One Woman, 25 Goats, and the Best Skyr Ever

Villa Villekulla Farm is one of our newest producers at the Market. This woman-owned and operated business, located in Tunbridge, Vt. (soon to be based in Barnard), makes a goat-milk skyr that, for us, was love at first taste.

Lauren Gitlin is not only a farmer and artisanal producer, she also happens to be quite a storyteller. We think you’ll thoroughly enjoy reading about her farming journey so far and where she’s headed next. (And when you’re done, you really have to try her skyr.)

Q. We understand that you moved to Vermont from Indiana by way of New York City. Why Vermont? 

A. I spent almost a decade as a journalist in New York before getting burnt out and having pastoral fantasies of jumping ship to go live on a mountainside surrounded by animals. I’m really not hyperbolizing. Once I decided to pursue cheesemaking, there was no other place (aside from Europe, but Vermont was closer).  I had heard a lot of lore around Laini Fondiller of Lazy Lady Farm, had read about her and admired her from afar for the style of cheese she was making and her singular, uncompromising vision. She was a total legend. So I began begging her for a job, and in the meantime started working as a cheesemonger in the city. It took me five years of dogged pursuit before she finally agreed to hire me, and that’s when I packed up my car and moved to Vermont. It will be seven years ago this September.

Q. You worked for a few farms in Vermont (including Lazy Lady and Consider Bardwell) before becoming an entrepreneur. How did you become interested in farming?

A. Don’t forget Twig Farm as well! I learned an incredible amount from Michael Lee and he is for sure part of my origin story as a dairy producer.

I came to farming through cheesemaking. I had always been an enthusiastic cheese consumer, and had spent some time studying food in an academic setting (I have a master’s degree in culinary anthropology), so the next logical step was to learn to make it. But I really wanted an immersive experience and so it had to be a farmstead operation or nothing. It appealed to me to be able to gain a deep understanding of every aspect of a cheese’s life-cycle, from the decisions that inform breeding to the forage the animals are eating, the techniques and recipes at play inside the creamery, and the microbial magic inside the aging cave.

Q. What inspired you to start your own company?

A. Before I struck out on my cheesemaking path, I’d always wanted to make butter. I’d had this incredible butter in France that changed the way I thought about it completely. It was served to me on a cheese plate and was elevated from merely a condiment or ingredient to something else, something to be savored in all of its deceptive simplicity. It really spoke to me, and I was keen to one day have a chance to craft butter with a similar ethos, something that could be enjoyed much the same way a fine cheese could be. 

It was sheer happenstance that I began working with goats, because that was what Laini worked with. But once I started, there was no other option. Goats are such astounding, lovable creatures, and I knew that whatever dairy I wound up making would have to be from goat milk. After several years of working on other farms, an opportunity to rent a creamery and barn fell into my lap, and as a solo farmer, having the chance to be essentially incubated in an existing facility in close proximity to other farmers (the space I’m currently renting is the former home of Mountain Home Farm in Tunbridge) seemed like my best shot at giving these long-held dreams a go. So Laini sent me off with three pregnant goats in December of 2018 and now here I am with 25 just a few years later. That’s farm math for you.

Q. Can you tell us a little about your farm? What do you raise and what products do you currently offer? 

A. I raise goats! The long-term goal is still to make goat butter, but there’s a reason that farmstead goat butter doesn’t really exist commercially. It’s an extremely low-yield product and is expensive to make. I learned from another dairy farmer whom I really respect, Rich Larson, that there was an Icelandic dairy product called skyr which was traditionally made with skim milk left over from buttermaking, and so an idea for how to make this a viable business began to form. For various reasons (working with a breed with a low butterfat content and having so few animals that my milk volume is teensy), I’m not yet able to produce enough cream to be able to make butter for commercial sale. So for the time being, I’m only making whole milk skyr. I am hoping to get to the point in the next year or two where both volume and butterfat will increase such that I can begin producing butter and making the traditional skim milk skyr. In the meantime, I’m also in the process of developing a whey soda flavored with native botanicals that I intend to bottle and sell. Hopefully that will be ready for market soon! 

Q. What makes your products unique or special?

A. I’m not the only one out there making goat milk skyr, but mine is the only one I know of using cardoon thistle rennet (which is really a bugger to work with so I set myself up with some challenges right out the gate!). I know enough other farmer producers to know that I’m not necessarily doing anything unique. We all work really hard, we all really love our animals and pour all of ourselves into the things we make. I started out on this journey wanting to make a beautiful and delicious thing that people would enjoy eating, and that’s still true. But now the thing I make is a means to an end, and the end is being able to spend each and every day amongst my ruminant colleagues.

Q. Can you share with us some of the challenges and rewards of owning/managing a farm?

A. Developing a recipe and finetuning it, getting all the necessary licenses and passing inspections, figuring out my design, packaging, distribution—there are so many steps in the process of launching a start-up dairy business that I had no idea about, and at every stage there were setbacks and obstacles that required rethinking things, adjusting, pivoting. In that sense, what’s most challenging IS what’s most rewarding, because you have to find a way to move forward and make it work. I’ve learned a lot of things that no book could’ve taught me.

The workload is interminable. There are no sick days or vacation days. That can get exhausting, and I’ve only been at it a few years, so I marvel at the folks who’ve been doing this for decades. But that’s what I signed up for. Right now it’s just me and the occasional seasonal intern, so I long for the day when I can afford to hire an employee or two to help out. I’m not there yet. 

By far the most challenging thing is losing an animal. I work so closely with them that they’re members of my family. So even when I’m tired and/or they’re acting up (not a rarity with goats), I really savor my time with them. I never know how long I will have to make them feel loved and appreciated. They work just as hard as I do, if not harder! 

Q. Can you tell us the story behind the name of your farm?

A. Villa Villekulla is the name of the house that Pippi Longstocking lived in. She was a favorite character from a book as a kid, and seemed like the perfect spirit guide for me when I was striking out on this farming endeavor alone. I love what she represents—playfulness, a sense of wonder, super-human strength, independence, and compassion all in one small flame-haired package. The house itself was always described as ramshackle and at sixes and sevens but full of rare oddities and treasures (plus a horse who lived on the porch). That more or less captures the environment I’ve found myself in and the set of values I hope to embody with my little farm.

Q. What are your favorite ways to enjoy your yogurt? Any go-to recipes?A. If given the option, I usually go the savory route. I love making my skyr into a za’atar spiced labneh or spreading it on toast and drizzling it with olive oil and flaky salt or chat masala or sumac. It’s fun to use in Indian or Middle Eastern dishes like saag paneer or hummus fattet, and I also love to bake with it. Any simple tea cake that calls for yogurt or sour cream. In early summer I always dream about making a Danish cold strawberry soup with skyr, and this time of year I love making a blueberry cake with skyr thinned with a bit of milk in place of buttermilk. There’s a “recipes” tab on my website that has a bunch of ideas I’ve collected for other tasty applications! 

Q, Anything else you’d like to share about your company or product?

A. Lots of exciting things to come! Among other things, I’ll be moving the base of operations to Barnard in December so that my goats and I can finally live with my husband Teo, whom I married in February. He’s a filmmaker and amateur herdsman and is responsible for 100% of the goat music videos we produce.

My goal is to scale out rather than up. I don’t want to grow my herd beyond my capacity to be really hands on with my animals, so I have had to get creative with how to capitalize on what I have. I’ve devised a product line that works to create a closed loop with little to no waste, where everything is used, and I’m able to achieve some measure of financial sustainability. So many dairy farmers get trapped in that go-big cycle because that’s the only way to make the numbers work. My hope is to try another way, but it’s too soon to know whether that will succeed. 

In addition to goat butter and whey soda, I am working to create a whey-based facial toner that can be used as a brightening exfoliant. That will likely be a few years down the road.

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.

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