In honor of our August featured producer Prodigal Farm, we asked its founder and Head Cheesemaker, Kathryn Spann, some questions about life on a Southern goat farm. Located in Rougemont, North Carolina, Prodigal milks their own goats and buys local cow milk to make some incredible small-batch cheeses. For more info about Prodigal, visit their website at http://prodigalfarm.com/index.html
Kat, pictured with her partner Dave.
1. Why did you decide to make cheese in Rougemont NC?
I grew up in Durham, North Carolina, which is the county where our farm is. Though I grew up in town, my mother's family (the Hamptons) farmed for 300 years in the small area where our farm is now. After I finished college (at Duke, which is just embarrassing to say in a group of farmers), I went to law school in Nashville, then practiced law up in NYC for 12 years. I met my partner Dave while I lived in New York -- we were standing in line to see a Nashville-based musician. Though he was a builder, farming was his lifelong dream. When he came with me to Durham to visit my family, he found he loved the area, and we started working to turn dream into reality. The farm we ultimately bought, where Prodigal Farm is today, is on Bahama Road and Hampton Road -- the same Hampton Road where my ancestors farmed.
2. What does your average day look like?
Personally, I have no average day, except that none of them are days off! Our farm is going from about 5:30 in the morning on cheesemaking days (which is most days) until 10 pm or later (when evening milking ends), 7 days a week, from about March 15 when kidding starts, until new year's, when we "dry off" the lady goats. In winter, when we're not milking, things are a bit quieter, and we sneak in a vacation (if we can manage it), and catch up on fixing and building things. We've got three folks who work with us on "farm side" and three in the creamery -- which means I am wearing all the other hats in a business, and training/troubleshooting/pinchhitting on the farm side or in the creamery. I'm usually up around 6, trying to get in an hour of personal time, and you'll find me at the desk at 9 or 10 pm too, catching up on desk things. Sometimes we have farmhands living with us, so it's a pretty fully immersive lifestyle. Everywhere I turn, it's our business, which can be stressful, but it's all strongly aligned with our values (which you can pretty much sum up as "be kind to planet, animals and people, and try to leave everyone happier in some small way").
3. What's the furthest away you've seen your cheese being sold (or sent it to)?
Brazil, thanks to Carlos Yescas of the Oldways Cheese Coalition. He stopped by at ACS Meet the Maker and said that folks at the event they hosted down there were blown away -- that such a washed rind cheese (especially made from goat's milk) is very different than their traditions.
4. Do you have any (cheese) tattoos?
No tattoos! I'm a second career girl, and most lawyers don't sport a ton of visible tattoos, and by the time I entered the world of cheese it seemed a bit late for baby's first tattoo.
5. A St. James Cheese alumna (Adrienne) is working for you now! What's the hardest thing for someone to learn when beginning cheesemaking?
Yes, we're excited to have Adrienne! She came to us with 7 years of cheeemaking experience, and is working to help us train folks now. I think the hardest thing is to train your brain to think microbially, both in terms of what is happening in the milk and then the cheese first in the vat then during affinage -- but also in terms of food safety, being aware of the potential for cross-contamination. Both of those require thinking a lot about wee beasties that we can't even see. I often say that we're farmers at the macro and the micro levels, raising goats and cultivating the bacteria, molds and yeasts that make cheese so wonderful.
6. What's the weirdest/funniest thing you've seen your goats do?
Simona learned to let herself out of the headgates in the milking parlor, prop her front hooves up on the crossbar, reach her head up and her tongue out, and tease out some more feed from the grain auger that brings feed into the milking parlor. And little Merlin, one of this year's kids, has a gift for parkour. From a standstill, he can jump up and bounce his hooves off the walls.
Or Iroquois, one of our breeding bucks, who rather than do anything he doesn't wish to, flops down on his side and plays dead.
7. What's the most difficult thing about making cheese?
Well, the main ingredient is always changing, based on how long the ladies are into their lactation cycles, what they're eating, and a variety of other factors. Larger creameries may standardize their milk, by adding cream or powdered milk, so it's always got the same components, but we don't. That accentuates the seasonal nature of our cheeses.
8. What's the strangest question you've been asked about your cheese? And what's the answer to that question?
I'm drawing a blank on that one! I know that a lot of folks are surprised that you can make pretty much any cheese with goat milk (or sheep milk) -- it will just have different characteristics.
Listed below are some of Kat's cheeses available at St. James Cheese at the moment:
Piedmont Provencal: dense-textured goat cheese pressed with a line of olive & mint tapenade in the middle that perfectly complements the citrus notes of the goat cheese.
Spring Fever: A young, lactic cow's milk cheese that tastes of herbs, whipped butter and lemon curd.
Saxapahaw Blues: Cow's milk blue with the comforting cheddar-like background flavor, and a caramel finish.