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Goat milk producers scramble to find markets

By Carol Stender
cstender@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 08/26/2010 9:12 AM

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BRAINERD, Minn. — This is a trying time for a group of central Minnesota dairy goat producers.

They've been dropped not once, but twice by processors in the last four years. The latest termination came in January when Canadian-based Woolwich said it would discontinue pick-up of the farmers' raw milk on July 17. The decision came as a surprise because just last year Woolwich offered the farmers a three-year contract, said Brainerd dairy goat producer Ron Lindholm.

In a letter to producers, the company said it was "managing costs and balancing supply" through the move.

Of the 20 producers who sold to Woolwich, two sold their herds after the company's decision. The remaining 18 farmers had six months to find new markets.

They have had some success, but the problem is the farmers need emergency financing to get their programs off the ground.

"We probably have one more check coming from Woolwich," said Lindholm. "Then we'll need some kind of financing to help with cash flow."

The 18 farmers met in Albany in January shortly after Woolwich's announcement. Wayne Martin, University of Minnesota Extension educator in alternative livestock systems, worked with them to explore options. The group decided to split up to check out several opportunities. One group planned to talk with South Dakota State University about dairy goat milk production. Another group wanted to contact Eichten's Hidden Acres, which makes cheese from cows' milk. And a third group would talk with other creameries.

A week later, they reported their findings. Eichten's was interested in making a gouda from goats' milk. SDSU planned a pilot project for ice cream production, but there was little luck with raw milk pick-up from other creameries.

Lindholm and fellow producer Cory Minion of Metley formed Scandia Valley Dairy, LLC to market the milk to Eichten's, Lindholm said.

"It was easier for them to have one contact instead of touching base with all the farmers," Lindholm said.

Eichten's processes the milk and returns the end result — 500 pounds of gouda — for the farmers to market. They have sold it at area farmers markets, but the producrs realize those markets will end in the fall.

Eichten's is also selling some cheese through national markets. Those markets are growing, but it all takes time to develop, Lindholm said. Each of the 18 dairy goat producers are dumping some milk. Lindholm had just dumped 3,500 pounds the day he was interviewed.

Some goat producers are finding other avenues for the excess goat milk. One farmer purchased calves to consume the milk. Another is feeding goat milk to her father's calves.

Producers are also culling their herds. Lindholm and his wife, Becky, milk 170 goats. They plan to cull 70 milk goats and 40 of their 70 babies.

Lindholm, Minion and fellow dairy goat producer Ben Miller have paid for the cheese manufacturing themselves.

"For Eichten's, the main business is the cow dairy," Lindholm said. "They can only make so much cheese in a week. And with the state's restrictions on the number of days we can hold milk in the tank, it means you have to juggle that with the make dates for cheese. That means you have to dump some of your milk.''

"If there are three or five patrons going in on this, we have to do equal parts. That means we all have to dump some milk. It's a real struggle and it will become a struggle financially."

They are looking at increasing their loads to 10,000 pounds a week if another make date can be added, he said. The group continues to search for more permanent markets for their gouda.

Some producers are bringing milk to the University of Minnesota, which has a cheese pilot project of its own including classes where students learn the art of cheese production.

"We want to try and save as many farmers as we can," Lindholm said. "Once you lose your creamery and you don't have a paycheck, well, people will start selling out real quick. We need to find a way to sell everyone's milk if we can do that."

Why continue to work so hard at marketing and production?

"Because I just love the farm life," Lindholm said. "I have been self-employed for more than 10 years and I really enjoy the goats."