These Goats Make Great Chevre
BY TRICIA STEARNS
PHOTOS BY LAURA SOPER AND TRICIA STEARNS
There’s a special look in people’s eyes when they sell food that they have grown, and created with their own hands. The goat farmers of Capra Gia Cheese Company in Carrollton each have that look—clearly proud and passionate about each package of artisan chevre they hand you while you stand in line at their farmers market tents.
Whether you buy it plain or mixed with fresh seasonal fruits or spicy herbs, you get a sincere transaction from start to finish, as well as a funny story, smart quip or quote from the farm.
One customer asked Jenny O’Connor at the Peachtree City Farmers Market why she worked so hard. She was quick to respond, “Because I’m crazy. Just nuts. You have to be somewhat insane to do what we do.” Her 5- year-old son Jesse runs through her booth with his Batman cape flying. She shrugs and looks at her son’s long hair merging into his black cape, and says, “See? It runs in the family!”
Other members of the Capra Gia family include Mark Stevens, Ted Brooks, Jeremy Bethel and Heidi Lewis and all stay linked together by their love of goats and a mission to provide quality local food.
Many of their friendships stem from their teenage years when they were showing goats. Mark started showing goats in Ohio in the early ‘80s, while Jenny raised her herd and competed in dairy shows since childhood in rural Ohio. Although they grew up just 20 minutes from each other, they never knew one another or competed against each other in shows. Eventually, Mark and Jenny crossed paths in 2003 at a dairy show in Croton, Ohio, and became friends. They stayed acquaintances and goat compadres for seven years before entering business together. In 2010, Jenny packed up Jesse, who was 3 at the time, and moved from Ohio to join the Capra Gia family.
Ted and Mark often saw each other at national shows over the course of 20 years, and when word was out that Capra Gia needed a herd manager it didn’t take Ted long to move himself and his herd from Arizona to join his friends at the Capra Gia. Jeremy moved from Virginia to work with Mark and became a partner with the new dairy family. Heidi, a food activist and pottery artist, became a cheese enthusiast and partner after getting to know Mark at the Marietta Square Farmers Market. Goats are part of the family too. Each has a name, from Carmen, a friendly half white and half peach-colored goat who looks like she is missing ears (she is a LaMancha breed, of which the tiny ears are the most distinctive feature), to Little Faith, a short-haired goat the color of nutmeg with upright ears, to
Mark’s favorite goat, Corus, an 8-year-old tall and elegant goat much like a black filly, whose mother was one of Mark’s first goats as a young adult.
Mark, 40, says the mother gave birth to Corus when she was 17 years old. “I can go out to the field with 300 goats all around me and look down and there is Corus nudging my leg, always, always, the first to greet me.”
For this rural “Modern Family,” creating artisan cheese is more than just a business. Their common ground—hard work and passion for fresh food and sustainable living—signifies that cheese is not only in the making but also in the living. This passion drives these five to work seven days a week, 365 days a year. With 300 goats to feed, milk and care for, plus creating the cheese all by hand, these five savvy friends and their four-legged buddies depend on each other and each has their respective duties.
Goats are milked twice a day, every day—365 days a year, though not all goats are milked all year. When a goat is carrying a kid, their due dates are staggered so that the females who had babies early in the year can be dried off and rebred. They then can start producing milk again early the following year while they are still milking the does that kidded later in the year.
While each person and goat has a role in the farm family, the true secret to the taste of this local artisanal chevre is its simplicity—fresh milk from healthy goats fed and cared for with love and respect. Everything is done by hand when making the cheese, and the taste and quality reflect elegant simplicity.
Ted and Jenny and young Jesse live on the farm. Ted is in charge of herd management and the day-to-day care of the animals. Jenny works at Home Depot in the mornings and Mark works at Lowe’s in the evenings. Mark does cheese making and farm work in the mornings, and Jenny does the evening shift of farm chores along with marketing for the company and bookkeeping duties. Jeremy is in corporate sales and also helps with farm duties. Heidi helps with feeding baby goats, pasteurizing milk and making/packaging the cheese and as well as keeping the books.
Last spring when 32 kids were born in a fiveday span, it was all hands on deck with each partner putting in 20-hour days along with their off-the-farm jobs. Babies are pulled from their mothers and bottle raised to form a bond with the farmers and ease the responsibilities of the mother, which allows the farmers to monitor the health of both mom and baby.
The work doesn’t stop on the farm. Each partner also sets up a tent at area farmers markets. On Saturdays, Mark can be found in Marietta, Jenny and Jesse (aka young Batman) in Peachtree City, Jeremy swings up to Alpharetta and Heidi sets up shop at the Decatur market. They also have a few part-time employees who help them sell cheese and eggs at other farmers markets, catered events and cheese shops.
To fill the demands of their clients, the group expanded in February 2011 when a new dairy was designed and built with accessibility and sustainability in mind. Together, the team invented their barn using as many recycled and repurposed building materials as possible. Very few things were new in the building but rather retooled, rebuilt and reused.
The Capra Gia farm takes the word “sustainable” earnestly. Asked about ways they implement a sustainable lifestyle, Mark said, “From the materials in our barn, to no-GMO feeds, from the fact that we use local grass hays with no chemicals, to even the fact that we repurpose the water we use when making our cheese to water our personal vegetable garden, our Capra Gia operation is a daily sustainable operation in constant motion.”
The entire facility leads the goats from barn to milking and back with large rooms for production of the goat cheese while being handicap accessible and USDA certified. The dairy not only has a milking area but also has areas for preparing cheese, and boasts of large windows and viewing stations for educational seminars.
Perhaps, the greatest thing about the new barn is that the milk travels less than 20 feet from goat to the cheese room. Amazingly, by making it in small batches, this gourmet treat transforms from milk, to cheese, to the customer oftentimes no more than 24 hours “out of the goat.”
These small batches are like a foodie hug, full of friendship and passion for the food movement. The cheese has the ability to transform average folks to new foodies with each creamy taste.
Be forewarned, make the Capri Gia booth your first stop when you visit your local farmers market because they often sell out. No kidding around—being a gourmet foodie has never been easier.
Tricia Stearns is a writer, foodie and serves as executive director of Fresh South, a nonprofit that manages the Peachtree City Farmers Market and the Peachtree City Community Garden.