Cheesemakers and Goat Farmers Aim to Boost the Northeast Kingdom Dairy Economy

Farmers at Jasper Hill's new goat farm in Hardwick.

At the 2017 American Cheese Society Conference, two dairy professionals from opposite coasts connected over a shared vision. Mateo Kehler, co-founder of Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont, gave a talk about how he and his brother, Andy, use their cheese business to invigorate the local economy. “From the beginning, we started making cheese as a way of changing the economics of dairy in our region,” said Mateo.

Goat farmer Ryan Andrus attended the talk and was hooked. He learned that the company purchases milk and cheese within a 15-mile radius from farmers participating in Agri-Mark, New England’s dairy cooperative. The farmers receive payment from Agri-Mark, but the Kehlers pay them an additional sum to compensate for the volatility of today’s dairy market.

Ryan and his wife, Annie Rowden, have been managing goat herds for 15 years. Most recently, they’d raised and managed the goat herd at a large cheese operation in California, growing an initial herd of 200 kids to over 1,000 goats within a decade. But the farm was bought by an international company, and the consolidation didn’t align with the couple’s values. “We wanted to be part of a localized system where profits weren’t being exported,” said Ryan, “to be connected to the bigger picture and larger impact of farming.”

A conversation began between Annie and Ryan, and Mateo and Andy about the possibility of a partnership. The couple were drawn to the Kehler brothers’ mission and their product. “They make the best cheese in the country, and beyond,” said Ryan.

An opportunity arose when a 239-acre Hardwick farm, originally conserved with VLT in 1993, came up for sale in 2017. The land, on Bridgman Hill Road, had been continually hayed and had an office, milking parlor, and barn—all the right ingredients for a new operation.

Yet, buying goats and making infrastructure upgrades made the total cost quite high. So the Kehlers decided to buy the land and then sell an ‘option to purchase at agricultural value’ on the farmland; this legal restriction will help make sure the land is always owned by farmers and does not become an estate property. If the farm is put up for sale again, VLT will now have the right to buy it at its agricultural value if it feels that there is a risk of this happening. “Conservation helped this property become a functional puzzle piece in the bigger-picture plan for the business,” explained Ryan.

Fans of Jasper Hill can keep an eye out for a new blue cheese of mixed cow and goat milk, and a washed-rind brick goat cheese. Ryan and Annie will start with 300 goats this summer, and plan to expand the herd to 800. The Jasper Hill team has renovated the buildings and installed a new milking facility. In the long term, the Kehlers want to add farrowing sows to provide pork for Jasper Hill sausage and salami. The new enterprise will eventually provide around 10 more jobs.

Andy and Mateo own other VLT-conserved properties in Greensboro and Glover; they consider the protection of farm soils part of their business mission. “Our intent is creating opportunities for farmers and young people to live and work on the land and in the Northeast Kingdom,” explained Mateo. “That’s really what we’re up to, and we’re just using cheese as a lever to create change. Conservation of working lands is fundamental to that. Without working lands we’re all poor, and our communities won’t have a future if agriculture isn’t happening around us.”

Story written by Sophi Veltrop. Photo by Kyle Gray.