A few months ago, I stumbled upon an article about a Tucson couple, David and Kathryn Heininger, who decided to leave the rat race behind for an adventure in off- the-grid homesteading in Northern Arizona. Soon thereafter, they serendipitously found themselves starting a goat cheese dairy on their property called the Black Mesa Ranch. When I learned that they would be hosting an open house in April, I jumped at the chance to meet this amazing couple and their goats in Snowflake, AZ.
Black Mesa Ranch’s normal, in-season, milking string consists of thirty Nubian does. Including young stock, bucks, and retired does, the ranch typically has around fifty goats total at any given time. Nubian goats are known for their adaptability to desert environments and produce the highest percentage of butterfat content in their milk; a cheese maker’s dream.
Providing the absolute top quality cheeses starts with raising and caring for goats like they are part of your own family. That’s what these goats are to Kathryn and David. This is most evident in the extensive online photo albums, bios, and updates of each of their goats on their website.
Kathryn manages the “girls”, while David, a professionally trained chef, is the artisan cheese maker. The beauty of Black Mesa Ranch is David and Kathryn’s simple and practical approach to producing a superior product. Simply put by David, “happy goats make happy milk make happy cheese”.
Kathryn spearheaded the efforts in BMR becoming “Certified Humane” in 2007. The Certified Humane Raised and Handled® program is a certification and labeling program that is the only animal welfare label requiring the humane treatment of farm animals from birth through slaughter. The goal of the program is to improve the lives of farm animals by driving consumer demand for kinder and more responsible farm animal practices. To date, BMR is one of a handful of goat dairies in the country that holds this coveted recognition.
In addition, where most ranches separate the baby kids from the adult goats, the kids at BMR roam freely with the rest of the herd, which is reflective of their natural habitat. At the same time, the kids are bottle fed to properly socialize and create a bond between them and their human caregivers. These were the friendliest and happiest goats I have ever encountered.
Their herd of goats range freely across their 280 acre ranch where they forage across the desert landscape. This produces a seasonal flavor to the cheese, depending on what the goats have been feasting upon. This is a highlight to foodies and top local chefs eager to discover the seasonal differences in flavors within the cheese. Black Mesa Ranch cheeses are sought after by top Arizona restaurants such as Quiessence, FnB, and Rancho Pinot.
But simple doesn’t always mean easy. The “girls” need to be milked twice daily. While many commercial dairies “pool” their milk over several days to make cheese, BMR’s milk goes straight from the milking parlor to the cheese kitchen where they make their cheese twice a day. They work in small batches (no more than 14 gallons at a time) to ensure quality control. Kathryn jokingly states that working on your own ranch means that “you can pick the 16 hours of the day you want to work.” But their efforts shine through in their award winning cheeses that regularly nab top honors at the annual American Dairy Goat Association competition.
Their fresh goat cheese is distinctively creamy with a subtle hint of tartness, without the harsh “goaty” flavor many other cheeses have. But perhaps the best testament to this was seeing seven children at the open house ravenously devour the cheese and chocolates in the tasting room. I was lucky to have gotten a couple of bites. On a seasonal basis, BMR produces an array of chocolates and other confections. Their made from scratch goat milk fudge (no fluff here) is to die for delicious.
Black Mesa Ranch is also known for their breeding and selling of nationally recognized Nubian goats. The superior genetics of their goats (has earned them top awards year after year by the Dairy Goat Association among other distinguishments. Their website also chronicles a kidding diary by Kathryn, and a wealth of information on how to raise and care for your own goats.
David reflects, “I think the love we have for the animals, and the love they have for the ranch, and being here, and doing what they do naturally, I think that passes through to the cheese.” We couldn’t agree more, Dave.
Here's the video Whole Foods made last year at Black Mesa Ranch:
Allyson Perreault is a food writer and recipe developer. She is the creator of www.localfarmfoodie.com, which features cooking and eating locally in Arizona. She is trying to convince her husband and HOA to let her have a goat.
Photo credit: Allyson Perreault, Local Farm Foodie