Just a kid: New business has been long time in making

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By Donald Richie

A Harrison County native has blazed new agricultural ground in the dairy market.

After much research and work, Todd Harp - a former Harrison County High School Agriculture teacher - shipped his first load of goats milk on Monday, July 7, making him the first commercial dairy goat farmer in the state of Kentucky.

It was an exciting time, he said. Now my goal for [the goats] is to pay their own meal ticket.

Harp shipped the milk from his farm, Foxhide Farm - which is just a few miles inside the Bourbon County line - to Bleugrass Chevre in Clark County. The milk is used to make goat cheese.

Most of the cheese will be sold on Saturdays at the Lexington Farmers Market.

In shipping the milk, Harps farm became one of only two commercial goat dairies in the state. The other one is Bleugrass Chevre itself.

He got his first goats six years ago and has about 55 of the animals now.

When I first got out of college, I would like to have milked cows, he said. But with the income and the investment associated with buying a cow dairy, it was not feasible at all.

Harp was also starting his teaching career at the time and wanted an animal he could take back and forth to school as a hands-on learning tool.

Goats kind of fit that bill, he said.

As he started looking into goats as a dairy option, he found there were several dairy goat farms in the state, but none of them were for commercial use.

Most of the farms raised the animals strictly for showing purposes. The milk from them never made it to market.

The majority of them said Im just pouring it out or Im just raising calves on it, Harp said.

As a farmer and Ag teacher, that just didnt make sense to him.

These people were producing a good product but they were throwing it away, he said. I thought it was too hard a job and too expensive to just be a fun little hobby.

I needed to try to generate something.

Knowing that running a goat dairy is a seven-day a week, 365-day per year job, Harp thought a market needed to be found for his goats milk.

During his search for a marketing avenue, he met Susan Miller, a Clark County native who had just returned from a cheese-making school in New England. Miller really wanted to make and market goat cheese.

She thought she would come back to Kentucky and be able to find somebody who could sell her goat milk, Harp said. She didnt realize there were no licensed goat dairies in the state.

Miller and Harp met and talked about their business needs. She didnt want to milk goats and he didnt want to make cheese.

Thus, a partnership was born.

To be able to start his dairy, Harp had to basically establish the precedent for goat dairy licensing.

Working through the Cabinet for Health and Human Services, Harp had to meet all the same requirements as a cow dairy.

The snag was finding equipment that would accommodate an animal that is significantly smaller than a milk cow. Most cattle dairies today, Harp said, are large operations which deal in massive amounts of milk.

A goat dairy, on the other hand, would have less animals which produce a relatively small volume of milk. The average goat produces a gallon a day, whereas a good producing Holstein cow can give eight to 10 gallons.

Harp had to find tanks which suited the smaller volumes and Miller had to find a way to transport it.

It took us five and a half years to get through all the regulations and all the stipulations, Harp said.

Now, as a manufacturing-grade permitted goat dairy, he is shipping milk to the Clark County cheese facility every three days.

During his teaching days - he now works for the Governors Office of Agricultural Policy in Frankfort - Harp and fellow Ag teacher Bow Switzer constantly stressed the need for farm diversification. They wanted students to recognize the need to be flexible in an evolving market.

To that end, Harp is practicing what he preached.

Goats are more efficient than cows, he said, in the amount of feed they take in versus the amount of milk they produce.

Its an interesting time to be in the dairy goat business, said Harp. Cow milk prices fluctuate so drastically.

Those fluctuations - specifically in feed prices - make it difficult for cattle dairies to make money from year to year.

With the goats milk youre producing a premium product, its not a commodity product, and it commands a premium price, Harp explained. The actual return per goat, as opposed to per cow, you see more return money.

And were not at the mercy of a commodity market.

Goats milk may possibly be used as a substitute for people who are lactose intolerant. Harp said studies show 60 to 90 percent of lactose intolerant people can handle goats milk.

Goats milk is naturally homogenized, so the fat molecules are smaller and easier to digest, Harp said.

In fact, he makes goats milk ice cream from time to time, and said he hopes that kind of product would be available for children who have never been able to eat it before.

I can imagine taking a lactose intolerant kid and letting him have real ice cream, he said. I think that could be a really interesting market.

As for the cheese being made with his milk now, Harp said its a superior product.

[Millers] got a good tasting product that hopefully will convert some people into goat cheese lovers, he said.