At A Glance
Dancing Winds Farm
Summary of Operation
• 36-goat dairy herd rotationally
grazed on eight acres
• Chevre, soft-ripened cheese,
• 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
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 marketing.
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
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
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 1930.
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 farm.
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
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
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
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
“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.