There’s a reason why you may have never heard of goat milk gelato. It’s hard to find. But lucky us. We can get it locally made, thanks to the hard work and innovative spirit of Michael and Lisa Davis, co-owners of Sweet Doe Dairy in Chelsea, Vermont. Their 81-acre farmstead and creamery produces premium farmstead goat milk gelato exclusively using milk from their registered herd of Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats.
We wanted to learn more about this delicious new product and how two “city folks turned Vermont dairy farmers” made the leap from a pretty cool idea to a real business. A big thank you to Michael and Lisa for taking the time to share their farming story with us!
Q. So what are your roles at Sweet Doe Gelato?
A. Michael: I’m responsible for all aspects of animal husbandry on the farm, including maintaining our pastures for rotational grazing in the spring, summer, and fall months. I also develop our recipes and make all our gelato in our on-farm creamery.
Lisa: I’m in charge of sales and marketing, packaging, shipping & receiving, and bookkeeping. I’m particularly active on the farm-side during kidding season each spring, helping to care for the newborns as they arrive.
We like to say that Michael is the “Willy Wonka” of Sweet Doe who makes the magic happen behind the scenes, while I’m the public face you see slinging scoops at farmers’ markets and events.
Q. You moved to Vermont from the city and fully embraced the agricultural life on your growing farm in Chelsea, VT. Looking back, what was the biggest adjustment to rural life?
A. Lisa: Adjusting to rural life was the easy part. Starting a dairy from the ground up was difficult. Most dairies, particularly those in Vermont, have been around for decades, with operations handed down from one generation to the next. And yes, while each generation must continue to make investments and business decisions for their operation as it evolves, the infrastructure and basis for their businesses was already in place long before they were born. That is a huge advantage in that they’ve had access to mentors within their families, an established customer base, and all of the equipment needed to continue the family operation.
Sadly, there aren’t a lot of investors—or grant-makers, for that matter—willing to take a risk with a start-up dairy farm these days, so if you decide to do it, you need to be willing to put everything you have on the line, believing in yourselves and your ideas. And that’s exactly what we did.
For us, that meant investing everything we had in our property, our livestock, and our infrastructure. We purchased every goat, every piece of equipment, and built our milkhouse, parlor, and creamery ourselves (with the help of some friends), literally constructing our facilities with our own two hands. That’s a pretty costly proposition, both in sweat and in dollars, not to mention in physical and mental health. We did all of that while conducting R&D for our product at the very same time. And as first-generation farmers, we had to teach ourselves every aspect of our farm- and plant-side operation, learning by doing and making a lot of mistakes along the way. It’s been a test of will and intellect, but we take great pride in the fact that we’ve done it while creating something amazing that simply didn’t exist in the marketplace before Sweet Doe came along.
Q. You could have gone lots of different directions when starting a farm-based business. Why goat milk gelato?
A. Michael: Frankly, I wanted to do something innovative. There were a lot of people who couldn’t eat ice cream because of lactose and/or protein sensitivities to cow’s milk, and I couldn’t help but notice that there were no real alternatives to cow dairy in the ice-cream aisle, aside from a few soy- and nut-based milk products that just lacked the taste and texture that makes premium ice creams and gelato so special. I also realized that most people who have trouble digesting cow’s milk don’t experience the same issues with goat milk. There are a lot of reasons for that, but we’ll save that story for another day.
As soon as I tasted Nigerian Dwarf milk, I was blown away by the clean, rich taste—it was, by far, the best I’ve ever had. So, we got a few goats to try and found them to be sweet, funny, and full of personality. That’s where our journey toward goat milk gelato began.
Q. Where did you learn the gelato-making craft?
A. Michael: I had taken some courses in ice-cream production, but I learned gelato-making mostly from years of intensive food science research and from making hundreds of test batches in our home kitchen.
Lisa: One of the primary reasons why our gelato is so exceptional—aside from the fact that we use the very best ingredients—is because of Michael’s incredibly discerning taste buds. That’s not a talent that can necessarily be developed; you’re either born with it or you’re not, and thankfully, he is. Customers often comment on how perfectly balanced our gelato flavors are, and that’s no coincidence.
Q. How does goat-milk gelato compare in taste and consistency to regular gelato?
A. Michael: Our gelato is incredibly rich and creamy, but doesn’t sit as heavy in your belly as typical gelato or ice cream. That’s one of the things people love about it so much. It’s naturally low in fat compared to other ice creams and gelatos because we only use whole milk when making it without added cream.
Some people taste our gelato expecting it to taste like chèvre. It does not! In fact, they’re shocked when they can’t even detect a hint of “goatiness” or that traditional goat cheese taste. That’s because of the quality of our Nigerian Dwarf milk as well as how carefully the milk is handled through every step of our production process. Don’t get me wrong; we love goat cheese—just not in our gelato!
As for texture? There’s really nothing like it. It’s ridiculously smooth.
Q. Your gelato is made using the milk from your herd of Nigerian Dwarfs. Why that goat breed in particular?
A. Michael: Nigerian Dwarf milk is so far superior to any other milk in terms of taste, texture and digestibility. In fact, if you were to do a side-by-side blind taste test of milk from various breeds of dairy goat—and frankly, from various breeds of cows—you’d choose Nigerian milk every time.
With Nigerian Dwarf milk, I knew, because of its attributes, that I could produce a product that was even better—and better for you—than the richest tasting ice creams and gelatos out there. It was a huge risk, but we took it. Plus, no one with a sensitivity to cow dairy should be deprived of America’s favorite frozen treat, and even the rest deserve the best. We believe that so strongly that it’s part of our Sweet Doe Dairy mission today.
Q. Any funny goat stories?
A. Lisa: Tons! They so smart and so full of personality. One of my favorite goats on our farm is a wether (castrated male goat) named Blackberry. He was one of the very first goats we ever purchased, and he’s huge! Probably one of the biggest Nigerians I’ve ever seen. But he’s such a gentle giant. Somehow, he’s learned how to pull zippers on jackets and sweatshirts up and down with his teeth, and he does it every time a zipper is in reach, like when I’m leaning over to put hay in the feeders. He loves showing off this skill to anyone who happens to be nearby and looks so proud of himself when he does.
Q. Can you tell us about your Homegrown by Heroes program?
A. Michael: Sure. Homegrown by Heroes is a program run by the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a nonprofit organization that helps military veterans transition into farming. Most people don’t realize how difficult it is for many military veterans to readjust to civilian life after having served in active duty, and how farming—and the discipline and attention to detail it requires—helps many who are struggling do so successfully.
Homegrown by Heroes is a special logo designation reserved for farmer veterans across the U.S. that can be displayed on product packaging to indicate that a product is grown or made by a military veteran. I am a proud veteran of the United States Navy, having served two tours aboard a mine sweeper in the Middle East.
Every time you purchase a product with the Homegrown by Heroes logo, you’re supporting a farmer veteran in his or her efforts to bring you the food that nourishes your soul. If you’re curious to learn more, you can check out the Farmer Veteran Coalition Web site at farmvetco.org.
Q. What’s your most popular flavor?
A. Lisa: In pints, it’s Vanilla…because what’s more versatile than Vanilla?! It’s great both on its own and as an accompaniment to a wide range of desserts. But in scoops, it’s a toss-up. Our Chocolate is hugely popular…but Coffee’s a crowd favorite, too. And when fall arrives, it’s all about the Chai.
Q. Anything else you’d like to add?
A. Lisa: If there’s one message I’d like to leave you with, it’s this: If you’ve got preconceived notions about what a goat milk product tastes like, cast those aspersions aside and try our gelato. You won’t be disappointed. Even if you’re not a fan of goat milk or goat cheese, you’ll love it, as there is no goatiness at all in the flavor. But don’t take our word for it; go out and get some yourself. Anyone who doesn’t try it is missing out on something special.
Local food nourishes us, supports our families, builds community, and benefits our environment. Local Food Is Love. We are so fortunate in Vermont to have access to such a wide variety of foods made and grown by neighbors we know and trust. This is what Local Food Is Love is all about. Every summer we celebrate the local growers and producers who enhance our lives and communities in countless ways. Stay tuned for more stories about these amazing people and the unique and delicious foods they bring to our tables.