August 29th, 2006
Name: Amaltheia Dairy LLC
Owners: Melvyn and Sue Brown
Location: Belgrade, MT
Animals: Milking almost 300 goats, the herd is made up of various breeds- recently certified organic.
Cheeses/Products: Chevre (Plain and flavored), Ricotta, and Feta
More info: www.amaltheiadairy.com
We stopped by the cheese facility to see Sue late in the afternoon on the day before our official visit. She talked to us a bit about how Amaltheia got started and took us on a tour through their cheese plant which is located in the town of Belgrade in a small industrial park. Originally the Browns wanted to build the cheesemaking facility on their land but the state wanted to do a $13,000 EPA study before they would give them the green light to apply for building permits so they secured a spot at an industrial park close to the farm. They’ve got the standard setup- a bay to park their milk truck which collects from the farm every 2-3 days, a 1,000 gallon vat pasteurizer, a large mixer for their flavored chevres, a large walk-in cold storage space and a packaging room. There is additional space for packing materials and they do have an additional cold space that could potentially serve as a maturing area for other styles of cheese.
We interviewed Sue and Melvyn separately because, in their current situation, Sue is at the cheese facility most of the time and Melvyn is at the farm. Although a division of labor like this is typical in a cheesemaking operation like theirs- you can see the added complexity they deal with in having two locations. The Browns met each other in the late 70’s in Guatemala where Sue was teaching and Melvyn was working as an embryologist. Melvyn was one of the pioneers in the practice of harvesting eggs from top quality cows, fertilizing them and implanting them in other heifers. This allowed access to the top genetics without having your best animals undergo intensive breeding not to mention the ability to get a much higher reproductive yield from your best animals. Melvyn was sent to a number of different countries because of the value of his knowledge and skills in embryology.
Although Melvyn has a sort of high-tech animal husbandry skill, his farming methods are based on the small, family farm he grew up on in the Lake District of Northern England. His family and many of their neighbors had small farms to supply themselves with much of their food. The methods used on these farms would be considered organic today- no use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides, and attention to all aspects of the ecosystem- water, soil, animal and bird life. When Sue and Melvyn moved to Southern Michigan (where Sue grew up) and started a family, they cultivated a small farm much like the one Melvyn’s family had. Just as a hobby they got a “small” herd of goats… for the Brown’s this means 50 head.
Years later, Melvyn was offered a job in Montana, so the family relocated. Melvyn had always had this idea about being a goat farmer so when work for him dried up and they heard about a small cheesemaking company that was doing some private label cheese for a west coast outfit and in need of goat milk they decided to put their herd to work. On Thanksgiving day in 2001 the Browns began teaching their goats about milking equipment and selling milk to the local cheesemaker.
Six months later, the Browns had the opportunity to take over the private label cheesemaking business, instruction included, and that is when they became cheesemakers. Not long after they began making cheese they decided that they would like to have their own label and a facility upgrade was necessary. At that time they moved into their current space and developed the Amaltheia label. One of the more interesting names on the market… For anyone who is not familiar with the word Amaltheia you can read about it on the dairy’s website. Sue has been a teacher for 19 years and at the time they needed a name for their label she was teaching Greek mythology. More importantly though, I think the name illustrates how the Browns feel about goat milk- that it is an incredibly nourishing and miraculous food source.
The Browns were awaiting their organic certification documents when we visited. The farm and dairy have been in the financially challenging 3-year transition where they have been spending more dollars for organic feed and yet unable to reap the benefits associated with organic certification in the market. Most interesting to me is that when I asked Melvyn if the transition presented difficulties for them, he explained that they didn’t actually have to adjust much. He pointed only to two things that they changed: the first was replacing the standard teat-dip with highly diluted hydrogen peroxide and the second was that any newborn kids that were given medication not approved by organic standards had to be tagged and sold. Their herd is generally in good health so their losses during kidding season were approximately the same as they’ve been in previous seasons. Their organic feed is coming from farms within a 10-15 mile radius- enabling them to support their neighbors.
Transitioning to certified organic was not something they decided to do solely for the edge it might give them in the market. The way they live their lives day to day is in line with the basic tenets of the early organic movement. Every time Michael or I made a comment about the benefit of providing organic food to the market Melvyn would respond by emphasizing that their decision to go organic is about more than the goats or the milk or the cheese; it is about the soil, insects, air, water, and wildlife. The Browns are passionate about the natural resources in Montana and the opportunity that the state has to be a leader in more sustainable methods of food production and bio-fuels. Amaltheia Dairy reminds me that although certified organic is a label that provides consumers with a baseline of information about a product, it doesn’t give a robust picture of the producer and in Amaltheia’s case this is unfortunate. I know the organic certification will help them in markets where they are less well known I just hope that people will take time to learn even more about them as I think they are an excellent example of “beyond organic” practices.