Photos and videos by Sierra Burgos
I’m a Las Vegas native who was raised in Los Angeles. A goat farm is about as foreign of a subject as it gets. So when Paula Olson from Swede Point Creamery in Madrid, Iowa, decided to open up her farm to me and an UP camera woman, I was nothing short of terrified.
I’ve only lived in the Midwest for three and a half years to attend university. I have never seen a farm close up. I have never touched an animal that isn’t house trained. I have never even picked up a shovel. It’s just not how people do things where I’m from, so I wanted to take this opportunity to clear up my personal misconceptions (and maybe yours) about exactly what it means to work on a goat farm.
Meeting our guide
I woke up on that forsaken Sunday and didn’t even know what clothes to put on. I had no idea what the day would hold at all, let alone that three hours later, I would be ankle deep in manure, holding a screaming goat, sweaty, muddy, and dreaming about bath bombs.
The one thing Paula had made sure I was aware of was to bring boots, because the rain from the night before had caused the entire three acres to become an indistinguishable mess of mud and goat poo; other than that, I was hopeless. Unfortunately, being the person I am, I basically had to choose between my Doctor Martin boots from London, and the cute lace-back riding boots I got to appease my cold weather woes.
After opting for the taller boots, I realized I had spent 30 minutes picking out shoes just to work on a farm, and moreover that I was clearly not cut out for this.
The drive was a bit surreal, I’ve never so clearly left behind city views for farmland. For every mile we drove, the ratio of land-to-tractors increased significantly.
Arriving at Paula’s three-in-one home, farm, and creamery was a culture shock for me. It smelled exactly how I wished it wouldn’t, and there were goats screaming from every angle. Taken aback doesn’t even begin to describe it.
“It all started when the girls, my twins, convinced me to get some goats, so I started messing around with cheeses.”- Paula Olson
But when Paula came out to greet us, her kindness and hospitality soothed some of my worries. She brought us into the creamery’s storefront, which was well stocked with goat milk products. From goat milk lotion, to her famous “Cowboy Candy” goat cheese, Paula has definitely gotten creative over the past three years in this business.
“It all started when the girls, my twins, convinced me to get some goats, which I stalled on for a while.” Paula says. “But I finally gave in, and having milked dairy cows for 30-something years, this was pretty easy. So I started messing around with cheeses.”
Paula’s initial motivation for starting her cheese experiments was a bad experience with another company’s goat cheese.
“I thought, ‘how could they sell this, tasting like this?’” she says.
Since completion of the creamery in 2015, Paula has invented more than 10 original goat cheese flavors. The most famous being her Cowboy Candy, which contains jalapeno peppers and Spanish spices.
This season she plans to experiment with feta and parmesan while her daughters continue to create unique lotion scents.
Help: I actually touched a goat
After tasting Paula’s creations, which were unbelievably delicious, we began the work by feeding the baby goats.
Paula took us into the room where she stores her milk before pasteurizing it, and she let me clean out the bottles, fill them with milk, and top them with the unique nipples for each kid.
“I’m not really supposed to baby them as much as I do,” Paula says. “We even have a little guy named Ed who I’ve kept with the babies for a few extra weeks. I just don’t trust that he’s ready to be with his age group, I even hold him when I feed him.”
And that’s exactly what I did. I held a very jerky Ed as he attempted to choke down a bottle, and I surprisingly loved every second of it. Holding still was not Ed’s thing, and he was causing me to dance around the pen to keep the bottle in his mouth. But he let me help him eat, and that was one really rewarding feeling.
The rest of the babies swarmed me as I watched Paula let them nibble on her fingers. They were crazy, there were at least 10 of them, but man, they were kind of cute.
“That wasn’t so bad,” I thought, only half-realizing I hadn’t really seen anything yet.
The next step in Paula’s everyday life was to round up the goats she was planning to milk. She had me trudge down through the mud to the goat pens, and use a cane to help guide her “girls” in the right direction. Rest in peace, my lace-back boots.
Once they arrived in the milking room, Paula had a very foolproof assembly line-style system to get the goats milked.
This room was what I feared the most. An animal’s udder is not familiar ground for me. And just as much as I didn’t want to touch it, I didn’t want to hurt the goat.
But Paula assured me, her girls are used to it.
Aside from just their adorable tendencies, Paula had some reasoning behind choosing goats over cows to make her milk. Since she graduated with an Animal Sciences degree from University of Iowa, she was purposeful in picking her goats.
According to Khimaira Farms, an educational farm site, goats are necessary to efficiency. Not only can goats survive in a wide variety of climates, they also can convert a larger range of vegetation into quality milk than either a sheep or cow.
In 2014, Paula bought her milking equipment used from a cow farm in Minnesota, and repurposed it herself. It is a simple piping system that moves the milks gently from the goat to the tank next-door.
I puppeted Paula’s actions as she cleaned the udders with iodine and attached the suction to begin milking. I was too caught up in doing it right to be grossed out, and surprisingly, it was rewarding every time I got it right.
“It is hard work, I think people romanticize it. I barely even get to leave the farm,” she says. “But for me, it’s important work, it’s rewarding work. And it means I get to be creative.”
What it all means for the community
Paula is part of a growing industry. According to the Iowa Dairy Goat Association, Iowa’s milk goat inventories have increased 74 percent since 2007, and the state’s 33,000 dairy goats ranked third in the United States as of Jan. 1, 2016.
And Paula is using this industry, combined with her passion for creating milk products, to get involved with her community. Not only does Paula sell her products at Iowa farmers markets, she also teams up with other local farmers to host taste-testing Sundays.
Swede Point Creamery, along with Jill and Jeff Burkhart at Picket Fence Creamery, put on these “Sample Sundays” every month at Burkhart’s farm, no matter the weather.
She also keeps her girls fed with corn from her brother’s farm right down the street.
“We all help each other out,” she says. “And being smaller producers, we know everything that’s going on around here.”
After finishing cleaning up, I realized that everything I had feared about this farm was shallow. Paula is a hardworking woman, who spends her days appeasing her vivid imagination. I found that after hours of doing everything possible to ruin my boots, I actually had an amazing time. The animals were cute and not nearly as mean as I thought they would be, the smell faded after a while, and Paula was the best goat guide a girl could ask for.
Paula welcomed us with open arms and ensured we learned as much as we could about what her life is like. As a city gal who’s spent most of her life in Los Angeles, I never expected to hold a smelly goat and not want to cry, but those sweet animals made me feel accomplished, and I couldn’t be more glad that I took this step out of my comfort zone. Who knows, maybe I’ll even be back to volunteer.