It’s hard to believe that Lynne Reeck started making cheese just four years ago.
During that short time, she has forged a reputation for producing some of the state’s most sought-after artisanal dairy products. It’s remarkable progress for someone who launched her cheesemaking career by experimenting on her kitchen stovetop.
“Some of those first chèvres were terrible,” Reeck said with a laugh. “But to me, all cheese is magical. The slightest tilt in the process can make a very different cheese. I find that astounding. But goats are magical, too. They take grass and sunshine and they turn it into milk.”
Yes, the goats. This is their story, too. On their 25-acre farm near Nerstrand, Minn., Reeck and partner Kate Wall raise a small herd of goats, and it’s their sweet milk that provides the foundation for the chèvres and fetas that are the pride of Singing Hills Goat Dairy.
Reeck’s fresh, snowy white chèvre is pure pleasure, with a delicately luscious creaminess and a pristine milky flavor that radiates a this-was-made-two-days-ago freshness. The feta is similarly first-rate: firm yet beautifully crumbly, with a teasingly tangy bite. Aficionados will enjoy the unadulterated varieties, but Reeck also blends them with fresh herbs and seasonings, with winning results.
Those unfamiliar with goat’s milk cheese curds need to line up for Reeck’s plain-and-simple version, and her lumpy, agreeably sour yogurt — which she bottles in returnable glass Mason jars — is an otherworldly experience. One taste, and you’ll be forever spoiled for even the most premium supermarket alternatives.
If a Hollywood type were scouting around for a picturesque Midwestern farm, the couple’s 25 acres would be a shoo-in, on the periphery of the visually stunning Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park. From the goats’ perspective, they live in spalike surroundings, a charmed life dedicated to roaming through roomy, shaded pastures surrounded by a solar-powered electrified fence.
Contrary to popular belief, goats are actually fairly finicky eaters. In the winter they feed on alfalfa hay, but warm weather finds them grazing a daily diet of about seven pounds of grasses and leaves, including the low-hanging foliage on the farm’s majestic oaks.
“Tree leaves are like candy to them,” said Reeck. “They’ll eat them as high as they can reach on their hind legs.”
The farm’s transformation — from growing vegetables to raising goats — began in earnest in 2009. The clay soil wasn’t particularly suited to vegetable cultivation. But a farmstead dairy? Absolutely. Make that micro-dairy — their term — because, by any measure, Singing Hills is a small-scale operation. A herd of just 26 goats graze the farm’s grasslands; anything larger would require roomier barn facilities.
Why goats? One of the many attractions is the animals’ natural curiosity. “Sheep don’t like people,” said Reeck. “Cows, they couldn’t care less. But goats? They’re all, ‘Hi, how are you?’ ”
The farm’s milking does are a Nubian-Saanen mix; the former are prized for their higher-butterfat milk, and the latter produce in greater volume. Twice a day — usually around 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. — six goats at a to,e (or, as Wall affectionately calls them, “the girls”) dutifully line up inside the milking parlor, lured by the pound of organic grain (a mix of corn, soy, flax and barley) that they feast upon while being milked.
On a good day, a doe will produce roughly a gallon of milk, and it travels directly from udder to pasteurization to cheese. To supplement their supply, the couple also buy milk from a nearby farm.
150 pounds a week
The cheese plant — roughly the size of an average living room — is equipped with a pair of 22-gallon vats, a minuscule operation in the cheesemaking world. For Reeck, cheesemaking is a six-day-a-week enterprise, and she turns out about 150 pounds weekly. Ninety percent of a week’s output is sold that week, all made with a process that relies upon tactile instincts: tasting, feeling, smelling and looking.
“That’s how cheese was made for thousands of years,” Reeck said. But she also depends on the accuracy of scientific measurements. “I like the predictability,” she said. “And science has added so much to the cheesemaking process.”
Reeck’s path to cheesemaking was a long one, with an education that began with coursework in Wisconsin, followed by apprenticeships with another farmstead cheesemaker and a large commercial outfit. “We need to send her to France,” said Wall. “Vermont would be good enough,” said Reeck.
If only she had the time. Labor — or a lack thereof — is another factor in the farm’s modest scale. It’s just Reeck, who devotes every waking hour to the place (her sisters pitch in with packaging and selling) and Wall, who, when she isn’t immersed in her full-time management job at Northfield’s natural foods co-op, is hard at work at home, tending to the animals and their bottomless needs.
“Vegetable farming is so different,” Wall said. “With animals, there is so much more on the line. The quality of the cheese is directly connected to the animals’ health.”
As for the name, the hills portion of Singing Hills Goat Dairy is obvious to anyone visiting the rolling landscape a few miles south of Northfield. As for the singing part, hear no further than the plaintive bleats reverberating from a chorus of highly vocal goats.
It’s a good story, but the truth is Reeck and Wall borrowed the poetic name from their go-to getaway, nearby Sakatah Lake State Park; in the Dakota language, sakatah roughly translates into “singing hills.”
Running the farm makes for a lot of time together for the couple, who have been together for 11 years. “We work every day at communication,” said Reeck with a laugh. “We have both become really good at saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
Farm to table
Along with a dozen or so pigs — which feast upon the dairy’s whey — Reeck and Wall also raise about 30 to 40 goats each year for meat, selling almost all of them to Ian Gray, chef/owner of the Gray House in Minneapolis. It’s the veal of goats, maybe 8 or 9 months old, and Gray enthusiastically channels that young, herbaceous meat into a flurry of highly memorable dishes: a deeply savory goat ragu over gnocchi, chops garnished with Reeck’s spectacular yogurt and a distinctive, delicious burger.
“The love that Lynne and Kate show those animals — and the appreciation that they have for them — really translates into the meat’s flavor,” Gray said. “You really taste the love they put into it.”
You can see it, too. On weekends, anyway, when Reeck and Wall drive an hour north to sell their products at Minneapolis farmers markets. Rather than go the wholesale route, they choose to market directly to customers, in part because of the face-to-face contact.
“We want to be able to share our stories,” said Wall. “It’s our farm, and when people have questions, we want to be there to answer them. We also don’t mind looking tired — we get up at 2:45 on market day to milk the goats — because we want to show people that this isn’t easy. We want to give our customers an understanding of what it takes to bring food to people, to keep the local food system alive.”
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