A golf cart ambles down the hill toward a big, red, open-sided barn, where three effusively friendly Great Pyrenees dogs are keeping watch over a herd of goats (and any visitors that come their way). The driver is Jenna Kelly-Landes, and the property is Bee Tree Farm & Dairy in Manor—65 acres of rolling land Kelley-Landes and her husband, Jeremy Crawley, named after a large colony of bees they discovered in a tree and relocated just after purchasing the property. The colony left behind gallons of delicious honey—something the new residents considered a good omen and a suiting name.
On this chilly December morning, Kelly-Landes has chores to do and some stuff to say. As she breaks up the alfalfa and fills the feeding troughs for around 30 goats eager for their breakfast and the attention of their biggest fan, she gives a quick introduction of the herd—a mix of Nubians, Alpines and the recently acquired LaManchas. The mix of breeds allows for a combination of milks, each with their own chemistry, fat content and yield, which, after some labor-intensive processes, makes for some tasty, tasty cheeses.
What’s also remarkable about this herd is that all of them are pregnant—except the one buck in there (“the one with the testicles”). “In breeding season,” Kelly-Landes explains, “if I have concerns that any of my girls didn’t get bred, I put a buck in there. We call them ‘clean-up bucks.’ It’s necessary for me, because it’s really hard to catch a heat sometimes. It’s expensive to keep animals that aren’t producing.” She expects about 80 kids, and with two (human) kids of her own, nearly-3-year-old twins Cora and Cormac, she’ll have a lot on her plate come spring. Her sense of humor about it all, however, belies any stress. “I’m a full-time working mom with help. People have this notion that I have a baby on each hip while I’m milking. Umm. No.”
Due to her “girls” being in the family way, there’s no milking today—and these goats sure do miss it. When Loretta Lynn and her best friend Patsy Cline, who appear to be the goatyard ringleaders, see Kelly-Landes near the milking station, they start bleating and running to her with joy. In fact, the whole herd gathers around, anticipating the bucket of grain they’ll receive while being milked, not to mention the fresh alfalfa they’ll snack on right after, a trick Kelly-Landes learned from Amelia Sweethardt of Pure Luck Farm & Dairy. The alfalfa lagniappe keeps the goats standing while their teats have time to naturally close after being milked, thus helping to prevent mastitis or other infections. It’s just one of countless tips Kelly-Landes has learned from Sweethardt, who she calls her “dairy godmother.”
“Amelia is my biggest mentor and I’m extremely lucky. She’s taught me almost everything I know.” Another of her mentors owns a raw milk dairy in Elgin. “She’s my goat husbandry guru,” Kelly-Landes explains. “You can’t do this without those kinds of people. I always attribute anything that’s gone well to them.”
At the end of the farm’s second full season of dairy and cheesemaking operations, it’s astonishing how much has gone very, very well, especially considering the requirements of such a highly regulated industry. “It was probably the most shocking thing for me—and I think probably for most consumers,” she says. “Dairy is the most highly regulated agricultural product. It’s literally treated like a narcotic.” Now in the dairy building, which includes the milking station, milk room and closed-off “make room” (where the cheese magic happens), Kelly-Landes walks through the precise milk- and air-temperature requirements, sanitation standards, pasteurization processes and the complicated mechanics of getting the milk from the milking station to the milk room, and from the milk room to the make room. “I wanted to show you all this,” she says as she points to her expensive stainless-steel, state-of-the-art equipment, “because I think when people think about dairy, they have that romantic notion of the little wooden stool and the pigtails. That is not commercial dairy.”
She further explains that some regulations were originally enacted for cow dairies, not goat dairies, and include surprise visits from the state department every month. Milk samples are pulled and analyzed for all manner of things, including somatic cell count (the amount of white blood cells an animal has shed, which is an indicator of poor herd health in cows, especially). “Goats are very different,” she notes. “Goats shed somatic cells for a variety of reasons, one of which can be that there’s an infection. Or that it was a really hot day. Or that she came into heat. Or that she got into a fight with her best friend…I am not kidding!”
But regulations are regulations, so on her climb up this unexpectedly steep learning curve, Kelly-Landes has become a self-taught chemist, as well—growing weekly cell cultures on every single teat, which she stores in an incubator at home. If she sees something awry, she can pull that goat off the milking line. “This wasn’t part of my business plan,” she says with a laugh. “I just wanna make cheese!”
Speaking of cheese, which is, after all, the farm’s bread-and-butter, current products include Mi Corazon, a plain chèvre in the shape of a heart; Diablito, that same chèvre topped with chipotle powder and local honey; creamy, brined Bulgarian-style feta; and halloumi, a grillable cheese especially popular among local chefs at restaurants such as Lenoir, Epicérie, Drink.Well. and The Hightower. This entrée into the restaurant world excites Kelly-Landes, who wants to grow the business toward more wholesale orders and rely less on farmers markets sales, where attendance is so variable during prime farmstead cheesemaking season.
As with most details inherent in making farmstead cheese (cheese produced from milk collected on the same farm), penetrating the restaurant market has been tougher than she expected, but again, the Central Texas food community has supported her along the way. “Boggy Creek and Farmhouse Delivery were my first customers, and they helped me pay the bills that first year—their support was so strong,” she says. In fact, the chefs who first bought her cheeses found them at Boggy Creek Farm, tried them and then contacted the farm to order.
Already hosting events with Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, Two Hives Honey and various supper clubs—in addition to teaching goat-husbandry classes and leading “goat walks” on the farm—Kelly-Landes hopes to eventually hold even more events to take the financial pressure off the dairy side of operations. In the future, she may even build a pavilion on the hillside where visitors can do yoga among the happy, grazing herd. Because, really, that’s what it’s all about for her, where it all began. “I only do this because I love goats!” she says. “My passion is the animals. This is just what makes it possible for me to make working with the goats my job.
By Anne Marie Hampshire • Photography by Andy Sams
For more information about where to find Bee Tree Farm & Dairy’s cheese, visit txbeetree.com or call 512-470-8824.