There was a time, Kyle Payne says, when selling goat cheese in Alabama was “like selling grits in New York City.”No more.Today, Bulger Creek Farm’s goat cheeses — and its goat milk soap — are the toast of Pepper Place, the popular Birmingham farmers market where farm-fresh products have become a status symbol of sorts.”It’s a social thing to have goat cheese all year,” says Kyle’s wife, Melanie. “It’s almost like they tell each other, ‘I have more goat cheese than you have.’ They’ll bring their dogs in strollers, and the dogs will have on their little outfits, sunglasses and caps. It’s amazing.”The Paynes can laugh about how the much-maligned goat has become so fashionable in the marketplace, but back on their 80-acre farm in Notasulga, goats are serious business and lots of hard work. With about 100 Nubian and Saanen goats roaming the hilly pastures of their farm in north Macon County, the Paynes strive to control the taste of their goat cheese by carefully guarding the goat herd’s environment.”Whatever they eat and smell can flavor their milk,” Kyle said. “Even just being around the billy goats (or bucks) can taint the flavor of their milk. If you haven’t had some of the stout-tasting goat cheese, you may not know what to compare it to. But ours has none of that ‘goaty’ taste to it. We not only keep the bucks down the road to prevent that, but we watch what we feed them because their diet has a lot to do with the flavor of the milk.”That diet consists of alfalfa and peanut hay, and a special dairy feed developed by Dr. Sandra Solaiman of Tuskegee University.In addition, the Paynes regularly clean out the barn facilities to reduce odors that can affect the flavor of the milk. “We’re more open range,” said Kyle. “I’ve actually shut them out of the barns to make them stay out in more open areas.”In return, about 36 dairy goats keep the milk cans overflowing.
“We tried a lot of different things to see what to do with all this milk,” said Kyle. “We drank it. We made goat milk ice cream. We made goat milk fudge. We made cheesecakes to order. We made cheese. We made soap. We’ve only been licensed since 1998, but we were making cheese for ourselves in the late 1980s.”Before long, the Paynes began to realize the goats could be their ticket to retirement, he from his job as a math teacher at Beauregard High School and she as nutrition director for the Lee County School System.”She’s three years from retirement and I’m seven, and we got to thinking, ‘Well, let’s start pursuing this dairy thing, and see if we can grow into it. Maybe it’ll grow big enough by the time we retire that it’ll replace what income we lose,'” said Kyle.The Paynes converted part of their country home into a large cheese processing room, where Kyle uses a homemade press to crank out a variety of goat cheeses — plain, veggie-style, pecan and dessert-flavor. The wheel-shaped cheeses fetch $3.50 for a four-ounce container and $6 for an eight-ounce container. All but the pecan wheels also come in a one-pound size for $10.Meanwhile, in a room above the milking parlor, Melanie cranks out bars of goat milk soap in a variety of scents — wildflower, rose petal, citronella lemongrass, peppermint, tea tree and lavender. She says their unscented soap is popular with deer hunters, but is also good for the skin and hair. The soaps sell for $4 a bar or three bars for $10.The Paynes first envisioned a small storefront at their farm, maybe even adding a winery to complement their goat cheese sales. Instead, they tried establishing a sales route, making a weekly loop around the Gulf Coast area to deliver goat cheese and cheesecakes to 13 tea rooms and restaurants scattered around Bay Minette, Foley, Fairhope, Magnolia Springs, Gulf Shores, Perdido Key and Pensacola. The 12-hour roundtrip culminated in a mad dash back home to milk the goats again. “In Gulf Shores, we’d buy us a to-go meal at Subway and go to the beach and eat our lunch just so we could actually say we’d been to the beach,” said Melanie with a laugh.Before long, the trips began to take a toll. “We had quite a few customers down there, but what aggravated me was they wouldn’t call you and tell you when they’re out (of stock),” said Kyle. “I can’t understand why somebody would have a product that’s selling and wouldn’t call you to restock.”Then the Paynes turned their attention to farmers markets, and found their calling. Now, they hit three markets a week — the new Depot Farmers Market in Opelika on Tuesdays, Auburn’s Ag Heritage Park on Thursdays and Pepper Place on Saturdays.
In addition, other vendors order their products for farmers markets in Tuscumbia, Alex City and Montgomery’s East Chase. And their cheese can still be found in select grocery stores and restaurants.”Kyle and Melanie have proven that small family farms still have a place in today’s world,” said Mitt Walker, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Meat Goat & Sheep Division. “The goat industry in Alabama continues to grow, and it’s because of producers like the Paynes finding ways to supply products that are in high demand. Whether it is dairy goats, meat goats, or show goats, the goat industry has found a home in Alabama, and niche markets like this are where the industry excels.” Building a reputation as “the goat cheese people,” the Paynes now unfurl their bright yellow Bulger Creek Farm banner at the farmers markets and wait for the customers to come to them.”The marketing was the hardest part because we’d stress over whether we were spinning our wheels and wasting our lives,” said Melanie. “But now, the markets are fun. We have friends all over because of our goat cheese … I don’t think we’ll ever do the storefront and winery now because we are doing what we need to with the cheese.” That much is obvious. Last year, Bulger Creek sold almost 3,000 pounds of goat cheese and 1,200 bars of soap. They’re on track to far exceed that in 2006, breaking sales records in their first two weeks of this year’s Pepper Place market.
Melanie says their booth at the farmers markets draw a wide range of customers — from those who’ll never taste it to those who’ll use it in a recipe they saw on a food channel, and to those who buy it just because it’s the chic thing to do.Oh, and there’s one other customer type — a Chicago talk show host named Oprah.Melanie said Winfrey has sent requests for Bulger Creek’s goat cheese four times. “Art (Smith), Oprah’s chef, just loved it,” said Melanie. “He sent me an email saying something like, ‘This is fabulous!'”Now that’s chic. For more information, visit www.bulgercreekfarm.com.