Interview conducted by KCAA Board Member Elizabeth Hoffman
Sagging Fence is a small scale goat dairy operation owned by Juli and Bob Fisher out of Port Orchard, WA. They currently have a closed herd of seventeen rambunctious Nubian dairy goats. Their main market product is a Farmstead Aged Goat Milk Cheese that they distribute to local restaurants, shops, and sell personally every Saturday at the Port Orchard Farmers Market.
Did you grow up on a farm?
Actually both Bob and I were raised in cities. I was born in Denver and my dad used to farm in North Dakota. Bob was raised in the Denver area. I did not want to be around a lot of people on a day to day basis. I like to garden and I like to have a lot of space and a lot of greenery around me. Bob does as well.
How did you start farming?
When I met Bob I was professionally landscaping and I tease him that when he saw my apartment, he was more interested in the fact that I had flowers drying than in me. He thought that was the coolest thing…. We started thinking about buying a place outside of the city because a lot of the perks of the city theatre, restaurants, etc., we didn’t do any of that stuff…Bob was a chef and I think he cooks better than most restaurants. He was always interested in growing things, right now he grows bonsai and he always wanted to be a farmer.
How did you start making cheese?
Bob used to cook professionally and he worked at places in Denver and in Seattle… He has always been interested in making and growing our own food. When we came out here we found a couple with some goats because he said he wanted to get ahold of some goat milk and make some cheese, and so we did. For a year or two we bought milk and made cheese, some was good and some was not. We made it in the kitchen and we got better at it and a neighbor down the road had two wethers (fixed male goat) Calvin and Hobbes who were for sale and they were going to be butchered so we bought them. Once we had success with those two we advanced to breeding our own milking goats. We started with two sisters we bought from people that we knew and since then all our goats have been born on our farm.
When did you decide to start marketing your cheese?
Sagging Fence Farm was licensed in January of 2014. About 8 years ago Bob said I think we should get licensed so we toured many different farms including Kurt Timmermeister’s farm on Vashon Island we toured Estrella farms and took a class with her. Bob makes all the cheese now, I used to, but now I help with all the milking. I am also comfortable doing a lot of the hands on things with the goats, my undergrad was in microbiology and I worked in a lab for many years.
What was your biggest hurdle starting as a goat dairy?
We didn’t really start selling right away until we had insurance and because we don’t pasteurize it is difficult to get insurance. And we were surprised by that big stumbling block.
Bob has been working on the recipe, making it for ten years so he has been learning how to keep the quality uniform even though the milk changes throughout their cycle. We make the soft cheese as well but it is not aged so we cannot sell it.
Have you seen a change in the public’s attitude towards goat milk since you started?
Some people can tolerate it better because the protein molecules in goat’s milk are already broken down somewhat which lends itself to goat milk being naturally homogenized, it does not separate in the fridge. The only issue then is if you want to make goat milk butter you have to have a cream separator. One of the big differences with goat milk is it is quite rich because it is whole milk. Most people don’t drink whole milk anymore. A lot of people have issues with lactose. Now why there is more of that going on is a different story.
We drink strictly goat milk and have now for many years. When we are in a position where we have to buy cow’s milk we have noticed that it takes a few days to get used to the taste… A lot of people say that I don’t like goat cheese/milk because it tastes “goaty”. Well we have found that once you heat the milk that flavor comes out. I believe Pasteurization adds to that flavor.
How do you differ from other goat dairy’s? What is the philosophy behind Sagging Fence Farm?
We have a closed herd meaning we do not freshen every year and all goats are born on the farm. We do not take our goats off site except to breed. We are very soft on our animals, we brought them into this world they are our responsibility. I don’t treat them like stock. We retire our goats when they are too old to produce milk, they stick around and live in the pasture. We keep wethers on site and they have their own space. Typically, on other farms they are butchered at around 6 months to a year. We find good homes for our wethers where they will not be butchered. Our last wethers were sold as brush eaters.
I think if we have a philosophy it is that I never want to get too big that I don’t know each goat individually and when you get to having fifty or a hundred, like other cheese farms in the United States and France. There were huge herds hundreds of goats and there is no way to know each of them. I really enjoy knowing them individually, each of them has a personality and I like getting to know them… I don’t like all of them (laughs)..but they all have a personality.
What advice do you have for people who want to start farming?
And I think a lot of people are looking back to farming traditions to self-sustain their household…I enjoy being more self-sustaining not having to buy eggs, milk, vegetables. I think you can but it could be a rude awakening for some people. It takes a lot of work physically and also time. You have to want to live in this environment and it can’t just be “I want to have a farm because I want to grow my own food” and I know people who have down that or said that. Realistically, you don’t have much of a social life, you don’t do much beyond your farm. It takes a lot and it takes money. When we wanted to start the dairy everyone told us it was going to be $100,000, we did it for less but it took planning and five years of time. We designed our own dairy and poured the foundations ourselves. We started in the kitchen trying things out and I would advise others if they wanted to start a dairy or making specialty products that you start small in the kitchen and do that for a while, even years, just to see if you like it. I think you should try it in small pieces first, we started with a garden and then a farm and finally it evolved into a dairy.
Sagging Fence Farm’s Farmstead Aged Raw Goat Milk Cheese can be found at the following locations:
Bay Street Bistro: featured ingredient on Northwest Cheese Plate
834 Bay Street, Port Orchard, WA 98366
103 1st Ave S, Seattle, WA 98104
Port Orchard Farmer’s Market