BRANDON, Vt. -- Fluctuating milk prices have long made dairy farming a risky business, and when milk prices crashed in 2002, Chris Lekberg gave up. He sold his cows and bought goats.
It turned out to be a wise decision. He now has more than 50 goats, and with growing demand for goat cheese, he gets a steady price for their milk from a nearby cheesemaker.
While the big dairy states of Wisconsin and California have the most dairy goats, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, the industry is growing in New England as well.
Some feel it makes sense in Vermont, which has a long history of dairy farming but has seen hundreds of cow dairies go under amid low milk prices and high feed costs. While Vermont remains New England's largest fluid milk producer, it has lost 1,380 dairy farms in the past 20 years.
Nationwide, the number of dairy goats has been slowly but steadily increasing, from nearly 335,000 in 2007 to 360,000 in 2011, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. The growth reflects increases in goat cheese production seen by the American Cheese Society. Last year, fresh goat cheese was the largest category at its annual competition with 139 entries, compared to 2009 when cheddars (from any milk) were king.
Lekberg, 48, still drives a school bus, and his wife works to make ends meet, but he said he's making a profit with the goats, which he wasn't with his cows.
"It's typical farming," he said. "You're not getting rich at it. The margins are real close. You're always counting your pennies each time you do something. But we're keeping our head above water."
By selling directly to a cheesemaker in a simpler system than in regular dairy farming, he says he gets a steady price for his goat milk, about 45 cents a pound or $45 per hundred pounds. In comparison, he was getting roughly $11 per hundred pounds for his cows' milk when he bowed out in 2002, and dairy farmers now get $21 per hundred pounds.
Dairy goats produce less milk than cows, up to 3,000 pounds a year compared to 27,000 pounds from the best Holsteins, agriculture officials said. But, the feed for one cow equals the feed for seven to eight goats, making the costs a wash.
"The thing that's definitely better about this than the cows is the price stays the same so you know what you're getting per pound of milk all the time," Lekberg said.
While goats may be easier to manage than cows because of their size, they present their own challenges. Lekberg said his Alpine goats chew everything in sight, even gnawing through aluminum sheets on the walls in his barn. But, he enjoys their personality.
"They're curious," he said. "If you go in the field to try and do something while they're out there you can't do it. They're going to be sticking noses in, right there having fun."
Lekberg sells his milk to Blue Ledge Farm, an 85-goat dairy and cheesemaker in Salisbury. The 10-year-old farm has had its best years in the past two to three, said co-owner Greg Bernhardt, 34. The farm, which is on an old cow dairy farm, produces 40,000 pounds per year of chevres, Gouda-style and aged cheeses that it sells in New England and New York.
"The cheese industry is always pushing you (to produce) more and more because the market is strong," Bernhardt said.
The owners of the larger Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery in Websterville said they only get a third of their goats' milk from Vermont dairies now, but they'd like to get more so they could have more of an influence over the quality and freshness of the milk.
"We don't see long-term the sustainability of transporting milk long distances. We think it's an industry that's appropriate for Vermont and our landscape, and you know, we just see this as a great opportunity," co-owner Allison Hooper, 51, said.
The creamery could support five to 10 large dairies milking 500 goats each if the state had them, Hooper said. Vermont is now home to 26 goat dairies, including four large ones and smaller farmstead cheese operations. It also has built up an artisanal cheese industry – some of it made from goat's milk – with about 42 cheesemakers – the most per person in the country, according to the Vermont Institute for Artisan cheese.
But switching to dairy goats doesn't make sense for every farm. Trucking costs prevent some smaller operations from selling to Vermont Butter & Cheese. And, only a few Vermont cheesemakers buy milk from other goat dairies so the demand for goats' milk right now remains low compared to cows' milk.
To help goat farmers and want-to-be farmers in northeastern Vermont, a development association has hired a part-time person with a USDA grant. The goal is to increase profits by improving milk quality, reduce feed costs by having farms buy it together and encourage farmers to share information.
"You could characterize the dairy goat industry in this country as fairly undeveloped," Hooper said. "And we look to Europe, France and Holland for expertise. They have many, many more goats in Europe, much more developed industry there."