September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
"It was the worst-tasting stuff I ever drank in my life," John said. "It was nasty. But I loved the goats."
Forty or so years ago, John drew the enjoyable jobs of feeding, watering and providing all-around care for the young kids. Those memories stayed with him, so that during nine years in the United States Navy, and for nearly 20 years thereafter, John nurtured the notion of someday being a dairy goat farmer.
His dream has become reality. John and Haley, his bride of nine months, and her sons, Brandon, 14, and Bobby, 11, tend some 176 goats on a small farm that's down a narrow, winding road west of Viroqua, Wis. John's mom and dad, Antonio and Joanne Cruz, integral parts of making the dream come true, live in a modern cabin just a stone's throw from John and Haley's modest mobile home.
Of those 176 goats, 138 are being milked, with 17 dry. Ten bucks and 11 kids of various ages round out the herd on this particular day.
It was a roundabout route for John to get back to the farm of his mother's father, Ellef Everson.
John's father, Tony, served 28 years in the Navy, as a jet engine mechanic and as a recruiter. During his recruiting stint, Tony worked out of La Crosse, Wis., and that closeness to grandpa's Guernsey and goat farm let John spend many happy hours on the Vernon County land.
Joanne and Tony held onto the farm even while working as far afield as Iceland. John chose to follow his father to sea and spent nine years in the Navy, until a combination of diabetes and Tourette syndrome prompted his departure on a medical discharge in 1994. John's son, Andrew, is a military veteran, too, having served in the Iraq War. He's in college at Florida State University.
Even while he was in the Navy, John found ways to feed his interest in goat farming. When he was stationed at Brunswick, Maine, John rented a barn and raised not only goats, but pigs and rabbits, too.
The dairying dream got a big boost five years ago, when Tony and Joanne decided to come home to the farm. They intended to be "snowbirds," wintering in the South. But they haven't spent a winter in Florida.
John was selling cars in Jacksonville, Fla., when his parents decided to return to southwest Wisconsin. His parents agreed to invest in the business that would become Bad Axe Purdy Goat Farm, named for the nearby Bad Axe River and the microscopic community of Purdy.
One of the first steps in getting Bad Axe Purdy Goat Farm going was building a pole barn in 2009. It had a water hydrant in it, but no electricity. John milked his ragtag collection of inexpensive, cull does and tended the kids by the light provided by a bulb on a 450-foot extension cord run from the cabin.
John learned the ropes of goat dairying on the fly - from the Internet, local farmers, veterinarians, and books.
"I saw this wonderful thing called a 'milking parlor' on the Internet. I was thinking I'd have to build a tiestall barn. I hadn't been on a farm for years and years," he said.
Little by little, his herd kept growing. John finally turned a "profit" - $400 - by selling goats for meat. Trouble was, he earned that $400 over a span of five months, and handed the money over to his parents to pay for feed.
Breaking into goat dairying was made tougher by the fact that John had to feed all the milk to pigs, calves and baby kids. He did not have a commercial market.
John finally made a difficult decision. Rather than let his dream languish, he decided to expand from 80 does to 100. Not able to sell the milk from 80 does, why on earth would he add 20 more?
"I'm going to go for it on faith,'" John said he told himself. "'If God wants me to do this, it'll happen.'"
He telephoned one of Wisconsin's three goats' milk processors and asked whether it was taking on new producers. Why, yes, it was, John was told.
But there were two caveats: John needed to build his herd to at least 150 does and be able to supply 500 pounds of milk a day. So John got a bank loan and bought more inexpensive does.
John shipped his first milk to Mont Chevre, a cheese company headquartered near Belmont, Wis., early in 2011. That's when his parents invested money in a double-12, swing milking parlor.
In the meantime, John and Haley continued their long-distance dating. They'd met via Facebook when John lived in Jacksonville and she was in a nearby community. Things progressed, and almost a year ago they were married in a clearing in the woods on the farm.
The goats are doing well. But there's room for improvement.
Thanks to the hodgepodge of genetics he put together, milk production needs to rise. John said he needs his does to average five pounds of milk per day over the course of a 305-day lactation just to break even.
A "good goat," he said, makes eight pounds a day. He has three does each making 16 pounds a day, so John plans to line breed those, to get more does that milk well.
Cruz does are at a six-pound-per day average. John said poor hay over the winter is partly to blame. The herd is generating a "small profit," John said, and he expects that to improve.
The milk tests 2.9 percent butterfat and three percent protein. As with cows' milk, the buyer pays premiums for those components, and for a low somatic cell count.
As for price, John receives $33 per hundredweight most of the year, but $36 in the winter, when the supply shrinks. In a grocery store, said John, expect to pay $16 for a gallon of goat milk.
A particular doe might only produce one-tenth the milk of a cow. But John said it is possible to make a good living by milking goats, even if it takes more of them to produce a hundredweight of milk.
For one thing, goats milk faster: 60 to 90 seconds each. What's more, goats are more efficient at converting feed to milk than cows are. And he sees demand for goat milk increasing. "Goat milking is in its infancy in America," John said.
John and Haley ship 3,000 pounds every four days - every five days during the winter. A goal is to build the herd to 250 does. When that happens, John figures he will be able to buy a skidloader to make chores easier.
The next step will be to milk 500. From there, John would like to launch another goat dairy every two or three years and hire someone to run it.
"I want to be the largest goat milk producer in Wisconsin for two years," he said. "Wherever I've been, I've always been the best at what I do. The last car lot I was at, I was the No. 1 salesman two years in a row."
Another goal is to milk water buffalo, open a small cheese factory, and create jobs. John's paternal grandparents are from the Philippines and his father is from Guam. In both places, water buffalo are popular milk producers.
For now, John and Haley keep their noses to the proverbial grindstone, milking twice a day. They have an unusual schedule - noon and midnight. That works for them, what with doctors' appointments for John and Haley taking the boys to and from the school bus. Milking and cleanup take about three hours with both people in the barn, or six hours when John tackles it alone.
John credits his parents for their support, and also his late brother, Adam, who loaned him $1,000 to buy does. Nine of those 13 does are still in the herd and will never leave the farm, John vowed. Instead, they will live and die on Bad Axe Purdy Goat Farm and be laid to rest there.
John now knows why Grandpa Ellef's goat milk was so unpalatable. He toted it to the house in a plastic pail, strained it through and old dish rag, and set the pitcher of milk in the refrigerator, uncovered, where it took on the flavors and odors of everything around it.
John had a different reaction the first time he tasted fresh goat milk handled the way it should be.
"It blew my mind. That was good milk," he said.
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