Alberta goat dairy makes chevre and feta for consumers and foodies as the family embraces automation to expand the business
NOBLEFORD, Alta. — Noble Meadows Farm faces a challenge common to small farm businesses. The owners want to grow but can’t afford or find the additional labour that would make that possible.
Increased automation appears to be the answer for Harvey and Carolyn Van Driesten and their children, Ken, Rebecca and Caitlyn. They run a goat dairy near Nobleford, Alta., and produce various cheeses and yogurt on their provincially licensed on-farm processing facility.
“We do want to get bigger,” said Carolyn. “Right now, we’re doing everything by hand. Packaging is being done by hand and that’s a lot of work. We’re not big enough to have employees so it’s just us and our family.”
A few weeks ago they bought a vacuum filler machine that will help with cheese packaging. They may follow up with more automation later, but it’s one step at a time for the 250-goat operation.
Noble Meadows opened its doors late last month to a Lethbridge County-organized tour of sustainable agriculture operations.
Ken Van Driesten explained the front end of the operation: the Alpine goats that are milked twice a day in a 40-stall parlour.
“They’re better adapted to our farm,” he said about the breed choice. “For our system, we’re not pushing the goats like some dairies do.”
The Van Driestens strive to maintain natural operations, allowing the goats to graze on grass when available and using their own and nearby feed sources for other rations.
The goats will milk for 10 months and are then dry for two and pregnant for five. Ken said goats will remain in the herd for eight to 10 years, and can begin milking at 12-to-18 months old.
Animals not needed for replacement stock are bred to Boer genetics and the offspring are sold for meat, although Ken said that is “a lot of work for little reward.”
Instead, the reward lies mostly in the production of cheese, which is Carolyn’s domain.
Noble Meadows produces feta cheese and several varieties of soft chevre, including plain, apricot chili, cranberry spice, herb and onion, tomato and garlic. The cheese was named Best Farmstead Cheese in Canada in a 2014 competition within the Canadian Cheese Awards.
The family has been milking goats for 13 years and processing milk for the last eight. The processing facility has a 500-litre vat capable of pasteurizing the milk and is key to cheese production.
Generally, Carolyn starts making a batch of soft cheese on Fridays, adding culture and rennet to milk in the vat and letting it sit for 24 hours. The curd is then hung in bags for another 48 hours, slowly turning into cheese. Once desired consistency is reached, the cheese is weighed, salted and ready to package.
The whey, and any milk produced beyond cheese needs, is fed to their small herd of pigs.
The process for feta cheese production is similar but involves cutting into cubes, slow stirring and use of moulds. Once a block of feta has sat for a time and drained, it is cut into cubes and put into brine.
Carolyn learned cheese making from books and from a short course.
“I’ve always been interested in it, so it came pretty natural. And it’s not hard. It’s a very simple process,” she said.
The product is mostly sold in Calgary at Calgary Co-op stores, smaller markets and farmers markets, and through wholesale distributors.
“I think goat cheese has become more mainstream, especially since we started. Eight years ago the local movement was just starting. People were looking for local, and goat cheese was becoming more and more popular. And now it’s just almost mainstream,” Carolyn said.
“We seem to have quite a loyal customer base,” added Ken.
Marketing is a challenge. The time it takes to run the farm and the processing facility doesn’t allow any extra time for marketing and direct sales. When they first started making and selling cheese, Carolyn and Harvey were going to Calgary twice a week.
That couldn’t be sustained given demands at the farm.