Visit Seal Cove Farm in Lamoine, and you will find the 120 or so goats there enjoying a leisurely lifestyle. They are milked at 5:30 a.m., and then they spend all day lying around in the barn or strolling the grounds. They chew their cuds, make milk, maybe nibble on the leaves of an ash tree, and before long they are milked again at 5 p.m. But talk to the farmers and you’ll find a very different perspective.
“We are their slaves.” said Barbara Brooks, the co-founder of the farm, in the small cheese-making facility where she and her interns work on their feet all day starting at 4 a.m. They milk the goats, process the cheese and constantly clean the pipes, tanks and dishes that allow them to milk more goats and process more cheese the next day.
On top of that, Brooks works with wholesalers, and tracks the wine market to know what cheeses will go with this season’s popular variety.
“I don’t know what it is that draws me to this,” she said.
There’s a lot of work, but the savory fruits of Brooks and her team’s labor couldn’t be tastier. Seal Cove’s prize-winning chevres, chevrotin and feta are regularly sold wholesale at fine cheese markets such as Murray’s in New York City and Fromaggio Kitchen in Boston, and their pizza (made almost entirely from ingredients grown on the farm and baked in the farm’s wood-burning oven) won Yankee magazine’s 2015 Best Pizza Al Fresco award. Not that the practically minded Brooks pays the accolades much mind.
“But things like Yankee are in the dentist’s office forever, so that’s helpful,” she said.
Being resourceful is how Brooks got involved in dairy farming. In 1976, the part-time lifeguard, swim teacher and waitress bought a Saneen doe named Jill, partly out of a love for goats and partly because it would be a nice way to have milk.
Forty years later, Brooks has grown to enjoy the complex art of cheese-making, and spending time outside is a perk, too. She sold her first goat cheese in 1981, but chevre had yet to acquire the popularity it enjoys today.
“When I started selling, the only people who really ate goat cheese were the ones who traveled in Europe,” said Brooks, who gave samples of her cheese to deli workers at Hannaford Supermarket so that they could recommend it to customers. “You had to put the product in people’s mouths. Once you did that it was good because they knew it was a good product.”
Back then, Brooks only had about 20 goats. By 1996, her herd had swelled to 80 and now, 35 years after she sold her first chevre, Brooks’ 120 goats are still making trouble whenever possible.
“Goats are opportunists,” she said. “If I’m training somebody new to milk the goats, it’s like having a substitute teacher in school.”
Yearlings will find their way outside when they’re not supposed to, and one yearling named Elaine alarmed visitors with her habit of sneaking out of the fence to munch on the leaves of an ash tree.
“Visitors would always say, ‘There’s a goat out! There’s a goat out!,’” Brooks said. “And we would say, ‘Yes, that’s just Elaine.’ They also stand around like teenagers, just hanging out.”
Getting to know the rambunctious goats is a big reason why Brooks and co-owner Lynn Ahblad enjoy having guests. From noon to 5 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, visitors can sample the farm’s fresh chevre and chevrotin (which goes great with chardonnay), and enjoy a fresh handmade pizza. Then they can hang around for a while to see how the farm works.
“What I like about it is it gives people a pause to get an idea of where their food comes from, and the work it takes to produce their food” Brooks said. “Because it’s not romantic.”
But despite the hard work and the long hours, there is one big perk that helps Brooks through the day.
“You eat well,” she said. “Most days!”