Making Ends Meat (and Milk)

Megan Schilling was a Stone Barns Center livestock apprentice in 2012. She delivered lambs, collected eggs, fed the pigs, processed chickens and turkeys, and moved animals over 22 acres of pasture. After a string of farm jobs over the past few years, Megan has now been given the chance to start something from scratch: a goat dairy in Washington state, where she will manage the dairy operation, build a creamery and, finally, earn a steady living.

“The first time I worked with goats was in Los Angeles, in 2013,” Megan says. “I really connected with them and enjoyed the longevity of working with dairy animals—a change from working at Stone Barns, where most of the animals are slated for meat.” She gets to know her goats and finds working with them daily rewarding.

Megan’s employer, Ralph’s Greenhouse, in Mt. Vernon, Wash., is building the goat dairy, with Megan at the helm. The goal for 2016 is to be milking 90 does and to move into bottling and cheese-making.

In recent years, the United States has seen an increase in the demand for goat products. Seeking to capitalize on this demand, Ralph’s Greenhouse saw the opportunity to supply a local market ready for goat milk, cheeses and soaps, as well as goat meat. Because approximately 50 percent of goats born will be male, and the operation does not require that many bucks for breeding, goat meat production is also part of the plan.

Up until now, Megan’s work on three farms in as many years has been educational but financially challenging. “Working on someone else’s farm so that you can learn from the farmer and from your mistakes with minimal financial damage is an amazing experience,” she says, but that living on apprentice wages or stipends, year after year, is difficult. On an established farm that wants to expand, Megan says, “I’m now in a unique position of being able to work on something from the ground up and take figurative ownership of it,” while finding some economic stability.

As we work to build a new American food culture, one that values sustainable farming and its farmers, we in the food movement have a long way to go to ensure that people like Megan can succeed in their drive to feed us. What’s needed? Favorable policies, the ability of small farmers to earn a living wage and afford health care, and communities that value and embrace quality local food production.

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL FARMERS!