Milking the moment
Rural De Soto goat dairy to add milking parlor, cheese plant
Her garden-shed sized milking parlor temporarily empty Sunday afternoon, Kathy Landers calls out for the next four goats.
"Lila. Come Lila," she shouts, explaining that goats, like dogs, know their names and respond when called. "Goats are the cats of the livestock world. They are that animal that straddles the line of livestock and pet. They make lovely pets, but they are livestock."
Landers views her goats as both. She admires the intelligence, inquisitiveness and friendliness of the 100 goats that share a barnyard with two llamas and alpaca brought in to protect them, four turkeys with a date for Thanksgiving dinner, three sheep, geese, ducks, chickens and a non-threatening Irish setter. She has a soft spot for the animals that prevents her from getting rid of those that have reached the end of their milk producing careers, generally at about 12 years of age.
"They only live to about 15," she said. "I figure they worked for me so many years, let them have a nice retirement."
But Landers is also driven to make the most of the animals' productivity.
"People ask me all the time if this is a hobby," she said. "I put in 18 to 20 hours a day. I milked when it was 48 degrees below zero. Does that sound like a hobby?"
Landers built the herd from one goat, culling out less productive animals and bringing in bucks from the top dairy goatherds in the country. She said her goats produce two to three pounds more milk a day than the expected average.
"She can tell you the name of every goat's mother and grandmother," Milton Landers said, a pain treatment specialist who commutes from the couples' 13-acre farmstead every week to work at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita.
Dairy farming comes natural
Landers is one of a growing number of what are known as "artisanal" cheese producers, or those who produce cheeses in non-industrial settings, usually with local ingredients. In a phenomenon that mirrors the growth of microbreweries, more and more cow and goat dairy producers are learning how to produce cheeses. And like their beer-producing brethren, they market the products to knowledgeable customers through specialty and gourmet stores as well as so-called health-food markets like the Community Mercantile in Lawrence.
Landers milks her 24 goats twice a day, trying to stay to a schedule of noon and midnight. When not in her milking parlor, Landers processes the milk into cheese and in the down time afforded in the cheese making process, she weaves goat hair.
And that's during the slow days before and after the spring kidding season.
"In the spring, it's pretty busy around here," she said. "I'm up every two hours -- a lot of sleeping in the barn.
"I've lost a couple of kids who couldn't get out, but I've never lost a doe kidding."
It may seem a strange schedule for a physician's wife, but for Landers, who grew up on an Oregon dairy farm, it's doing what comes natural. Although it's a point of debate between the Landers if she first had a dairy cow or goat when they got married, there's agreement she always milked.
"I've been doing this all my life," she said. "I just considered that's what you do."
So as the couple moved as Martin got his medical degree, completed his residency and started his career, the goats moved with them to stops in Oregon, California, Vermont, Missouri, Alaska, Ohio and finally Kansas. It was in Alaska where Landers milked her goats in a covered pole barn in 48 degree below weather.
But the stability the couple has found in Kansas is about to change Landers' daily routine. In the pasture behind her house, poles and trusses sketch out what will be a milking parlor and cheese processing room.
Landers currently milks by hand. The new parlor to be completed near the end of the year will be equipped with milking machines and the milk will be piped to a bulk tank in the processing room. That will allow Landers to increase the number of goats she milks from 24 to about 50.
"When you milk that many, it's just too hard on the hands," she said.
With the new plant, Landers' daily cheese production will increase from around 20 pounds a day to from 40 to 50 pounds daily. As a grade A dairy and plant, she can expand her marketing beyond the customers who come to her door to grocery stores and specialty shops.
"We'll be a regular licensed cheese plant, making a variety of cheeses -- cheddars, feta, Monterey Jack, Camembert, Gouda and a wide variety of ricottas," she said.
Such goat dairy/cheese production ventures are common in the New England area, the upper Midwest and West Coast but rare in the Midlands, Landers said. To her knowledge, Landers' plant will be the first in Kansas.
"Basically, we'll have regular milking machines and bulk tank in the cheese room," she said. "There's no traffic between the milking parlor and the cheese room. We'll have a pasteurizer for hard-pressed cheeses.
"The cheese plant itself will have a walk-in cheese cooler for aging. It will be temperature and humidity controlled. Some of these cheeses age for nine months, so we do need room. My husband will be happy cheese isn't hanging everywhere in the house."
Although she doesn't have any contracts yet, she's confident of placing her cheeses in stores, especially in Lawrence.
"I've had a lot of interest," she said. "I'm a member of the American Cheese Society. I get a lot of interest through them."
Karen Pendleton, owner of Pendleton's Country Market between Lawrence and Eudora, said she hoped to be one of those marketing Landers' cheeses.
"I would hope that she would have enough production I could carry it," she said. "It would be a great asset, and I like to carry locally produced products."
Pendleton, however, said Landers would be in a unique situation as one of the few grade A dairies and cheese plants in the state or area.
"I think the demand will be so great for her cheese, I may not get it," Pendleton said.
One marketing resource is her son Dave Landers, who left Kansas University after two years to study at the renowned Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., worked as a chef in New York City for a number of years and is now studying food science in Cornell University. Landers said her son had helped spread the word about her cheeses and incorporated them in his recipes.
"When he was in high school, he was embarrassed about my goats," she said. "Now he thinks it's cool."
Landers is hoping more people find goat cheese cool, too.
"In France, you find goat cheese on every corner," she said. "It's a different kind of cheese than what people are used to in the Midwest. You can't make the different kind of cheeses I can with goat cheese. You just can't get the taste."
The absence of acids and proteins found in cow milk makes goat milk and products made from it easier to digest, Landers said. It also doesn't form phlegm, making it better for asthmatics and those with allergies.
Her dream, Landers said, was that her product helped Kansans discover goat cheese.
"I guess my interest in cheeses is that the U.S. is so very far behind when it comes to cheeses," she said. "It's amazing how far we are behind in varieties. We have to import so many cheeses.
"I would like to see more people making cheeses in Kansas. People ask, 'Aren't you afraid of the competition?' I say there's plenty of room for more."