Writer Brad Kessler and his wife, photographer Dona Ann McAdams, live on a 75-acre farm in Vermont where they milk goats and make cheese. His new book, Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, a Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese, is simultaneously a meditation on farming life and an inside look at the joys and hardships of caring for goats.
You wrote children’s books and two novels prior to writing the nonfiction Goat Song.
I started as a journalist, but I always wanted to write fiction. Children’s books were a transition; I didn’t know they were a transition, but they turned out to be. My children’s books are derived from folk tales mostly, folk tales and fables being the earliest forms of storytelling.
I wrote two novels and I had the hubris to think that writing nonfiction would be easy, but discovered to my chagrin that it wasn’t. You’re stuck with the characters you’re given and the events that are there, and you get sort of tired of them. It was an interesting difference.
How did you decide to go back to the land?
There is something of a misapprehension out there about this book, that it’s the familiar story of the city guy who leaves it all behind and goes to the country. It really didn’t happen exactly like that.
I grew up in suburban Connecticut. I felt the alienation of growing up in the suburbs, which are neither urban nor rural, but you get a taste of what rural could be like there. You have the sense that 50 or 100 years ago it was agricultural, so there’s these traces of it still there that I could see growing up.
And I was always attracted to growing things; I worked in a nursery when I was a kid. I just always had the basic instinct of wanting to live in the country. I never liked living in cities.
You can be cultured in the country, and certainly you can be in touch with the natural world in an urban area too. When I lived in the city, I was aware of the birds that were flying overhead, the plants growing in Central Park. There are thousands of people in the city that know that. That said, I’m better off on a personal level away from bipeds.
In the first section of Goat Song, you say “I’ve been following these goats back home each day, but where they lead surprises me still. I want to take you there.” Where do you want to take us with this book?
In part, that’s for the reader to interpret. I hope the book works on a couple of levels. On the basic level, it’s just, “This is how we did it.” On another level it’s a meditation; on a third level everything is allegorical, the physical world is an avenue into the metaphysical world. If you want to go there, that is. Those are the places I like to go.
Living is a spiritual quest. I guess the surprise for me was living with these animals. When my wife and I first got the goats, I certainly didn’t expect that they would lead to this kind of magical, ineffable place, that they’d be this window into another way of being.
What’s great about goats is that they’re a domesticated animal but retain their wildness. The fact that you can milk them and make this amazing thing — cheese — from them that sustains you, that’s the miraculous part of it. The first pastoralist must have thought that this was kind of a miracle, that they could take this animal from the wild and, instead of killing it, milk it and produce this never-ending source of sustenance.
For many, the idea of buying a farm, raising goats, and making cheese is an idyllic goal. Is it a life you’d recommend?
You have to like to work hard, you have to like to get dirty. Then there’s the problems, like sick animals. There’s also a lot of shit.
It’s certainly idyllic. But there’s plenty of farms that are overcrowded and messy. That goes against the idyllic picture. The whole book is idyllic, but I hope it’s clear there’s a price to pay to get there.
People should know that they’re not going to make money off of something like this. You need a day job. Yes, if you spend all of your time doing it and get a large-enough herd and have some deep pockets helping you out in the beginning, then maybe you can make a go of it as a business.
But the fact is that my wife and I have other jobs, we do other things to support this. Our quality of life depends on the farm, but it’s not our livelihood. I don’t want it to seem easy to anyone in terms of making a living. In a good year, we just break even in terms of costs of making cheese.
People sometimes talk about the isolation of rural life. Do you ever experience that side of it?
In some ways, my wife and I are not typical because we really make our living doing other things. It’s not fair to use us as an example or compare us to real farmers. Real farmers don’t go away to Rome for seven months like we just did (Kessler was the recent recipient of the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters). We farm seasonally, milk goats through the summer and early fall, and stop milking in mid-October. So we’re working mostly from May to October, and we have six months of the year where we and the goats just rest.
So that’s the big caveat. But I don’t find it lonely at all, or isolating. We’re in a great community here. Despite what urban people think, there are people who live in the country who are actually engaging and smart. And the animals are great company too. I feel more isolated in the city in some ways, isolated from the natural world.
Do you sell much of the cheese you make?
We call our cheese operation Northern Spy, because those are the name of the apples that grow here, though the goats have managed to strip most of the trees in what was an old overgrown orchard on our property. We mostly make fresh chèvre for ourselves. We also make fresh mozzarella and the aged tomme I describe in the book.
The tomme starts off uncomplicated and gets more flavor and complexity as it ages; it starts to taste really great at four months. We have a couple of wheels left over from last year that are over a year old now, and at that age they get really delicious; they start to taste like an Italian Asiago.
In terms of selling our cheese, every year is different. Most of the cheese we eat ourselves. We’ve been selling to a restaurant in New York called Les Enfants Terribles. Most of this year’s production will probably be traded or sold locally, and we’ll send a few to the restaurant.
Do you ever consider expanding production and making cheese your livelihood?
We don’t intend to. I have this other life as a writer, and my wife is a photographer, so for us it’s really about finding a balance between the two things.
But expansion is tempting at times. The urge to build a bigger barn, that’s part of our culture. If you have something that people want, you think to yourself, why aren’t you meeting that need, why aren’t you making more? Part of me is drawn to that. I have to take out my E. F. Schumacher book Small is Beautiful and remind myself every once in a while that there is a scale for everything.
What’s in the future for you and the farm?
I’m working on my next novel right now, and working on the goats at the same time. The goats are part of the family now. I don’t think I could ever not write, that’s not a possibility. And at this point, I would not want to live without the goats and what they do, either. Right now there is a balance. That’s exactly where I want to be.
Tami Parr keeps a blog called the Pacific Northwest Cheese Project.
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