Prior to volunteering for a month at Nancy Coonridge’s Organic Goat Dairy, my only experience with cheesemaking was a tour at the Tillamook cheese factory. I figured at Nancy’s, I would be the guy who filled the cheese jars for eight hours a day. In reality, the only consistent work was gathering chicken eggs and milking and feeding the goats.
Cheese production only went into full swing a week before fairs, and turning the milk into cheese was rather easy. The way Nancy has her facility set up, if a person can follow instructions and use common sense, the process was enjoyable. The cleaning process can be tedious and long, but once the cheese has been made and the cheese room clean, the rest of the time a person can be called upon to work on a wide variety of projects like rescuing a goat from a mud puddle, chasing the chickens toward a pile of maggots, or trying to clip the hooves of a surly goat in the afternoon sun.
The 4.5 hour drive from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Coonridge Organic Dairy in the wilds of New Mexico begins with learning the conversational styles of our new friends, Dave and Kita.
Dave drives in silence. Occasionally his mouth opens wide enough to slide in a camel stud. As we leave the paved road, Dave murmurs something. I ask him to repeat it. He doesn’t take the cigarette out of his mouth. Unintelligible words become louder. Smoke escapes along with sounds. People say the sun always shines in New Mexico — not true when there’s a big cloud of cigarette smoke hovering over the driver’s head.
I wonder how safe it can be to travel into the desert in an unfamiliar state with total strangers. Is this how young women from Eastern Europe wind up in the sex trade — by answering goat cheese ads on the internet?
Kita, the co-pilot, lives under a brilliant rainbow. For a person with no teeth, she has the most beautiful smile. She has a contagious laugh and an inquisitive mind. She tells us stories of her Native American punk rock days including the Sex Pistols with Sid Vicious.
The last five miles of the drive takes the SUV on a slow climb through an arroyo to the top of an 8000 ft mountain. Kita explains that the arroyo becomes impassible in the monsoon season or during an occasional male thunderstorm. Within minutes raindrops can collectively turn the dry arroyo into several feet deep of rapidly moving water.
The arroyo opens up and Nancy’s house comes into full view. In front of the house there are goats in the shade chewing their cud, barking Maremma dogs, chickens scratching the dirt, and cats humping. French speaking women come out to the car to greet us and we wave good-bye to Dave and Kita. Our new friends are fellow volunteers at the goat dairy and fully aware of the long drive. They take us to our cabin built on the ledge of a mesa that overlooks the valley.
In a beautiful French accent we are told to relax and the cabin has everything needed to make a month go by comfortably. The off the grid studio cabin has a water catchment system, electricity from a solar panel, and heat from a wood stove. If we choose to poop in front of each other there’s a bucket with a toilet seat. To bathe we use water heated on the wood stove or a homemade solar shower. The cabin has all the comforts and energy needed to work on Earthworm Envy projects, read and listen to music.
The mornings are cool and cozy with natural light filtering through the cabin windows. This sort of blissful reality makes a person stay in bed till their bladder becomes painfully full. The outhouse has been built down the trail near the main buildings.
A large white Maremma dog whose bloodline can be traced back to the times of Caesar has taken to guarding the goats and the outhouse. The dog starts to bark the bark that will make a bear flee. My body says run in the opposite direction, but I keep advancing, listening to my brain that says the dog has never attacked an innocent pooper.
The main house has a large common area complete with a gas stove and refrigerator. The goat-food lovers paradise awaits in the fridge: goat milk, goat cheese, goat yogurt, goat hamburger. One wall has been lined with shelves that hold a plethora of dried foods and a library that contains a large selection of Tony Hillerman and Wendell Berry books.
Outside there’s a large garden that serves up leafy greens and radishes. Free range hens that sleep in a tree instead of a henhouse lay eggs inside and around the barn.
Although there was never enough water to wash the truck, float on a plastic orca in a swimming pool or grow a palm tree, we bathed, cooked and hydrated with carefully managed rainwater.
Solar panels harnessed enough electricity for internet research/communication, to charge ipods along with travel speakers, power a laptop to edit video, and plenty of light to read. There was not enough electricity to power small refrigerators full of Coke placed strategically throughout the ranch or to run an entertainment system to watch the newest Transformers movie on an HDTV, with surround sound, and enjoy Blue Ray disc features.
Without a microwave and processed food, meals couldn’t be consumed in minutes. Instead, dinner could take an hour or longer. The kitchen became our classroom about all things goat related including entertaining stories about Nancy hitchhiking with her goats, goats eating someone’s marijuana crop, and a peg legged man trekking from the ranch to Albuquerque.
Around 9AM Nancy would start formulating the days plans which were always a new adventure. Here are a couple of examples of a workday:
One time while taking a tour of the property, we found a goat stuck in a huge mud puddle. We rolled up our pant legs, and Nancy pushed and I pulled until the scared little goat got loose. Another goat was not so lucky, and we had to pull the goat carcass from the mud puddle with a tractor. The tractor got stuck in the mud, so we had to walk back to the house to get a truck to pull out the tractor. Nancy then buried the goat. Several days later an awful smell surrounded the grave. The ground had sunken in, exposing the goat to the air, and maggots had started to make a meal out of the flesh. We chased the chickens into the grave area, and I have never seen such happy chickens. They jumped and clucked around like little kids in a candy store.
Another time Nancy and I played cowboy to a cow that wandered onto the ranch. The strategy: she would take the high rocky ground in her socks and I would take the relatively flat low ground in my shoes. She kept that cow from wandering further into the ranch by chasing it at full speed and somehow avoiding sharp rocks and cactus. Why was Nancy wearing socks? This is one of the many Coonridge mysteries.
One day Nancy left the ranch with a truck full of cheese, a puppy, and a couple who couldn’t handle the beauty of the ranch. Around mid-afternoon we saw Nancy walking up the road toward the house. The truck had broken down several miles out in the arroyo. Luckily, there was a spare truck, but it needed a battery. We then took a battery from an old bus and placed it in the spare truck. Three volunteers went with Nancy to help transfer the contents from the broken truck into the spare truck. The rest of the afternoon we spent exploring arroyos, peaks, and cliffs as we walked back to the ranch.
At Coonridge, I got to meet and work with other goat lovers. An interesting quirk about this goat-loving work crew is that we didn’t all take the same university classes or have similar cultural or socio-economic backgrounds. Planting lettuce turned into an education about starting a small soap business in French speaking Canada. Laying pipe turned into a hilarious story about the best place in Nicaragua to get a root canal. Burying a dead chicken turned into a conversation about hair and culture.
The goats became some of my favorite coworkers. Now, I am sure some readers are asking themselves what the hell is he talking about? Yes, I know a goat can’t buy you a shot, smoke you out, sign a check, tell a funny story, or write a letter of recommendation. A goat’s personality has mysteries that cannot be explained by medication or family histories nor can it be coaxed out after a couple of drinks or several I love you statements. Those eyes can see into your soul. Out in the middle of the desert, once a goat has you one-on-one, you do start talking, and suddenly a goat that you have just met knows more about your life story than your partner of seven years.
The goat has been the only coworker I have helped hold down while its throat has been cut, the only coworker I have cooked up in cast iron, the only coworker I have ever had to help bury, the only coworker I have not been grossed out by when their tits are slightly scabby, the only coworker I have seen survive a rattlesnake bite, the only coworker I have happily drank its bodily fluid, and the only coworker I look at and think yum yum colostrum.
Not until working at a goat ranch did I realize why there is such a low turnover rate in hospital labor and delivery departments. The joy of being around healthy mothers and babies puts a smile on anyone’s face. Never once did I yawn at the news of baby goats being born. No matter what was going on, planting veggies or filling water tanks, everyone drops everything to go and say “howdy” to the newborns.
An unexpected perk was the need for baby goats to bond with humans. Part of the room and board compensation was for the chore of playing with baby goats. At no time did Nancy have to say, “I’m not going to feed you till play with the baby goats.”
If you too want to gain a better understanding of the homesteader goat cheese industry and to purchase cheese check out Nancy’s website, www.organicgoatcheese.com