At first glance it doesn’t look like a farm. As you round the bend on a back road west of Eatonville, what Mountain Lodge Farm actually looks like is a brand-new Craftsman-style house complete with neat landscaping and mini-greenhouse, surrounded by equally new buildings. Come closer, though, and you’ll hear what it’s all about – the insistent, high-pitched voices of nearly 100 little goats, all bursting with milk that makes creamy, award-winning Chevre and Crottin cheeses. Just six months old, Mountain Lodge Farm is on a roll – and open for tours this Saturday.
“We didn’t want to do it on the cheap,” says Sherwin Ferguson, farm founder and herdmaster. “We wanted to make the best possible product...Our goal is to make exquisite cheese.”
On many counts, they’ve achieved that goal already. Licensed just six months ago, the Mountain Lodge goat creamery has already won awards – five first places and Best in Show at last year’s amateur American Dairy Goat Association Competition. Their cheeses are now served by Puget Sound restaurants like Asado, 208 Garfield, Maxwells, Skelly and the Bean and Bottlehouse winery, plus are stocked by shops like Beecher’s and The Calf and Kid. They sell out weekly at farmers markets in Tacoma and Seattle.
“These things tell us we’re on the right track,” says Ferguson.
Which is good news for a brand-new farm run by newbies. Ferguson was a Tacoma nurse-practitioner when she met Meghan McKenna at the Quillisascut Farm School in northeast Washington in 2009. McKenna was a Seattle cheese seller with a dream to make her own; Ferguson wanted to farm goats. Bunkmates, they were at the school to find out whether their dreams could actually work. Throughout 2010 McKenna and her husband Shawn traveled Europe working on organic cheese farms to get more experience, while Ferguson planned the farm.
And then they made the decision. Along with Ferguson’s brother Brian Weir they began work on Ferguson’s property in the foothills of Mount Rainer. Shawn McKenna took over the books. A barn and creamery were built, plus a farmhouse for the McKennas complete with commercial kitchen and space for classes and events. Hand-milking their four goats, they experimented with cheeses, winning the ADGA amateur division. In January they moved the goats into the barn and kidded 74 in one week. By February they had their license, and one week later took their place at the first annual Washington Artisan Cheese Festival in Seattle.
It’s been a steep learning curve for both women.
“There’s so much art in farming that’s not in the textbooks,” says Ferguson, who found transitioning to the bucket milker – with no printed instructions – the hardest challenge. “We didn’t grow up in farming, so there’s no one to tell us things. We’re choosing it, that what’s makes us different.”
For McKenna, the seasonality of goat’s milk – how it tastes at different stages of the animal’s life and the year’s seasons – is still hard to get used to. “There are different levels of protein, fat, water,” she explains.
Yet Mountain Lodge cheeses don’t taste like amateur work. The fresh Chevre, made in just four days, has a tangy nuttiness that’s refreshingly unlike other, more bland Chevres. The soft-ripened Crottin-style Paradise (named for the nearby mountain) is richly creamy thanks to the high butterfat in the milk from the inquisitive, floppy-eared Nigerian Dwarf goats (La Mancha goats make up the rest of the herd: sweet, doe-eyed and long-necked, with tiny ears). The Summit cheese, though, is the real eye-candy: also a crottin, it’s coated with black ash to give it a clean acidity and shaped into a cone in honor of the volcano behind it.
“My recipes and techniques are from Europe, especially France,” McKenna says, “but we incorporate the specificity of our milk into that.” Part of the unique taste of that milk, Ferguson explains, is the forage: The goats pasture daily on local thistles, blackberry and native Northwest plants, supplemented with organic hay.
All those cheeses, plus some wines and a picnic lunch, will be available for tasting at the farm’s first open-house tour this Saturday. Visitors will also be able to play with and even milk the goats, who are extremely friendly and love human attention, thanks to Ferguson’s hands-on farming style.
It’s the first of many events Ferguson and McKenna are planning, including cheese-making workshops beginning in the fall when all the building and landscaping is complete.
“We can’t make enough money just doing cheese,” Ferguson acknowledges. “But you have to start somewhere.”
Watching Ferguson lead her devoted herd out into the wildflower-covered pasture behind the barn, it’s clear that the start has been a good email@example.com
Farm visit and cheese tasting
Where: Mountain Lodge Farm, 43423 37th Ave. E., Eatonville
When: Noon-2 p.m. Aug. 18
Cost: $5 general/$20 per family includes farm tour, picnic lunch, cheese and wine tasting
Also: Cheese for sale at 6th Avenue Farmers Market (3-7 p.m. Tuesdays, Sixth Avenue and North Pine Street, Tacoma)
Information: Reservations necessary. For directions, call 360-832-1625, or go to firstname.lastname@example.org