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Earltown Country Cheese owner Shelly Roode with some of her milking goatsTucker Meadow Farm

By Jody Nelson

Tucker Meadow Farm, nestled in the hills near Earltown, Nova Scotia, is home to Earltown Country Cheese, a growing herd of certified organic dairy goats, and their keeper Shelley Roode.

Roode has a long history of working with dairy cows but the cost of quota deterred her from going into dairy farming. A friend suggested goats - easy to handle, and full of personality. Their size also allowed Roode to begin small in other ways like barn space, equipment and hay land.

“I started this whole thing five or six years ago making cheese in my kitchen from a book”, says Roode. “I would bring the cheese over and make my family eat it!” Shelley has covered a lot of ground since then.

Shelly Roode with her goat herdRoode bought her first goat about four years ago, and she has slowly been building up her herd ever since. “I knew going into it that I needed to start small,” states Roode.

With the help of her mother, Alta MacPherson, Roode is currently milking 35 does, and producing about 70 kg of cheese per week. It takes about 8L of milk to make 1 kg of cheese. The goats are milked twice a day averaging just over 2L per goat each day adding up to about 50L of milk per day. Right now the milk yield is a little low due to the mish mash of breeds including Saanen, Alpine, and La Mancha.

Shelly with her goatsInitially the priority was to build a herd that was would meet the organic certification requirements. Shelley is now looking for a good buck to breed better milk yields into her herd.

Why sacrifice yield for organic certification at this stage?

Roode’s decision to go organic was in part inspired by a friend’s battle with cancer using an organic food based alternative therapy - the Gerson Therapy. At the time organic dairy products were difficult to find, so Roode’s friend said, “You could do that!”

Goats in the barnFor about a year she concentrated on learning about organic practices, receiving a lot of information and guidance from Janet Wallace, NSOGA coordinator at that time. Backed by her beliefs and her research, Roode was not daunted by the organic certification process. She saw it as an opportunity to learn more and examine her practices thoroughly.

Being a food processor - particularly of milk products - proved to be much more stringent. The Department of Agriculture was concerned about the organic standards for sterilizing the cheese plant. Alas, challenges surpassed, Earltown Country Cheese was certified organic by the Maritime Certified Organic Growers Co-op in June of 2004.

The ease of organic transition could in part be attributed to the locale of Tucker Meadow Farm. “This was a good place for me to come when I started looking for land,” Roode declares. “There are a lot of old farms that are abandoned - no fertilizers, no sprays - easy to go organic and not worry about contamination from other sources”.

Shelly with her goatsPresently the farm includes 100 acres of hay land. The barn opens up onto 30 acres of rolling pasture, which Roode says is more for scampering on since the goats are not really good grazers - they prefer a more varied diet.

Currently, Roode is aiming for a more diverse blend for her feed. Past trials in her hay fields have had mixed success but she did find that the goats preferred the ‘weedy stuff’ or in other words, a little variety! “I’d like to have more of a mixture, what they call a highway mixture with 7 or 8 different species”. Right now Roode gets her feed mix from Homestead Organics in Ontario but she is hoping to create her own mix. This will reduce her feed costs and support local organic grains. Av Singh, the Organic and Rural Development Specialist of AgraPoint, is helping Shelley to coordinate this endeavor.

Earltown Country Cheese is a hands-on operation. Once the goats are milked, morning and night, the fresh milk goes into the milk tank in the raw milk room, which is required to be separate from where the pasteurization occurs. Here the milk is cooled to a storable temperature. It can stay in the milk tank for 48 hours prior to being pasteurized, so every two days Roode and her mother make cheese. The milk from the seventh day is used to feed the kids for the week.

Roode has expanded well beyond her kitchen forays with cheese making. She currently crafts organic feta, cottage cheese, cream cheese, ricotta, panir and yogurt. She prefers to stick to fresh cheeses rather than aged for a quick turn around on her product.

Shelly pouring goat milk into the coolerBefore cheese making can begin, the cheese room must be sanitized from top to bottom, for which hydrogen peroxide is used in order to meet organic standards. Only then can the lid to the pasteurizer be opened. The 200L pasteurizer also serves as a cheese vat. The vegetable rennet goes straight into the vat after the milk is pasteurized. The whey is then drained out the side leaving the curd for further draining in cheese bags. Following strict recipes - particularly where temperature is concerned - Roode can ensure product consistency.

Originally the expectation was that Halifax would provide the most viable market for Earltown Country Cheese, so they started with Homegrown Organic Foods and Great Oceans. But now Roode is finding that the local market, including farm gate sales, is exceeding the demand from the city. Stores stocking her products include Earltown Cornerstore, Sunflower in Antigonish, Healthy Habit in Truro, and Longhorn Market in Tatamagouche. The cheeses are also being sold at the Truro Farmers Market and to restaurants such as Pictou Lodge and Pipers Landing.

Shelly in the cheesehouseRoode and her mother make all of their cheeses before they get their orders, which can make production decisions difficult (although the demand is consistently exceeding their supply). So far there has been no major attempt at advertising. Sticking with her hands on approach, Roode has even brought her baby goats and samples of her wares to farmer’s markets for promotion. Otherwise, Earltown Country Cheese relies on word of mouth and a tasty, consistent product that sells itself.

Roode’s goal is for Earltown Country Cheese to become her full-time job (believe it or not, she is still working 30-35 hours/week); and there is also talk of getting into chevré, a variety of soft, goat cheese. The opportunities are endless for this dedicated organic farmer and her goats!

Shelley Roode can be contacted at (902) 657-0264 or by E-mail at earltowncountrycheese@ns.sympatico.ca

 

Posted October 2007

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Dalhousie University Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada