If you think goat cheese is just the soft, crumbly stuff that comes in a log at the grocery store, you’re missing out on a whole wide world of tasty cheese. Anything you can make from cow milk, you can also make from goat milk, and that’s what has kept Marianne Smith of Langley’s Milner Valley Cheese busy for two decades.
What started as just a couple goats and a long-time hobby turned into a full-time, family-owned goat-cheese-making operation on 50 acres of historic Langley farmland about six years ago. Marianne and her husband Glenn are the fourth generation of Smiths living on the family’s farmland, which Glenn’s great-grandfather bought in the 1880s from the Hudson’s Bay Company, which owned the land as part of Fort Langley. The couple’s two sons, Brad and Gregg, are the fifth generation of Smiths living and working on the land.
Back in the early 90s, Marianne and Glenn sold off the farm’s herd of dairy cows, but still wanted some animals on the land, so they got a couple goats. Pretty soon the herd began to grow. In her spare time, Marianne would use the milk they collected from the goats to make cheese.
Eventually, Marianne and Glenn decided they wanted to do something more with the farm to celebrate its rich heritage. They decided to take Marianne’s cheese making to the next level. So about six years ago, she left her job as a conveyancer secretary and dedicated herself to learning the trade and starting a new business.
First, she headed east to the University of Guelph to learn about cheese making. After that, she took a course with a cheese maker and then took more courses at the University of Washington. Then she had to get a dairy processing license through a program at BCIT.
“It’s one thing to make cheese in your kitchen, but it’s totally different when you’re using a 750-litre vat,” she says.
They built a new milking parlour on the farm as well as a processing area and a shop. It took about four years to get everything in place and they’ve been operating full-time now for six years.
It was a big leap of faith, to say the least.
“Most people are retiring at our age,” Marianne says. “For us it was just always burning in the back of our minds. We wanted to do this. You know how you have a dream but you’re almost too scared to do it, but if you don’t do it, you’ll kick yourself later on in life that you didn’t do it simply because you were too afraid? We took a leap of faith—just go for it, and if we fall on our face, we fall on our face. But at least we can say we tried.”
And it has paid off. Marianne makes a variety of goat cheese products, including chèvre, feta, curds, Colby, caerphilly and their specialty Milner Jack, which comes in different flavours. In the summer, they also make goat milk gelato.
Milner Valley Cheese’s cow-free dairy options have been a hit with customers who have difficulty processing the protein in cow milk. While goat milk does contain lactose, it doesn’t contain a particular type of casein protein found in cow milk, which some people are sensitive or allergic to, so it can be a lot easier for the body to digest.
“We’re really surprised at the number of customers who can’t do traditional cow milk,” Marianne says. “And we have the best customers. They’ve been really good to us, and it’s nice to see the same people back over and over.”
Despite the growth, it’s still a tight-knit family affair. Marianne and Glenn’s sons Brad and Gregg are grown up now but still very much involved in the farm. Brad (photographed) has just graduated from university with a business degree and is handling the milking this summer. Gregg is studying agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan and helps out with the website and farmers’ markets. Even Glenn’s mother helps out in the shop twice a week.
The Smiths currently have 76 goats that they milk twice a day—at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. Goats aren’t like other farm animals like cows or sheep. Partly because of their size (“You have a problem with a goat, you can just pick it up and deal with it. A cow, not so much,” Marianne says), but also because of their quirky personalities.
“When we milk, there’s one that you know is going to turn her whole body around when she’s finished. There’s another one that will turn her head and wait, wait, wait… she will not eat her grain until you put the machine on her. Another one, she always has to be first in the line. They come in 12 at a time and this one is always number one. There’s another one who is always the last one to come in,” she laughs.
The goats are milked between April and December. They get a break when their milk naturally dries up between January and February. In March they have their babies (a.k.a. kids).
Visitors are welcome at the farm during shop hours (see below). You’re free to take a self-guided wander around the property where you can watch the goats out in the field (if it’s not raining – they hate rain) and take a peek into the milking barn and the processing plant (visit at 5 p.m. to catch the milking in action!). There is also a llamaca (a llama/alpaca cross-breed), a donkey and some sheep at the farm. In the shop, you can buy the farm’s own cheese products, gelato (in the summer) as well as lamb, eggs, honey, goat milk soap and other local products.
“Come and see the animals, see where we milk, see where we make the cheese and then come into the shop for samples,” Marianne says. “We always have samples.”
Experience Milner Valley Cheese
Visit the farm and farmgate shop at 21479 Smith Crescent in Langley from Tuesday to Friday between 1 and 5:30 p.m. or Saturdays between 11 am and 5:30 p.m.
Pick up some cheese at the family stand at the White Rock and Ambleside (West Vancouver) farmers’ markets (alternate Sundays).
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