much of one wall was set aside in the dairy to be a room for sampling cheeses or holding cheese-themed dinners. The room evokes a communal atmosphere and already holds a farmhouse table perfect for leisurely dinners to talk about life and enjoy good food.

But the Munos have just been too busy. Too many projects. Too much to do. They’re not complaining, though. Since they had their son Peter, who’s 2 1/2, they’ve been moving at a slower pace to make him a priority. Peter has it pretty good; he gets to taste all of the cheeses the Munos create, he has 50 goats as his playmates, including his favorite named Chestnut.

[photo]

Ken Muno and his 2-1/2-year-old-son, Peter, heard their goats to pasture after the goats were milked. (Liz Martin/Missourian)

The Munos created Goatsbeard from the ground up, literally; they designed and built the dairy and the building that houses it. Despite their relative youth as compared to their accomplishments, they did not just jump into the dairy business and slap together a dairy to house it. They spent years adding to their knowledge and their dream.

[photo]

Jenn Muno dips blue cheese for the first batch of cheese of the year at Goatsbeard Farm. The next day the cheese will be salted and on the third day it is packed. (Liz Martin/Missourian)

“It started as an idea when we were working at Zingerman’s,” Jenn says, speaking of the deli where they met as employees in Ann Arbor, Mich. “And we read a lot and visited other dairies.”

Ken had two cheese apprenticeships to get experience making cheese, and he and Jenn learned a great deal about cheese from working at Zingerman’s.

“Zingerman’s is wonderful,” Jenn says. “All employees go through a long training process and learn everything about the products sold in the deli.”

Working at Zingerman’s and other sales jobs also came in handy when it came time to market the cheese. A high-quality product alone was not enough to make Goatsbeard successful. The Munos had to take their cheese to different stores in the hopes that some would buy.

Jenn, who has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, drew the goatsbeard flower, a flower that grows in Missouri, for the label, and her mom used calligraphy to script the lettering. They took their joint effort to a graphic designer who combined the drawing and writing into a logo.

As far as the physical building of the dairy, the Munos did it all themselves with only family and friends to help. “Except for the roof because it was too steep,” Jenn says.

Ken worked with a concrete crew in Columbia for six months to learn how to pour the concrete. They began building in 1999, and two years later, they had a dairy.

The Munos had bought the land in 1995 with the help of Jenn’s parents, co-owners of the farm, and in 1996, they had bought six goats and started learning how to care for them. Choosing their plot of land just outside of Harrisburg was a logical decision. They could be close to Columbia, which would be a good market for their cheese, while not being too far from Jenn’s parents, who live in Rocheport. Jenn’s mom often helps with packaging cheese and taking care of Peter. Ken’s mom also recently moved to Rocheport. Plus, the Munos could take advantage of Missouri’s grazing season, which is longer than more northern states.

They produced their first cheese in 2000 and began selling cheese in 2001.

Depending on their schedules, the Munos share most responsibilities on the farm. Ken, though, is the only one who knows how to pasteurize the milk and actually make the cheese.

On the days Ken does the milking, Jenn usually works down the hall packaging cheese to fill orders. Sometimes she works alone, but most days she has the aid of her mother and another worker.

She scoops soft goat cheese from a giant metal bowl, drops the cheese into a small plastic tub, sets the tub onto a scale, checks the weight and fits a lid on the tub. She does it again and again, all by hand.

“It’s pretty boring,” Jenn says. “A lot of what we do is repetitive.”

Yet, the excitement for the cheese seems to outweigh the tedium of daily tasks. She steps into their aging room, a small box of a room maintained at a cooler temperature than the rest of the dairy. Rounds of different types of cheeses rest on shelves along one wall. Cheddar, blue, aged, camembert, prairie bloom. On the opposite wall are fewer shelves and a metal cart or two. This side holds experiments.

Jenn removes a small round ball of cheese with a shell of white mold encircling it from the experimental side to show a new variation they’ve been working on. She cuts into it, slicing it, tasting it, and even though she’s tasted it before, she can’t resist a small “mmmm” after sampling its sharp flavor.

In addition to the daily chores that must be done, the Munos also must comply with state and federal regulations on cheese production. Law requires that the milk in fresh cheeses must be pasteurized before it’s made into cheese. Twice a year, the state milk board with the Food and Drug Administration makes unannounced visits to check the temperature of the milk. For Ken to keep his certification as a field man, he must take a sample of the milk to Jefferson City every six weeks to be tested for bacteria and to verify the health of the goats.

The Munos are developing some aged cheeses that are made with raw, or unpasteurized, milk. Use of raw milk is believed by experts such as the American Cheese Society to have a superior flavor to cheeses made with pasteurized milk. The high temperatures of pasteurization are thought to kill flavor along with bacteria.

Because the goats are pasture-based as opposed to eating only a feed mixture, the cheese produced is healthier, they say. It’s high in cis-linoleic acid, a known cancer-fighter. The goats, either Alpine, Nubian or Saanen breed, graze on the grasses of the pasture at their leisure, and the Munos work around the goats’ seasonal schedule. The goats stay outside during the winter months and keep warm by sleeping on their own composting, another sustainable aspect of the dairy.

All of the goats have names, and the Munos try to name them in an orderly fashion, but some mixing has occurred. The offspring of one goat might be named after constellations, while the offspring of another are named for nuts. Goats from the same year have names that begin with the same letter.

The Munos are always looking for ways to improve their cheeses or create new varieties, and they have a willing audience. They’ve won over grocery stores and restaurants across Missouri. They sell their cheese at the Columbia Farmer’s Market, HyVee, Clover’s Natural Foods Market and the Root Cellar. Local restaurants such as Trattoria Stada Nova and Uprise Bakery use it. They also drive it themselves to St. Louis and Kansas City for the Clayton Farmer’s Market, Whole Foods, City Market, Local Harvest and restaurants such as Riddle’s Penultimate and King Louie’s.

Although the cheese has buyers and eaters, the Munos have not yet tested its worth to cheese experts. Their next challenge will be to enter the American Cheese Society’s annual competition for artisanal cheese-makers; they hope to submit some cheeses to this year’s competition.

Sources: Goatsbeard Farm, http://www.goatsbeardfarm.com; American Cheese Society, http://cheese.onecityinternet.com; Sustainable Agriculture Network, http://www.sare.org; Slow Food, http://www.slowfood.com and http://www.slowfoodusa.org.


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