Monday, June 20, 2011

Victory Hill Farm in Scottsbluff, Nebraska

Sarah in barn with baby goat.
There are only five other cheese makers in the state and they are all over 7 hours away!

Sarah and Lee Pinet raise goats and make artisan, farmstead cheese which they sell at their farm and at local farmer's markets.  They learned how to do all this in western Nebraska, far from any classes or mentors or even any other goat dairies.  So, they did a lot of traveling.  In fact, Ricki actually met Sarah last winter at the Annual Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference in California.

Victory Hill Farm is a place where you can watch the goats being milked and the cheese being made through viewing windows.  Sarah is currently making gouda, feta, fresh mozzarella, chevre and various flavors of chevre.  You can see pictures and read about her cheeses at their website-

They say if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.  Sarah makes all the cheese herself and she is raising 3 youngsters as well.

Sarah is about as busy as it gets and, sure enough, she found the time to answer my questions: 

Baby goats nursing on bucket.  (All kids are bottle fed.)
How did you end up with goats?

I got my first goat as a child to keep my horse company. I grew up on some of the original homestead property of my great great grandparents in Western Nebraska. This farm is on the edge of town and we had horses, chickens, pigs, goats, rabbits, cats, and dogs. I was in 4-H and hated selling my pigs so I started showing that first horse-companion goat so that I could "re-show" her a couple of years in a row.

Milkers lined up on ramp to milk room.
The herd grew to 6 head and then I got out of goats in my teens. Skip ahead about 10 years. My "career" as a zookeeper came to an end with the birth of my first child (I didn't intend on staying home but just couldn't hand her over to someone else).

We bought a milking doe off a radio call- in program. She had terrible udder attachments but a great personality and super feet. We've always liked the idea of being self-sufficient and I guess my husband thought I needed something to do besides take care of a newborn.

Milking parlor.

I like to blame our goat herd (AKA goat hoard) on him since the first goat was his idea. I milked this doe once a day for 2 1/2 years before drying her up and buying a buck and 3 other does.

All of our current herd is traced back to these 4 foundation does and after 10 years of dairying we will be milking around 50 head this year. Luckily the good feet and personality had stronger genes than the udder attachment issues!

We use purebred quality bucks on our hybrid does. The herd is registered as Experimental with ADGA. Using various breeds of purebred bucks we have really increased the milk production and conformation of the herd but have kept the hybrid vigor. So far this year our DHIR numbers are looking really good. We are shooting for each doe to milk at least a gallon and a good portion are doing that and more.

Making cheddar at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
How did you learn to make cheese?

I am so isolated out here so I've had to learn about cheesemaking by traveling long distances and by lengthy phone conversations as well as just diving in and doing it. The best mentors I've had are three of the other cheesemakers in Nebraska (Shadowbrook Farm, Branched Oak Farm, and Greenglade). They are all over 7 hours away from me!

Wheels of gouda.

When I was planning this business I traveled all over the country to see different operations and took ideas from each one. I'm very happy with my cheese room. I like to ask cheesemakers what their favorite thing about their cheese room is and also what they wish they could change. It helped me to avoid some problems. My dairy inspector is pleased with the layout as well.

Sarah at farmer's market.

What is your goal?

It sounds simple and obvious, but I really want the cheesemaking to pay the bills. I want to make a cheese that people love, repeatedly buy and that they tell others about. I don't know that I will win any awards with my cheese, although that would be nice.

It would be really great if this business grew enough to support some employees. I don't have any paid help right now and running a farmstead cheese operation is a ridiculous amount of work and nearly impossible when doing it solo. I'm lucky to have a handful of dedicated volunteers. Currently I am making farmstead goat cheese in 4 varieties (gouda, feta, chevre, mozzarella). I'd like to make some mixed milk cheeses and this summer I will be trying out a mixed sheep and goat Valencay style cheese.

Cheese room from viewing window.

What do you like about your cheese room and what would you change?

I saw at several places that the sinks drained right onto the floor and our inspector said that is often how it is done. I don't enjoy it. When I wash something at the sink I want the water to "go away" and not splash all over my feet. I had to retrain myself when draining canned jalapeno juice (that I mix into my chevre) that it doesn't make much sense to drain it in the sink, instead I need to drain it into the floor drain.

Milk room with purple bulk tank.

Another thing is the lights, we have jar lights and they are very waterproof but hard to change a light bulb in. There were a few items that some cheesemakers dislike about their room but we couldn't avoid the same problems. For instance, the seam in the concrete floor and the metal lip at the bottom of the sheet metal wall.

What I do like... I like the short commute to work.  Also, we colored the floors (dairy has red and cheese room has blue) and snuck color in wherever possible in the dairy (my bulk tank is purple and the mounting board for the jar assembly is orange). I got the colored floor idea from Ripshin in NC. Their whole facility is not only functional, but very beautiful too. It doesn't have to be all utilitarian, despite what the guidelines state.

Gouda in press.
I also like the long floor drain. I learned as a zookeeper that a small circular drain in the middle of the floor is a nightmare. Dreamfarm in WI has a nice long drain in the middle and I asked Diana Murphy if she was happy with it before planning that into my room.

We had to spend a lot of money on the boiler for the cheese vat and it seemed like a waste of money to only use it twice a week so we planned in radiant heat in the concrete floors. I like that there isn't any blowing air to heat the space. Unfortunately I have to use an air conditioner that does blow the air around in the summer.

We have viewing windows into the cheeseroom and milking parlor. I had seen similar things at many operations and I am glad we did that. I give a lot of tours and this way I don't have to let people into my production space.
Farm store.
 Victory Hill Farm
Scottsbluff, Nebraska


kayo said...

Love the cheese presses, we use gallon water bottles too, they make great weights.... thank you, this was a great story!

Jeri said...

Thanks, Kayo. Let's do an interview? Contact me at

Melody said...

such a lovely cheese room and dairy facility....*sigh* maybe someday I'll get to make cheese beyond my kitchen.