Eighty Grinning Goats

The goats of Chiva Risa live off the grid and browse the borderlands

June 23, 2013

Fork in the RoadHomesteadIssue 1: Summer 2013

Sliding south out of Tucson, saguaros become creosote and N.P.R. becomes Mexican ranchera. Aerostats dot the sky—the grey smudges of radar-toting blimps that watch, creepily, over the U.S.-Mexico border. We stop just shy of its sprawling fence line and prepare to greet the goats—the 80 laughing goats of Chiva Risa Ranch.

Lissa Howe and her husband J.C. Mutchler bought two goats three years ago when they had an hour to kill and wandered into a 4-H show in Sonoita. Lissa had always wanted a goat, and two weeks after they bought two goats, they had seven. They didn’t intend to build a goat ranch at the time, but two weeks after that, they owned 12 goats. Two years later, 40 milking goats produce around 25 gallons of milk—and cheese—every day. Cassie Jean was one of the first goats on the ranch and she’s still kicking buckets out from under the kids that are trying to pull her teats at Chiva Risa’s two-year anniversary open house.

“Cassie Jean is still Lissa’s favorite, but she knows all their names, every single one,” J.C. says, shifting his weight from boot to boot. He leans against a steel fence, his back to the kid pen, where a dozen baby goats stare at us, clustered, their confused puppy expressions confounded by the tiny horns curling from between their ears. Eighty goats beget 80 names; J.C. can’t keep track of them all, but, he says, “My favorite is Sammy Pants. You know, goats are some of the most efficient converters of grain and water into milk.”

There’s a stuttered pause in the conversation and my goat-day companion Dave asks, “What’s her name again?”

“Sammy,” J.C. responds, pushing his weight off the fence and preparing to shuttle the conversation onward.

“Wait, was it Sammypants?” Dave asks. “That’s great!”

“Right…” J.C. says. He seems momentarily embarrassed by the accidental admission of affection—but how could you not nickname, not pick favorites? The gals almost ask it of us—they trot towards us, nuzzle against the fence and our outstretched hands, pickme-pickme.

J.C. works as a professor and administrator at the University of Arizona; three years ago, Lissa was working at a semi-conductor laser company in Tucson when the company moved overseas and she lost her job. “At that time, there were absolutely no opportunities,” she says. Though she and J.C. had been growing their own food for years, “When we got into goats and started making cheese, it turned out I really had a knack for it,” Lissa says. She approaches cheese making with the same scientific thinking that defined her former career, reading scientific journals and researching the citric acid cycle. “I look at cheese as a living thing,” she says. “Sometimes you have a batch of cheese that wants to do something else, wants to turn into a camembert, say. I don’t focus on making one batch exactly like the last batch.”

To make her cheese, Lissa pasteurizes the milk at 145 degrees for 30 minute in a 45-gallon pasteurizer. She then adds cheese cultures and waits; a day later, what she scoops out of the stainless steel pasteurizer is cheese: sweet, creamy curds of goat cheese. We taste thick crumbles of the cheese—a fresh chèvre, barely two days old—stabbed on toothpicks and we nibble and nudge each other with wide eyes, smiling sheepishly like the goats. It’s so good.

After we migrate inside and try the cheese, Lissa hands out a sample of the goat feed for us to try. Goats eat just about everything—shirts, notebooks, hair—but these girls subsist on local browse and a feed mix of alfalfa and bean chaff, nothing corn or soy-based and never GMO. “I think their feed makes a difference in the milk,” Lissa tells us. “The bean chaff is sweet. When the girls finish eating, it makes their breath smell like peanut butter.”

Sammy Pants’ milk is made into cheese in a small barn with a blue roof. The dairy is built from locally made insulated concrete forms and requires no heating or cooling—these goats live off the grid. The ranch is entirely wind and solar powered—the closest power line is more than a mile away—so with the exception of the pasteurizer and a small bucket pump used for milking, everything is done by hand.

With so much to be done in this growing business, Lissa now employees three people to help her part-time. “We started the business after an outsourcing and now we’re able to employ three people, two that soon go to college in the region,” she says. “For me that’s very important.” ✜

Megan Kimble is the managing editor of edible Baja Arizona.

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