[imgcontainer] [img:20131031_prodigalfarm_shaena_mallett_0001.jpg] [source]A photo by Shaena Mallett[/source] Claudia the goat grazes in the pasture at Prodigal Farm, October 31, 2013. In the background is one of a handful of empty school busses that the goats use for shelter and a place to climb. [/imgcontainer]
There is a certain sensation I get while visiting an old farm. It is, perhaps, the residual feeling of many years and seasons of stories stored up in the soil and barns and in the air. This particular story is a newer one, about love, goats and finding the way home.
Just to the north of the bustling streets of Durham, North Carolina, the city melts into a landscape of woods, pastures and farmland. Go a few more miles and you’ll find Rougemont. Similar to much of the Piedmont, this community’s history is steeped in tobacco farming. Ninety-seven acres of land on a former tobacco farm is home to Prodigal Farm, owned and run by Kathryn Spann and Dave Krabbe.
[imgcontainer] [img:20131031_prodigalfarm_shaena_mallett_0002.jpg] A tractor is parked under the 115+ year old tobacco barn. [/imgcontainer]
[imgcontainer] [img:20131031_prodigalfarm_shaena_mallett_0003.jpg] (Left) There are many signs of the past at Prodigal Farm, including old outbuildings and antique vehicles. (Right) A new building on the farm serves as storage for goat feed. [/imgcontainer]
Driving down the long driveway, you pass the 115-plus-year-old log tobacco barns, the old farmhouse, corn crib, smokehouse and outbuildings, as well as antique trucks and old farm equipment. Kathryn and Dave bought the farm in 2007 and opened the dairy in 2010.
[imgcontainer] [img:20131031_prodigalfarm_shaena_mallett_0004.jpg] Cheese is ready to be wrapped into a fig leaves that have been soaked in cognac and brandy, making a finished cheese called Figlet. [/imgcontainer]
In the cheese house, different varieties of goat cheese are in progress. The cheese will eventually end up at a farmers’ market and on someone’s table.
Kathryn has helped launch the South Durham Farmers’ Market. The market was established in Durham to connect emerging and established local farms offering healthy and affordable food to the surrounding community. It is one of few markets that require a visit to the farm to check for quality, safety and assurance that the goods are produced at the farm.
[imgcontainer] [img:20131031_prodigalfarm_shaena_mallett_0006.jpg] Kathryn greets the goats who are out grazing. The milking parlor and cheese house can be seen in the background. [/imgcontainer]
Kathryn walks with me beyond the cheese house to the fields where the goats are out to pasture. They start running up to us, inquisitive and friendly.
[imgcontainer] [img:20131031_prodigalfarm_shaena_mallett_0007.jpg] Etta the goat (right) gets a scratch on the head. [/imgcontainer]
Whenever a goat gets close, Kathryn is quick to tell me its name and unique detail of the goat.
“She’s not the brightest but very sweet.”
“She was one of the first triplets born on the farm.”
“Her name is Pickle… Her mom was Dilly.”
Keeping these details straight is no small task, especially considering they are milking more than 70 goats. Kathryn seems to do it with ease.
[imgcontainer] [img:20131031_prodigalfarm_shaena_mallett_0008.jpg] Goats run in sync through the pasture at Prodigal Farm where Kathryn grew up. [/imgcontainer]
Kathryn and Dave met while living in New York City – a long way from where Kathryn had grew up in central North Carolina. Her mother’s family worked in tobacco farming for generations. When Kathryn and Dave met, she was working as a lawyer and he as a builder. Before long, they decided to return to Kathryn’s roots and Dave’s long-time dream of farming. That’s when they started Prodigal Farm.
“The name encapsulates a lot of the story; growing up here, going away to the big city and coming back… like the prodigal daughter,” Kathryn says. “Prodigal also has a dictionary meaning of lavish or abundant, which seems kind of like a nice thing in the context of our farm.”
[imgcontainer] [img:20131031_prodigalfarm_shaena_mallett_0009.jpg] Kathryn takes a moment to look over the goats while Dave walks back after fixing a fence. [/imgcontainer]
Prodigal Farm is fulltime work for Kathryn and Dave. They built the dairy with savings from their former careers, and after three years in business are starting to break even financially, plus create a little bit of profit.
“In dairy, it’s really hard to do all the things that have to be done and have all the infrastructure you need, and make a living at it,” Kathryn said. “Doing what we do the way we do it is pretty expensive.”
Some of those expenses include comprehensive animal care, high quality hay and Dave and Kathryn’s commitment to paying their employees a living wage. “Nobody’s gonna get rich off this, but we want to make sure our employees get paid,” Kathryn said.
[imgcontainer] [img:20131031_prodigalfarm_shaena_mallett_0010.jpg] Julia Fiore, an employee at Prodigal Farm, ties a bundle of cheese and a fig leaf. [/imgcontainer]
One way Dave and Kathryn are working toward more financial security is by building an extension onto their dairy. The goal is to create more space to drain the fresh cheeses and an aging room to house aged cheeses.
Dairy production is seasonal. Spring and summer bring a surplus of milk, fall and winter bring less. Creating aged cheeses means having more to sell during the slower milking seasons. According to Kathryn, it also creates more diversity of products to sell to local chefs and other customers, as well as more consistent work for employees during the quieter seasons. They are currently planning a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to help fund the extension project.
Kathryn explains another benefit of having more consistent income and work despite seasonal milk production. “You can ‘cheap out’ and have all of these seasonal, lower paid farmhands,” she said. “But there are costs to that, especially if you want to be really good at what you do. New people make more mistakes, they cost you product and sometimes they cost you lives of animals. Being humane to our animals matters to us, and having really top tier product matters to us. That’s another reason we want to be at a place where we can have the same employees year round.”
[imgcontainer] [img:20131031_prodigalfarm_shaena_mallett_0011.jpg] Separated into their own pasture, young goats come over to greet Dave. [/imgcontainer]
“Everything we do centers around the health of our goats. Healthy, happy goats produce tastier milk in greater abundance. That milk, flowing from the pasture and woodland of our own farm, makes for a cheese that truly reflects the terroir of this time and place.”
Dave and Kathryn proudly maintain an Animal Welfare Approved Certification for their herd. They are one of only two Animal Welfare Approved goat dairies in North Carolina.
The AWA program was founded in 2006 “as a market-based solution to the growing consumer demand for meat, eggs and dairy products from animals treated with high welfare and managed with the environment in mind,” according to the organization’s website. The certification holds independent farmers to rigorous standards of raising animals in pasture-based, humane and environmentally friendly systems.
Maintaining the certification takes a lot of work but is worth the effort, Kathryn said.
“Having the certification gets a dialogue going and it provides a space for mindfulness. I think one of the most important things is that it informs the public that there are radically different ways that people raise their animals, and it’s not all created equal. Even ‘local’ is not all created equal. Just because you find someone at the farmers market, it doesn’t mean they are all doing the same thing, or that they are doing what they say they are. The AWA certification is a way to insure that the people you’re buying from are doing what they say they are. It’s a way to make our herd husbandry values a talking point.”
[imgcontainer] [img:20131031_prodigalfarm_shaena_mallett_0012.jpg] Kathryn takes a moment to run her hands over the frame of a young goat to check in on it and connect. “Touch is a big way to communicate with animals,” says Kathryn. [/imgcontainer]
“A good farmer creates a managed ecosystem, where the various parts all contribute to the health of the whole. This is the soul of sustainable agriculture. It is also a practical way to produce high quality food while building soil and conserving the habitat and biodiversity… We are constantly improving our systems, so that they flow more directly from the examples we see in nature.”