Want more goats? Here is an audio slideshow of life on the farm.
The wagers were in. Some farmhands had bet on Evelyn, whose swollen belly appeared to cradle several bowling balls; others had set their hopes on Elizabeth, whose girth had expanded to that of a whiskey barrel, to bear the first kids of the season.
"It's my hope she'll blow today," said Kat Spann, co-owner of Prodigal Farm, of Evelyn, a Nubian/Saanen crossbreed. "There's something on the head of the tail that tells me they're about to kid."
On this sunny Saturday in early March, the power was still out 24 hours after a major ice storm, and Spann was hosting a workshop at the farm in Rougemont for a dozen people considering the goat business. The ice had melted, turning parts of the pasture into pancake batter. We had to leap across small moats to reach the goats, who basked in the sunshine, nibbled at our coattails and, by nudging us with their noses, asked to be rubbed between their horns.
Spann, an ex-lawyer who once worked for New York Attorney General Elliott Spitzer, and her partner, Dave Krabbe, a former builder of ultra-high end homes, left their respective fast-paced fields and started Prodigal Farm in 2007. Spann's family had raised tobacco on nearby land, and she has roots in northern Durham County dating back 300 years.
One of the most respected goat farms in the area, Prodigal Farm is known for the quality of its cheese (it also sells meat); restaurants such as Heron's at the Umstead, Bleu Olive, G2B, 18 Seaboard and Pompieri Pizza have used the cheese in its dishes. The farm's wares have been showcased at the annual Southern Artisanal Cheese Festival, which has been held in Raleigh and Nashville.
"I love the texture of her cheese. It's incredibly silky and smooth," said Kathleen Cotter, the festival founder, who also runs The Bloomy Rind cheese shop in Nashville, Tenn. "It glides across the tongue. And not everybody makes cheese like Kat. I call her the Goat Cheese Whisperer."
At 95 acres, Prodigal Farm is also admired for its environmental sustainability—the goats roam free in a pesticide-free pasture—and its humane treatment of the herd, which has earned it the Animal Welfare Approved designation.
After seven years, Prodigal Farm is launching a $45,000 Kickstarter campaign to install a hard cheese aging room. The farm produces soft chèvre and bloomy rind varieties that peak in summer, but without space and proper equipment it can't make hard cheeses that can be eaten year-round.
"There's so much to learn," Spann told the workshop attendees. "It's endless. Goats are fabulous and fascinating."
The 12-page workshop syllabus included segments on record keeping (use a spread sheet), hoof trimming, parasite prevention (unlike cows, goats need to eat high off the ground) and birth: "Eating the placenta—why Mother Nature thought that one up."
Two weeks later, I again visited Spann at the height of birthing season, what she calls the "baby blitz." In eight days, 42 does had given birth to more than 100 kids, many of them temporarily sheltered under heat lamps in a building called "Babyland" near the house. Here, the kids, some just 36 hours old, but nonetheless playing and leaping, nurse freely from buckets outfitted with nipples and full of mothers' warm milk and formula. "It mimics and improves upon what they have with their mom," Spann says.
By allowing them to eat at will, they grow more quickly and can graduate to rotating through pastures, like their mother.
The kids from this season, the farm's eighth, bear monikers beginning with the eighth letter of the alphabet: Honeysuckle, Hercules, Havana, Hot Dog and so on.
Inside the kitchen, Maggie Griffin has swaddled Honeysuckle to bottle-feed her and then helped her strengthen her front legs. When Honeysuckle stands, her legs quiver and she does a gentle faceplant on a bathroom towel intended to give her traction. Spann suspects a selenium deficiency, which can be corrected with supplements.
At a conventional farm, in which hordes of animals are crowded in barns with little or no access to the outdoors, it is unlikely Honeysuckle would get this level of attention.
"If you do things conventionally, it's easier. What we do is more labor-intensive," Spann said. "There is a payoff in the quality of the milk and the cheese."
Pastured goats and cows produce milk and cheese that have different flavors and qualities throughout the season, Cotter said. "Kat's one of the best in sustainable practices. The love for her animals comes through."
When Spann sells goats to other farms, she researches the facilities to ensure the welfare of the goats. "I want to sell to people based on how they will take care of the goats," Spann said. "Based on my principles."
Animal Welfare Approved farms such as Prodigal—there are 80 in N.C.—are required to raise their animals on pasture. In addition, AWA certification, which is free, is awarded only to family farmers. (Other stipulations are at animalwelfareapproved.org.)
More often, consumers are looking for products—dairy and meat—from AWA farms. "There's a huge demand for pasture-raised food in the Triangle," said Emily Lancaster, lead farmer and market outreach coordinator, who lives in Pittsboro.
Goat cheese, long popular in Europe, has finally caught on in the U.S. Here the trend can be attributed to health concerns—goat milk is more digestible than cow milk—and an increased interest in artisan cheeses. Restaurants are serving more goat cheese; cheese shops are carrying it. And American tastes are becoming attuned to it, in its many varieties: Blues, washed rinds, Alpines and fresh chèvre.
"Goat cheeses can be strong and funky and some people won't eat it," Cotter said. "But in the last 12 months we've had our palates broadened."
It's midafternoon at the goat workshop, and the dozen future farmers were discussing potential maladies—how to distinguish bottlejaw, a serious condition in which fluid collects under a goat's chin and needs treated immediately—from a milk goiter, which the kids will outgrow—when Spann's cell phone rang.
"Trim it so you have only a half inch from the tie off and remember, don't pull on their little navels," she said.
We could not hear the voice on the other end of the line.
"Is she doing a good job licking it off?"
"Are they standing up yet?"
"Give her space."
"Look and see if they are boys or girls."
"Who's the daddy? Does it look like Excalibur?"
"Then it's definitely Excalibur."
"Congrats on winning the bet."
Elizabeth had triplets: Hermes, Helena and Hercules.
Meet baby goats at Kickstarter party
What: Prodigal Farm launch of its Kickstarter campaign
Why: To build an aging space for hard cheeses and to boost long-term employment for young farmers and cheesemakers
When: Sunday, March 30, 5–8 p.m.
Where: Mystery Brewing Public House, 230 S. Nash St., Hillsborough
Other cool stuff: Taste a prototype batch of Hopalong, a cheese aged for five months and washed in Mystery Brewing ale; learn about the farm's vision for building an economically sustainable farming community; hear from filmmaker Kate Rende, who focuses on environmental and cultural conservaton; and, of course, meet some baby goats
Look for a longer version of this story in the INDY's annual EATS publication, a guide to the Triangle's food scene, to be published May 7.
This article appeared in print with the headline "New kids on the block."