Acorn Hill Farm: It’s a winner! - BlueStone Press
November 19, 2019

Acorn Hill Farm: It’s a winner!

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Every summer, there is a Dairy Products Competition at the New York State Fair. This year, Kerhonkson can boast a winner. Acorn Hill Farm, the newest farm in town, came away with first prize in the Farmstead/Goat/Sheep class for goat-milk ricotta cheese.

“First time I ever entered a cheese competition!” exclaimed Joyce Henion, who owns Acorn Hill with her daughter, Aleah Rose.

Acorn Hill’s production facility is housed in a spanking new barn located at 5941 Route 209. When the BSP visited recently, four sleek-looking floppy-eared goats stood in the “milking parlor,” contentedly chewing grain and receiving strokes and pats from their humans as they were milked by machine.

“I love goats. I tell people I support my goat habit by making cheese,” Henion joked. She came by her “habit” while studying herbal medicine with famed herbalist Susan Weed, who kept goats.

“A baby goat fell asleep in my lap, and it was a slippery slope from there! They're amazing creatures,” she said. “They look you in the eye, they know their names … they're affectionate. They're the only creatures I know besides cats that will rub up against you, or put their head against your shoulder while you're sitting out in the pasture with them. They're really observant. If we were to move something in this room, they’d be suspicious because something had changed… They know what they want, and they will try to get it by any means. They remember where the grain can is. They figure out how to get the lid off and show their friends. Like 3-year-old children.”

Currently, Henion and Aleah Rose produce “whole goat’s milk yogurt, Greek-style feta, chevre [typical semisoft goat cheese], and the ricotta that won gold at the State Fair. We also sell goat-milk fudge. That was one of the ways I raised money to build my previous facility.” (Fudge is a “home kitchen” item, and can be made and sold without the need for special equipment.) “My garage in Walker Valley was the smallest cheese-production unit in the state for a while!” (Walker Valley is a hamlet on the other side of the Shawangunks, downhill from Cragsmoor.)

The mother/daughter team moved to Kerhonkson in 2018 to take advantage of the opportunity provided by Arrowhead Farm, formerly the Davis Farm. Arrowhead is a farm “project” engineered by Northeast Farm Access, a nonprofit that brings together investors with farmers who need land. NEFA “finds the land and finds farmers who would be a good fit for the property. They find investors who buy the property and add any improvements [that are needed], and then lease it to the farmers,” explained Henion. Typically a long-term, 30-year lease is offered. “It gets farmers on land,” a huge benefit to an area like the Rondout Valley where land has become such a pricey commodity. “Land is not accessible, and a facility like this is a very expensive proposition,” she said. The new barn, financed by NEFA investors as part of Arrowhead Farm, has given the business the space it needed to expand and has the potential to contain more equipment.

“The primary piece of equipment we use making our fresh cheeses is our combination vat pasteurizer/cheese vat,” Henion explained. “We make all our cheeses in small batches no greater than 40 gallons. Our wheels of cheese are pressed in our Dutch lever press, which can press up to 32 four-pound wheels or 24 eight-pound wheels of cheese at a time. The only other major piece of equipment we use is our bucket milking system that allows us to milk four goats at a time. Everything else we do by hand, including hand-rolling our chevre logs and filling our other containers.”

Many local farmers set up side businesses or have day jobs in addition to their income from farm products. “With dairy farming, it’s so labor-intensive that to have a side job – there's only so many hours in the day!" said Henion. “Cow farming has its own issues … the government sets the price for a hundredweight of milk,” which sometimes doesn't cover the cost of production. Cheese is a “value-added” product, so it can generate more profit than milk.

Henion and Aleah Rose currently have around 80 goats. “That includes our babies from this year. Our goal is to [be] milking 100 goats.” The herd is mostly Nubians, a breed that originated in North Africa. “They produce a very rich milk.”

You may believe that goats will eat anything, but, said Henion, "that's a myth,” although “they'll put everything in their mouths, like a toddler will, to explore the world.” It is not a myth that they will eat poison ivy, however. “They love poison ivy. A lot of the things that people want to get rid of, goats like to eat. So they’ve been used for land clearing … My daughter is keeping a couple of baby boy goats each year, and she’s putting together a small herd that she can hire out” for that purpose. “We had a lot of poison ivy on our other property, and we opened up a section [to the goats], and within 10 days it was gone, we never saw it again.” Apparently a diet of poison ivy doesn't affect the animals’ milk. In fact, some people believe that drinking it can act as protection against the rash, based on the theory that a little exposure will help the body to develop an immunity.

Henion and Aleah Rose strive to make their operation “as organic as possible, which means that we avoid medicine,” Henion said. They keep a flock of ducks for parasite control and buy their feed grain from Vermont farmers, not organic but “the closest we can get and keep our prices reasonable,” a difficult task if they were to pay for certified organic feed.

“Right now we’re not making hard cheeses, but we anticipate doing that…and then I make a Drunken Goat, it's a wheel of cheese that is soaked in wine periodically so that the rind is purple. We'll hopefully be doing that next year when we get back into the hard cheeses.” They’ll be applying for a raw-milk permit when they feel ready to expand. They also offer day-long cheesemaking workshops, set up in advance so that people can learn all the steps of the weekslong process, and take home a cheese the same day. “It’s not cheap – but you learn a lot.”

Henion is very happy to have moved into the Rondout Valley from the “other side of the mountain.” She feels that she’s part of a real network of like-minded individuals. “There’s such a community of farmers in this area,” she said. “And they talk to each other!” Arrowhead Farm itself has several other farmers on its 270 acres and is still open to applications.

Henion expects eventually to pass Acorn Hill on to her daughter. Aleah Rose, 22, has been around goats since she was a toddler. Like her mother, she loves them.

“It's definitely a hard job but … the reward of getting to spend so much time with these wonderful animals – spiritually, it's so intensely rewarding, if you have a passion for it,” she said. “You're not going to get rich farming, but it's never really about the money. It's being able to experience the whole range of everything that farming brings, seeing an animal born and experiencing its whole life. I wouldn't want to do anything else,” Aleah Rose said.

Acorn Hill Farms products are available locally at the High Falls Food Coop, Rosendale Farmers Market (on Sundays in season), the Rondout Valley Organics CSA, and Barthel’s Farm Market in Ellenville (Barthel’s closes after Thanksgiving). Also, said Henion, “people can contact us directly and set a time to come by. Our goal is, within the next few weeks, to open for a few hours on Saturdays.”

For more information about Acorn Hill Farm events and products, go to acornhillfarmny.com or visit the farm’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/acornhillfarmNY.

To make an appointment, write to acornhillfarmny@gmail.com.

 

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