October 26, 2020 at 6:44 p.m.
Brad and Leanne Donnay have been able to make a living for themselves and their kids – Joseph, 21, Michael, 19, Katheryn, 16, Thomas, 6 and Charlie, 4 – on their diversified 10-acre farm near Kimball. Along with milking their 140 Saanen dairy goats, the Donnays process the milk into cheese in their farmstead creamery, sell compost and run a taxidermy business.
“We’re sustainable on 10 acres, that’s what’s crazy,” Brad said. “For 14 years, we made a living on 10 acres, and Leanne is a stay-at-home mom. Everybody thought we needed more.”
From their farm on a hill, Brad looked out over the picturesque countryside and pointed to the home place nearby where he grew up. A red barn at the neighbors’ beyond is where he and Leanne milked 28 cows when they were first married. Their future went in a different direction when the couple bought their small plot of land from Brad’s parents in 2002 Though it was bare land when the Donnays purchased it, there is now a house built in 2002, a barn built in 2004, a shop, another barn and a shed that was moved onto the farmsite. These buildings in some way reflect Brad’s many summers working construction while in college.
Leanne was an elementary school teacher before her life plans changed to stay at home to take care of her family and work together on the farm.
“I was in my dream job teaching third grade in a parochial school and that’s where I was going to be for life,” she said. “But, God had different plans – He kept telling me I need to stay home and I was bucky about it. It was really hard, but it wasn’t working here either. It wasn’t the family life we wanted.”
Together, the Donnay family works on their small, diversified farm.
They milk 140 Saanen goats, though in a non-COVID-19 year they at are about 160. The goats have their kids beginning the last week of March each year, and average twins, with a 1:1 ratio of males and females. The buck kids are sold at 5-10 days of age, and the females raised by the Donnays. Milking is done twice a day, with an average of 5.5 pounds of milk per goat per day. Typically, the goats are dried up in January, a welcome respite from milking and time for the family to pursue other interests.
“I can’t wait for the goats to dry up, and I really can’t wait for them to come in,” Brad said. “We sometimes have 100 goats kid in 10 days.”
The goats are milked in a parlor Brad constructed for less than $500. While having a snack of oats to keep them occupied, the goats are milked in groups of 16 at time. About a hundred goats can be milked in an hour’s time.
None of the milk from the goats is sold, as it is all used for cheesemaking. The Donnays have been making and selling cheese wholesale from their on-farm cheese plant since 2004. Two kinds of cheeses are made: a fresh Chevre and an aged cheese similar to a brie.
While studying at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Brad worked two jobs, one of them at the cheese plant, where he learned the ins and outs of the craft, including developing recipes.
“I knew the goats and cheesemaking aspects of it, but the food service part of it was new,” Brad said. “I went down to the (Twin) Cities with samples of the goat cheese, started knocking on doors and handing out cheese samples. We picked up 20 restaurants in two months.”
Now, they are featured on menus across the five-state area along with cheese shops and co-ops. The cheese is delivered primarily through four distributers and is packaged in 2- to 4-pound packs per case.
The Donnays’ Granite Ridge and chevre cheeses find way onto restaurant plates in everything from appetizers and main courses to desserts and cheese trays. Their buyers love the quality product, which was the Donnays’ goal from the outset.
“We wanted to do the best quality job and make the best quality product and the rest would take care of itself,” Brad said. “That’s what we focused on and it has been good. We’ve been blessed.”
The Donnays have also diversified their farm with manure. Goats have a dry, pelleted manure, and when composted along with their straw bedding, it creates a rich compost product the family packages and sells.
“When it looks like dirt and smells like dirt, we know it’s done,” Brad said.
After researching the idea and much experimentation, Brad and the older boys retrofitted a 1,000-gallon fuel barrel into a screener for the compost. It is then loaded into an elevated, home-built hopper from which it is bagged and labeled. Brad and Leanne buy labels and bags, and pay for everything. The kids do much of the work and make 100% of the profit, under one condition: all proceeds go into their college funds.
Compost is sold under their label to five area stores, where there is not enough compost to keep up with demand.
“The kids are really beginning to see the value of this,” Leanne said.
There is one more enterprise on the Donnay farm: a taxidermy business. While in college, Brad’s other job was working for a local taxidermist, something that fit in well with his love for hunting and the outdoors. A new addition was built onto their home to base the business.
A large showroom was built about 50 yards from the house, where many of his works are on display.
While the Donnays embrace the many enterprises on their small farmstead, they value family the most and use their businesses to be together while working.
“It’s just us, it’s family,” Leanne said. “We told the older boys that we’d like them to go off to college and see what’s out there, and if they decide they want to come back, we’ll figure it out and it sounds like they would like to.”
When that day comes, there will be new plans made.
“I told them, ‘If you come back, you tell me how you’re going to grow the business; I’m not going to grow it – we’ll grow it together,’” Brad said. “We don’t need them to come back, but we would like them to come back. Let’s figure this out together.”
Part of that plan may involve a 41-acre piece of property five minutes away the Donnays purchased two years ago. Mostly wooded, they are working on repurposing an old building into a hunting cabin. During the summer, their young goats have been pastured there to help rid the property of brush and buckthorn, guarded by a llama named Herbie.
Whatever they decide, the Donnays will figure it out as they continue to farm.
“There’s a million ways to farm,” Brad said. “You just have to figure out your way.”