Happy Valley cheesemaker Liza Plaster looks to life beyond dairy farm

May. 10, 2013 @ 07:32 AM

A couple of weeks have passed since cheesemaker Liza Plaster welcomed the return of a small group of  “star milkers” that had lived away from her dairy farm for four months.

But the purpose of the goats, which struggled to adapt to the change in living conditions at a Greensboro dairy cattle farm, carries a different meaning at this tranquil goat farm in Happy Valley. It is where they, along with Plaster, now are settling into a life outside of what remained the most substantial cheesemaking operation in the county.

“I really don’t like the word retirement,” Plaster, 68, explained in a recent interview from across a picnic table at her homestead Ripshin Goat Dairy, which she decided to wind down over the past month after delivering tens of thousands of gallons of goat cheese across the region for the past eight years. “I’m willing to let this go.”

It was less of a job than an avocation for a woman whose work history ranges from running a photography studio to working as a communications director for a major local pharmaceutical company. But the notion of transitioning into a lifestyle beyond cheesemaking seemed to bring ease to Plaster on a recent afternoon, when she spoke of the little pleasures for which she struggled to find time in recent years: Mailing handwritten letters to family and friends, spending hours in the garden and arranging and attending dinner gatherings with her husband, William Early.

Her interest in cheesemaking is traced to a visit to the historic home of Carl Sandburg in Flat Rock, about 30 miles south of Asheville, in the 1980s, when she saw photographs from the 1940s depicting the growing awareness of goats as a lucrative source of dairy products.

Years passed, as she read “all the goat books” at the county public library in Lenoir between sojourns to France to learn about the livelihood of cheesemaking, before her curiosity took shape in the mid-2000s. That was when she sought guidance from an owner of a widely known goat dairy farm near Greensboro, where she was taught many aspects of the trade, from pasteurizing milk to helping deliver baby goats, known as kids.

In 2004, after ending her job as a spokeswoman for GREER Laboratories, an allergy medicine company run by her family, she and her husband purchased their first small herd of goats, with which they made enough cheese to give away hundreds of pounds to family and friends the following summer in 2005.

“I wanted people to get to know it,” she said of the cheese.

At the peak of her business, the dozen workers at the dairy milked two dozen out of a total of 70 goats twice a day, churning out more than 5,000 pounds of cheese every year.

Its reach stretched across the region, around which she sold half- and full-pound containers of cheese to at three farmers markets -- in Catawba and Watauga counties -- every week, and delivered two-pound containers to chefs, mostly at restaurants in Boone and Blowing Rock and Hickory, on a regular basis. She also occasionally delivered to a bed and breakfast near Charlottesville, Va., at which she stayed once in the late 1990s.  

In Caldwell, however, buyers included only to the Wine Cellar and Bistro, in downtown Lenoir.

Nonetheless, production increased to about two dozen regular chefs and hundreds of other buyers across the region.  And so did the time constraints of Plaster, who grew “tired of having every minute pre-planned.”

There was “no movies, no going out for supper, no having people over for supper,” she explained.

Plaster grew up within sight of the cobblestone home in which she now lives. She has two children -- Rachel, 42, and Jesse, 40 -- both of whose homes flank the 100-year-old property, which has remained in the hands of her family for six generations.  

She has seen other parts of the country, living with her first husband in San Francisco for four years during what she described as the “peak” of the 1960s and ‘70s. 

But her roots led back home, where her 35-year career as a portrait photographer came into focus while running a studio in downtown Lenoir for 15 years.

“I always felt the pull of these mountains...there’s so much to love here,” she said, gazing at the foothills rimming the backdrop of her 20-acre dairy farm.  “This is really, definitely home.”

The transition away from cheesemaking will not bring a lull in activity at her dairy farm, where she plans to continue selling homegrown flowers and eggs from her nearly two dozen chickens and convert what is a room inside the dairy into a rental kitchen.

Plaster also remains a major contributor to the Caldwell Arts Council, for which she served as director in the 1980s, and is a member of the PIedmont Dairy Goat Association, which is working to design a trail linking the more than two dozen cheese producers across Western North Carolina. 

Still, she said with a smile, “I don’t really have a plan."

“I think it’s important for people not to plan every single part of every single day,” she continued.  “You never know what’s going to happen.”

With a freezer stocked with nearly 10 pounds of goat cheese – “we’re saving it for ourselves,” she reiterated – she will complete one of her final tasks as a cheesemaker in the coming months, over which she plans to sell a dozen of the nearly 30 goats still grazing the pasture.

The rest, she said, “they’re going to retire here,” too.