From Scandia, Minnesota, just a 45-minute drive from the Wedge, Poplar Hills Dairy Goat Farm has been supplying the Twin Cities "goat milk niche" for over 30 years.
While goat milk isn't nearly as popular as cow milk at the Wedge, this milk has a very dedicated following.
"We go through about a case a day," says Erturk Mehmet, the Wedge Dairy Buyer. "That's respectable. There's a core of shoppers who won't buy anything but goat milk."
That's because many folks who can't drink cow's milk drink goat's milk without difficulty. Also, goat's milk can sometimes be used as a replacement for cow's milk-based infant formulas for infants who have difficulties with dairy intolerances (a.k.a., colic). This is because goat milk's chemical structure is amazingly similar to human milk. A complete protein containing all the essential amino acids, goat's milk doesn't have the heavy fat content and catarrh (mucus) producing materials of cow milk.
Back to the Land
Owner and "goatherd" Vince Maefsky is a broad-shouldered Hemingway-esque, looking fellow who seems most at ease when he's talking about his herd. He and his wife Sarah were part of the "back to the land" movement in the late sixties and early seventies and almost bought a cow in order to start a dairy.
"But I got a letter from a man who read my ad in the Catholic Worker for a cow," recalls Vince, "who said that I should forget about cows and buy goats. They're much smarter, more gregarious creatures. And he was right." By the mid-seventies, Vince was selling goat milk to Roots and Fruits, the Wedge, and all the other co-ops.
Over thirty years later, Vince and Sarah have over 1000 goats, and Poplar Hills is one of the largest goat dairies in Minnesota. "I just wish I'd named the farm after something more permanent," Vince laughs, looking up at the hill for which his farm is named. "All our poplars are gone now."
A Thousand Goats Per Day
As a leader in goatherding nationally, Vince Maefsky is also a meticulous record keeper, tracking breeding, genetics, and protein and butterfat content in the milk from his Alpine, Nubian, Saanen, and Toggenburg goats (this particular mix makes for a tastier milk, says Maefsky). He also keeps track of production for each doe in his herd.
"The oldest doe now is fourteen years old," Vince says. "She's given 20,000 pounds of milk and lots of babies."
He milks 48 goats at a time in his state of the art milking parlor which has 12 milking units, and the goats enter the milking parlor twice a day, at 3 AM and 3 PM, and get milked four at a time on each unit. Five hundred fifty goats get milked per milking (about a 3-and-a-half-hour job) - over a thousand per day. So how many farm hands does that take?
"Two," says Vince, inclining his head toward his son Shane.
Just two people can herd 550 goats? Really?
"Goats are very social. They love the process. They come right into the milking parlor and they know where to go, what to do," Vince says, who is especially proud of his "in-door and out-door" system, which keeps the milkers in line and lets the milked does outside quickly. The goats also get their fill of grain and hay during milking, so that's an added incentive for orderly conduct.
Poplar Hill isn't an organic operation nor are they grass-fed, but the care that Maefsky and his family feel for their herd is palpable. "We bring the pasture to the goats every day," says Vince.
They get fresh "green chop" (alfalfa and hay) which is grown on the farm and fed to the goats daily through the growing season. They also allow the does to "dry up" in December and January, in order to let them rest and recover.
Poplar Hills does not use the hormones used, say, in France, to induce heat and extend the milking season. Instead they use a more natural method. "Come February, we use lighting in the barn to trick them into thinking its fall," when goats typically go into heat.
The young kids also get antimicrobial drugs early on, which Maefsky feels is essential. "It's a health matter for the goats. It's more important to us than organic certification."
The result is a more natural and "more seasonal" operation, as Maefsky puts it.
Shane, Vince's son, says he loves the rhythm of life on this farm. Will he continue farming after his father retires.
"I think so," Shane says. "I think I'm in it. It's hard to imagine any other life."