When Althea Swift was 4 years old, her father, a photographer, was assigned to shoot the livestock being shown at the Pima County Fair. One goat breeder couldn’t afford to pay for photographs so she traded for four baby goats for them instead. Swift immediately fell in love with the animals. A passion was born.
“Hi girls!” she says today, greeting the herd of 175 that live on the Fiore di Capra farm. She reaches over the fence to pet the head of Red Riding Hood, 13 years old and one of the elders. The other goats begin to flock to the gate for attention, nuzzling up against her hand. “They love attention,” she says, laughing. “They’re kind and so sweet. They’re really like dogs. If I opened the gate, I would have a hundred of them following behind me.”
All of the goats have names, used in part to keep the family lines together. There are nursery rhyme characters: Mary Mack, Bo Peep, Goldilocks; names from the color spectrum: Parallel Red, Pink Fiction, Violet Fire; place names taken from song lyrics: Dallas in the Dust, Savannah Sky; and even famous fictional characters: Hester Prynne and Scout Finch. Swift’s daughter Caitlyn, 15, has a line of goats named after flowers.
Most of the goats are LaMancha, a breed with tiny gopher ears with an array of colors and patterns: brown, tan, and black. They often have white patches on their chests or white diamonds on their nose. Swift says, “It’s fun because it’s a surprise at every kidding.”
Swift grew up in Marana and participated in 4-H club and in competitions with her sister, Patrece, showing their goats under the name Altrece Dairy Goats. She continued to breed and show goats while she studied nutritional science at the University of Arizona and, as many goat breeders do, she began to experiment with making cheese.
But it wasn’t until 1998 that dreams of something larger took shape. Knowing of her passion for goats, her then-fiancé, Michael Swift, had proposed that they start a dairy farm; when her father gave them a piece of land in Pomerene, near Benson, as a wedding gift, that dream began to become a reality.
As they built their dream, one of the main pieces of wisdom they received was not to take out loans or go into debt, so they took their time building infrastructure.
In 1998, Alethea and Michael moved onto the land, living in a mobile home on the property. By 2000, they had built their home.
In 2004, Michael’s stepfather and stepuncle, both masons, built them a barn. They put in the water line themselves. They got their dairy license. And in 2006, after years of planning and building, they opened shop.
Michael retired from the Air Force, and both he and Alethea worked full time with their herd of 450. They sold raw milk to every Whole Foods in the Phoenix area. But with such a large herd, the two were working all the time. The milking alone took four hours in the morning and four hours at night. “It was killing us,” Swift says. “It was too much.”
They scaled back their herd to 175—coincidentally, right before Whole Foods stopped selling raw milk. Michael, a retired Air Force pilot, now does contract work for a private company and can be away for three months at a time, so Alethea often runs the dairy alone with the help of her daughter.
The goats, which are fed pesticide-free local alfalfa and Bermuda grass, are milked twice a day January through July and once a day when the milk production starts to slow down. It takes about five minutes to milk a dozen goats; the milk is immediately pumped through stainless steel pipes directly to a 300-gallon holding tank and chilled to 34 degrees. When making cheese, a gentle pasteurization process heats the milk to 145 degrees for 30 minutes instead of going to the highest temperature for a shorter period of time, a practice sometimes used by larger farms that can result in fresh cheese having a “cooked” taste.
“I think we get a really good flavor,” she says. “A lot of people are surprised. Goat cheese can be very strong. And it turns people off. We get people to taste our cheese because it’s very mild—a good, fresh taste.”
Goat milk is more easily digested than cow milk, and Swift is proud that many babies are being raised on her goat milk. “These moms will call and they have tried all kinds of formula. I can’t imagine a crying, constantly colicky baby. Nothing’s working and they’ll try the goat milk and it works. That’s so exciting for me.”
“People want milk chilled, filtered, and put in a bottle,” Swift says. “That’s what we try to do. You can find lots of weird things in things that are supposed to be just milk.”
Fiore di Capra sells milk, kefir, Greek yogurt, herbed chevre logs, fruit and vegetable tortes, aged cheese, baked and fresh ricotta, and truffles. (They’re one of only a few goat cheese producers in Arizona aging their cheese.) The herbs they use come mostly from fellow vendors at the farmers’ market and all the jams for the tortes come from Grammy’s, another local farm.
Swift comes from Italian and Greek ancestry and credits her heritage with her zest for inventing new recipes and flavor profiles. “I think it’s in our blood,” she says, smiling. One of their most popular products is baked ricotta, a family recipe passed down from Alethea’s Sicilian great-grandfather.
Inspiration for their name, which translates from Italian as “Flower of the Goat,” struck one Christmas when Alethea and Caitlyn were visiting Michael, who had been sent to Italy for work. While in a store, Alethea saw a cheese named “fiore di latte,” or flower of the milk. Yes! she thought, Flower of the Goat. A friend designed the logo, in which a goat is perched inside a purple flower.
The herd is more than a livelihood; they are part of the Swift family. Everyone has their favorites; when some goats must be bottle-fed as babies, after their mothers refuse to recognize them, “We become the mamas,” Caitlyn says.
The dairy itself is a labor of love; the family does all the milking, pasteurizing, cheesemaking, and delivering. Michael helps with the upkeep of the space. Alethea milks the goats and crafts the cheeses. The mother-daughter duo makes deliveries during the week, often coordinating trips to Tucson with Caitlyn’s soccer practices, and brings their fare to the Heirloom Farmers’ Market at Rillito Park on Sundays. Their products are also sold at Blu: A Cheese and Wine Stop, Tucson’s Food Conspiracy Co-op, and Time Market.
While many teenagers might balk at getting dirty or spending time away from their smartphones, Caitlyn is a farm girl through and through. When she was a baby, Swift used to milk the goats with her snuggled into a front pack. “It’s nice to visit other places, and cities,” Caitlyn says. “But I always want to come home. I love the animals and I like living away from everything.”
But there are still challenges. Hay used to cost five or six dollars a bale when Swift was first breeding and showing. “Now, you’re lucky if you get it for $14 and in the winter, it’s $18 or 20,” she says. Those prices add up quickly when the herd is consuming seven bales a day.
Summer months are hard on farmers, when the weather is hot and so many of their customers clear out of town. But Swift has been inspired by the community formed at the farmers’ market. When Fiore Di Capra placed second in the American Cheese Society’s 2014 Festival of Cheese with their Jalapeño Garlic Marinated Chevre, customers arrived early to the Sunday market with the Arizona Daily Star article in hand.
“I didn’t even know the article was out,” Swift says. “I hadn’t seen it or the photo. I was like, wow, people care that a big award happened. They were really excited about it, and sharing the news with each other.” Fiore di Capra’s Jalapeño chevre was chosen from 1,600 entries. Their chevre also received a gold medal in the American Dairy Goat Association Competition in both 2012 and 2013, with a Reserve Best of Show in 2012.
Farm dogs Atlas and Wish follow Alethea and me as we walk through the farm. A little black kitten, Simone, lies in the shade against the hay bales.
Alethea points to the solar panels on top of the garage that were installed last spring and says they hope to be able to power the dairy with solar as well—a feasible goal, given the surplus of energy they’re already producing at home. To further reduce waste, they also stockpile whey for local farmers to feed animals and manure for those looking to enrich their soil.
One of Alethea’s dreams is to build a cave inside a nearby hill to age wheels of hard cheese. Cheese caves are typically built into hillsides or underground, which controls the temperature and humidity, a challenge in the desert. “People really want the hard cheeses,” she says. “They’re so in demand. But we just don’t have enough space to do as much as we’d like right now.”
The other members of the family are expanding their horizons as well. Caitlyn recently requested and received cows and has begun making butter. A few years ago, Michael became interested in bees and has built a hive on the property. They hope to make products featuring their own honey soon.
The dairy will also be expanding by adding sheep’s milk to the menu. While we’re talking, a sheep wanders down a dirt path leading up a hill, baaing. While the goats like to stay on the lower ground, the sheep love to climb up. Weeks ago, after some rainfall, the hill was covered in purple and orange wildflowers. Swift says, “They were in heaven.”
For Swift, her goat herd is an inextricable part of her life, a passion born young. “I just got attached to them,” she says. “I love the goats and I love what I do.” ✜
Fiore di Capra. P.O. Box 271, Pomerene. 520.586.2081. GoatMilkAndCheese.com.
Lisa O’Neill originally hails from New Orleans but has made her second home in the desert, where she writes and teaches writing. Her favorite food to make is lemon icebox pie.