From prison to palate, Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy is making award-winning cheese with the help of Skyline Correctional Center's 1,500 goats.
When Forrest Pritchard went looking for the unsung heroes of local, sustainable food, he found them at 18 exceptional farms all over the country. With more than 50 mouthwatering recipes and over 250 photographs, Growing Tomorrow (The Experiment, 2015) is a unique cookbook that captures the struggles and triumphs of these visionary farmers.
You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: Growing Tomorrow.
The prison guard leans into my driver’s side window, asking me to surrender my cell phone, electronics, and any weapons I might have brought with me.
“Weapons?” I repeat, making sure I understand him correctly.
“Pocket knives, switchblades, firearms,” he elaborates, speaking in a practiced monotone typically used by middle school gym teachers. My mind flashes back to 1985, when my sister bought me a novelty switchblade comb for my eleventh birthday, styling my hair into a slick Bruce Springsteen coif.
“No, sir,” I reply, handing over my cell phone and backpack. To my good fortune, I had parted ways with the comb some twenty-five years earlier. “No weapons.”
He nods, satisfied there’s no contraband stashed in the recesses of my rented Yaris. “Just follow that guide truck ahead of you, and he’ll take you where you need to go.” The officer is almost back to the guardhouse when he stops and turns.
“Oh. And, Mr. Pritchard?”
I pump the brakes. “Yes, sir?”
He smiles beneath an immaculately trimmed gold mustache. “Enjoy the goats.”
It’s surreal to be inside Colorado’s Skyline Correctional Center, about two hours southwest of Denver, visiting the largest flock of goats in the state, which provide the milk that will later be trucked to Haystack Mountain Dairy to make cheese. This is my first time inside a prison, and as I follow the pilot truck I take in the view. On my left, narrow-windowed concrete buildings are encircled by looping coils of razor wire, sunlight glinting from polished steel barbs. On my right, however, is why I’m here: to witness farming as a positive correctional philosophy. I pass a vineyard, then a barnyard filled with bighorn sheep. Next, acres of cornstalks have been plowed into the dark soil, the remnants of a successful harvest, all beneath a late November sky spread expansively blue and cloudless.
Agriculture is a cornerstone of Skyline’s program, which teaches inmates the basics of crop production and animal husbandry, developing marketable skills that might someday be useful in the outside world. Work on the farms is reserved for minimum-security prisoners who have consistently demonstrated good behavior. Providing fresh air and exercise, as well as hourly pay and bonuses for meeting cleanliness and production benchmarks, placement in the dairy is strictly voluntary yet highly sought-after. Presently, the waiting list is nearly a thousand long.
Today, I’ve come to visit the dairy, and the scenery doesn’t disappoint. In the near distance, the front range of the Rocky Mountains rises jagged and untamed, the Arkansas River a glinting, silvery ribbon at its feet. The guide truck swings a sharp right and the austere prison buildings fall away behind us, replaced with open cropland. Driving toward the river, we navigate a winding road of crushed pink rock. Ferrous bluffs of sandstone loom two hundred feet above our heads, while scrubby junipers and ponderosa pines flank the road, sprouting between boulders that tumbled down from the heights. It’s a scene straight out of the Old West, an exquisite Louis L’Amour landscape. All that’s really missing, I tell myself as the pilot truck rounds a bend, is two or three shaggy frontier goats, and the canvas would be complete.
Two or three ... or, as it turns out, fifteen hundred.
“Yeah,” says Mary Provost, head of operations and goatherder- in-chief. “And next year we’re holding back some young does, stock we’d ordinarily sell to local farmers. If all goes well, we’re planning to expand to seventeen hundred. But there’s always been more demand for our milk than we can produce, so we’ve got to grow sensibly.”
Stretched along a feed bunker, a line of milk goats are contentedly munching sprigs of mint-green alfalfa. Nubians, Saanens, Toggenburgs, La Manchas — all the major dairy breeds are represented, a mottled palette of browns and taupes and dusty whites, wispy beards hanging from softly rounded chins. An Alpine — Mary’s favorite breed — cocks its head and regards me with long, rectangular pupils, seeming to request a good scratching. I happily oblige, reaching over the fence to rub behind its floppy ears. The goat closes its eyes, lips sloped in the faintest hint of smile, thoroughly savoring the moment.
The goat pens — perhaps more appropriately described as spacious loafing areas — are easily more than a thousand feet square. These are home to about two hundred does apiece, providing ample room for the animals to comfortably spread out, sunning themselves in the gentle autumn sunshine. Long, airy shelters are deep-bedded with yellow straw, and a large, mounded hill of earth and stone rises from the middle of each yard — a miniature mountain for climbing and frolic. Goats are famous climbers, and accordingly there are about a dozen does scattered across the mound, with a lone goat perched at the peak like a mountaineer surveying new territory. Most remarkably, with so many goats and so many pens, there’s not the faintest trace of urine or manure odors.
Mary nods. “We run a tight ship here. The pens are thoroughly cleaned each week, and the manure ends up back on the crop fields for fertilizer.” She gestures to an inmate driving past on a tractor, a box spreader dragging a smooth trail through the Colorado dust. “Everyone’s got a specific job, a firm routine. With thirty-two workers, that’s the way it has to be.”
She leads me to the dairy parlor, greeting inmates and goats alike along the way. A sturdy, fit woman in her mid-fifties, Mary has worked around goats her entire life. When a friend mentioned that Skyline was seeking a dairy manager to take over their fledgling goat program, Mary, a grandmother of five, decided to apply. “I was just more curious than anything,” she admits. “I wanted to see firsthand what a prison knew about raising goats. Turns out,” she adds wryly, “they didn’t know much. I’ve spent the last nine years here, building infrastructure, putting in frost-free waterers, making this a year-round system so we’ll always have plenty of milk. Isn’t that right, Mr. Martinez?”
“Yes, ma’am,” replies a wiry, bearded man in his mid-thirties. Wearing prison fatigues and a blaze-orange safety smock, Martinez supervises operations within the dairy barn.
The workday begins at four in the morning, and the third, final shift doesn’t end until well past nine in the evening. Twice daily, he explains, the goats are led into the two-sided parlor and milked twenty per row for a few minutes each. Working fifteen hundred goats takes about four hours in the morning, and then it starts all over again at two in the afternoon. Between shifts, the room is washed and scrubbed clean; it’s now eleven o’clock, and two men with hoses and brushes are sanitizing the concrete where the goats were recently milked.
Back outside, the farm is bathed in golden autumn light. “You’ve got to understand,” Mary volunteers kindly, “most of these boys have never worked a steady job, or even know what it’s like to get a paycheck. They’ve come straight off the streets, and things like work schedules, routines . . . these are new concepts for most of them.” As we talk, two men approach us with pitchforks slung over their shoulders.
Her gentle tone becomes suddenly stentorian. “And where are we headed today, Mr. Timmons?”
Built like an offensive lineman, with a rounded paunch and forearms sheathed in flame tattoos, Mr. Timmons doesn’t hesitate. “To the kidding barn, ma’am. Gonna feed the babies straw.”
Mary sighs deeply, folds her arms, and addresses his companion.
“Mr. Watts? You’ve got seniority here. Would you please correct Mr. Timmons?”
Mr. Watts is a handsome man in his mid-twenties, and his tone is empathetic as he sets his partner straight. “We feed the goats hay, right? Not straw. The straw’s just for bedding.” Noting his partner’s confusion, he continues. “Don’t worry, man. When I first got here, I made the same mistake. Come on, I’ll show you.”
Mary watches them go, lips pursed with grandmotherly exasperation. “I always match a more experienced worker to a newbie,” she explains, once they’re out of earshot. “That way there’s mentoring and accountability. Mr. Watts, he’s a good one. Been with me for nine months.”
I watch the pair disappear into the shadow of the barn and observe Mr. Watts gesturing to a stack of alfalfa bales. “So when they get out,” I ask, “will any of these guys work at dairies?”
Mary considers the question. “A few of them do. Sure. But let’s be honest. With fewer and fewer farms these days, do you imagine hundreds of dairy jobs out there waiting to be filled?
“No,” she replies, answering her own question. “More than anything else, these boys are learning a work ethic. Afterwards, when I hear about someone finding a job and sticking with it, that’s when I’m satisfied. That’s my measure of success.”
Of course, on a dairy, success must be also measured in milk. This is a fact that doesn’t go unappreciated by Haystack Mountain, the primary recipient of Skyline’s daily milkings.
John Scaggs, Haystack’s coordinator of farmers’ markets and cheese distribution, leads me past a gleaming tank where the milk is received. “Simply put,” he says, patting the stainless steel, “if it wasn’t for Skyline, we wouldn’t have enough milk to meet customer demand.”
It’s a special partnership for sure. Founded near Longmont, Colorado, in 1988, Haystack was started by former school administrator Jim Schott, who had dreamed of homesteading along the rugged Colorado range. Setting out with four does and a buck, he slowly grew his flock, selling fresh goat cheese and milk shares to local customers, and attending farmers’ markets in the Boulder area. Business was slow at first. In the late eighties, local, artisanal goat cheese was nearly unheard of, with most product shipped in from France and the remainder trickling in from California.
As word spread through farmers’ markets about Jim’s wonderful goat cheese, however, it wasn’t long before restaurants began inquiring. By the early nineties, the farmer expanded his dairy to 125 head, the maximum that was allowed in the county. But when major grocery stores — first Wild Oats, followed by Alfalfa’s, Kroger, and Whole Foods — came calling, these new accounts quickly outstripped supply. As a solution, he reached out to nearby goat dairies, hoping collaboration with his fellow farmers would satisfy the rising demand for his cheese.
The strategy worked for several years. But one by one, as the dairymen began to retire, there was no one there to take their place.
“You know what you should do?” one of the farmers told him. “Call down to Skyline, in Cañon City. They’ve had a cow dairy down there since the early 1900s. Maybe they’d be interested in raising goats.”
After several meetings — as well as promises by Haystack to invest in infrastructure and training — a partnership was struck. Fast-forward seven years. Haystack Mountain, located in a small, nondescript warehouse three hours north of Skyline’s dairy, takes in an average of forty-five hundred gallons of milk a week. Still, it’s barely enough to meet the ever-growing demand for dairy goat products.
“For consumers, it’s become a big health issue,” John explains. “People have learned that goat’s milk is easier to digest than a cow’s ... it has to do with the chemical structure of the fats. Oversimplifying it, smaller animals produce smaller fat molecules. Because we’re closer in size to goats than we are cows, our bodies have an easier time breaking down the milk.”
Inside the creamery, production is in full swing. The room carries the pleasant twang of fresh goat milk, and a thin glaze of butterfat slickens the concrete floor. Here, the milk is received several times weekly, pasteurized at 145 degrees Fahrenheit, then immediately fermented with the aid of starter cultures. By the next morning, the milk has thickened into curd, which is then poured into white cloth bags and stacked four high; beneath its own weight, it seeps translucent yellow whey into a catch basin.
A day later, the curd goes in one of two directions: (1) into a drying room, curing an additional day before being hand-molded into shape, or (2) straight into a mixing bowl, and lightly whipped with salt. Today, I get to see both.
The paddle spins furiously in the mixing bowl, and a creamy batch of chèvre appears right before my eyes. I’m offered a finger’s width, impossibly white and the precise consistency of billowy summer clouds. The flavor is bright and citrusy, offering clean, sweet notes of pine. It reminds me of a perfectly hopped beer — smooth yet robust, leaving the palate craving more. The dairy’s most popular variety, John relates that chefs crumble this cheese over salads. But I imagine it spread over fresh sourdough bread, enjoyed while quaffing my favorite pale ale.
On the other side of the room, chief cheese maker Jackie Chang, fifty, is hand-salting miniature pyramids of Roquefort. After moving from Taiwan to America in 1981 at age seventeen, Jackie spent twenty years helping manage her family’s restaurant business. Her life was changed, however, when she visited Jim’s goat farm as a chaperone for her daughter’s Brownie troop.
“It was early spring, and there were baby goats everywhere,” Jackie recalls, her face lighting up at the memory. “That was it. I fell in love with the goats right there on the spot.”
At the end of the troop’s tour she asked if she could come volunteer, and the farmer agreed. Every morning she awoke at three, arriving at four to assist with milking and learn the basics of goat husbandry. After a year, her passion undiminished, Jim asked if she’d like a permanent position making cheese.
Jackie laughs merrily. “Growing up in Taiwan, there was no such thing as cheese. My father, he bought Kraft Singles on the black market. You know, one slice at a time. So I asked myself, ‘What do I know about making cheese?’ Not a lot. But I read, studied online, paid attention. Now, eleven years later, I make over twenty different varieties.”
Award-winning varieties, it should be noted. Last year, Jackie propelled Haystack to two national gold medals in the hard-cheese category and landed first runner-up for their Green Chile Jack. It’s through subtle differences in culturing, aging, and rind washing that Jackie creates nearly two dozen types of cheese from a single batch of goat milk. But despite her self-taught success, she’s quick to point out that not everything can be learned from a book.
“Making cheese, it’s like raising a child,” she says earnestly. “When they’re cold, you give them a coat. When they’re hot, you take the coat off.” She opens the door to the aging room, gesturing to a row of obelisk-shaped Roqueforts, powdered gray with poplar ash. “You’ve got to live with the cheeses, recognize the temperatures, the different smells. They all have different personalities, can’t you tell?”
She holds out a creamy wedge of goat cheese, a fist-size work of art sculpted by a master’s hands. “Look,” she says, “when a cheese is finished, you can see the craftsman in the product. Pretend you’re a customer shopping at a grocery store. Everything you need to know about the person who made that cheese, it’s right there in front of you.”
Jackie dusts it with salt before placing it onto an aging rack. “This is the most honest work in the world. No secrets. The cheese will tell you everything.”
No secrets. So easy in principle, so difficult in execution. I think back to the goats, contentedly munching alfalfa hay, and to the men intent on caring for them, passing time as we all must. For a few hours, everything was transparent beneath a perfect Colorado sky.
I’ve spent a lifetime amending my own behaviors, seeking improvement through the simple toil of farm-work. Searching for answers. We each have our own paths to reconcile; there’s no mystery in that. Other secrets, perhaps, should be left to the goats: forever on the lookout for a good scratch, a sunny perch on a mountaintop, and tranquilly viewing the world through their enigmatic, rectangular pupils.
Excerpt from Growing Tomorrow: A Farm-to-Table Journey in Photos and Recipes, copyright © Forrest Pritchard, 2015. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold. Buy this book from our store: Growing Tomorrow.
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