AK: Southeast dairy goat business presents unique challenges

Buying fresh dairy produce in Southeast Alaska isn’t easy. The rugged, mountainous landscape doesn’t lend itself well to farming.

Now a farming couple in Petersburg are trying to change the way people consume milk in town. For the past year they’ve been selling raw milk processed by their own herd of dairy goats. But, producing – and selling – dairy products in Southeast Alaska comes with a unique set of challenges.

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(Photo by Joe Sykes, KFSK - Petersburg)
(Photo by Joe Sykes, KFSK – Petersburg)

The first thing you notice about Victor Nelson’s farm isn’t the craggy peaks, towering cedars and glistening glaciers that surround the place, but the motley herd of animals.

“We’ve got chickens, these are all our does,” Victor said. “Soon to be milkers and milkers. And then baby goats over here.”

Nelson farms with his wife, Tabitha on a few acres of land at Point Agassiz, across Frederick Sound from Petesrburg. They’re the only family here year round.

And their animals are nothing if not free range.

As we talk a large spotted pig waddles up behind us.

“Piggy, piggy,” Victor said. “Yeah you know me. I’m the hand that feeds you.”

But for the Nelsons the goats are where the money’s at. Although Tabitha Nelson says they got into the goat game by accident.

“We started with two goats and just for raising quality milk that doesn’t have all that industrialized stuff in it and people kept asking us so we decided to buy a few more and a few more,” Tabitha said.

Now, there are over 30.

In a field in front of us there are about 12 babies frolicking in the long grass. They’re pretty damn cute but Tabitha Nelson says the people of Petersburg also go mad for their mothers’ milk.

“We could never meet the whole demand for Petersburg,” Tabitha said.

Petersburg now has a summer farmer’s market and many in town want to buy local. But the Nelsons are limited when it comes to selling the milk.

“I don’t really like the system,” Tabitha said. “Sometimes I can’t get a hold of people. And I can’t technically sell that milk because it belongs to them.”

(Photo by Joe Sykes, KFSK - Petersburg)
(Photo by Joe Sykes, KFSK – Petersburg)

It belongs to their customers because the Nelsons’ milk is unpasteurized. In Alaska you can only buy raw dairy products through what’s called a herd share agreement. So consumers in Petersburg own a share in the goat that gives them their milk.

However that share does come with risk. Unpasteurized dairy products have been known to carry diseases like E. coli. In 2013, there was a campylobacter outbreak linked to raw milk on the Kenai Peninsula. Events like this mean raw milk sales are heavily regulated.

And Tabitha Nelson says they try to be as clear as possible with their customers.

“When they sign the contract they do get a sheet of everything we do,” Tabitha said.

Nelson says refrigerating the milk as soon as it leaves the goat help’s kill any potentially harmful bacteria.

Over in Petersburg, Gina Esposito, who owns a share of the Nelson’s milk, isn’t concerned about getting sick. She says for her it just makes sense to buy local.

“The more you learn about where food comes from, the more paralyzed you feel about what you want to buy,” Gina said.

But it’s not just about ethical purchasing

“It really makes nice frothy lattes as well,” Gina said.

It’s those lattes the Nelsons hope will fund their homesteading lifestyle for many years to come. But with the regulations as they are it can be frustrating when you live a 40 minute boat ride from town.

(Photo by Joe Sykes, KFSK - Petersburg)
(Photo by Joe Sykes, KFSK – Petersburg)

“Sometimes we wait for people and they forget and we have to call them and with the tides and everything that just makes it harder for us,” Tabitha said. “Living out here isn’t the greatest situation for this type of a business.”

But they’re here because they are in love with the lifestyle. Tabitha’s lived on Point Agazziz since she was five and she says she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tabitha: We did go to public school for a year or two in the winter time. And my teacher’s were like ‘I think you need to get her back out there.’ All she writes about in her stories and journals is Point Aggasiz.

But, so she can stay on Point Aggasiz for good, sometimes she needs to leave

Today is selling day. When we go back inside Victor starts packing up a crate of milk out of the fridge to take over to Petersburg.

Before we set off though I really just want to know what raw goats milk tastes like.

Tabitha: “I don’t know if you’re used to fresh milk.”

Me: “Cheers. Mmmmmmm delicious.”

And with that we’re ready to go, back over Frederick Sound to Petersburg where Tabitha sets up shop on the South Harbor ramp.