Trained midwife Donna Lockridge, co-owner of South Mountain Goat Dairy on La Farmita de Sue-os ( "it's Spanglish for Little Farm of Dreams") in Edgewood, crouches in a pen of straw with a beautiful chocolate brown mother goat. As Donna strokes her, hugs her and whispers encouraging endearments in her ear, the pregnant goat seems almost supernaturally calm.
"This particular breed reminds me of the Navajo women I used to help deliver-very quiet and calm all the way through," Donna confides to the handful of friends, all women, crowding the kidding barn, informal "coaches" all. "Not like Ruby there," and she nods to another soon-to-be mama. "Last year, she was thrashing and screaming."
As Donna keeps up a steady refrain of "Push, push" to the placid mama, one friend jokes, "How many people in this room are pushing at the same time?" and everyone laughs.
As one and then two teeny, tiny new hooves appear, the heretofore docile mother begins to become decidedly agitated, squirming and moaning. Remarking that it's very hard to have any modesty on the delivery table, Donna reaches her hand up to feel around inside the mother.
"The baby's head is coming in sideways," she reports grimly, reaching back up inside so her whole arm disappears. If she can't face the infant's head forward, it could be delivered dead. The mood in the room sobers to dread as everyone stares intently. Slowly, with a frown of concentration, she pulls out the tiny hooves, the legs, the frontwards little head and then, gradually, the whole body of the newborn kid. He's alive! And huge.
"Our priority is to always save the mom," says Donna, handing him over to her partner, Marge Petersen, to weigh. "We need the babies so the mothers will lactate and we can make our cheese." (Milk production happens only after they've been bred.) "It's costly to keep too many of the boys-a few for packing trips but the rest are farmed out."
As Marge sets the tiny infant back down beside his mother, a new set of hooves, even tinier, emerges, followed easily by the rest of her, and within five minutes a noticeably smaller sister is suddenly nuzzling beside her brother.
"Here's your reward," Donna murmurs, handing the deserving mom a pan of warm molasses water. "This is their treat after birth. All of my goats know what I'm saying to them, don't you?" and she strokes the mama's graceful head. "We've got such an investment in these girls, emotional and otherwise. Some of the moms die in the birthing process."
Meanwhile, the two newborns are already up and walking, albeit a bit wobbly. "They grow up so fast," Donna tells us. "There's a big difference between the three, five and seven day olds," and she gestures beside the birthing pen, where all the various-sized babies born in the past few days lie curled in sleep or standing to nuzzle inquisitively at the visitors.
Both Marge and Donna have full-time jobs, Marge as head of computer science projects at Sandia National Labs (she'll retire in two years) and Donna as a trained midwife now at University Hospital (she'll retire sooner).
"From the end of October to now, we dry the girls off," says Marge, which means they stop milking them. "We take our vacation during the winter, skiing, going to Hawaii-we have a wonderful time taking care of ourselves, and then we're back to take care of the girls."
Birthing season, when it arrives, is nonstop for a month or so. She jokes that she and Donna refer to it as their La Farmita South Mountain Weight Loss Program. "It's all a work in progress," Marge explains. "We're always experimenting. This year we're trying out using a baby monitor."
Donna does most of the birthing, since it's her forté ( "although I've had my arm in up to the elbow to pull a kid out when Donna wasn't home," Marge adds); she's also the herd manager, which includes giving shots. Marge is the primary cheesemaker.
A seasonal dairy, South Mountain produces cheese from early April through October of every year. Marge and Donna bought their original two goats to be weedwhackers-and then they fell in love. With their individual personalities, their lively curiosities and their odd, alien-like vertical pupils, goats are one of the most intelligent animals there are, even smarter than dogs, according to Marge. So, smitten, they added some girls to the herd, began making cheese with the milk and couldn't eat it all themselves. That's when they decided to go into business, and a year later, in 2005, they received their Grade A dairy license.
To ensure that the kids are tame and bonded with humans, Marge and Donna bottle-feed them right from the start, using milk straight from the mothers. After 8-12 weeks, the babies are weaned and then the milk is used to make cheese.
The girls are milked twice a day, at 6am and 6pm. "When they are not being milked," says the dairy's website, "they are working hard to produce more cheese. This means lying in the sun, romping in their field, munching on the best quality grain and alfalfa, black sunflower seeds, peanuts (and of course, LOTS of kisses!) and drinking lots of fresh water." Anything can affect the cheese: When the weather's off-abnormally hot and dry, or stormy (which causes nervous goats and hence, lower production), as well as anything they've gotten into, such as tumbleweeds, which turn the milk bitter-tasting.
Did either of the women have any previous background making cheese? Donna smiles and shakes her head. "We're self-taught. All of the cheese is made with the same ingredients: culture, rennet and milk," she explains. "What differentiates the various cheeses is what kind of culture you use and how you cut the curd." Very recently, she took a Utah State University three-day cheesemaking class, where they learned to make goat milk mozzarella by hand. "I'd never done that before." She'd always approached the making of cheese as an artist; now, she says, as a result of the class, she's added the scientist's perspective, and that only improves South Mountain's cheese.
The dairy, whose cheeses are all artisanal and farmstead (meaning made on the farm using only the milk of the dairy animals who live there), specializes in fetas and chèvres. ( "Chèvre is just the French word for goat cheese," says Marge.) They make blended herb chèvres (garlic, dill, sundried tomato) and breakfast varieties (raspberry, strawberry and apricot). "Garlic chèvre is our best seller; green chile is second," she says. "We don't sell much of the plain at all-I think it's because people don't know how to cook anymore." And, indeed, the soft plain chèvre is not as dry as the mild green chile variety, which packs a little acidic tang. The plain is good in omelets, on pizza, and stuffed into poblano peppers and homemade raviolis.
This next year, they plan to expand their product line to include yogurt (Y0-Goat!), feta marinated in oil with sundried tomatoes and Italian herbs, as well as various flavors of Havarti, a hard cheese pressed in a mold, wrapped in wax, with a cheddar-like taste but more subtle, slightly salty.
"We've bred 18 girls to milk next season," Marge says. "Our goal is to be retired from our town jobs, and increase our herd size to 30 or 40 girls. Then we will be able to expand our market with on-line sales of our cheeses."
"We haven't marketed to restaurants yet," she adds, "but we'll consider it this year. We have to figure out our schedules around the goats and each of our full-time jobs. I had no idea how complicated this whole thing was going to be. But I love the whole process. And the bottom line is: We're making cheese so we can afford to keep the girls."
Currently South Mountain Dairy cheese is available only at the East Mountain and Albuquerque Farmers' Markets, the Triangle Market on North Highway 14, and directly from the farm. www.lafarmita.com.