AIKEN, S.C. — For Sam Stevens, goat farming is a family business.
“I’ve been milking goats my whole life, since I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” Stevens, owner of Palmetto Nursery and Florist and Samaria Farm, said with a laugh. “My dad had them, we had them growing up. We were raised on goat milk.”
Samaria Farm has been a Grade A producer of goat milk since 2008. The milk is sold at the farm and nursery, but also at Noble Breads and Grocer.
The day starts at about 6:30 a.m. with the milking of the goats, according to Stevens. He and his sons take the goats from a pen into the milking room, where they are put up on the milking stand four at a time with troughs of grain for them to eat. Aside from when they are being milked, the goats feed mainly on grass.
A disinfectant is applied to the teats to prepare them for milking, and the milking machine is hooked up to the teats. After a few minutes of milking, the next round of goats is brought in.
Stevens said one goat usually produces a half-gallon of milk each session. Currently, the goats are being milked only once a day, but after the baby goats are weaned, the adult goats will be milked twice a day.
After the goats have been milked, a large metal container is taken from the machine into the milk processing room, where the milk is bottled and refrigerated. Stevens said the milk has to be kept at 40 degrees or colder to prevent contaminants from growing.
Goat milk can be sold in its raw form, or be used to make other products, including yogurt, soap and cheese.
Trail Ridge Farm and Dairy in Aiken has been producing goat milk products for about eight years. Owner Kelly Hammond said it all began as a home school project with two goats.
“We had so much milk left over from those two goats,” he said. “We started making some cheese and took it to church. People were trying it there and saying, ‘This is really good. You should try selling it.’”
Hammond and his family now operate the only Grade A dairy and certified cheese facility in the Aiken area, he said. They sell their products locally at places like the Aiken County Farmers Market and Plum Pudding, but also around the Midlands, especially at farmers markets around Columbia and even to some Columbia businesses.
The farm has about 35 goats for milking, Hammond said. Milking happens twice a day, usually taking about two hours for each session and cleanup.
Trail Ridge sells about 20 varieties of chevre, from plain chevre to sweeter breakfast and dessert varieties, according to Hammond. They make goat milk feta in dry form but also in a marinated form flavored with French and Italian herbs.
Once the milk is pasteurized, the cheese is set, or “thickened up,” in a pot, Hammond said. From there, it is scooped out and put into cheese cloth, in which it will hang while the whey drains from the cheese into pans below, drying the cheese.
Hammond said they can leave the cheese plain or add herbs to it. From there, it is prepared in bulk for restaurants or packaged to be sold at markets.
Chevre takes about four days to produce, while feta takes about a week, he said.
Goat milk isn’t just a way of life for these local farmers — it’s a healthier way of life for the people who consume it, they said.
“It’s a healthier milk. It’s been labeled as the most complete food there is,” Stevens said. “More people worldwide drink goat milk than cow milk.”
South Carolina is one of only a handful of states that allow raw milk, Stevens said. Georgia, Florida and North Carolina each consider raw milk an illegal food product. He said some customers come across state lines to buy the milk and take it back home.
Hammond said the fat molecules in goat milk are 10 times smaller than those in cow milk, meaning goat milk is more easily digested. On average, it takes about 20 minutes for your body to digest a glass of goat milk, while it can take hours to process a glass of cow milk.
“Goat’s milk is the only universal milk that there is,” he said. “That means any baby animal can drink it.”
Stevens said goat milk is a healthy alternative for people who are lactose intolerant or allergic to cow milk.
“A lot of people have babies that can’t have cow milk. They’re allergic to cow milk,” he said. “Most people that are allergic to cow milk can tolerate goat milk.”
Stevens and Hammond said there’s no noticeable difference in taste between cow milk and goat milk, as long as the setup and equipment are clean.
Hammond said locally-produced goat milk products are healthy not only for the consumer, but also for the local economy.
“We make all our products fresh every week. The stuff we take to the markets, the stuff I put into any of the stores, only stays there for a week,” he said. “I didn’t know how well goat cheese was going to take off. I thought this would just be, ‘People would buy it every now and then.’ They buy it like crazy.”