By Layne Lynch
Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo
Though it’s but an hour’s drive outside of Houston, the city of Waller bears no resemblance to the fourth-largest city in the nation. In fact, the quiet rural town is home to verdant acres of land, varied breeds of livestock and resourceful family farms. One of those agricultural operations goes by the name of Swede Farm and serves as the lifeblood and livelihood of the Carlson family. Yet the Carlsons never could have predicted how an unforeseen turn of events would transform their modest family farm into a farm that feeds families.
In July 2004, Tim and LeeAnne Carlson uprooted their suburban Houston lives and moved their brood to a fertile plot of land with the intention of cultivating crops of produce and raising herds of free-range animals. Before fully transitioning to rural life, Tim worked in pension administration while LeeAnne worked as a midwife, but as their family expanded, the couple craved a peaceful environment where their 12 homeschooled children could roam, play and thrive.
The Carlsons’ original herd of goats was started by LeeAnne as a fresh-milk-for-the-family pet project. But it’s hard to keep something as pure and refreshing as good milk a secret for very long. In 2008, Swede Farm was granted a license to produce, pasteurize, bottle and sell goat’s milk. Fast-forward to the present and the farm has become one of the most respected and talked-about participants in the Austin and Houston farmers markets. “It’s a continual work in progress because we never thought we’d be doing this,” says LeeAnne. “We started out with milk saying we’d never do cheese, and here we are doing cheese. Even a year from now, I’m almost certain our business will look nothing like it does now, but that’s the nature of this business.”
The Swede Farm herd is made up of three breeds: Alpines, Nubians and LaManchas. From this trio, the Carlsons have nurtured, nursed and created an artisanal line of products that includes plain goat’s milk, Guittard chocolate milk, yogurt, kefir, plain chèvre, flavored chèvres and scented soaps. The creamy goods have become trusted ingredients for Austin and Houston chefs like Jack Gilmore, Bryce Gilmore, Paul Qui, Justin Yu and Chris Shepherd. And even though the cheese sells more than any of the other products do, the milk will always be the foundation of the business in Tim’s eyes. “If I were following a traditional business model, I’d probably drop the milk and only sell the cheeses,” he says. “But I’m not going to do that because goat milk literally changes people’s lives. There are people who drink it for health reasons, and there are even people who drink it for survival reasons [since] goat milk has healing properties. We feel like it’s important to make that type of product available for people to buy locally.”
For years, the Carlsons avoided segueing into cheese simply because of their desire to focus only on sourcing quality, farm-fresh goat’s milk. Yet when the demand for a Swede cheese became too great to ignore, the family finally incorporated a satisfying line of fragrant, soft, full-bodied cheeses. Nowadays, flavors like savory garlic and chive, sweet lemon blueberry, crumbly feta and smoky chèvre have created near cultlike followings. The delicacies have become so popular, in fact, that there is almost always a preorder waiting list.
In an attempt to manage the growing enterprise, the family began brainstorming ideas on how they could increase their product availability without cutting any corners or lowering their high quality standards. That’s when the Cooperative Agricultural Research Center at Prairie View A&M University stepped in. Late last year, the Carlsons accepted a proposal that allows them to blend their goat’s milk with milk purchased from neighboring dairies through the research center. By incorporating the milk-blending process, the farm is now able to increase the availability of their cheeses and cut production costs. The Carlsons emphasize, though, that milk sold at markets will always be sourced from Swede Farm goats only. “We definitely had to wrestle with the idea,” says LeeAnne. “I think the reason we felt comfortable with the decision was because the center is designed to be an educational resource for other small farms and dairies. By helping them, we’re increasing the availability of local products at market and also supporting other small dairies. I’ll be honest and say we thought there was a fair shot we’d be kicked out of the markets, because we’ve seen that happen before, but we were completely up front and honest about the change in our business model, and the response we’ve gotten from the market, chefs and our customers has been overwhelmingly supportive.”
Swede Farm has evolved quite a bit over the years, and the Carlsons continue to wonder what the future might have in store for them. That uncertainty may seem uncomfortable to some, but this 14-person family has always had their priorities in order and known how to manage affairs. “Family comes first,” LeeAnne says. “It started that way and will always remain that way.”
Find Swede Farm at SFC Farmers Market—Sunset Valley and SFC Farmers Market—Downtown Saturdays 9 a.m.–1 p.m.