Running a goat farm and making cheese is always a balancing act, even in the best of times. This year, Caromont Farm found that act especially tricky.
From early March through May, thousands of people flock to the pastoral locale in southern Albemarle County to cozy up to baby goats. The sessions have been crucial to the working farm’s business model, providing support during a time of year that is typically slow.
Right as snuggle season was beginning, stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19 caused Caromont Farm to close its gates and cancel goat cuddling. “The bottom fell out. We were in crisis mode,” says the farm’s owner and cheesemaker Gail Hobbs Page. “It was a financial strain, but we were able to keep our wits about us and keep the farm going as we figured out what we were going to do next.”
Some unexpected downtime gave way to inventive ideas, like Caromont’s new Farmstead cheese share. “It’s something we have wanted to do for a long time, but COVID made it happen,” Hobbs Page says. Each month, subscribers receive a selection of three cheeses and locally sourced fixings to make a deluxe cheese board. A share might include homemade mustard, locally made pickles, smoked trout, and artisan crackers. A subscription extends a supportive hand to Caromont Farm and other local farmers and food suppliers, like Little Hat Creek Farm and Good Phyte Foods. “The food going into these shares is from the people who make it,” she says. “You start having a really personal relationship, and that’s better than store-bought.”
The farm has also started selling directly to customers through in-person, minimal-contact pickup on Fridays and Saturdays, plus providing opportunities to order via the Local Food Hub and Charlottesville City Market. Hobbs Page is grateful not only for the opportunity to sell through local markets but to buy from them as well. “They got us through a very scary time when you didn’t know where you were going to get pork or chicken. The grocery stores were out,” she says. “If things ever go back to normal, let’s not forget that. We don’t need 18-wheelers to get our food. You can have it within hours of it being made. I think that’s a hopeful thing.”
In addition, Caromont Farm’s gates are open again. “It took some time,” Hobbs Page says, “but we’ve tried to rethink the idea, keeping us safe, keeping the animals safe, and keeping the community safe.” Reservations are available for socially distant visits in which visitors can walk the grounds, bring a picnic, and spend time with friendly, not-so-baby goats.
While the year has been full of pivots on the business side, the seasonal nature of farming remains. As Hobbs Page says, “The goats don’t know it’s COVID.” Kidding season begins each February, which is described as one of the happiest times on the farm—but also one of the busiest. With the arrival of baby goats, the very small Caromont staff has its hands full during 12 weeks of bottle feedings.
From March through November, there are twice-daily milking sessions for the approximately 80 adult female goats. Keeping the goats healthy is a top priority. “Your milk is only as good as the health of your animals, and your cheese is only as good as your milk,” says Hobbs Page. The goats begin producing milk around age 2, and they are part of the lactation program for seven or eight cycles before entering retirement. “I get a tremendous amount of joy with my ‘Caromont Gals,’” she says. “I’m milking the granddaughters of some of my original herd. That is satisfying.”
Caromont Farm has been making cheese since 2007, but the process continues to evolve. “In the cheese world, you’re only as good as your last make,” says Hobbs Page.
Each year, Caromont produces about 20,000 pounds of cheese, including chevre, feta, caciotta, and bleu cheese that are made based on the different characteristics of each breed’s milk.
The farm’s multiple breeds of dairy goats include Saanen, Nubian, Alpine, and LaMancha. Saanens produce a lot of milk, sometimes yielding up to two gallons per day from one goat, but the fat content is low. Nubians, on the other hand, provide very little milk, but it’s high in fat. “Fat, protein, and calcium are the trinity of cheesemakers,” Hobbs Page says. “I’m trying to design milk that is abundant but also rich in components to give our cheeses a lot of flavor.”
As breeding season begins, Caromont Farm prepares for its next cycle, keeping a watchful eye on the future. “The most important thing is to stay ahead of your next season, thinking about the next babies and the next cheese,” she says. “It keeps you moving forward.” The farm hopes to be able to host modified snuggle sessions by March of 2021. By then, cheese that is in the works now will be ready to sell. “Farmers have to be optimistic,” says Hobbs Page, “always thinking the next season will be better.”