By Amy G. Hadachek
This story is about living a second dream job and simultaneously giving back … in life. Newly-retired from her 29-year medical practice, a central Kansas obstetrician/gynecologist is diving with vigor into her brand new career; milking goats and operating a creamery.
After delivering babies and doing gynecologic surgery in Manhattan, Kansas for nearly three decades, Suzanne Bennett, M.D. is now owner-operator of the Holy Goat Creamery three miles outside of Manhattan, and is delivering different kinds of ‘kids;’ which she fondly calls … her goats.
Her husband, also retired from a medical career, helps Bennett feed the goats each morning and evening.
Bennett is preparing to launch production of specialty goat cheeses.
“Goat cheese has a more complex flavor profile. While you can make all the same cheese types as from cow’s milk, the market for farmstead goat cheese is much better than for cow (cheese),” Bennett said.
The Holy Goat Creamery will start producing Chèvre and feta cheese, and a goat Gouda. “I built one aging room into the facility for hard cheese aging. We will start production in late May with nationally known cheese consultant Neville McNaughton from Cheezsorce in St. Louis, to help get us up and running efficiently,” Bennett said. Neville grew up on a New Zealand dairy and is empowering and educating people about developing cheeses and recipes, as well as learning cheese technology, business plans, plant layout, and sanitation and equipment design. He was also recently written about in “Feast” magazine. McNaughton admires Bennett’s work.
“Cheesemaking is biochemistry, so that I find that doctors actually make pretty good cheese … much better than engineers. Engineers may get the building right, but not so much in cheese,” McNaughton said, in his New Zealand accent. “Dr. Bennett’s legacy will be to leave something for someone who would never be able to build it. She’s invested her already earned income into something that somebody could benefit from. She has a wonderful personality,” he added.
“I’ve laid out for Dr. Bennett, a ‘make procedure;’ which is just the rules and a certain culture to dry the acid. I tell her what ‘milestones’ to hit to be on time at the right level. I’ve written it chronologically on an Excel spread sheet,” said McNaughton, who has made cheese for at least 40 years. “It’s taken me around the world. I’m probably the only domestic consultant that makes a living out of this.”
Analyzing the Market
Meanwhile, Bennett has conducted market analysis. “So, we will sell to high-end restaurants, casinos and gourmet shops in a 150-mile-radius,” Bennett explained.
Other than these specialty sales, Bennett will distribute to only two stores in town; The People’s Grocery; a local natural foods co-op, and the garden markets in Manhattan called the East Side Market and the West Side Market.
Regarding the creamery’s name, Bennett said, “I came by the name when I heard my son as a small child praying in church to the Father, Son, and Holy Goat, then, of course, there is the play off of Holy Cow.”
So, how in the world did Bennett begin to put all this together to run a creamery with no prior knowledge?
“I started this venture in 2005 when my spouse suggested I find a hobby to give me a break from the OB/GYN practice,” Bennett said. “I retired at the end of last year, as I couldn’t do the creamery and be a physician at the same time. There were just too many time constraints. The concept to raise the goats and make cheese started in 2009. The idea was that I would retire at 62.”
That plan changed, when one of Bennett’s partners was diagnosed with cancer and died last year. “So, I decided to retire sooner and enjoy the extra time she wasn’t able to.” Bennett retired from her medical career in December 2016.
“I was a physical anthropologist, then an obstetrician/gynecologist, and now the creamery. This new job is very physical, which is what I wanted. It also involves a lot of science. There’s also an art to cheesemaking,” Bennett said.
Going full-steam ahead into her new career, Bennett went to a retreat in Wisconsin, made cheese for a week and had a great time. “When I came home, I wanted to continue cheesemaking but milk was hard to come by in Kansas, especially goat’s milk. That was the moment I decided to raise the goats myself,” she said. “I just wanted to make my own cheese through a ‘mom and pop’ kind of business. But then my interest and drive kept growing, so I went to four different dairies and saw what I liked.”
With great zeal, Bennett quickly became fascinated with the cheese-making industry. While visiting the goat dairies, Bennett stayed at each — at least a full week working and learning from strong mentors. “Goat people are very willing to share their expertise.”
Sue and Noah Goddard of Goddard Farm in Lecompton, Kansas have been especially good mentors for the last several years.” Bennett also enjoyed the working vacations. “They are fun. All you have to do — is learn.” Next, she started to design, and then built the current facility based on her experience at the dairies, and expertise from McNaughton.
Bennett also worked on, and received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for value-added production. “That was a big deal. What I spend for the logo, website, labels and packaging and anything I pay into it — this grant will match those funds, which I’m putting into the development of cheese-making. My facility is state-of-the-art and I hope it can be a model for other micro dairies. We milk on a six-goat raised stanchion with a closed pipeline milking system and an automatic clean and sanitize device within the loop. I have a small lab on site and we do our own milk testing according to USDA guidelines,” said Bennett, adding, “We have just been granted Grade A status and are one of only two Grade A goat dairies in Kansas. We get inspected regularly by the USDA,” Bennett said. Although Holy Goat is not organic, Bennett says it may be — in the future.
Holy Goat Creamery has nine milking does and their 23 kids. “We are feeding bottles to the kids three times a day until they’re weaned at three months. They will be sold as breeding stock or meat,” Bennett said.
Although Bennett had dogs, cats and horses growing up, she said that she didn’t grow up on a farm. “My family is three generations off the farm. My daughter is a veterinarian and has helped me enormously. Kansas State University is here in Manhattan and so is their vet school so I have had a great deal of help from seminars and advisers but no one here specializes in dairy goats, only meat animals, so research has also been very important.”
Tours will be limited to virtual tours on the creamery’s website http://www.holygoatcreamery.com. “We won’t conduct public tours, as the cost for insurance for agritourism is very expensive and biosecurity is difficult too,” Bennett said.
Although tours are virtual, the real deal is the hands-on work to produce high-quality cheese while enjoying working with the goats that produce it.
“A lot of it is up to the animals … they can always throw you a curve,” Bennett said. “But I’m really proud of it. It’s a passion and a lifestyle.”
— Originally published in The Fence Post and www.thefencepost.com June 26, 2017.
Amy Hadachek is a freelance writer who lives on a farm with her husband in north central Kansas and is also a meteorologist and storm chaser.
Published in the September/October 2017 issue of Dairy Goat Journal.