Arizona’s mountains are attracting goat dairies, creating a new market of award-winning artisan cheeses.
Since 2003, when the first commercial goat dairy was certified in Arizona, five more have emerged, totaling about 600 goats producing milk and cheese under state regulation.
“Goats are fun,” said Kathryn Heininger, co-owner of Arizona’s first certified goat dairy, Black Mesa Ranch, in Snowflake. “They are like big, productive puppy dogs.”
Heininger and her husband, David, moved from Tucson to the ranch property in 2000 and bought a goat as a pet and for milk. They eventually built a herd, selling the extra milk.
In 2003, the Arizona Department of Agriculture certified their ranch for commercial production, the first in state, said Roland Mader, administrator for the dairy and egg programs at the department. Now, six goat dairies are certified for commercial production in Arizona. The most recent in 2014, was Capream Dairy in Prescott.
The small size of goats compared to cows makes them easier to handle, said David Heininger. Trimming hooves, for example, is much easier with goats.
Goats are adaptive to the cool climate of the mountains in Arizona, said David Heininger. The majority of goat dairies are located in higher elevations in the northern and southeastern parts of the state.
“They love it,” Heininger said. “They are thriving here.”
Farmers can expand herds quickly because a females give birth to two or three offspring each year, said John Bittner, owner of Fossil Creek Creamery in Strawberry, northwest of Payson.
“Goats do not know how to add,” Bittner said. “They only know how to multiply.”
Wendell Crow, owner of Crow Dairy in Buckeye, doubled his goat herd from 30 to 300 to keep up with the increased demand since obtaining certification in 2006.
Goat dairies market their artisan cheeses to restaurants and the whole food market. Those allergic to cow milk tend to buy goat dairy as an alternative, said Suzanne Burm, president of the Bisbee Food Co-Op. Others choose goat dairy because they think it is healthier than cow dairy.
Although goat dairy shares similar proteins with cow dairy, there are differences, said Bénédicte Coudé of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, an institution located on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and dedicated to studying cheese flavors and properties.
Additionally, it is easier to digest goat dairy because it has smaller chains of fatty acids, a type of unsaturated fat in food, than what is in cow milk, said Coudé. However, from a medical perspective, more research is required to establish the benefits of goat dairy.
In 2002, three Spanish researchers published a paper in the Journal of Dairy Science that showed that goat milk can help with problems in absorbing certain nutrients. To simulate the absorption problem, researchers reduced lab rats’ small intestines, whose functions include digesting iron and copper. The study found the rats that ate a goat milk diet had a concentration of iron and copper similar to normal, while the rats that ate cow dairy had lower levels of iron and copper.
Goat artisan cheese is a niche market that has not been filled in Arizona, said Tana Fryer, the owner of Blu Wine & Cheese Stop, a Tucson restaurant that opened in January 2014.
“We are experiencing just some really phenomenal products happening here from national recognition,” Fryer said.
In 2014, Alethea Swift, owner of Fiore di Capra Dairy located in Pomerene in Southern Arizona, won second place in the American Cheese Society’s annual competition in the category of cheese marinated in liquids and ingredients. More than 1,600 cheesemakers from across the nation competed for the awards.
Some people buy locally produced goat dairy because they know the animals are treated well, said David Heininger. The Heiningers often receive emails from potential customers asking about their farming and cheese making practices, and some customers visit the farm.
“This shows you that people want to be connected with their food,” David Heininger said.
Since 2000, the Heiningers’ herd expanded from one to 30 goats. Kathryn Heininger credits the success of their business to the animals.
“They really work hard,” Kathryn Heininger said. “We could not do it without them.”
Musherf Alamri is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Click here for a high-resolution photos.