Goat Milk?

Sometimes people start companies because they want to live a dream, and sometimes they start companies just to make money. In a viable business, the two have to coexist, and making that happen is particularly difficult when you're trying to keep the enterprise environmentally friendly. So I wondered what I’d find when I arrived at Amaltheia Dairy to meet owners Sue and Mel Brown.

There is something magical about visiting a place where food is created, even little Amaltheia. The schedules and mechanisms for milking Amaltheia's 300 goats are similar to milking cows, “but the equipment is a little smaller,” says Sue, smirking. Rennet is added to the milk to produce curds, the basis for cheese. Rennet is an enzyme usually derived from the stomach lining of cows, but Amaltheia uses vegetable rennet to produce vegetarian cheese (bet you didn’t know that most cheese isn’t vegetarian). Although there isn’t much mechanical difference between Amaltheia and larger manufacturers, “no human hand ever touches the cheese there,” says Mel.

The goats make about 150 gallons of milk a day, and after Mel gets it to the modest, spotless processing plant in a rented space near Belgrade, the cheesemaking begins. It really is amazing how much cheese the equipment can turn out; equally amazing is the amount of manual labor that is necessary. For foodies, standing among Amaltheia's refrigerated inventory room is like standing in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

Making goat cheese more or less by hand isn't quite as cheap or easy as making Velveeta, but the Browns still work to keep a streamlined process. One operational efficiency comes from using simple, natural goat feed. Mel oversees the custom mixing of the feed rather than buying it off the shelf, because feed baggers usually incorporate antibiotics and other additives. Feed integrity is also why Amaltheia will probably never join a co-op, they say. Because feed varies from farm to farm, Mel says co-ops produce inconsistent products by pooling milk of varying quality and taste.

Sue and Mel have the know-how to make artisanal products in a modern age, but they're also living proof that entrepreneurs need to have a knack for paperwork. Amaltheia received its federal organic certification in August 2006. Among other things, certification means the dairy can’t use antibiotics, it must use organic feed, and it must adhere to a list of approved cleaning products. Even pest-management practices are regulated. During our conversation, Sue leafed through countless pages of related USDA documentation, regulations, and other manifestations of bureaucracy. This bureaucracy is somewhat frustrating, but it’s there to thwart the “cheaters,” according to Mel. Increasing corporate presence in the organic food market has created pressures and incentives to dilute or circumvent organic standards, and this is where the bureaucracy helps—only those who stick to the rules get the official stamp.

Sue also showed me the application for a USDA Rural Development grant and a heap of rules on how to complete it, even down to required font sizes and margins—and a warning that any error on the application would result in disqualification. The Browns won the grant in November 2004, beating out hundreds of companies to become one of 80 winners. Their fastidiousness also helped get a Montana Growth Through Agriculture loan, a loan from the City of Belgrade, and additional funding from Valley Bank.

Sue and Mel may be successful businesspeople (after all, the goat cheese industry is a hot one, growing 25 to 30 percent a year), but like most entrepreneurs they had to go the long way around the block a few times in the beginning. They say their biggest mistake was not doing enough marketing early on. But they’ve since learned how to get attention. Amaltheia is now the largest organic fresh goat cheese company in the country, and in addition to a win at the American Dairy Goat Association competition, Amaltheia has brought home three wins from the American Cheese Society competition.

Wins attract retail buyers, but getting cheese into retail outlets takes a lot of follow-up, thick skin, and patience. Locating and motivating buyers takes weeks of phone calls, emails, letters, faxes, and applications. Some are easy and some aren’t: one national buyer simply said, “I don’t like goat cheese.” Others eagerly sign on and then don’t place orders for months. Nonetheless, Sue and Mel continue to convince people that Amaltheia’s cheese is different. They rely heavily on samples. “You have to get it in people’s mouths, because there is a difference,” they say. And persistence pays: Amaltheia is profitable, and Amaltheia cheese can be found across the United States and in almost 30 locations in Bozeman, Belgrade, and Livingston alone.

Still, the Browns want Amaltheia to become a household name, maybe open another dairy further east. But mostly, they say, they want to inspire others to farm responsibly and sustainably, to show people that the family farm can make it.

Mel says the best customers are the ones who appreciate the work going into the cheese. And that’s an important idea in this age of overprocessed, low-quality food in America. “We’re eating crap. What you get is dead food,” Sue says.

She's right. All food starts out so humble, so basic, and, for better or worse, the production chain cleverly turns it into the stuff at Albertson’s. Some food tragically turns into blue ketchup, but some food is honored along the way, and seeing it created is awe-inspiring. That's why Mel's favorite customers are the ones who see Amaltheia’s cheese the way others might view a handmade quilt or a rebuilt engine—they don’t just see the finished product, they admire the steps taken to get it that way.

And after the long days, hard work (incredibly, Sue is also a special-education teacher), and the financial risk, they still find time to plan their next endeavor: using methane from the goat manure to power the dairy. This is the way many entrepreneurs behave; they have a vision, make it real, and then extend the vision. But ultimately, a great entrepreneur has to really love and commune with the product first. And I think Sue is there. At one point during our conversation I muttered, “Really, you must be so sick of goat cheese after working with it all day.” “No!” she exclaimed, seemingly bewildered. “I even ate some for breakfast today.”