Years of effort culminate in commercial dairy license and product line from cheese to lotions for this Notasulga farm
Back in the late-1970s, Kyle Payne came home from college at Auburn one day and announced he was either going to "walk on" the Tiger football team OR buy a farm.
"Needless to say, we put a binder on a small farm that weekend," his wife Melanie laughed.
From that humble beginning has grown one of the state’s premier fully-licensed goat dairies which produce not only nutritious goat milk but also hard and soft goat cheeses, goat milk lotions and goat milk soap.
Bulger Creek Farm—named for Bulger Creek which has its beginnings on the farm—has always been a work in progress, but the Paynes say now they’ve found their true niche with goats.
"Over the years, we tried to make money with feeder pigs, cows and even horses. We always kept a few goats, but never thought of them for income," Melanie explained.
Kyle and Melanie had "ordinary, brush-type" goats when they were children and enjoyed them, primarily as pets.
But Melanie continued, "Then one day we accidentally bought what turned out to be a dairy goat. As they say, ‘the rest is history.’ Once we had goat milk, we started finding ways to use it. The products were wonderful and Kyle became a master cheese-maker."
But while it all seems simple and almost idyllic as one watches the herd of around 100 Saanan and Nubian goats happily munching their way through the 80 acres of woods and around the picturesque farm pond, becoming a licensed dairy in Alabama is an expensive and time-intensive endeavor.
"We’d been making goat cheese and goat milk products for over 20 years when we decided in 1997 it was time to sell some of our products," Melanie said.
"It took years of building to get a licensed business running. In Alabama, the commercial dairy industry is well regulated. We had to comply with the same laws the big cow dairies follow."
That sounds easy enough, but for 11 years Bulger Farm operated as a Grade B Dairy, which allowed them to sell the cheese products and soap, but not their milk.
Thousands of dollars (which would have been likely twice as much if the Paynes had not completed the majority of building work themselves) and hours of sweat-equity resulted in the farm’s new spotlessly-clean milking facility and upgraded cheese manufacturing which allowed the farm to be upgraded in 2009 to a Grade A milk producing operation!
They also hold a county health department certificate in order to produce the cheesecakes from their commercial kitchen.
Bulger Creek Farms is a partnership between Melanie and Kyle, and their grown children, Willie and Amanda.
Melanie and Kyle pointed out it is important to remember they both kept their "day" jobs during all the planning, building and working toward licensure.
(Folks who simply decide to "live off the land," quit their jobs and move onto rural property seldom can make a go of it unless they have huge financial reserves to fall back on!)
Melanie retired just this year after serving as the Child Nutrition Director for Opelika Schools for 25 years. She has a BS in General Home Economics from the University of Alabama (and added an emphatic Roll Tide).
Kyle has two degrees from Auburn: a BS in Forestry and a Master of Education in Mathematics. He continues to teach math classes at Beauregard High School in Lee County.
They both attended Springville Schools in St. Clair County while growing up.
Kyle is basically self-taught when it comes to his cheese-making, but the results are spectacular.
Hard goat cheeses include feta, Cheddar, Blue Rind and others.
But it’s their soft cheeses that really set them apart! Veggie wheel includes just a touch of sun-dried tomatoes, carrots, parsley and spices; the soft feta is ideal for cooking, making dips or just eating on crackers! Then there’s the pecan (which was developed by son Willie!) and The Dessert Wheel which is a creamy goat cheese with chocolate chips, confectioner’s sugar and pecans which is great served with vanilla wafers or other cookies for a European-style dessert.
While Alabama law would allow the Paynes to use imported curd in their cheeses, they stress EVERYTHING is produced on their Notasulga farm.
"By producing our own milk and curd, we control the quality and taste of our products. Also, we are not relying on health standards from anyone else. We know what is in our products," Melanie noted.
There’s also a line of smooth, all-natural lotions and soaps.
Son Willie has completed college and is a civil engineer in the Florida panhandle, but he and his wife, Ashley, still come home to help on the farm when needed. They also distribute some of the farm’s products to stores and restaurants in their area.
Two of the Payne’s favorite recipes from their booklet "Cooking with Goat Cheese."
GOAT CHEESE DIP
8 oz plain goat cheese
Mix cheese and salsa in a microwave-safe bowl. Cook in microwave on high heat for 1 ½ minutes (microwaves vary so watch!)
(Recipe developed by Amanda Payne)
TUNA SALAD-STUFFED TOMATOES
4 large vine-ripened tomatoes
Cut the top off the tomatoes using a zigzag cut about ¼ from the top. This gives a pretty scalloped top. Scoop out the very center. Mix the other ingredients with the scooped out tomato. Scoop ¼ of the mixture into each tomato.
Amanda will complete her software engineering degree this fall and will marry Stephen in a farm wedding next year. They likewise help on the farm whenever they can.
The Paynes are at Pepper Place in Birmingham every Saturday through fall, and have products at East Chase in Montgomery, Saturdays; Auburn Heritage Park, Thursday afternoons; and Callaway Gardens in Georgia on Friday afternoons. Their products are also available at Day Spring and Blooming Colors in Auburn, Healthwise in Montgomery and Old Field Farm General Store outside Oneonta.
And how do they explain to others why they choose to work so hard on the farm—and with goats?
"Our ancestors always had to live off the land and we were looking for somehow we could do the same. Goats offered a better opportunity because not a lot of people were running goat dairies in the South, so the farm might support itself and make a profit," Kyle said.
"For me, goats are small enough to handle and we all must admit they are CUTE. We are tired of kids by May and June, but every year we get that first kidding excitement and enjoy working with the does and their kids. I loved growing up at my grandparents’ farm and the sameness of the daily chores of gathering eggs and feeding animals," Melanie continued.
"I guess it’s just in our blood."For more information, check out www.bulgercreekfarm.com.
Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County. She can be reached through her website at www.suzysfarm.com.