At A Glance
Dancing Winds Farm
Summary of Operation
• 36-goat dairy herd rotationally
grazed on eight acres
• Chevre, soft-ripened
cheese, low-salt feta
• Pasture and mixed alfalfa
hay on some 10 acres
• Bed & breakfast “educational
labor. Mary Doerr’s goat
cheese found such a ready market in the food co-ops,
restaurants and farmers markets of the Twin Cities
area that the operation grew to a level she —
and the farm itself — could no longer handle.
She took a year off and returned to scale back
the dairy, develop part of her house as a farm
guest retreat and create more balance in her life.
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission.
Pp. 17 to 19
For complete text or to order: www.sare.org/newfarmer
To contact SARE:
Phone (301) 504-6425
Fax (301) 504-5207
in Cheese: Mary Doerr produces cheese from
goats raised in a 21-paddock management intensive
Mary Doerr’s 20-acre farm is located
in rolling, fertile farmland about an hour south of the Twin
Cities. When she and a partner first bought the farm in 1986,
their original vision was to raise organic vegetables and
fruit. A few months after their arrival, Doerr acquired three
pregnant goats. The goats, called does, gave birth, or “kidded”
the following May. Doerr soon realized that they needed to
learn to do something with the considerable quantity of milk
besides drink it. She and her partner began making cheese.
Doerr says the name she chose for the farm, “Dancing
Winds Farm,” reflects her desire to find a friendly
and congenial spirit, like the frolic and play of happy goats,
in the almost constant winds of the open prairie.
Focal Point of Operation —
Scaling back and adding value
Doerr first learned how to make fresh chevre by reading books
on cheesemaking and by trial and error. “I fed a lot
of mistakes to the pigs” that she raised in some years
for her own consumption, “but I gradually worked out
how to produce commercial quantities of a cheese I liked.”
She took a sample to the co-op distributor who was buying
some of their vegetables. The buyer liked the cheese and offered
to take all they could make.
The following spring, a barn fire nearly wiped out the young
operation. They rebuilt, replacing the old three-story, 60
by 100-foot barn with a smaller barn more suitable for goats,
along with a cheese room. As they had been advised, they involved
their dairy inspector in the design process.
“We got both good advice and a more efficient approval
process,” Doerr says. They received a Grade A dairy
license. The high sanitation grade — required for fluid
milk but not cheese-making — turned out to be good for
They took advantage of bargain-basement prices for used equipment
they found after corporations or developers bought out small
dairy farms. “There was lots of good stainless steel
equipment going for a song,” Doerr says. “We bought
vat pasteurizers, a bulk tank, sinks and counters. We were
able to outfit the cheese room for a miniscule amount.”
She further pursued her education as a cheesemaker by visiting
a goat cheese dairy in Wisconsin, and by taking Wisconsin’s
intensive, five-day cheese-making licensing class, even though
Minnesota had no licensing requirement. The barn was finished
in June, the operation was up and running in August, and by
December 1987, the kinks were out. The cheese made its debut
on the market.
By 1992, Dancing Winds Farm was selling chevre to all 14 Twin
Cities food co-ops, eight restaurants and both Twin Cities
farmers markets. The partnership had dissolved and Doerr was
now a sole proprietor with eight part-time helpers. They were
milking 38 goats and making 400 pounds of cheese a week in
the 20 feet by 20 feet cheese room. They were milking year-round
and buying half the milk they needed off the farm.
“By the fall of 1994, I was burned out,” Doerr
recalls. “I questioned the quality of life, becoming
a slave to a crazy schedule.”
She also questioned the environmental impacts of producing
that much. The operation needed to dispose of whey, a natural
byproduct heavy with nutrients. When she was producing a lot
of cheese, the quantity of whey became too much to land-spread
or feed to the pigs. Doerr also was concerned about the quality
of the milk she bought off-farm.
Doerr took a year’s sabbatical in 1995 to re-assess
the business. She stopped breeding the goats and had two people
take care of the herd while she traveled and tried to figure
out what she wanted. She also worked in a bakery and fixed
up the part of the house that would eventually become the
bed-and-breakfast’s guest quarters. The original homestead
of a quarter section of land, the farm included a picturesque,
many-gabled house, built in 1896 with additions in 1910 and
After that year, “I realized that being my own boss
still appealed to me, that I loved goats and enjoyed making
cheese, but the size had gotten out of scale,” she says.
She sold off part of the herd, holding on to her 12 best does.
She decided she would only sell direct to consumers and through
just one farmers market. She switched to seasonal milking.
She stopped buying milk and was able to recycle the reduced
quantities of whey by feeding it to the pigs or spreading
it on the pasture.
Economics and Profitability
Scaling back has not reduced the operation’s profitability.
“Selling direct is a win-win situation for both you
and the consumer, as well as a satisfying relationship,”
Doerr says. “I had been wholesaling for $4 a pound,
but I could retail for $16 a pound. I could make more money
making 100 pounds a week than I had on 400 pounds, because
I wasn’t buying milk.”
Seasonal milking also made economic sense because winter production
is both more expensive and more likely to promote udder complications.
Specialty cheese sales slack off after New Year’s Day
and pick up again at Valentine’s Day. Now she milks
to just before Christmas, kids the first week or two of March,
then makes cheese April through December. This schedule allows
her to undertake international projects for Land o’
Lakes, giving her both supplemental income and more balance
in her life.
As she scaled back the dairy, the new “educational farm
retreat,” as the state of Minnesota calls it, was taking
shape. She returned it to its original state, which was a
two-family house, with one half as a guest quarters. The change
created another opportunity to add value to existing resources
— bringing guests willing to pay to stay at a working
For its first three years, the guesthouse operated at a loss.
Now, she is finishing the last capital improvement in her
plan — a picturesque farm pond. The operation is hitting
its stride and beginning to provide significant income. Doerr
charges $289 for a two-night weekend stay, usually to young
families. In 2000, she rented the quarters for 180 nights,
and even turned away a few would-be guests when she wanted
a break from hosting duties. Doerr always provides breakfast
featuring milk and cheese from the farm, and eggs, preserves
and bread from neighboring farms.
“They can be as private or as sociable as they please,”
Doerr says of her guests. “They can become involved
in farm activities if they want to and have a peaceful experience
in the country on a pleasant farm.”
The farm has much to show in terms of sustainable production.
Her 10-acre hay field, originally planted in alfalfa, now
contains a mix of other plants as well. Bluegrass, quack grass
and timothy have crept in; rye, birdsfoot trefoil and clover
have been interseeded. Doerr’s fields have been in continuous
forage for 12 years, with only one disking in 1993 to put
in oats and a pasture mix.
“My neighbors would say it is time to plow it up,”
Doerr says, “but the organic matter is still very high,
and it’s producing quality forage, with diversity and
a minimum of compaction.”
In the pasture she practices rotational grazing, an ideal
system for goats. She has 21 very small paddocks divided with
electro-netting, and rotates the animals daily in a three-week
rotation. “They want diversity of forage, though you
can get great production on straight alfalfa,” she says.
“They actually like thistles and cockleburs!”
Her farmland could be certified as organic, but the feed she
currently uses is not organic. In the early years, she was
able to acquire organic grain, but lost her storage facilities
when the local feed dealership changed hands. Recently acquiring
a bulk bin now makes creating and storing a custom mix a possibility.
Her veterinary care emphasizes natural remedies and limited
use of antibiotics. She strengthens the goats’ immune
systems with vitamin therapies and gives antibiotics only
for high fevers and life-threatening illnesses. For 10 years,
she was able to control internal parasites with natural wormers,
garlic oil capsules and wormwood powder, testing the herd
each spring. In the last few years, as the worm load has increased,
she has had to turn to chemical wormers. She now tests and
worms the does as needed, perhaps twice a year.
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
Doerr is finding increasing satisfaction in her role as host
and a gentle spokesperson for sustainable agriculture. Her
“educational farm retreat” is a perfect opportunity
to both show and tell her visitors, often from non-farming
backgrounds, what sustainable agriculture is about. By buying
and featuring products from local producers at the guest quarters,
she introduces non-farmers to local agriculture.
After 15 years in operation, she also has something to show
her farming neighbors and visitors, including the overseas
producers she occasionally hosts for Land o’Lakes.
“My neighbors go out of their way to tell me they are
using less chemicals now,” she says. “Like me,
they are trying to get to a less costly way of farming.”
Producers wanting to try alternatives should be prepared to
buck the status quo, Doerr says. They may get some strange
stares from their neighbors, but the uniqueness of a new venture
will likely pay off.
“There’s a strong community pressure to have your
farm look a certain way — you’re not a successful
farmer unless you have clean fields and the newest equipment,”
Doerr says. “Look at the options, and let new ideas
in. You have to break away from the pack somehow.”
She has a message for new farmers as well: “Start small,
and, if at all possible, apprentice in many different types
of farms before you start. I got into this too fast. It takes
some discipline to take it slow, but you’re better off
in the long run.”
As she looks to the future, Doerr continues to seek balance
in her life. She’d like to concentrate on the bed-and-breakfast
and on making the soft-ripened cheese, but let go of some
of the physical work of farming.
Her operation will remain “holistic,” with every
piece important to the whole. For example, the guesthouse
wouldn’t be nearly as successful if the farm were not
a genuine working dairy.