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Family spreads love of goat cheese

ELKMONT, Ala. (AP)--God put agriculture in the hearts of a former shrimper and stockbroker.

That's how Leslie Spell explained why she and her husband, Paul, bought a goat dairy in Elkmont.

Leslie Spell was the stockbroker. Paul Spell was from a family of shrimpers.

"God puts different things in our hearts,'' Leslie Spell said. "He puts farming in some people's hearts. I have a drive to do this unlike anything I've ever done before.''

The couple, and their 9-year-old son, Isaac, operate Humble Heart Farms on Mooresville Road. They bought the farm in 2004 and sold goat milk to Belle Chevre cheese factory, also in Elkmont. That factory has been featured in Southern Living and on NBC's "Today'' show.

The Spells are a Grade A dairy with 175 to 200 Saanen goats. The family milks 125 of those goats twice a day, 300 days a year. The goats produce 60 gallons of milk a day. In 2006, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System said the Spells had the largest goat dairy in the state.

The family has since started its own cheese factory.

"You've got to make a commitment to do this,'' Leslie said. "The cost upfront is high. Our pasteurization machine cost $20,000. Plus, the only off season is December and January, so there are no summer vacations. You're tied down to this.''

The goats eat about $1,000 worth of feed a week. They breed in the fall and have their babies in February. Isaac helps watch the expectant mothers so he can let his parents know when one is about to go into labor.

"We all work on this farm, and we work every day,'' Leslie said. "But, we love it.''

The family produces six types of pasteurized cheese from the milk. The flavors are plain, honey, French, Rio Grande, garden herb and Tuscan.

The French includes lavender, rosemary, garlic and thyme. The Rio Grande "has a kick,'' she said, to satisfy her husband's Texas-raised taste buds. It includes chipotle pepper, onion, garlic and jalapeno pepper.

The spreadable cheese is good on crackers, pizza, pasta, bagels and other dishes.

The cheeses, like wine, also have different nuances based on where they are made and what the goats eat, Leslie said.

"Cheese made here won't taste the same as cheese made in California,'' she said.

Making the cheese is simple, Leslie said.

The family bought a portable classroom and converted it into a cheese room and kitchen.

Leslie said that when the pasteurization machine gets the cheese to its correct temperature, they add the cultures and let it sit overnight.

The next day, they strain the cheese through a cheese cloth bag.

"It's not complicated,'' she said. "We do it as old-fashioned as possible.''

Their goats spend much of their days relaxing under a shade tree on the 20-acre farm, drinking from a continuous running fountain or congregating under a shed. Two Great Pyrenees, Wags and Rescue, guard them from coyotes and herd them in a line to the milking barn.

Unlike dairy cows, which go down into a trench for milking, these goats walk into chutes with individual stalls. There are chutes on both sides of the milking room.

A pulley system opens and closes the gates on each stall. A feed bin provides each goat with a meal while milking. After milking is complete, the goats walk down a ramp and another group trots into the barn. Leslie said this system is easier on the older goats and easier to replicate.

She said a man from Ethiopia visited and looked at the system and said he could incorporate it in villages in his country.

"Goats are the most user-friendly animals,'' she said. "They can produce milk for drinking or to use to make cheese. They are a popular meat worldwide, and their hide can be used for leather. They can be trained to work and pull a small plow. They can survive on less-than-perfect pasture.''

Saanen goats, Leslie said, are a quiet, docile breed and the largest milk producers. They don't like humans to touch their ears, but they love for humans to rub their cheeks.

"I can hug on them,'' Isaac said. "I help raise them. They like me.''

The family sells its cheese four days a week at farmers markets. The Saddle Rack in Elkmont, Lawler's Barbecue on U.S. 72 in Athens, and Stem and Stein in Madison also carry the cheese. The family sells it in 6-ounce containers for $6 each.

The Spells offer tours of their farm. The kitchen is screened to keep the public separate and meet Department of Public Health and Homeland Security regulations.

"It's a safety issue because we're making food for the public, so that's why Homeland Security has standards we must follow,'' Leslie said.

The family wants to add an internship program in which juniors and seniors in high school could learn about the science of cheese and medical care for goats.

Spell said her family tries to keep medications to a minimum and could teach students how to test for worms and apply medication only when needed.

She said that will prevent resistance to antibiotics. If a goat is on penicillin, she pulls it from the milking line.

Those who want to do mission work could also train at the dairy farm through an internship.

"Those who are going into mission fields where the citizens rely on goat can share what they learn from us,'' Leslie said.



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