Mandy Wheaton milks one of the Nubian goats on her homestead, Wheaton Mountain Farm in Bucksport, in this file photo.

When Barbara Brooks started Seal Cove Farm in Lamoine in 1981, she was one of the only farmers in the country milking goats.

But Brooks had a goat and a goal: to work independently, and to make cheese.

“I like French cheese,” Brooks said with laugh.

The soft chevre made from goat milk was popular abroad, but back in the 1980s in coastal Maine, the creamy cheese seemed foreign in a market filled with cheddar blocks and American slices.

“People didn’t know what it was,” Brooks said. “You had to put the cheese in people’s mouths to get them to try it.”

Brooks was one of a few vanguards of goat milking and cheesemaking that settled in to Maine. Though goat cheese had not yet caught on throughout the United States, some Maine farmers — such as Brooks; Marjorie Lupien at Mystique Cheese in Waldoboro, founded in 1979; and John and Penny Duncan at York Hill Farm, which operated for 36 years before closing in February 2018 — started milking goats in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“The original [goat] cheese producers who popped up in the ‘70s and ‘80s were largely women who turned to goats instead of the traditional cow dairy,” said Stephanie Welcomer, professor of management at the University of Maine Business School. “Some of these women were really pioneers in introducing goat cheese.”

Goat milking and cheese has come a long way over the past few decades. With their cheeky personalities and tasty chevre, dairy goats have captured the hearts of farmers across the country.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture, goat milking is the fastest growing farming sector in the United States. Dairy goat herds grew 61 percent between 2007 and 2017, faster than any other major livestock group over the past decade.

Much of the goat milk goes towards cheese, especially in Maine.

“The artisanal cheese market has really exploded,” Welcomer said. “[In Maine,] we’ve gone from 10 to 20 creameries to over 80. [Maine is] first in term of per capita creameries and second to New York in number of artisanal creameries.”

Why goat milkers flock to Maine

The history of goat milking and cheesemaking is not the only thing that attracts potential goat milkers to Maine. Compared to some other states, Welcomer said that Maine exacts less strict government regulations on startup dairy operations, so it is cheaper to start here than in other states.

“The barriers to entry are a little lower,” Welcomer said. “If you decide you want to try this out and get serious about it, you can build a creamery for less than $50,000. That makes cheesemaking thinkable.”

Christelle McKee, co-owner of Copper Tail Farm in Waldoboro, said that she and her husband fell in love with goats when the worked as farmhands in Oregon over half a decade ago, but they were not able to start a dairy out West.

“It’s much more difficult to have a dairy in Oregon,” McKee said. “The regulations are much more strict out there, which is why we have so many cheesemakers in Maine. Maine was a good fit for us to start a dairy because we didn’t have a ton of money.”

How goat milk skirts dairy industry woes

Goat milking is on the rise even as traditional cow dairies dwindle. The dairy industry in the United States — including in Maine — have been suffering a crisis of low prices, international competition and decreased domestic demand.

Plant-based milk alternatives are on the rise. The global market research firm Mintel estimated that the U.S. plant-based milk alternatives industry grew 61 percent between 2012 and 2017. The USDA estimates that the per person domestic consumption of cows’ milk has nearly halved since the 1970s. Though the United States is the world’s third largest exporter of dairy behind New Zealand and the European Union, the value of U.S. dairy exports has decreased 30 percent in 2015, according to the USDA, and has faced stiff international competition since.

Kelly Payson-Roopchand, owner of Pumpkin Vine Family Farm in Somerville, started her dairy goat farm and education center 11 years ago, though she and her husband only went commercial in the past five years. Part of the reason why she chose goats was because of the struggles within the dairy industry.

“When we came back to Maine, I wanted to do a creamery,” Payson-Roopchand said. “I knew that cow dairies had struggled economically [because] the price of cow’s milk is so low.”

Goats produce much less milk than cows, but they are easier to manage for individual farmers, especially those with an eye toward free-range, environmentally friendly production practices.

“I personally like goats because they’re a smaller animal,” Payson-Roopchand said. “We also really do like their environmental footprint is smaller. They don’t produce methane and they can fit in smaller spaces.”

Goats are browsers, so dine on more than grass and thus do not need as much quality pasture as cows. This is especially valuable for small farmers in woodsier areas of Maine.

“Goats do well on more marginal lands than you need for cows,” said Caitlin Hunter, co-owner of Appleton Creamery. “You think of cows for a field [with] expanses of green [and] goats wandering around the woods. It’s possible to have a nice goat farm on less acreage than cows require.”

Many goat milkers are quick to say they do not seek to replace cows’ milk. In fact, many creameries that raise goats also buy cow’s milk to produce cheese.

“Milk is an amazing food and I love having the diversity of it,” Payson-Roopchand said. “But for us, the goats just fit our objectives and they were easy for me to manage.”

But because goat milk is primarily used for value-added products such as cheese — and, in some cases, other products such as soap — the market is more flexible for dairy goats than cows.

“As the dairy industry gets into more trouble, farmers look into value-added,” Hunter said. “I know a lot of cow dairies are going out of business all the time because the cost of making milk isn’t making them anything.”

David Marcinkowski, associate professor and extension dairy specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said that value-added products like cheese and soap are less at the whims of the fluctuating dairy markets, though value-added products present their own challenges.

“There’s certainly more interest in goats,” Marcinkowski said. “Most of that milk is going into cheese operations and stuff like that. But you have to then market yourself and your products, and that can have all of its own issues as well.”

The future of goat milking in Maine

Like in other parts of the United States, goat milking is on the rise in Maine. Some of Maine’s seasoned goat milk veterans, though, are skeptical of the newer, smaller goat milk operations that have cropped up.

“We’ll see what happens,” Brooks said. “If you want to earn a living at it, you can’t milk 10 goats. You have to make a fair amount of cheese if you want to make an income.”

Brooks is also worried about the impact of shifting national food trends on new operations.

“Local was really hot for a while, but local is kind of over,” Brooks said. “Farm to table is still important [in Maine] because of the tourism, but it’s not what it was.”

Brooks does not want to discourage new goat farmers that are following in her footsteps, but she recognizes the challenges that will be faced by the influx of new goat milkers in Maine, especially as the market for goat cheese continues to saturate.

“Making the cheese is the easy part,” Brooks said. “It’s all the other pieces: packaging, marketing. I’ve been at this a long time, so I have a brand. For somebody new, you really have to work at that. You have to find out what your market is going to be.”