Bee Tree Farm’s Owner Shares Life on a Busy Goat Dairy Farm
One woman’s farm and education mission
We headed straight for the barn – for the goats – and she let me in through a little gate. "They're having breakfast," said Bee Tree Farm & Dairy owner Jenna Kelly-Landes, smiling knowingly as I gawked and petted all of the goats around me. "There's about 50 goats in here." As each individually bottle-fed goat came to greet its human mama, she introduced them: "This is Ruby Tuesday, this is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, this is Emmylou Harris."
Not to disguise the extremely difficult manual and emotional labor that goes on there, but a day at Bee Tree – only 20 minutes east of North-Central Austin – feels straight-up idyllic. Three, four, no, seven dogs (all but one Great Pyrenees mixes) bounded up the drive, happily shoving their giant heads into my car. I looked out to the smaller original plot, called "the farm," and the now 65-acre wooded expanse beyond called "the ranch," to see the building where cheese is made, the barn where the goats sleep, the new event space, and the family home. Kelly-Landes rode by in her golf cart, calling out, "You can walk around, I have to feed someone inside!" (A child, a dog, a goat?) She circled back moments later, hopping over in what looked like a single step. Here you begin to see the real Jenna Kelly-Landes: She's charming, she's easygoing, but above all, the farm – the goats – comes first.
So we're clear about what a working dairy farm means, it's this: Kelly-Landes, her husband, and her almost 5-year-old twins live on 65 acres of land in Manor. They have horses, cows, chickens, and goats – a mix of Nubians, Alpines, and La Manchas. They raise the goats (often including veterinary care) and milk them every day (previously twice daily – she changed that for the goats' health and her sanity) while also raising human kids. They transform that milk into delicious cheese – Mi Corazon (fresh chevre), Diablito (chipotle honey chevre), Besos (her take on Icelandic skyr), feta, or halloumi – and make deliveries and sell at markets. Meanwhile, she physically assists her goats in giving birth to their many, many kids. It's not like this was always her life plan, either.
"When we first bought the farm I was still working full-time in Austin and it was not even on my radar to turn our 'hobby farm' into an actual commercial farm. I wanted to live south central you know, that's what you did! You live in Austin! And then my husband was like, 'You know, maybe I want a couple acres.' And I didn't even know that it was something we could talk about and suddenly all of my childhood dreams of owning a ton of animals just burst open like a can of worms. He'd already conceded to having a couple chickens in the backyard – like five, we had five chickens."
As soon as they bought the farm, Kelly-Landes found out she was pregnant with twins, another dream she had almost given up on. "The kids turned one year old on July 3 and my first cheese went out the door, I think, on July 16."
So, she's had to get tough. Dairy is the most highly regulated food industry. Every month an inspector arrives to document the somatic cell count in the goats' milk and check the dairy's commercial kitchen – demanding an impeccably clean workspace and extremely healthy goats. Her husband has a full-time job but also works hard on the farm (see Bee Tree's delightful social media for plenty of evidence); she just recently brought on her beloved head cheesemaker, Victoria Swaynos, full time. But the farm is hers, really, and that means her primary goal – education about food and animals and farm life – is front and center. "My big goal is to be more connected to the food community in Austin so that they know this is a place where they can host dinners. This can be a nice place close to Austin where people can experience food from Central Texas on a Central Texas farm."
This hasn't always been an easy goal to achieve. "Farm dinners [are] sort of like my white whale. I was so excited when I first opened the farm to be so close to Austin – initially not because of the customer base that I could bring here but because of the restaurants in Austin that have the farm-to-table label, that have that locally sourced label. I really thought that I was going to be much more welcomed by the restaurant community and that I would somehow experience more excitement from chefs, like, 'Yay! We've got another dairy!' But I can't get them out here. Part of it is that they're insanely busy, and that's not lost on me."
Connecting with Austin chefs has been an uphill battle since she opened the dairy. And it's not that she expects restaurants to be 100% locally sourced or sustainable – she knows what's realistic – but, she said, many Austin restaurants list "local" cheese when the farms are actually hours away. "I find it funny. It's not that that's not local. It's local in terms of being in Texas. But they've got farms right down the road, that they have been invited to, that have the same pricing. I would love if some of these restaurants that claim to be locally sourced and have those connections to the farms could use this as a place that they could do on-farm dinners and stuff. I think that would be amazing."
Kelly-Landes is expanding her vision to include a beautiful new outdoor event space ideal for those farm dinners, and to bring even more interested consumers onto the farm, filling a market gap by opening up one of the only true livestock farms so close to Austin. The existing indoor event space smells like a woody little home, with an old hardwood Texas dance floor as one of the walls and a New Mexican rug draped over a chair. About 18 people can fit inside for intimate cheese tastings, something she'll pick back up as soon as she can. "It's really important to me to allow people to come and interact with the animals and see what that looks like. [But] I think it's important for people to understand how much of our time it takes to pause what we're doing to open it up this way. And to expose ourselves to the type of criticism that you can get, and I've certainly gotten."
It's normally $32 to visit the farm when the babies are born – you feed and cuddle baby goats, eat snacks, and it's BYOB – but she had to suspend those visits, plus cheesemaking and goat husbandry classes and several-times-a-month events (Cock-tails and Cuddles, Bubbles and Brunch with Antonelli's, and Two Hives Honey tours) due to COVID-19-forced cancellations. Unsurprisingly, Kelly-Landes is adapting and staying busy, continuing to support her community during the pandemic by offering a no-contact market where she sells her cheese, Two Hives Honey, and Hands of the Earth Farm produce. (Ordering details are on her website.)
Despite the difficulties, she is very happy to be where she is. "Austin is such a good foodie town. It's so great to be so close to Austin because you've got people that are very food-curious, which makes them very farm-curious. I hope that this farm is a place that can educate people about that aspect of farmstead. Because it's a label that's misused and I've only become more of an advocate of that the longer I've been doing this, because the animal side – no offense to cheesemakers! – the animal side, that's the hard part. The caring for them part."
For reference, "farmstead" means that your cheese is made entirely from your own farm's milk. Kelly-Landes doesn't outsource a single drop. Artisanal cheesemakers who aren't farmstead buy milk from other farms to make their cheese. This, too, is very important work, Kelly-Landes insists: They support small farmers who don't use their milk to make cheese. She added, "I think for so many food eaters, which is every single human, they don't understand that food is too cheap. It's too cheap."
Drawing on my own cheese background, I interjected, "You can learn how to make cheese." She whispered back, "Anyone can learn how to make cheese.
"It's a beautiful craft, but to me the real beauty in cheesemaking is the fact that the animals that I raise and have a relationship with are the ones creating the milk. You know, that's the hard work. I have a lot of cheesemaker friends on social media who are artisanal cheesemakers and I'm very open on social media. That's on purpose. I'm very open about really hard days and when shit hits the fan. It's important! To me it's just another level of education. But they'll be like, 'Preach it girl! My vat broke today!' and I'm like, 'Oh, but that's all you had to do today.' Like I had to actually milk the goats to get the milk into the vat that broke for me, too."
This farmsteader is not only tough; she's downright lovable. Her horde of goats surrounds her everywhere she goes, one bumping against her for attention, another staring at her adoringly from a few goats away. She doesn't apologize, especially not for her animals. You can't imagine someone getting mad at her, but she'll assure you otherwise.
"It's really hard for folks who love animals and have them domestically inside their home, like dogs, house cats, to come out here and see that our dogs live in a barn. Or they'll have commentary about, 'Oh, that goat has some snot coming out of its nose.' And we have to kindly educate, gently educate, as much as we can. I try to be as absolutely honest as possible with the way that we raise the goats, the fact that we do separate babies, the fact that we do disbud, these are all really hot-button issues [and] I'm exposing myself to a lot of criticism. I have lost count of the amount of social media attacks I've gotten from animal rights groups, whose point I understand and believe has a place. But I think it's a little misplaced, personally. Which is another reason I love opening a farm – because if that means I can educate just one person, then that's important to me. And also educate them on why our prices in dairy are so much higher than what you would spend on mass-produced products, like at an H-E-B or something like that."
She walked me through the dairy (it smelled like an ice cream parlor – that's the whey), the pasture, and over to the horses (she rescued from slaughter two of the three currently living on her farm). She asked me about myself and talked about the hard days at the beginning, but how it's all worth it. She acted like we were old friends, and I got the sense she acts that way with everyone – genuinely interested in finding commonality, friendship, and sharing knowledge.
"Everybody eats. It all goes back to – education is my background. I was never a teacher but I've always been involved in public education to a certain extent. So if there's a way that I can sort of bring together farming and educating people to any degree, like that's just really appealing to me. So that's what we try to do, that's why I talk so much," she laughed.
Perhaps it was the lingering scent of goat poop on my shoes, but I thought of Kelly-Landes all through the afternoon and into the evening. How does she stay so joyful? This woman has human twins, horses, cows that she raises for beef, chickens, and of course those 50 goats she milks daily, not to mention the business end of things – yet she sat across from me, beaming and drinking her tea, and joked, "You don't know what's in this. I'm drunk!" When I asked her how she stays sane: "Well, my husband would argue that I don't!"
Ultimately, it's the animals. It's the relationship with the goats, and when she can't stand to be at work anymore ("This entire farm is my workspace"), it's the horses that she rescues, cares for, and rides. As I wrote this, Kelly-Landes had just announced the death of Snake, one of her mama goats who was carrying four kids. She lays it all bare on Facebook, because above all, she's honest: This is the farm. This is life.
Editor’s Note: This interview took place before pandemic restrictions. For updates on Bee Tree Farm & Dairy, Jenna Kelly-Landes, and her goats, check her social media, and website: www.txbeetree.com.
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