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An Accidental Goat Farm in Lebanon Leads to New Career

  • Female goats born this spring at Sunset Rock Farm in Lebanon, N.H., bound around the yard on Aug. 24, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After milking, Andrea Rhodes feeds many of her goats tablets of vitamin c at Sunset Rock Farm in Lebanon, N.H., on Aug. 24, 2016. Sunset Farm isn't organic, as Rhodes wants to be able to use modern remedies when her goats are sick, but she sticks to natural everyday suppliments. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bundles of cheese drain in carefully tied bags of cheesecloth at Sunset Rock Farm in Lebanon, N.H., on Aug. 24, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rachel Coro, left, and her mother, Andrea Rhodes, spend time with one of their 28 milking goats at Sunset Rock Farm in Lebanon, N.H., on Aug. 24, 2016. While they are currently milking 28 goats, their current goat count is around 50. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Herd manager, Rachel Coro, left, prepares to milk one of the last goats of the day while her mother, Andrea Rhodes, takes a phone call at Sunset Rock Farm in Lebanon, N.H., on Aug. 24, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Andrea Rhodes, who raises and milks goats and makes cheese and yogurt with the milk at her farm, Sunset Rock Farm, in Lebanon, N.H., packages greek yogurt at the farm on Aug. 24, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Andrea Rhodes offered Sweet Pea, the queen of Sunset Rock Farm’s goat herd and the only one with horns, a pail of diluted Kool-Aid one warm afternoon in early August. Once the 5-year-old Sweet Pea got her fill, the rest of the herd stepped up.

The goats took their drinks inside Rhodes’ barn — completed last fall — off Sunset Rock Road in Lebanon.

Rhodes, a nurse by trade, and her husband, C. Harker Rhodes III, a mostly retired neuropathologist moved to the 57-acre property from Hanover in 2011. They began with horses, but Rhodes said she was drawn to goats when she realized horses “just eat the good stuff.”

Rhodes wanted another animal to eat down the rest of the pasture. She decided against sheep because “sheep stink” and their fleece makes them “immune to fencing.” So, she wound up with a herd of 28 mixed-breed milking goats. She plans to grow to 30 milkers and stop there.

Running a goat farm wasn’t the plan going in, she said. “It just kind of happened.” That happenstance has led to a new career in goat farming for Rhodes and created a local source of goat cheese and Greek yogurt for Upper Valley consumers.

And it has bolstered the ranks of goat dairies, which are still relatively rare in New Hampshire. The 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture puts the number of New Hampshire farms with milk goats at 277, up from 197 in 2007. In comparison, there were 1,075 cow dairies in operation in the state in 2012, down from 1,219 in 2007.

Goat dairies producing cheese on a commercial scale are just a small subset of the industry. Sunset Rock is one of about a dozen commercial goat cheese producers in New Hampshire, said John Porter, a retired University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension dairy specialist who still works as a consultant on building projects.

Porter was among those Rhodes consulted about designing and constructing her farm’s barn.

Porter is familiar with the area. Sunset Rock Road turns into Stevens Road, where he grew up on his family’s dairy farm. Porter remembers Fred Manchester, the last person in Lebanon to drive a horse and buggy, who operated a subsistence farm on land that included the current Sunset Rock Farm, Porter said.

Building her new barn put Rhodes in more rarefied company. Without a state license, New Hampshire farmers can sell up to 20 gallons of milk per day, as well as yogurt and aged cheese, according to state law, and plenty of people raise a few goats and occupy this informal niche, Porter said.

At least two other goat dairies in the Upper Valley operate on a commercial scale: Oak Knoll Dairy in Windsor, which produces goat’s milk and yogurt, and Ayers Brook Goat Dairy, a Randolph demonstration farm that ships goat’s milk to Vermont Butter and Cheese in Websterville, Vt.

Scaling up, as Rhodes has, often requires a sizable investment to build a sanitary milk house with a concrete floor and wastewater system, Porter said. A commercial dairy barn needs a separate milk room, a concrete floor, a drain, a double sink, a hand sink, racks for drying the milking equipment and cleanable walls, he said.

The barn was a significant investment, including surveying, site preparations, the wastewater system, office space, heated automatic watering bowls, a pipeline milking system and radiant floor heat, Rhodes said in an email. The pasteurization and bottling equipment alone cost $12,000. The used pipeline system cost $7,000 and the new 30-gallon bulk tank cost $2,500.

The barn is a comfortable home for the animals and a comfortable workplace. As Rhodes, 45, ages and eventually stops milking and making cheese, the barn could be rented out to a beginning farmer and cheesemaker, she said.

The investment and finding the time and skills to continue farming, making cheese and marketing it in order to pay off the investment are the primary challenges producers face, Porter said.

Many find that “pretty soon they say, ‘This is almost more than I can handle,’ ” Porter said.

In those cases, many scale back to choose either farming and selling the milk or cheesemaking and buying the milk, he said.

Fortunately, the market is good for New Hampshire goat cheese, Porter said.

“Most any of our people that are doing this, demand isn’t the issue,” he said. “(It’s) more just keeping up with the work.”

The workload is heavy, but Rhodes seems up for the challenge. To learn about goats, Rhodes helped Cathy Mabie with her herd of French Alpine dairy goats — raised as breeding stock — on Great Brook Road in Lebanon. Rhodes spent Wednesday nights doing chores and quizzing Mabie about goat health and husbandry, she said.

Among other things, she learned that slugs can carry meningeal worms, which can infect goats’ spinal cords and cause weakness in their hind legs and eventually prevent them from standing. Now at Sunset Rock, Rhodes rotates poultry through the pastures to eat slugs.

Her unplanned farming venture has become a full-time job, at least during the spring and summer. She milks twice a day and makes the cheese and yogurt.

“There were times in late spring (and) early summer when we’d be running 18 hours (per) day,” Rhodes wrote in an email this week. “Dinner was often ice cream eaten standing at the kitchen counter at 1 a.m. Finding the time to take care of yourself can be hard.”

She sells her products at the Hanover, Lebanon, Canaan and Norwich farmers markets. The chevre is also available at The Cheese Board in Windsor, included in Norwich’s Sweetland Farm’s CSA shares and sometimes sold on the retail side of Stella’s in Lyme. She just began selling to the Lebanon Co-op Food Store last week, replacing Willow Moon Farm, a Plainfield, Vt. goat cheesemaker that stopped making cheese recently.

The pace of life on Sunset Rock Farm varies somewhat throughout the year. The goats stop producing milk in the winter, about two months before they give birth in the spring.

Rhodes is not alone in her labors. She has had help from her 14-year-old nephew, Alexander Brown, and a family friend, Samantha Rizzo, also 14, this summer. Her daughter, Rachel Coro, 23, who lives at home and helps out on the farm, has a knack for flavoring the cheese.

Rhodes said her favorite flavor is whipped garlic and thyme. Others include original, onion and pepper, sea salt and dill, garlic and chive, tarragon mustard, honey mustard, whipped honey, creamy chocolate honey, Tuscan harvest, sweet ‘n’ saucy, she said.

When the goats take a break from producing milk in the winter, Rhodes stays busy transforming frozen curd into chevre and doing some marketing.

After receiving licenses to operate a milk plant and sell cheese in both New Hampshire and Vermont last fall, Rhodes reached out to restaurants.

Though she dislikes marketing her wares and says she isn’t good at it, she heard back from Martin Murphy, the chef at Ariana’s Restaurant in Orford.

“He was very supportive,” Rhodes said.

Sales to chefs are “infinitely easier” than standing out in the heat or rain for hours at four farmers markets each week, she said.

“He calls; we deliver,” she said.

Murphy buys frozen curd, which he can then use and flavor however he pleases, Rhodes said. She took her mother-in-law to Ariana’s and they enjoyed mushroom crepes made with Sunset Rock Farm cheese, she said.

Murphy said he sources 80 percent of his ingredients locally in the summer. He defines local as within 15 to 25 miles of the Route 10 restaurant. According to Google Maps, Sunset Rock Farm is exactly 25 miles from Ariana’s.

“I really believe in supporting the local community as much as I can,” Murphy said.

He values local ingredients for their high quality and health benefits, he said.

“You can taste it,” he said.

The direct relationships with customers from sales at farmers markets can’t be beat, Rhodes said. But, if she were able to find a few more regular wholesale accounts, she might scale back from four markets per week, she said.

Rhodes aims to stay small. This summer she is getting 25 gallons of milk each day; next year she expects to get 30 as her current milkers mature and she adds a couple more.

Within view of the barn, a group of kids born in the spring played on a plastic jungle gym in early August. The group included Raven, Ginger and Bitsy, and ranged in color from black to white and brown.

The small scale is important to Rhodes, who says she wants to be able to treat her goats like pets. She spoke as she crouched down to scratch her border collie, Eric, behind the ear. He took a break from anxiously pacing the perimeter of the goats’ fence.

“If we had more animals we wouldn’t be able to take care of them the way we want to,” she said. “They’re pets and they know it.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.