By Mary Jane Fine / Photos by Jeffery Lilly
This life – tending goats, milking goats, making cheese from goats’ milk – was not the life Paul Trubey intended for himself. Back in Massachusetts, he was a clinical social worker, and hospice care was his profession. He expected it to be his life’s career. That life took an unexpected detour two decades ago when his partner Mark Pearsall, the man he later would marry, accepted a job in Connecticut teaching high school Latin.
Such an abrupt life-shift might have unmoored the best of us. It did no such thing to Trubey. Uprooted from his home and removed from the career path of his choice, he immersed himself in his new surroundings and undertook the challenge of learning a new trade. That meant an apprenticeship on a goat farm in South Glastonbury owned by a colleague of Pearsall’s, an on-the-job training regimen he never could have, or would have, envisioned for himself. He launched a licensed dairy there in 1998 with just a dozen goats. Little time passed before the Fresh Chevre from their milk won national recognition: a First Place award at the national American Cheese Society competition.
On a recent afternoon, when the calendar said winter but the air decidedly said spring, Trubey was recalling all that as he pointed to a small shed on his 22-acre Beltane Farm in Lebanon. “See that green door? Open it,” he said. “You’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
The pleasant surprise had five small noses, then seven, then 11, as the door opened wide and, ultimately, spilled out 20 very small goats: white ones, tan ones, brown ones, black-and-white ones, brownish ones with black stockings and black stripes along their spine. They kicked and jumped and pranced and leapt – four-footed acrobats, frenzied little dancers performing Nijinsky jetés all around the structure Trubey calls the Baby House.
Spring is kidding season and, to date, some 60 kids had been born, a fraction of the usual 160 or so that arrive between early March and early May. And every year, during those months many people visit the farm for cheese tasting, baby goat visiting, and farm touring. (An outbreak of e-coli at another Lebanon dairy farm in March of this year did not affect Beltane. “The affected farm is not associated with us,” Trubey says. “Separate farm. Different operation completely.”)
“The seasonality is what I like here,” Trubey was saying. “It’s breeding season in the fall. Winter is the quiet time, getting the goats ready for birthings in the spring. The cycle is kind of grounding . . . something about living close to the land . . . It resonates with something deep inside me.”
As the tiny goats – the smallest, called Whisper, is not much bigger than a large house cat – bounded about, Trubey looked on in obvious delight.
“There’s so much life in the spring,” he said, “and they’re so full of life.”
The rhythms of farm life – being up at 3 in the morning when the kids are being born, being up at 4 when the hay is delivered – all of that, has become part of his life. And this has been a good year so far, with no losses of newborns. It’s been a season of many triplets and more doe births than buck births – “and it’s universal across the region when it happens,” Trubey says. Only Mother Nature knows why.
The cycle is also non-stop. In the beginning, Trubey worked solo. Later, farm interns stayed on as part-time or full-time regulars, and Trubey put himself in charge of the cheese-tasting and the farm’s planning, buying and problem-solving. These days, things are easier with a few employees to handle the milking and the making of cheese. “I was here for nine-and-half-hours on Friday,” says former intern Eve Grello. “I was milking, feeding, making cheese, feeding, milking – and then we delivered five (kids). Oh, it was very crazy.”
Less crazy is another portion of the cycle: May-to-October Farmers Market season when much of Beltane Farm cheese is sold. (Cheese-making is an ancient process developed thousands of years ago by nomadic cultures as a way to preserve food – milk, in this case – without refrigeration. Historians presume the process was an accidental discovery, made when people ate the solid bits from curdled milk that, most likely, had been kept in bags made from animal stomachs.)
Beyond ushering in the farm-market season, May has a special significance at Beltane Farm: Trubey and Pearsall married in May of 2004 – and two years earlier, on May 1 of 2002, they’d bought their own property, moved the operation to Lebanon and named it Beltane Farm – Trubey’s first goat, Mattie, is buried here, beneath a plaque in her memory – Beltane being the anglicized name for the Gaelic May Day festival, often celebrated midway between the spring equinox and summer solstice. And, since both Trubey and Pearsall come from Irish stock, the name had a meant-to-be quality.
The partners had assistance with their nascent venture. The state Department of Agriculture contributed 75 percent of the $150,000 purchase price; other contributions came from the Connecticut Farmland Trust and the Town of Lebanon.
“Beltane Farm is a prime example of a smaller enterprise whose value-added products make a strong contribution to the agricultural economy,” Agriculture Commissioner Steven K. Reviczky said, at the time, in a prepared statement. “Protecting these kind of working lands is exactly why the Community Farms Preservation Program was created.”
The Program is a farm-protection program designed to keep small farms by ensuring traditional land use and keeping the land in private ownership. “Paul and Mark have worked hard to turn Beltane Farm into a productive goat dairy and Ag-Tourism destination,” Lebanon First Selectman Joyce R. Okonuk said at the time. “The town supports their efforts and hopes that their success here will draw more new farmers into our community.”
Trubey’s original 12 goats soon had kids of their own and, over time, Beltane Farm’s herd has grown to 85 milking goats; a half-dozen males, called bucks; some yearlings, not yet old enough to milk; and a few older goats, past their milking prime. The farm sells baby goats every year ($10 for a week-old kid, the price increasing as they age), and by mid-March of this year – “there’s so much demand,” Trubey says, “and that wasn’t the case at first” – a few dozen already had been sold.
Trubey knows the names and personalities of each one: some Oberhasli, some La Mancha, some Saanen goats and some a mixture of those.
“That goat going by is Limerick,” he says, nodding at a fat doe. “She’s 17. The usual life expectancy is 10 or 12. She’s retired.”
He points out Nester and Geronimo and Pilgrim and Lizzie Hayes and Parasol and Wallenda Junior, the latter a nod to the Flying Wallendas of circus fame because she can climb the cyclone fence and somehow balance on its topmost edge.
“I enjoy spending time with the goats,” he says. “They’re full of personality. I love hanging out with them.”
Schmoozing with the goats seems a particular delight for farm visitors, as well – and for some more than others. A favorite story is the visit by a quintet of women in their 70s. Trubey had pointed out an enclosure of bucks and the doe gazing raptly at them, tail twitching. “That goat is in heat,” he explained. “We’ll breed them later.” Could he, the women asked, breed them now, so they could watch?
Well, uh, sure.
The buck and doe were brought center stage, whereupon nature took its course. The women formed a semi-circle around the randy twosome.
“So, the buck is humping the doe,” Trubey says, “and the women are pumping their fists and chanting, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ And then, a mother comes around the corner with her young daughter . . .”
The mother’s mouth dropped open. She hooked an arm around her little girl’s shoulders, about-faced them both and hurried away. There was to be no birds-and-bees – or goats-and-goats – lesson that day.
“There’s a reason for the saying, ‘Randy as a goat,’” Trubey says, and laughs.
Few Beltane Farm tours are as theatrical. Most visitors are content to wander, admire and spend some time in the Tasting Shed, where (on Sundays in April and May, and October-through-December from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) they can sample a variety of goat cheeses and a Greek-style yogurt.
“It’s kind of nice because you get people who have been coming here for a long time,” Trubey says, proffering a plastic container of Danse de la Lune, a French-style ripened cheese with a Brie rind, “and then people who’ve never been here before and want to come again every year.”
And every year, during the months of April and May, many people visit the farm for cheese tasting, baby goat visiting, farm touring. On this early-season day, farm employees Ed Chipman and Rachel Zupnick are bottle-feeding the babies with pasteurized goat milk, a not-so-easy task; Whisper resists taking the bottle’s nipple. “You’re too nice,” Chipman tells Zupnick, cupping the little goat’s chin firmly until she clamps on. Bottle feeding has a dual purpose: It prevents the possibility of CAE (Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis), which can be transmitted from a mama goat’s milk and it produces friendly, easy-to-handle goats. Sated and done, for the moment with frolic, they retreat one-by-one to the corner – and nap.
As for the idea that goats will eat anything, including tin cans: not so. They’re really quite particular. They like alfalfa hay. They like green plants. And, says Trubey, “They LOVE invasive species So, multiflora rose. Wild grapes.”
Another thing that goats love: people.
“They’re very loyal,” Trubey says. “Milagro, when she sees me and Mark take our evening walk, she’ll be sure to be around and go with us. She had to spend a lot of time with us in the house when she was little because she had an arthritic condition and was paralyzed. We fed her with a tube and walked her around. She’s a house goat. She learned to open the latch on the kitchen door and, first thing I know, there’s high-heel sounds in the kitchen.”
It was a lesson: Goats are smart, smarter than dogs. They’re also curious. They hate getting wet and will go airborne over a puddle rather than wade through it. They’ll come when called if they like and trust you. They’re subject to boredom and loneliness if left by themselves.
Some or all of those traits may be on display on June 4 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., when Beltane Farm hosts one of the region’s French Open Markets, a day of food and crafts – about 30 vendors, Trubey says – and tours and the opportunity to see a working goat farm.
“This is really a family farm,” Trubey says. “The newborn goats sometimes stay in the house for a couple of days, so our kitchen becomes a neo-natal station for drying and warming. We have a very forgiving housekeeper. I say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and she says, ‘It’s OK.’”
Visit them online at: http://beltanefarm.com