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An Interview with Swede Farm

A farmer’s job is to feed us good, nourishing food, to be stewards of our land and resources, and sometimes, to speak from their unique perspective and tell us what they see. LeeAnne and Tim Carlson shepherd a herd of almost 50 goats in Waller, Texas and bring milk, yogurt, and cheese to market each week. The Carlsons offer wholesome, minimally processed products—rich and creamy chevre; thick, tart yogurt; and fresh milk—and an opportunity for their community to connect deeply with what they eat. These are people who treat every single product they make as though it is destined for their own table—perhaps because they honor the connection between farmer and consumer so deeply. This week, we sit down to visit with LeeAnne and Tim to talk about what inspires them, life on the farm with twelve children, and what gets them out of bed every day for that 5:00 am milking.

Tell us a little about the journey that led you to Swede Farm Dairy.

We were happily living the city life--art museums, symphony, volunteering, president of the neighborhood civic association, etc. We gradually became discontent with a lack of freedom inherent in our lifestyles. Our children were not free to explore and play outside. We were not free to paint our home whatever color we desired--and as president of the homeowners association were responsible for enforcing that others not likewise paint their homes in undesirable colors. We began to feel keenly a lack of roots to give a sense of permanence to our lives. We moved to the country in 2004 to provide our family with more freedom and to put down roots. We got goats to teach our children responsibility and because as longtime fans of the Houston Livestock Show we were fascinated by the idea of breeding and showing livestock. We found that we enjoyed breeding show quality animals and our herd increased in the process even as our herd of two-legged kids increased as well ;-). Early in 2008 the farm was a very busy place. We were homeschooling ten children and expecting our eleventh child. The farm had grown and Tim's 83 year old father was living with us. When LeeAnne's father was told that hospice care was the only care left, he asked to come to the farm to die. Tim left his job temporarily to help at home while LeeAnne cared for her father--and when the dust settled four months later, he called his employer to learn that rather than holding his position, they had filled it and he was without a job. With 35 goats and eleven children to feed we knew that we needed to do something and thus Swede Farm Dairy was born.

Why raise food?

By providing food, we have the opportunity to develop community and actually see our milk change people's lives as their health improves.

How did your previous life experience or influences prepared you to raise food for a living?

Having a larger-than-average family taught us resiliency--and a touch of desperation. Together these attributes have proven to be powerful motivation.

What does “sustainable” mean to you?

Sustainable means a way of life that has the momentum to continue without depleting its resources. These resources to be protected include not only the soil, air and water, it also includes the health and continued long-term production of the animals and the farmer as well. Sustainability also provides for the farm working as a synergistic unit so that its resources are not only protected, but also increased in terms of fertility and production.

What does a “day in the life” look like at Swede Farm?

We have a basic schedule that we follow. The schedule has the entire family up at 5:00AM, followed by breakfast together. At 6:00 Tim leaves to drive a school bus (which provides the family with health insurance) while a team of four or five goes to the dairy to milk the goats. We milk by hand, between 36-48 goats daily, depending on the season. Milking is completed by 8:00 and we then take to the streets--letting the kids run, ride bikes, rollerskate and otherwise burn off excess energy before school. At 9:00 we start school or work on the farm, depending on age, with the adults making product, building fences, and doing other farm jobs. Noon is lunch, followed by "quiet time" for the younger kids and more school for the olders. From 3:00-6:00, we have free time and time to wrap up chores before dinner at 6:00. After dinner we have family time, when we might read to the kids or play games, etc. Bedtime is at 8:00 for the youngers, 9:00 for the olders. This schedule is strictly adhered to--unless it is kidding season, when we need to deliver baby goats, or spring, when we are feeding many baby goats their bottles. Or . . . summertime when we have our highest milk production so that we feel like we are making cheese round the clock, or fall, when we are getting ready for a new schedule with dad driving a bus, or winter, when we have less product to make but we are working on getting the right girl goats with the right boy goats for breeding season, or when it rains, or during a drought, or when it is cold, or hot, or in-between. Regardless, every day has two constants--taking care of the people on the farm and the animals on the farm, which includes milking.

What do you find most rewarding about farming?

Seeing people's lives changed. It is fun to sell cheese and hear people say that it is the best goat cheese (or chocolate milk, or cajeta) that they have ever eaten, but it is not the same as hearing of lives changed by the milk and cultured or fermented products like yogurt and kefir. We have seen babies diagnosed with Failure to Thrive start growing, two babies that had feeding tube insertions scheduled were able to avoid such a life-changing procedure. We have had a customer on chemotherapy tell us that her oncologist told her "I do not know what you are doing to maintain your weight and weather chemo so well, but whatever it is, keep it up--and it was our milk and yogurt. Selling great cheese is an ego rush, but we feel strongly that to only make cheese to the exclusion of milk and other fluid products is like telling starving people "let them eat cake" when they desperately need bread.

What do you find most challenging?

The fact that the work never ends and that so many of the challenges are things totally outside your control, such as weather, kidding health complications, and the price of feed or hay. The most stressful challenge is probably dealing with the dairy inspectors (and possibly the FDA). We can have our dairy absolutely perfect and it still does not stop that pit in your stomach when the inspector shows up. They have total authority to interpret the code as they see fit and the buck largely stops with them. The inspections are a surprise, so we could be sitting down to lunch, taking a nap or dealing with a sick child and everything has to stop to deal with the inspection. They can even inspect when we are not on the premises, so we may leave to run errands, only to find upon our return, that the inspector came to the farm, was on our property and walked through the buildings. It actually can feel somewhat like a violation.

What do you feel is the biggest obstacle faced today by folks who want to raise food sustainably for a living?

The lack of understanding by the general public of the burden that licensure and inspections can pose. It effects not only our stress level, it also adds a good deal of cost to the process of bringing product to market. Customers ask why we cannot provide them with certain products (such as raw milk) or why the cost of the product is so high and it is hard to try to explain the issues in the 60 second time frame as they are sampling the product.

What is a farmer’s role in our society?

At the most obvious and simplistic level, the farmer is the guardian of the food supply. We believe that a far more nuanced but precious and vital role is the farmer as the foundation of community. As our nation has moved to a more urban lifestyle, we have lost much of our soul as a people. We believe that community is being lost at an even more rapid rate than rural farm land and this is by the loss of the farmer and the farming lifestyle as the glue that bonds us together as a people. This is the premise of our book that we hope to have finished by the end of the year.

Why should we shop at the farmers’ market?

Because it helps feed our twelve children. ;-) Seriously, though, the truth is that we, as a people, are learning that we cannot trust the government to take care of us. When we have a medical procedure we are required to sign an "informed consent" form. This states that we are aware that there are both risks and benefits and that we acknowledge that we are making the decision to accept the risks for the benefits. What we often fail to realize is that we are accepting both risks and benefits by our food choices, but there is no "informed consent" to sign to remind us of this fact. By shopping at a market where we can learn of the benefit, the quality, the growing practices that influence the nutritional and health value of the food, we are, in effect, mentally signing that "informed consent". We are taking responsibility for not only the food that we are feeding our families, we are also committing to being a part of a community. We are supporting local agriculture, preserving a way of life that is rapidly being lost and practicing a bit of activism with every carrot that we buy from a small producer rather than from a huge corporation.

What is the best news in food you’ve heard recently?

The shift in laws coming at the state levels that make it easier for people to bring product to market, be it a cookie or the ability to give a sample of that juicy melon. In other states, the movement in Kentucky to provide for the reintroduction of hemp as an American agricultural product. We lost so much when growing hemp was outlawed in the United States!

What do you wish more people knew about growing food?

The stress that farmers live with on an almost daily basis. Everyone thinks of the idyllic farm or Walden Pond, but from the concerns of weather to inspections to customers that balk at the true cost of bringing food to the marketplace without the benefit of price supports, farming can cause great stress. Xanax, anyone?

What inspires you?

The customers that say "thank you" and show off their fat and healthy babies that were once thin and struggling. Seeing our own children develop a love for the lifestyle and a pride in what we do.

What is one thing everyone can do (or a few simple things) to create a better, stronger food system?

Shop at a farmers’ market! Be aware of the issues. Grow something--anything! A container of tomatoes, three laying hens in your back yard; it doesn't have to be big, but participating in the incredible miracle of eating food that you have produced yourself helps develop an awareness of the profound, almost sacred in eating. This awareness cannot help but spill over into changing how one sees the food system.

What are you cooking this week?

Chili with ground beef (Richardson Farm) and goat (Harrison Farm in Houston). Broccoli salad with broccoli from JBG (if my broccoli fanatic daughter Liberty doesn't snitch it all before we get around to making it!). Grilled fish with Swede Farm Smoky Chevre and for breakfast, Swede Farm Greek Yogurt with granola from Indian Hills.

What’s your favorite goat cheese recipe or dish?

Oh my, where to start? Pound a chicken breast flat. Spread with 1-2 ounces chèvre (any of the flavors will do, but I love it with Garlic and Chive or, Hatch Pepper Chevre when it’s in season. Roll up, secure with a toothpick. Dip in an egg wash, then in panko or even crushed tortilla chips and bake. Another favorite is kale with our marinated feta with garlic and sundried tomatoes. Heat the garlic olive oil and sundried tomatoes from our marinated feta. Use the hot oil to saute kale. Remove from heat, toss with the feta. One option is to use the oil to cook chicken or fish prior to adding the kale.

Quick Picks:

Favorite breakfast: Swede Farm yogurt with Happy Hemp raw hemp seeds.

Favorite comfort food: Chicken and dumplings.

Favorite book about food: Anything by Wendell Berry

Favorite cookbook: Celebration of Local Foods by the Edible Communities folks, and Moosewood Restaurant Cooks For a Crowd. The Moosewood Cookbook was written for "large social events and catering," but it works perfectly for our family of 14, with each recipe giving us enough food for two meals.

Favorite fall fruit/veggie: Kale, broccoli (Liberty’s favorite), sweet potatoes, late fall tomatoes.

Favorite food indulgence: You do not want to know! Our prior life in the city has way too many old habits. Blue Bell? Oreos?