On a rainy day-before-Easter in the Loess hills of Western Iowa, I arrived at Doe’s and Diva’s goat and sheep dairy. I was visiting my family for the weekend, in the place where I grew up–nestled within the rolling hills along the meandering Missouri River. I sat in the back seat of my parents’ SUV as we drove through Council Bluffs on our way out of town; my dad took some back roads and I felt slightly nauseated and claustrophobic in the confines of the back seat as I was jostled around going up and down the dramatic slopes by the homes people had carved within the Loess. Finally, we settled North going up the river valley, steep slopes to our East, River to the West, and the Great Plains beyond.
We rolled through the little town of Crescent, which was partially draped in dense, low-hanging clouds. The wipers sloshed away the rain from the windshield at a steady pace. You know those places you visited as a child, but you didn’t know really where they were or how exactly you got there? Crescent is one of those places for me, and I know it as such because a steakhouse called “The Pink Poodle” always caught my eye and is still there along the main drag.
When I was a kid, we had probably been driving through to go to “Hitchcock Nature Center”, one of the premier natural areas in the vicinity where miles of trails snake through the woods. There is also even a ski resort adjacent to it: no this isn’t your “flat” everyday Iowa, these hills are actually pretty steep and driving within them, especially on this rainy day, you can almost believe you’re driving through the Coastal Mountains of the Pacific Northwest.
After four miles down a gravel road past old farmhouses and newer clapboard homes, we arrived at a driveway with a little sign hanging from the mailbox that read “Doe’s and Diva’s Dairy Inc.” with their graphic printed below. A newish house sat to the left as we pulled onto the property, and I glimpsed some modest barns and shelters within some fences before we parked in front of a building to the right. The entrance was decorated with a cute hand-painted sign announcing it as such and was bordered with old-fashioned milk cans.
Not seeing anyone around, we hurried through the steady rain to get from our car to the shelter. In the small commons area, there was a table and a cupboard display of numerous packaged soaps, lotions and even bags of wool to buy. There was a small refrigerator with a few containers of Chèvre and a little basket on the table with some money in it: an honor system of payment for the goods if the farmer wasn’t around. I smelled a few of the soaps before settling on one called “Snow”, which smells semi-floral with a hint of spice but its exact fragrance I have yet to put my finger on. The packaging reads, “Fresh snow scent is designed to mimic peace and tranquility and if you close your eyes, you can almost see Christmas when you were 9 years old.” Probably an odd choice for Spring-time, but it smelled so wonderful I couldn’t resist!
I put some money in the basket for my purchase and we glanced through the windows at a room which contained what appeared to be cheesemaking vats before heading out into the drizzle. We ventured around the building to get a glimpse of the animals and saw a few strait ahead, munching hay and staring at us intently as we approached. They stood abreast to a sign that read “Goats at Play”. “Umm… I don’t think those are goats,” I said, seeing their recently-sheared hair, the way their noses sloped in a more Romanesque way, and their long tails. A white lamb lay snugly under a low, sloping shelter in the yard beyond them and a few others meandered about.
Just as we were about to get back in our car, a short, stocky woman came running out to greet us. “Hello!” she waved as she approached our car. “I’m sorry, I was just finishing up the morning’s bottle-feeding. Let me show you around!” We approached the animals and she explained that the sheep would stand out in the rain, but the goats won’t. “So those are sheep then,” I confirmed. She nodded. She herself was more like a sheep, apparently, as my mom offered to put the umbrella over her head, but she said, “no, I’m fine! I love it!” And took us to see the goats.
“State law mandates I have to keep the goats and sheep separated,” she explained, leading us to another area where we could see adults and kids curled up in a little barn. A huge Great Pyrenees approached us, barking sternly from behind the fence. “Oh, he won’t do anything to you,” the owner assured. “He’s just trying to intimidate you. If you’d approach him, he’d continue to back away.” My mom’s instinctual protective grip on my arm told me she wasn’t so sure.
We followed the goat-and sheep-herd back up to the building which housed her products for sale and she took us into a back room to where they make the soaps and lotions. She then donned special shoes and told us she’d meet us in the vending area while she went through the “clean rooms”. We were then presented with taste tests of her chèvre, which contained cranberries and chives. I’d looked at it before and thought the combination sounded odd, but it was delicious! “Oh, and you have to try a hard cheese!” She exclaimed, running back into the “clean rooms”.
Apparently adjacent to the room in which we’d glimpsed the cheesemaking vats, there was an aging cellar, from which she brought forth a hard cheese. She explained that she ages some of their cheeses in whiskey barrels, so that it takes on the flavor. The one we were trying, though, was not aged in whiskey barrels and since the hard cheeses have prohibition-themed names, it was called “Temperance”. She explained that it was a combination goat-and-sheep-milk cheese; it was sharp and had the earthy flavor and aroma of a blue cheese. Very unique.
As we nibbled away, she spoke of some of the struggles she’s had getting the dairy running and all the laws she has to abide by. One of the most ridiculous was, for example, she never gives her animals antibiotics, but she still has to keep a log and pay money for a certification that says there aren’t any traces of antibiotics in her milk. I believe she said there were even two separate ones she has to keep and pay for for the goats and sheep. She had gotten her start dairying and cheesemaking to feed her children when they were young and she had apparently resolved herself to the struggles of maintaining a herd in Iowa, which she said has some of the most strict dairy laws in the country.
“Well, these need a home,” she said, wrapping up the remains of what we’d sampled to apparently just give to us. My dad slipped some money in her basket before she led us up to her house to show us the kids she was bottle-feeding. From the garage, we entered the mud room to about six kids and an Australian Shepherd keeping them safe and warm.
“That one over there with no ears is a La Mancha,” she informed us, pointing to a small black and white kid. I scooped him up into my arms and informed her jokingly that I’d be taking him home with me. I wish.