We purchased four Nubian goat kids as a result of our visit there, as well as several gallons of delicious raw goat milk. We were quite impressed with Plum Run’s operations.
On a beautiful March day I had the pleasure of visiting Plum Run Farm and Dairy, just north of Hancock, Maryland near Needmore, Pennsylvania. It is a rather diversified farm with a small orchard, bees, chickens, and horses, but the most noticeable feature on this spring day was a delightful tumble of Nubian Goat kids. There were about 40 beautiful de-horned and tattooed bottle-babies — the very picture of the season! Even more astounding was the fact that the goat operation is managed and run by just one woman.
Marilyn Pontius and her family moved to the farm from a Washington DC suburb about 5 years ago. The farm has 111 acres of land, a large barn once used for dairy cows, and several small outbuildings and corrals. It took them 6 months just to clear the manure out of the barn. The family had just gotten a goat as a pet, and things took off from there. Soon Marilyn was hand-milking 7 goats. When their number increased to 14, she bought a milking machine. Currently, the herd stands at around 70, including kids.
The barn came with a helpful feature: a hay-manger that runs the width of the barn and had both inside and outside animal access. The family augmented this feature by adding a loafing shed around the outside area to protect animals from the wind. They also added several pens inside the barn-proper for the separation and care of various groups of kids.
The area with the hay manger lies in between the milking parlor and a large, fenced outside pasture. The parlor has many windows that overlook both the hay manger and the road — these windows are one of Marilyn’s favorite features. The parlor has two milking stands where she milks 24 goats twice a day at 7 am and 7 pm, yielding a total of 10 gallons of milk per day. The family consumes about 1 gallon of this, and the bulk of the rest is sold to a local cheese-maker for $2.50 a gallon. A roadside sign brings in a few customers who purchase the milk at $5.00 a gallon. Marilyn says first-timers often balk at the price, but that after tasting it they usually return to buy more.
Marilyn uses a Hoegger 2-goat belly-pail milking system, which she says has held up well. A favorite feature is that the claws “turn off” in the down position so that you don’t lose the vacuum on the second doe when the first doe is finished. The downside with this system is that it milks only two goats at a time so Marilyn feels that she is about at the limit of how many does she can milk by herself with it.
The separate milk processing area is a few steps from the milking parlor on the “road side” of the barn. Inside is a 250-gallon milk holding tank purchased at auction for about $350, which is currently not used much — at 10 gallons per day it is more convenient to use 5 gallon buckets and a chest freezer used to cool the milk. The room also has a refrigerator for storage, a large double sink (required for her license), and some work surfaces and shelves. This is the most cramped area of the otherwise spacious dairy and barn — chiefly because of the large holding tank.
Pennsylvania has one of the more enlightened and civilized policies toward raw milk in the eastern United States. Raw milk can be sold on-farm with a raw milk license, which is free to the farmer. Marilyn believes that she is the only licensed raw goat milk producer in Fulton County. As might be expected, raw milk must be tested more often than its pasteurized counterpart. Plum Run’s milk is sent twice monthly to the lab in Altoona, Pennsylvania via UPS for coliform and standard plate tests (around $15), and once monthly for somatic cell count and growth-inhibitor testing (another $25). The dairy is inspected every 3 to 6 months, and receives brucellosis and TB tests annually. Marilyn doesn’t have any stories to tell about antagonistic inspectors. In fact, one even suggested the chest freezer an easy and convenient means to cool down her milk.
When she has extra milk, Marilyn makes goat’s milk soap. Using a recipe she found at the public library, which took her months to refine, she sells many festively molded soaps. They are scented with herbs from her garden. She sells the bars for $3 each, or 4 for $11. They look and smell great.
Her favorite aspects of dairying are the veterinary ones. She enjoys working with the animals and solving the inevitable problems as they arise. Her least favorite aspect is the sheer relentlessness of the work. In five years she has had one week’s worth of vacation, leaving her husband in charge of the operation. (The wily fellow got his boy scout troop to help out!) One evening a week her teen-age son handles the milking to give her a break. She also sometimes regrets her choice of the Nubian breed, as other breeds produce more milk, but looking at her sleek, healthy animals, it’s hard to see why. In addition to their general attractiveness, they produce milk with 4.01% butterfat and 3.31% protein, rendering a highly desirable product for cheese making.
With a high-quality product, 60 acres of hay fields, a large, well laid out barn and pasture complex, a considerable investment in equipment, at least one steady large customer, plus 5 years of experience under her belt, is Marilyn Pontius ready to make the leap from small home dairy to a more commercial venture? We’ll have to wait and see.
To contact Marilyn Pontius:
Plum Run Farm and Dairy
3465 Timber Ridge Rd
Needmore, PA 17238
Visit her on the web at www.plumrundairy.com