Meet Your Farmer, Gretta

 

 

Good Morning! My hope with this very neglected blog is to connect on a more regular basis with our loyal customers and friends! I have been asking a bunch of you what you would most like to see here and we have come up with an awesome list of all things farm life! Before we jump into our first farm topic I thought I should introduce myself to some of our new customers. I’m Gretta:) The Gretta behind Gretta’s Goats. I grew up in the lower peninsula of Michigan on a small hobby farm. My dad was a dentist and my mom helped run his practice. My mom raised chickens and a flock of sheep for awhile when I was really little. There were also rabbits, cats and a goat named Sundance. Sundance often “joined” us for dinner by mostly staring at us through the sliding glass door that was next to our kitchen table. As a little kid, I thought this was pretty funny thing for Sundance to do. This was my first lesson in goats; they need strong fences and a farm buddy, preferably another goat! My dad raised alaskan huskies for sled dog racing. He is still out there mushing at age 76, which is pretty amazing. I raced my first “team” at age five – really it was an 100 yard dash with one very fluffy reddish colored Siberian husky. I was hooked.

Soon, I was racing six dog teams with my dad all over Michigan on the weekends. I got used to caring for animals in all kinds of weather. The swoosh of the sled runners on the snow combined with the breathing of the dogs while they ran became a form of meditation. The meditation of hand milking a goat in the dim morning or evening light has always felt similar to me. I resisted using our milking machines for the longest time as our farm grew because I loved that quiet connection with the goats! I loved working with the dogs and appreciated their athleticism and enthusiasm for running. I grew to love running as much as they did. In my opinion there is nothing that a run in the woods can’t fix.To this day, I still run multiple times a week and love to sneak in trail runs whenever I can. During college, I dreamed of a way to make a living working with animals outdoors but that soon gave way to working towards finishing my degree and starting grad school. I worked for 12 years teaching children and adults who are blind and visually impaired in hospitals, schools, and offering home therapy in the Chicago area. Throughout my teaching career, I always felt that I wasn’t quite where I was supposed to be. I dreamed of open space, animals, nature, and old farmhouses. I was drawn to the Prairie Crossing Conservation Community in Grayslake, IL because of its working 100 acre farm. I felt like the neighborhood was an oasis surrounded by suburban sprawl with its running trails and working organic farm. We moved there around 2006. I had known of the farm’s incubator program for aspiring farmers but felt intimidated to apply. This voice in my head just kept saying, “what do you know about being a farmer, you are a blind rehab specialist?” Happily, the voice that kept saying, “you could try this, give it a shot Gretta” grew louder! Before getting the courage to apply to the farm program I took classes on soap making, cheesemaking, animal husbandry in my spare time. I studied everything I could get my hands on and spent hours on the internet learning about goats. I visited other farms. Finally, I felt ready to apply and take the leap. Most of the farmers in the program were growing organic vegetables. There really wasn’t anyone doing livestock until several years later, but I was always drawn to goats, especially Nigerian goats for their chunky stature and fun personality. I gave it a shot and got in. Soon, I was milking one goat before and after work. I started making goat milk soap in my kitchen. The next year in the program Zooie, one of my goats had triplet goat kids and then I was milking a few goats before and after work. My partner Eric built me an amazing wooden milking stand by hand. Whenever I look at that stand (I still have it, even though now we milk with a double metal milking stand) I realize how far we have come from a few goats to a herd of 70 and a licensed dairy. That stand also represents Eric’s belief in me that I could be a farmer with hard work.

I feel fortunate that I had some early successes. Our goat milk soap was featured on Oprah’s list of perfect presents on her website. Sales skyrocketed. Our house was filled from top to bottom with soap. This burst of sales really gave me some confidence that I was creating a good product and that maybe I could take this farming gig full-time.  I was leasing land through the incubator program and knew that the Prairie Crossing Farm could not be a permanent home for our growing herd of goats or a place to build a certified dairy and creamery. My goal was to be apart of the local food movement in Chicago. I knew that we needed a farm of our own in order to bring the dream of a dairy to life.  I spent my free time looking for farms within 2 hours of Chicago so that we could still sell to our current stores and customers. Then in early 2013 we got a huge wholesale order from Crate & Barrel to sell our products nationwide and through their catalog. This spurred me to follow my passion and I resigned from my job. I kept looking for farms. When we pulled in the driveway in Pecatonica we knew this was the place. After spending almost four years at the Prairie Crossing Farm it was time to move on. In August 2013, we started Short Leg Farm in Pecatonica, IL. Through a lot of hard work and sacrifice,  the farm has grown to include 70 goats, 300 chickens, and an apiary made up of 10 bee hives. Oh! and I can’t forget Hazel and Bernice! Hazel and Bernice are a pair of Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dogs that protect our herd of goats from coyotes and other predators. They are the hardest working dogs I have ever known. They are also the sweetest, most gentle giants of the farm. To round out the crew of dogs, we have a little corgi, named Aubrey who lifts our spirits on a daily basis. Our farm would not be complete without those three. Last but not least is Hobo, the farm cat. She showed up on the farm 5 years ago (hence her name) and has quickly become the “shop” cat. She keeps us company while we pack orders and make goat milk soap.

When I think about my crazy story and transformation from being clean and presentable blind rehab specialist turned dirty and hay covered goat farmer, I am reminded of the importance to keep taking chances in life. I am proof that you can have a second act that looks completely different from the first, that change can be good, and that pushing yourself out of your comfort zone can be rewarding. Somedays when I am wrapped up in my anxious mind and I think I can’t do something, I remind myself that I had the courage to build this farm from the ground up. That courage makes tackling the next challenge that much easier. This little farm and the challenges that come with it have taught me this:  whatever strength I need already exists in me. This farm has become to mean more to me than a place where we take excellent care of our animals and create products that nourish people’s bodies. It has become a source of strength for me in hard times. A place where we hope all feel welcome and encouraged.  What are some of your leaps of faith? What was your biggest change or challenge you had in your life? I love hearing about other people stories when they knew they had to make a change or start something new. How did you find the courage to make the change?