Thirty years ago, Diana McCown and her family moved to a century-old farmhouse and set about becoming as self-sustaining as possible. She wanted to buy a cow that could provide a supply of milk for her husband and four children. But a cow was $500, and she found an advertisement in the local paper for a goat for only $50.
“It was a matter of economy at the beginning,” she said, "but I fell in love with these sweet, gentle animals."
Of course, that meant she had to breed the goat in order to have kids and get goat milk. That had to occur annually, and with goats often producing more than one offspring at a time, her herd quickly increased.
“We got overwhelmed with milk at a certain point, and the obvious thing is to make something for your family out of it, so I started making cheese,” McCown said. “It kind of just grew exponentially from there.”
In 1992, they put in a licensed goat dairy on their property. McCown now has about 60 goats, 31 of which are on her milking line.
It was at about the same time that she took an entrepreneur workshop from the University of Nebraska and began to sell cheese she had made in the university’s licensed cheese-making facility, having hauled all of her milk to Lincoln from her dairy near Martell.
In 2006, she applied for and received an $18,500 USDA Value Added Producer Grant to investigate the feasibility of launching a business and constructing a cheese plant on her property. It covered the cost of a feasibility study as well as an investigatory trip to North Carolina to visit goat dairies that also had on-site cheese plants.
“Because of the fact that I’d already sold cheese for a good long time before I actually commissioned this feasibility study, I wasn’t really concerned that I could sell it,” McCown said. “But it verified it and it really is the first step in applying for other grants.”
A Nebraska grant made possible by the Nebraska Department of Economic Development followed in 2008, covering the cost of equipment while McCown funded the renovation of a building on her property for a cheese plant. By late summer 2008, Greenglade Goat Milk Specialties’ plant was completed and granted approval by the Nebraska Bureau of Foods and Dairies.
Nobody taught McCown how to make cheese. She started to experiment, tapping into her knowledge as a skilled cook. A cheese maker at the University of Nebraska became her mentor and guided her in applying her “kitchen stove type of production” to commercial production in a larger facility with larger equipment.
She negotiated an agreement with the university to use its cheese plant for a fee. Once a week, she brought 90 gallons of goat milk to campus and made her cheese. Her husband learned to make cheese five years ago and is getting rather adept as well, she said.
“They turned me loose after they knew I was trustworthy in the plant,” she said of the university staff. “So that’s how it’s worked all these years.”
Bricks and mortar
Back at her home near Martell, a three-stall garage with an attached woodworking shop is the new home of Greenglade Goat Milk Specialties. One of the stalls has been converted into a walk-in cooler, and the woodworking shop was extended by an additional 15 feet. An area near the front entrance will serve as a small store, and a viewing area will allow visitors to watch cheese being made.
McCown hopes their acreage will become a point of interest that will attract visitors.
“We have a very, very old Victorian farmhouse that we restored that is quite interesting and quite a sight,” she said. “So we are kind of incorporating into the business of being a tourist stop rather than just a place where somebody can stop in and buy some cheese. They can see the goats and we have a vineyard in the front. It’s like going to grandma’s when you were a kid, if grandma lived in the country.”
She is now looking into the possibility of hiring a herd manager to do the daily milking chores in the dairy. McCown, who teaches communications at Doane College in Crete, Nebraska, rises daily at 4:30 a.m., milks the goats, goes to school and then returns in the afternoon to milk the goats yet again.
“It fits around my school day,” she said, “but it also is time consuming because it’s 2 ½ hours in the barn, morning and evening.”
She has also considered hiring someone to assist with packaging, labeling and other tasks in the cheese plant that will free her up to make more cheese.
“Cheese making is the essential part of it and I consider myself an artisanal cheese maker,” she said. “The time I spend making cheese is the most important chore on the place.”
Having produced cheese for more than a decade, McCown has already established a loyal clientele, largely from selling her product at farmers' markets.
“My cheese has a very specific flavor and taste,” she said. “and I produce some types that are really popular, so we sell a lot of cheese in just the few outlets we have.”
Greenglade cheeses are also sold in several wineries, most of which are within a 50-mile radius of her home, and she is preparing to deliver samples to other wineries in hopes of getting Greenglade cheeses into even more tasting rooms. She has made contact with several gourmet food stores and restaurants in Lincoln, as well as with three grocery stores and a health food store.
The success she has had distributing her product even to this point is proof in itself of the quality of Greenglade cheeses.
“Somehow I have come into ways of making cheese that people really like,” McCown said. “I have people at the farmers market – they can’t buy my cheese in the off months – say things like, ‘I’ve been craving your cheese all winter! I’m hooked on your cheese!’”
She said many goat cheeses are made in a European style, giving them a “goaty” taste.
“Mine doesn’t taste goaty,” she said. “Mine has just wonderful flavors, and people really appreciate that.”
she has been successful in breaking ground for other people who want to get into the business. One of the options for her cheese plant that she outlined in her application for the Nebraska grant was to conduct cheese-making workshops at her plant to teach people how to make cheese not only out of goat milk but cow milk as well.
She also intends to rent the facility to other producers, realizing that building a cheese plant is cost prohibitive for many would-be cheese makers.
“I would work right along with them, teach them how to make cheese…and they could package it and label it in my facility,” she said. “It gives a small producer an outlet for selling their product legally.”
Not only can it be cost prohibitive, but McCown discovered first-hand the number of hurdles that stood in her way as a goat milk producer. Unfortunately, she has had to combat the industry’s bad reputation, created decades ago by a few Nebraska dairy producers. They made arrangements with a Wisconsin cheese company to sell their goat milk to be processed into cheese. But one man used Clorox to lower bacteria levels in his milk tanks, thereby eliminating all bacteria in the milk, including the bacteria needed to make cheese.
The entire industry in the state of Nebraska was tainted by this experience, and McCown believes goat milk producers have had to deal with the watchful eye of the Bureau of Foods and Dairies ever since. She attributes her success to her unwavering persistence.
Just as she was nearing approval, the state of Nebraska changed its regulations and Greenglade had to go through several more steps in order to comply.
“It seemed like every time we’d be about ready, some other obstruction would happen and we’d have to do something more,” McCown said.
One goat dairy was licensed in Nebraska in the 1970s but quickly lost its license. Another dairy received its license just within the last few years, having benefited from the path created by McCown.
“If I’d been a cow dairy, it would have been no problem,” McCown said. “I could have just jumped in and they would have led me along and everything would have been already established. But I had to break new barriers to do it. The State of Nebraska is very careful in monitoring for safe food products, especially dairy.”
With her cheese plant now complete, McCown is plotting her next move. She plans to launch a Web site for Greenglade Goat Milk Specialties and hopes to begin online sales of her products. Her mozzarella cheese has been a hot item on iGourmet, a Web site dedicated to gourmet food products.
She also wants to distribute her cheeses to more markets. With the plant now complete, she will be working to determine her full production capabilities.
“Then we’ll know how many places we can service with the product,” she said.
According to McCown, “It all goes back to a love of those wonderfully gentle animals called dairy goats. From the affection they give humans to the milk they produce, we benefit from the part they play in our world.”
About USDA VAPG
VAPG funding has been offered by the USDA periodically since the early 2000s. A new round of funding is anticipated to be announced in the coming months. To be considered value added, projects must show how products are differentiated in specific ways from commodity crops. Typically, projects must also show how they may deliver greater returns to producers.
Independent producers, farmer or rancher cooperatives, agricultural producer groups, and producer-owned business ventures, including non-profit organizations, may apply. In previous cycles, applicants were required to be producers of the raw commodity who will maintain ownership of that commodity through the process of creating a value-added product. Grants have been available for planning projects (such as marketing and business plans and feasibility studies) and working capital projects (which might include wages or packaging supplies). (http://www.rd.usda.gov/)