The Creation of River's Edge Goat Dairy

In the last 20 years we have taken an abandoned and abused piece of land and turned it into a beautiful, sustainable working farm.  We have created jobs and helped on farm cheese processing come back to Ontario. We were one of the first modern day on-farm cheese processors and we are the longest running on-farm cheese processor in the province.

 March 12, 2019 marked our 20-year anniversary of being on this land! There are many stories to tell!! I will start with the question I get asked so often in our store, barn and farmers’ markets, “How did you get here?”

 While the following does not explain all the blood, sweat and tears (literally) that went into transforming this land, growing our goat herd, and learning how to make cheese, I hope you get the idea of how much work, investment (both personal and financial), determination and hours of free labour have gone into this farm. If you love our cheese, and ever get the chance to meet my parents, thank them! Without their support and willingness to be here at the drop of a hat to babysit kids, drive tractors, sell at markets, help with project design, drive just about anything anywhere (they picked up our cheese vat “Martha” from Martha’s Vineyard one Easter), we could not be as successful as we are. Countless friends and family have helped over the years, we could not be here without them.

 It’s not often that an abandoned and abused farm becomes a thriving farm business, the following will explain how River’s Edge Goat Dairy came to be.

My name is Katie Normet. For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to live on a farm. I grew up in Oakville, Ontario, which is now part of the sprawl that makes up the Greater Toronto Area. From as early as I can remember, I have always wanted to live on a farm. Much of my childhood was spent creating opportunities to experience country life firsthand. Once I was old enough, my parents gave me weekly riding lessons at our local horse farm. If I wanted more horses and riding, I needed to earn the money myself. I mucked stalls and worked with the animals, helped with hay harvests and learned to drive tractors. I rode and worked with horses for more than a decade before I met my first goats, when the owners of the horse farm briefly added a herd of goats in an effort to make some much-needed income through goat-milk sales. One fateful day, I walked into the horse barn, and instead of horses, there were goats ... lots of goats.

I loved how alert these creatures were. They seemed to move almost as one, yet as individuals at the same time. Many had long, beautiful flowing ears that seemed to fly as the goats turned toward the sound of the grain scoop and strained to get as close as they could to the feed. Their body language seemed to cry out, “Me, please, me, please!” I was curious and eager to learn more. 

At the time, I was in third year at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, where I studied animal science and had courses in food processing, food microbiology and food chemistry. Most of the food science I was learning was about milk and dairy. When I signed up for food science courses, I had no idea I would be learning so much about dairy. At this point in my life I had not even considered the possibility of milking goats and making cheese. I took the food science courses because I was attracted to the science, I had no clue what I would actually do with my acquired knowledge. During my years at Guelph, there was one aspect of farming that my fellow classmates brought to my attention: There is no expensive quota needed to sell goat milk.

In Canada, if a farmer wants to produce cow milk, he or she must purchase one quota per dairy cow. Originally, quotas were free; today, a single quota (which allows the owner to have one producing dairy cow) may cost tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the province in which you’re farming. Breaking into this system is an expensive undertaking for new farmers, and learning that dairy goat farming did not come with such a huge price tag was good news to someone with a growing interest in farming for a living.

 The pieces of my life were falling into place for me. My new love for goats, my new passion for dairy science, my discovery of the lack of need for quota, my desire to not work for someone else, my lifelong desire to live on a farm…all came together and clearly pointed out to me that I should create a goal of milking goats and making cheese.

I finished up my degree, worked as a summer student, managed a horse farm, had a job at the local feed store, got married, became pregnant with my first child and continued to ride and show horses. I spent whatever time I could doing research on goats, visiting farms and attending goat sales, reading books, surfing the web (there wasn't much web to surf back then) and talking to people in the agricultural industry.

In 1999, with my parents, my partner and I purchased an abandoned 95-acre farm just outside the village of Arthur, in Southwestern Ontario. The farmhouse had not been lived in or cared for in over 50 years. There was no hydro service, which meant no running water at the house. The derelict barn had been used for grain storage for at least a couple of decades; its rat population was well fed. The existing concrete pens in the barn were several feet deep with ancient manure, while one large section of the hayloft had fallen to ground level.

The original barn, we guess it was built in the early 1900's with an addition added in the 1960s.

We’d viewed and purchased the property in February under a deep blanket of snow, but as the snow melted, a multitude of items surfaced, among them, abandoned bicycles, toilets, unpaired shoes, microwave ovens, chairs and five-gallon pails full of some unidentifiable liquid. During those first years on the farm, I stayed home with our son while my husband worked off the farm. Goat farming was our long-term plan, but in the meantime, we cleaned up the property, built fence and cleared the barn out to keep cattle and veal calves. We raised hens for eggs and chickens for meat, and I honed my farm management skills.

 Some of the junk that was left covering the property

Creating a suitable home for goats was a slow and steady process. Among other improvements, we poured a concrete floor on the east side of the barn and built some pen walls on the west, adding a new roof on the east side as well. By March 2001, we were finally ready to purchase two very affordable Alpine does from a hobby farmer about an hour drive away.

In hindsight, I realize these two goats were really more teachers than anything else. Our does were healthy-looking animals and of good weight, and the fact that they were already bred was also appealing. After we’d loaded the goats safely into the truck, the farmer told us their breeding dates. On the drive home, I calculated the kidding date, “They’re due now! Today!” I exclaimed.

We arrived home with the goats early that evening, and when I checked on the does at 11 p.m., one of them had four kids on the ground! Around midnight, the second doe delivered a second set of quads. It was quite an introduction to the goat world. The two does were fantastic milkers. They raised all those kids—six bucks and two does—and still had milk left for us. I was happy with the eight “instant goats,” but I wasn’t quite as happy that there weren’t more does offering future milk prospects. These first two milking does were named “Auntie” and “Grey”.

Before moving into commercial production, we still needed to meet several requirements in order to produce goat milk that could enter the food-supply chain: We needed a milking parlor (a clean, easy-to-work-in, well-lit area complete with milking equipment) and a milk house, which would include a raw milk holding tank, a wash sink with hot and cold running water, a milk pipeline and a bulk holding tank for the milk. We also needed more goats.

 Our first milking parlour

Rather than letting our new source of precious milk go to waste in the meantime, I milked our two goats by hand every day. A gallon of milk a day was more than our family of three could drink, so I decided to put my years of education and research to work. First, I made a soft fresh cheese. Then, I made yogurt. I experimented with harder cheeses and with Camembert. Some cheeses worked beautifully, and some failed miserably. In my first attempt at whipping goat cream, I made butter, which wasn’t a bad thing, as it turned out. My passion for goat cheese was growing. My five or six hours of work would only yield one large or two small cheeses! Cheesemaking is truly a labour of love.

By September of that year, we’d set up our farm to milk goats commercially. The province granted us our Grade A milking license, and we could legally start shipping milk. We purchased a single herd of 20 crossbred goats, and the milk broker’s milk truck arrived once a week to pick up the milk we produced, delivering it to a large commercial cheese plant nearby. Shortly after we started selling our goat milk, however, we grew anxious about the stability of Ontario’s goat-milk industry. Putting my education and research to work, I came up with a solution: goat-milk soap. I knew how to milk goats, and I understood the science of soap making. I signed up for a one-year business course offered by the Canadian government to learn more about how to run a retail business. With a four-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter, I was grateful I had parents who were willing to babysit.

In 2003, River's Edge Soap Co. was born. Over the years, my mother and I spent countless weekends traveling around southwestern Ontario, selling hundreds of bars of soap, goat-milk moisturizing creams and other related products. During our travels, we were asked the same question over and over: "Do you sell goat cheese?" We didn’t, but I knew I wanted to. The prices and stability of selling commodity milk was not sustainable, it was time to look at fulfilling our dream and building our own dairy processing plant.

 

We renovated a room just off our milk house that was to be our milk processing plant. The space had to meet the strict provincial regulations needed to sell goat dairy products to the public. We purchased cheese-making equipment, which included a custom-made pasteurizer designed by my father, a civil engineer, a very basic cheese vat—a stainless steel soup pot purchased from a local discount kitchen supply store, a scale, an assortment of stainless steel utensils, cheese cloths and a thermometer. On July 1, 2005, we were granted our provincial license to run a goat-cheese processing plant. River's Edge Soap Co. evolved into River's Edge Goat Dairy. We could now legally produce and sell our goat-milk products in the province of Ontario.

Cheese making in our new processing facility was certainly different than making cheese in the family kitchen. After some trial and error, I perfected the technique for making pasteurized milk, yogurt, chevre and feta. But I knew I had stretched my self-learning to its natural limits. It was time to go back to school. In 2008, I made my first visit to the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese. Since then, I’ve returned to that inspiring state a dozen times, both to attend courses and to do research. The expertise I gained in Vermont has resulted in huge benefits for the River's Edge Goat Dairy in both the making and marketing of our cheese. During the summers of 2011 and 2012, we perfected recipes for two mold-ripened cheeses and three semi-hard cheeses. That was a bit of a challenge, as my new partner and I added three more children to the family, bringing the tally to three boys and two girls.

 

In 2018, we milked 66 goats and produced approximately 60,000 liters of milk, which we turned into our delicious goat-milk products. Today, we sell our products directly from the farm and at the local farmers’ markets in Guelph, Kitchener, Georgetown and Orangeville Ontario AND as of this year, you can also purchase a selection of our products online. Each week, we sell our fluid milk, yogurt, chevre, feta and an assortment of Pippa, Camembert, hard cheese and blue cheese. River's Edge also sells goat-milk soaps and moisturizing creams as well as goat meat products and our unique goat-butter tarts.

 

In the last 20 years we have taken an abandoned and abused piece of land and turned it into a beautiful, sustainable working farm that we hope will serve many generations to come.  We are excited to see what the upcoming years bring. We have more ideas and more goodness to bring to you. The survival of this farm relies on YOU, our valued consumer. Your purchases of the products made from this land make this piece of Ontario Farmland thrive!

 

Thank you for supporting our farm. 😊

 

Katie Normet

River's Edge Goat Dairy