Small farms have long been an object of derision by big agriculture complex, and most of the policies of USDA have been the main culprit in the demise of the small farm in America.
In this seemingly hostile environment, how can the small family farm hope to turn a profit and support the family running it? Leslie and Paul Spell are trying to do it by bypassing the commodity markets, over which farmers have no control, and going straight to the consumer with an exceptional value-added niche-product.
After the Spells purchased their farm, they began to look into sheep but had difficulty finding good ewes. One day they were at the Lincoln County, Tennessee, fair and were introduced to a man with a goat dairy. They asked if he would consider selling them a couple of nannies for them to use to supply their family with milk.
The man told them yes, but he would rather just sell them his whole herd and all of his equipment, since he wished to retire. He made the Spells such a good price on everything they soon found themselves milking 100 goats with the man helping them until they could handle it on their own. It was a very steep and difficult learning curve.
They began by selling all of the milk to another goat cheese business but soon began experimenting with making cheese themselves.
Leslie now has several delicious flavors, which I forced myself to taste. (I know, I know...it is a tough job, but someone has to do it.) I would rate Humble Heart Farm cheeses over the ones from high-end stores, and they are a lot more reasonably priced.
I got a bit of an education on the cheese-making process which stimulated an interest when I got home to learn more. It is a fascinating process with an even more fascinating history.
No one knows for sure how we figured out how to make cheese, but legend has it an unknown Arab was carrying milk on a journey using a calf’s stomach as a bag. When he arrived, the rennet (an enzyme found in the stomach of mammals) had turned the milk into cheese curds and whey. This began mankind’s long journey of discovery into just what delicious products could be made from milk and rennet.
The great advantage for individuals in an era before refrigeration was that cheese allowed the preservation of a high-value product like milk for a much longer period of time.
Leslie said the flavor of cheese varied according the feed the goats ate and even the soil where the grass grew would impart a different flavor.
That is why cheese from one part of France is celebrated for the flavor it produces. The French consider this a very good thing which gives a wonderful variety to our choices of cheese.
Contrast that attitude to the industrial-food model which detests anything not produced consistently. Variety produced by geography, soil, culture, etc. are abhorred by the industrial-model. The local food movement celebrates and exalts the nuances of taste created by locale while the fast food mindset is bland uniformity.
To reach their local customers, the Spells go to the new Madison City Farmer’s Market on Saturdays and the farmer’s market on Redstone Arsenal during the week. Their cheeses are also available at a couple of local stores, but they are in need of a larger venue to market all of their products.
Running the dairy and making the cheese involves a huge amount of work, so the Spells have a two-month period in December and January when the nannies are not producing milk. That gives everyone a chance to rest, travel and visit family.
Seasonal dairying is a big trend now because the grueling pace of life on a dairy at full production is so taxing on the people who work in the business. This is another point at which the independent dairy breaks with the industrial-model requiring a continuous and steady flow of milk to keep its factories going. The enormous capital investment of milk processing equipment requires a constant flow of milk to justify its expense. In the industrial-model, the needs of the machinery take precedence over the needs of the people.
The Spells have emphasized simplicity and flexibility at their dairy. They demonstrate excellent business acumen and realize keeping capital costs at a minimum is a must. Much of their milking equipment is used equipment from cattle dairies adapted to work with goats.
Leslie emphasized this is more than just a business. She hopes to turn it into an educational experience for school children.
"I want to help kids get outside and see what the natural world is like," Leslie explained.
She has the gift of a natural teacher and should be very successful with an agritourism project.
Paul seems to be an innovator with the ability to make things work -— a much needed talent on any farm.
Their eight-year-old son Isaac certainly knows about farm life. He is a delightful little fellow who is very eager to show visitors around the farm. He can explain the idiosyncrasies of each goat’s personality or even how to cure a nanny of kidney stones. The Spells home-school Isaac, who is learning all about business as well as the dairying process. His number one job is taking care of the bottle babies.
The Spells are well aware of how difficult it is to make a go of a small dairy, but they are determined to do it. Leslie said this is a ministry as much as a business and by learning about the natural world one can see God’s handiwork all around us.
Keith Johnson is a freelance writer from Morgan County.