Goat farms spur growth in Alaskan cheese making

A swift increase in the popularity of dairy goats prompts new state regulations for commercial cheese production

Published April 9, 2010 8:06PM (EDT)

When Jennifer Ansley saw goats for the first time at a state fair, her heart nearly skipped a bleat.

"Oh, that's what I want," she told her husband. "I'm going to learn to make cheese. And I did."

A decade later, Ansley is among a growing number of Alaska farmers who have found a niche with goats, hardy animals they say adjust well to the state's climate. Ansley has 10 goats on her 15-acre farm in Ester and makes cheese for her family -- something that concerns state officials who have drafted the state's first rules for commercial cheese making.

"We don't want people making cheese in their bathtubs," said Kristin Ryan, director of the state Division of Environmental Health. "We want it done in a sanitary environment."

Ansley doesn't sell her cheese, instead making a living selling soaps and skin creams made with goat milk. But state officials are hearing from more farmers who want to sell cheese -- and suspect some may already be doing it out their back doors -- as the number of dairy goat farms grows.

It more than doubled from 12 in 1997 to 27 in 2007, the latest year for which numbers are available. But Ryan said Alaska remained the only state without commercial cheese making regulations until this winter.

The rules issued then have alarmed the state's budding cheese-makers, who say they will raise costs and squelch entrepreneurs. One particularly vilified rule requires eight separate rooms for production with specifications for plumbing, lighting and ventilation. Ryan said that wasn't the intent, and it will be relaxed.

One goat dairy has already closed up shop. Matt Shaul and his wife ran the 10-acre Cranberry Ridge Farm in Wasilla for a year and a half. They received a permit for sales to the public from Ryan's office while the new rules were still being drafted and opened in 2007.

Area retailers bought every block of cheese the farm could make and sold it for about $30 a pound, Shaul said, adding: "We could not keep up."

But in late 2008, they sold their farm and moved to New York. Dairy farming is already difficult with Alaska's short grazing season, small consumer base and high shipping costs, Shaul said. His permit came with rules that added to the burden, such as a requirement that he test for antibiotics part way through the cheese making process, adding to his equipment and other costs. New York tests for antibiotics too, but the cheese-maker doesn't have to have a lab to do it, he said.

"Any one of those things wouldn't have shut me down," Shaul said, "but piling it all together. ... Agriculture is so fragile in Alaska."

The state has issued permits for public sales to only one other mom-and-pop operation. Margie Buchwalter said she found the process reasonable and the state accommodating, but she closed her business shortly after receiving its permit because her husband developed unrelated health problems.

The only other permit holder thus far has been the state's biggest dairy processor, Matanuska Creamery in Palmer. Unlike the other two, it buys cow milk from farmers and has 17 workers, including two part-time cheese-makers. But general manager Karen Olson said her company also has concerns about the rules, particularly when it must compete with cheaper cheese imported from states where regulations might be more lenient.

Alaska lawmakers met last month on the cheese regulations and asked Ryan to work with the dairies to rewrite the rules with exemptions for small farms. As a model, dairy farmers and lawmakers pointed to Oregon, which allows direct-to-consumer milk sales at the farm.

But Ryan said milk has lower health risks than cheese, which involves more production steps, handling and ingredients, thus more ways to become tainted.

The U.S. sees about 2,500 cases each year of listeriosis, the most common food-borne illness caused by dairy products, with about 500 fatalities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can be dangerous to the elderly, newborns, pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions.

Dr. Jay Fuller, an assistant state veterinarian who helped draft Alaska's rules, said they are already the most liberal among the states and food safety shouldn't take a back seat to business.

"This is not stricter regulation, it's the first regulation we ever had," said Fuller, who suggested farmers pool their resources and establish cooperatively owned processing facilities that meet state safety codes instead of seeking a small dairy exemption.

By Jeremy Hsieh

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