Before that night in March, Trystan Sandvoss and his younger brother Max did everything a couple of college boys could dream up to prepare for the challenge of making cheese.
They did apprenticeships with veteran goat farmers and prize-winning cheesemakers in the Pacific Northwest. Bought the best Nubian and Alpine goats they could find. Consulted with experts about the fine points of pasteurizing, vat construction, bacteria-resistant air-handling systems and custom-designed milking parlors.
But for all their strategizing and calculating, there was no way to get completely ready for the March night when Cadence, one of their favorite Nubians, hugely pregnant, was failing to give birth. Her sides rippled with contractions. Her kid, the baby goat, was presenting head-first -- an impossibility. (It should be forefeet first).
Following standard protocol, Trystan, donning a shoulder-length glove, investigated the kid's position, and pulled out a hoof. Get one out, hopefully two, and the kid usually follows.
Not this time. Then Trystan noticed the hoof was upside down from the usual head-hoof alignment, and an apprenticeship memory snapped into place: Cadence was having twins. Given how long it had taken him to notice, Trystan thought, all three goats were likely to die.
But he remembered his teachers' words, and pushed the hoof back in, as carefully as he could, and the head. Working blind, he felt for the other kid's legs, and maneuvered them out into the world.
Ten minutes later, the wet, messy, breathing kids were being hand-fed mother's milk by Max. Trystan was giving Cadence some warm water with molasses, as his heart's pounding faded in his ears.
The brothers had known, in principle, that raising goats to make cheese would put matters of life and death in their hands. When it actually happens, though, "it's a big deal," said Trystan. "This was the first time I thought I might lose everyone."
Cadence is doing fine, and so are her kids, Coda and Tempo. Next year the little ones will be grown enough to add their milk to First Light Farm and Creamery's chevre, and their kids to the First Light flock.
Afterward, "you feel superhuman -- you've intervened and saved the lives of these three animals," said Trystan. "It's just about as real as it gets. It's absolutely terrifying and incredible at the same time. It's wet, hot, bloody -- it is life."
Birthing doesn't always have a Hollywood ending. They learned that, too. "I'm not going to tell you everyone makes it," Trystan said. "We did lose two kids [this year]. All of the milkers made it."
Which helps explain why, when the cheese brothers of East Bethany get up at 4 a.m. to feed their goats, they know each of their animals by name. For the Sandvosses, making cheese isn't just a job. It is life.
The growth of the American local food movement has convinced a cadre of newly minted farmers to try their hands at raising vegetables and animals for nearby markets. In Lockport, high school science teacher Rich Tilyou raises heritage breed pigs, celebrated by a small band of local chef-groupies.
In East Aurora, sculptor Michael Fritz took the plunge into growing oyster mushrooms he sells at the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers' Market.
There is a childhood snapshot of Trystan Sandvoss hugging a goat at a local farm, but that's the closest the brothers got to livestock growing up in a Hudson Valley suburb.
Trystan, 33, earned a degree from Northwestern, where he double-majored in history and religion. Max, 31, went to Harvard, where he graduated with an English degree, to an acting career that got him on-screen with Jennifer Aniston, and in several episodes of network television.
About once a month, a customer will recognize him from his movies, he said. "I had fun with it, but had an opportunity to rethink what I was doing with my life, and do something I like a lot more," said Max.
The Sandvoss brothers decided they would rather make cheese -- the hard way.
Instead of crafting curds from another farmer's milk, as most cheesemakers do, the brothers chose to oversee the entire process, from pasture to plate. Farmstead cheeses, made from a single herd on a single farm, are the handmade Valentines of the cheese world, appreciated by lovers and difficult to make wholesale.
The brothers apprenticed for a year at Mount Townsend Creamery, about an hour from Seattle's suburbs. Last year it sold about $1 million worth of its Whole Milk Tomme, Washington Jack and other cheeses.
"We made the choice a long time ago that we didn't want to do the animal side of things," said Mount Townsend Creamery owner Ryan Trail. "It's a whole business in its own, to do that efficiently. There's a lot of things to keep track of, just in making cheese or raising animals."
But when they worked for him, the Sandvosses stood out from the usual cheesemaker wannabes, Trail said.
"There's a lot of people that come out here saying, 'Oh we want to be cheesemakers.' And they have this idealistic vision of what that is. But I'd say these guys had that plus the foresight for all the other things that were going to come along with that. They weren't scared off by that stuff at all."
>Filling a void
When their mother, Joyce, showed them the former horse farm in East Bethany, near Batavia and only seven miles from her new house, they evaluated the market for their potential products.
It was wide open. While dozens of expert cheesemakers compete for Seattle-area customers willing to pay a premium for handmade dairy products from local herds, New York State's artisanal cheesemakers are concentrated around the Hudson Valley and Ithaca.
No one was selling cheese they made from goats who grazed in the green fields of Western New York. "Here, between Buffalo and Rochester there's a bigger market than Seattle," Trystan said.
Spreadable chevre, in double cream, garlic dill or other flavors? Fresh cheddar curds that squeak between your teeth? For those, First Light Creamery would have first dibs on local cheese fans' wallets.
So the Sandvosses moved to Genesee County in April 2010. They worked on their cheese labels, each bearing the name reflecting their double mission: First Light Farm and Creamery. They retrofitted the stables to house goats, built sanitary rooms for making, storing and packaging cheese. They reached out to nearby farmers to trade byproducts, like their whey (cheese runoff), for a couple of the pigs it would feed.
The Sandvosses aren't quite farmsteaders yet. Their young herd includes 45 goats, with 23 producing milk -- not enough yet to meet demand for their cheese, found at more than 10 farmers' markets this summer and outlets like Premier Gourmet, Farmers and Artisans and the Lexington Co-Op. So for now they blend their herd's milk with high-quality, organic Jersey cow milk from neighbor Brent Tillotson's farm.
So far they've sold pretty much everything they've made, Trystan said. Staffing their farmers' market booth puts them directly in touch with customers, and they appreciate the chance to explain the fine points of their labors.
"I've actually had the question asked of me at a farmers' market: 'How do you get cheese from a goat?' " said Trystan. "Um. The same way you get it from a cow? People don't have that connection sometimes."
The brothers routinely work 14- and 16-hour days. Their mom and a few friends help when they have to fan out across farmers' markets during peak market season, but it's mostly them.
Because their milk goats all are bred at the same time, their milk tapers off predictably. For two months, in January and February, the brothers can get a milking vacation, and an extra hour of sleep.
They still have to care for their herd, and make cheese. First Light's first brine-cured feta is set to debut at markets next week. The Sandvosses also plan to introduce a Monterey Jack.
In their spare time, the Sandvosses will continue to teach cheesemaking, too, with rosters of students signing up at first-light-farm.com.
"There's not a lot of sleeping going on right now. But we love it. This is the kind of work we like to do," Max said. "If you find something you love, it's never work, right?"
"Dairying is relentless. Cheesemaking is relentless. We have to process every 72 hours," said Trystan. "We have to milk every 12 hours. That's the deal."
They say it's worth it.
"You have so much more control over your product if you can vouch for every moment of the animals' lives that are producing the milk," said Max. "If we can make the goats' health primary, then beautiful cheese will be the result of that. If we were just buying in milk, I don't know if we could trust that."
The First Light cheesemaking room decor tends toward Laboratory Lite, stainless steel and beakers and the smell of bleach.
"Anybody can make good cheese," said Trystan. "The challenge is making it consistently."
That requires security down to the microbial level. Visitors must don plastic booties to avoid tracking in microbes; the Sandvosses wear boots there that they wear nowhere else. Hairnets are required.
More measures to control stray bacteria hang near the ceiling. The air vents are Norwegian, custom-made from canvas, so they can be removed and washed for regular sanitation. They distribute filtered air from a "single-pass" system that always draws from outside.
"We are growing bacteria in this facility on purpose. But we want it to stop when we want it to stop," Trystan said. "So we make sure that we're not recirculating bacteria in the plant, that's the point of single pass."
There's a reason they go to all the trouble. "There's a virus called phage that will attack the bacteria," Trystan said. "I've seen that happen in other plants we worked in, and we wanted to avoid that."
Here's the treasure they're trying to protect:
The stainless steel cheese vat on the side of the room holds 116 gallons of milk. It's whole milk, so rich that most cheese-eaters have never seen anything like it, pale ivory with yellow blobs of milkfat floating on the surface, little flecks of gold.
That fat is the reason cheese exists, historically speaking. Ancient herders whose families lived on the milk their animals produced discovered that surplus milk kept in a vessel fashioned from an animal's stomach would partly solidify.
Making cheese was the magic that sustained their lives. Those curds, dense with sustaining fats and proteins, could keep for weeks or months if handled right, when milk would spoil in a day.
Since fat readily picks up flavors, it's also the paintbrush of master cheesemakers. Milk from animals who eat a varied diet of grasses, herbs and sundry flora carries faint notes of those ingredients. The best cheesemakers can take milk that actually tastes like something, decide which type of cheese best showcases its flavor, and create edible art.
The milk in the First Light tank is destined to become cheddar curds. It has already been pasteurized, heated to kill potentially harmful bacteria and cooled. That made it fertile ground for the culture, intentional bacteria that will break down the milk and help make it cheese -- in this case, cheddar curds.
>Back to work
Trystan's iPhone emits a warbling tone. "Time to rennet," he said. With help from his phone's stopwatch app, the Sandvosses keep careful track of the timing of each step, in each batch, in pursuit of consistency. The milk will change over the course of the season, depending on where their herd is in its milking cycle, so they need to adjust how they treat it.
Trystan pours a beaker of rennet solution into the milk as Max stirs. Once the rennet is distributed through the vat of warm milk, the cheesemakers want to disturb it as little as possible. "The formation of curd, when those proteins start bonding, is very weak at the beginning," said Trystan. "As we allow hardening time those bonds get stronger and stronger."
In other words, the magic is happening.
Trystan places a small plastic cup on the surface of the liquid, and gives it a spin. That's how he checks for flocculation, a "fancy cheesemaker's word" for curdling, he said.
The cup will tell you how well the milk proteins are knitting together, creating solids out of liquid, and leaving watery whey behind. On uncurdled milk, it will spin unimpeded, Trystan explained. As soon as flocculation occurs, it will barely turn at all.
"This is the time when you pray to the cheesemaking gods, because this is the summation of days of work, and milking," said Trystan. "Now we just hope that it'll set."
And it does. The cup won't spin, so Trystan sticks a gloved finger into the now-gelid mass and flips out a chunk, "checking the break," to make sure it's the right consistency.
Max grabs a metal rack with crosspieces, called a cheese harp, and lowers it slowly into the vat. He drags the harp through the puddinglike material, cutting the developing curd into pieces.
The watery whey starts to pool in crevices, separating from the lumps. After a five-minute rest, hot water pumped into the double-walled vat starts to "cook" the curd, heating it to about 100 degrees. Max dons double thickness arm-length gloves and gets into it up to his elbows, breaking up clumps as mechanical paddles stir slowly.
After about 45 minutes, Trystan slides a 5-gallon bucket under the vat's spigot and starts to drain off whey. They haven't connected a line to the whey holding tank yet, so he has to transfer it bucket by bucket to the custom-built metal chevre draining table nearby.
The brothers' goal is no grander than selling everything they make, and eventually to support both of their families, Trystan explains.
"We'll have some employees down the road," he says, emptying another bucket. "We don't always want to work this hard."
While Max turns the cheddar curds to help them form properly, Trystan heads to the goats. It's milking time.
He already has cleaned out the hoses for the pneumatic milking system, which sucks the milk out of the goats' teats with pulses of air. "If anyone wants to be a cheesemaker they have to understand that it's about 20 percent cheesemaking and 80 percent cleaning," he says.
Wary of tracking infectious microbes onto First Light property, Trystan owns six pairs of boots for different purposes, like going to the cow dairy. "I never wear those boots on this farm. I keep them in the truck. Not that there's anything wrong with his herd. I just don't know everything about it, and if I can't be sure, I'm not going to take a chance."
As he enters the barn, bleating animals rush to meet him. He points out that each gate has two latches.
"If you forget to put a latch on, they will get out," he said. "We've come in in the morning and they're on top of the haystack, so pleased with themselves."
Besides smarts, the stereotypes about goats are false, at least for dairy goats, Trystan said.
"That old aphorism that a goat'll eat a tin can? Absolutely not true with dairy goats. They waste about 30 percent of their feed, just push it out the side. We will feed that to bucks or, when we had pigs, we fed it to them."
Goats are browsers, not grazers, who "pick off the sweetest parts of the freshest growth," he said. "You should not buy a goat if you want somebody to mow your lawn. They will not do it."
Opening a gate, Trystan lets the first goats scramble up a wooden ramp to the milking parlor. Since goats have a social hierarchy, he has to let the senior milkers go first, or there will be a goat fight.
"You've probably seen those National Geographic specials where the mountain goats are smackin' horns? These girls do the same thing," he said. "They don't have horns, because we've taken them off, but they'll fight."
The first goat slips her head into the first slot in a metal rack. That clicks open the second slot, which a second goat fills, until six goats are still and ready for milking.
That took some training, he said, but it means one person can milk -- essential at a two-person farm. "These girls right now are giving on average a little over half a gallon per day each," he said. "A good dairy goat will give you a gallon a day."
Trystan reaches under the goat's milk-swollen udder and dips each teat in iodine before wiping it with a fresh paper towel, then squirts a bit of milk from each teat to check for mastitis (an infection) before slipping on the milk-extracting cups.
"We've been lucky, knock on wood, to not have had mastitis since we started," he says, raising his voice above the hissing of hoses and whumping of the milk pump. "We spend a lot of money on straw in the barn. It's dry in there, I could lay down anywhere and my clothes wouldn't get wet."
Their investment isn't entirely altruistic, he acknowledges. Happy goats make more, better milk. Which makes happy cheesemakers.
"Milk to us is like grapes to winemakers," he said, tearing off another paper towel. "It's the genesis of everything that we do."