You look at the green, woody, undulating hills over which the herd of multi-horned Jacob sheep roam and you can’t deny that this is a pretty patch of land. Jim Murphy agrees. His family’s 25-acre farm in the heart of Wisconsin dairy country is nice to look at, he said, “But it’s not really conducive to crops.” This is true.
The Murphys grow about 4 acres of hay—not enough to feed their animals—and have to buy additional feed. But despite their farm not being the best for growing produce, they have managed to carve out a little piece of paradise for themselves. After all, they didn’t name the place Dreamfarm for nothing.
When they bought the 25-acre farm 12 years ago, they knew they wanted to expand and raise more goats and chickens than they had at their previous home but they certainly didn’t know they were going to be goat farmers and build a state-licensed organic cheesery in one of the falling-down barns.
That happened, more or less, out of necessity. “When our kids were younger, we had pygmy goats,” said Diana, Jim’s wife, who does most of the cheesemaking. “We bought the farm wanting to do something that was going to earn a little income. Pygmy goats are lovely animals but they don’t give anything back but love. When our kids were showing them as part of 4-H, we would see dairy goats and decided to change over so we would get milk—something back.”
They started small—with just a few Nubian and Alpine goats—fell in love with them and then purchased more. (Now they have about 40 goats and milk 28 of them.) Before long, the goats were producing a surplus of milk, and the Murphys had the beginnings of a business.
“We had far more milk than we could use as a family and I started making cheese on the stove in my kitchen. At the time I was working part-time at a produce farm that had a CSA. The owners offered to let me sell our cheese and eggs through their CSA,” explained Diana. “In the beginning, I thought this would be great. I’ll be home on the farm, be with our kids, then realized there is a little more to it than that to make it a going business.”
Prepping The Farm
The farm needed a lot of work. “That entire first year we just worked on getting the buildings ready for animals,” said Jim, who still works off the farm as a machinist. They restored the barns—squaring them up, adding roofs and siding—and built fences for the animals. They had no place to make cheese, so Diana would take the milk to a neighboring farm.
Eventually they converted one of the farm’s buildings into a cheesery. First the milking facility was licensed by the state, then the following year the cheesery. Now the farm is a producer of organic goat cheese certified by the Midwest Organic Services Association, and since 2004, the Murphys have sold their cheese as a member of the FairShare CSA Coalition.
Artisanal Goat Cheese
Not that this modest growth came easily. What the Murphys specialize in—and what makes them unique—is their commitment to farmstead goat cheese, meaning that all of their cheese is made from milk produced by animals on their farm. They go one step beyond that, of course, and make the cheese on their farm by hand, too. The result is the ultimate artisanal goat cheese, but there is a drawback to this way of doing things. When the milk production falls they can’t just supplement their supply by buying milk on the open market.
“Goats are easy to raise,” Diana said. “But [the milking process] can get so complicated.” For instance, goats are very susceptible to intestinal parasites, and because the cheese from the Murphy’s farm is organic, that means they’re limited as to how they can treat their animals. Earlier this year their goats went through a cycle of parasites, and because their systems were stressed fending off disease, their milk production dropped. After some online research, Diana said she learned that every year she should treat the goats with an herbal wormer as soon as they kid. But, she said, always having to learn something new is what keeps running this small farm fun. “I like that challenge,” she said.
To make a batch of fresh cheese from start to finish is about a three-day process. During the production season, which runs from April to November, Diana is making cheese six to seven days a week. It begins with the milking. The buckets are sanitized, and the milk is stored in a bulk cooler. The milk, per state regulations, has to be pasteurized by heating it to 145 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. “I’ve got to meet a lot of state regulations,” she said. “Every state has them, but I think Wisconsin’s are the strictest.
Once the milk has cooled, she adds a starter culture because all the enzymes—even the good ones—are killed in the pasteurization process. Once the culture and rennet are added, the milk has to sit for 20 hours. The following morning, Diana said, “It looks like a huge vat of yogurt.” Then the milk is drained through cheesecloth for 24 hours. Next, she salts the cheese, adds herbs and hand packs it into containers. She is helped by two of her four daughters.During the busy season, the Murphys make cheese three times a week. Each session they use 450 pounds of milk, which creates about 90 pounds of cheese.
Meat, Eggs And Yarn
The farm is organized around the production of the goat cheese, but that’s not all the Murphys do. Every year the Murphys buy some pigs and fatten them up with leftover whey from the cheese production. They buy a few steers to keep their pastures cleared and have one Jersey cow that they milk to make fresh mozzarella. They have a small herd of Jacob sheep, a rare multi-horned breed that’s came to this country in the 1970s. The Murphys have the sheep sheared and the wool spun into natural-colored yarn. They also raise about 250 chickens, and every Saturday during the summer their 120 dozen eggs are sold out by 9 a.m. at the local farmers market.
“We could do more,” Jim said. “There’s definitely a demand, but you’ve got to be aware of what your land can handle.”
And, for right now, the small farm is bustling enough. Recently, the Murphys brought home Marley, their new farm puppy. Marley replaced their beloved farm dog Oliver, and he’s just getting used to the goats, who will head-butt the boisterous pup if he gets too close. Marley is also prone to running off with the shoes Diana leaves outside the cheesery.
“It’s a bit of a zoo,” Jim said. But one gets the feeling he wouldn’t have it any other way. Learn more about the Murphys by visiting Dreamfarm online at dreamfarm.biz.
This article was originally published in the NEW PIONEER ™ Summer 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.