Connecting with agriculture ‘life-affirming’

Last modified: Thursday, November 13, 2014
Sarah Laeng-Gilliatt says local agriculture can be truly life-affirming.

“Food can connect us with so many aspects of our lives — community, local economy, the land, other species — in very positive ways,” Laeng-Gilliatt says. “With local food, we have a greater sense of belonging to place. It’s about relationship and community — being connected in very real and practical ways, being interdependent with one another as well as more self-reliant in terms of our food security.”

Laeng-Gilliatt is working to build those connections through a new business located in the barn behind her home on Main Street. The appropriately named Main Street Cheese features a range of goat cheese products, handcrafted in a spotless cheesemaking room, using milk from the 12 milkers in Laeng-Gilliatt’s herd of Alpine goats.

The animals are pastured at the former Peabody Farm in Hancock — now known as Summit Meadow Farm — where Laeng-Gilliatt, her husband, Stefan, and her son, Julian, have built stalls in one of the barns and set up a milking parlor. They started their business in June 2012, when Laeng-Gilliatt bought 11 kids and two 3-year-old goats, picking them up in the Finger Lakes region of New York state in a station wagon and a minivan, and driving them back to Hancock.

“That was quite a fun trip,” she recalls. “We really had a crowd.”

The kids were raised in the yard behind the couple’s home, and when old enough they were bred. So this summer, Laeng-Gilliatt had 22 kids swarming through the flexible paddocks they had built out back of the barn.

“It was a lively place,” she says. “It’s been so much fun in the summer, when people come through and wander out back to see the kids. Everyone has been very encouraging and supportive.”

Laeng-Gilliatt, 48, moved to New Hampshire from New Mexico, where she had been a food policy coordinator for a nonprofit organization in Santa Fe that focused on water rights issues. She had always been interested in finding ways to strengthen rural economies and when she had an opportunity to purchase the Hancock home once owned by her grandmother, Joan Watson, the time was right for a move.

“I wanted to be closer to my roots, and I really wanted to work with my hands,” she says. “This brings all my past work together. Although cheesemaking has been my passion, and at first the animals were just a nice part of it, the goats have been wonderful. It’s an honor to make a living from a natural process and working with animals.”

After consultations with dairy specialist Chuck Metcalf of the N.H Department of Health and Human Services, who helped her set up the pasteurization room in the barn, and John Porter of the UNH Cooperative Extension, who helped on barn layout, livestock management and design of a whey waste system, the Laeng-Gilliatts remodeled of the barn. Following a thorough inspection by the Department of Health and Human Services, Laeng-Gilliatt was licensed to make cheese in August. She’s now producing several varieties of plain and flavored soft cheeses that she calls “Bees Knees Chevres,” naming them after one of her grandmother’s favorite sayings. She also makes an aged chevre named Peabody’s Bloom, after the farm where the goats are housed, an Alpine-style cheese called Browsy Tomme, which is aged two to four months, and a mold-ripened, traditional French cheese named Poetic Pyramid in honor of the goats, many of whom have been named after poets, writers and artists.

The cheeses are sold on the honor system from a shop in the barn, which is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Because her milking duties often keep her away from the shop, and because the cheesemaking itself is both labor intensive and requires careful attention to cleanliness and hygiene, Laeng-Gilliatt is often not in the shop. But the honor system has been working well for her.

“The house is next to the Hancock Inn, and the shop is in the barn at the back,” she says. “I want people to feel very comfortable, to walk right in, to visit the kids when they are there.”

The location allows her to sell directly to customers. “It cuts out much of the marketing and distribution costs that come with other models,” Laeng-Gilliatt says. “Both the farmer and the customer benefit in this direct relationship.”

Main Street Cheese will be a seasonal dairy.

“I dry off the milkers for the last two months of their pregnancy,” Laeng-Gilliatt says. “We’ll milk and make cheese from May to the end of January. But some of the fresh cheese can be frozen, so the shop will be open year round, unless I sell it all.”

Laeng-Gilliatt is also selling cheese at Sunnyfield Farm in Peterborough and at the Wednesday Peterborough farmers market.

Laeng-Gilliatt says she’s had a lot of help getting the business going. Stefan did a lot of the necessary construction work, and he and Julian have become very good at milking and other tasks needed to care for the goats. Her two part-time workers, Deb Shumway and Mary Wakeman, both from Hancock, are also keys to her success.

“Deb actually volunteered to help before I even opened the shop,” Laeng-Gilliatt says. “They’ve been tremendous.”

She’s looking for a permanent part-time worker who would be willing to work in exchange for housing, as she expects the business will be growing.

Laeng-Gilliatt is encouraged by the comments from friends and customers about the importance of buying locally produced food.

“Local agriculture has the capacity to bring our lives back into greater balance,” she says. “We have been so ill-served by the global economy and to see local agricultural projects burgeoning all around us gives us a glimpse into another world, a more life-affirming world.... We have the power to make a food system that will serve people, life and the land, not just profits.”