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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Day Trip: Harley Farm in Pescadero

If there’s something I love even more than factory tours, it’s farm tours. And we took a great one at Harley Farms in Pescadero.

We went on a class field trip, though you can make your own family reservations (or take a group of kids yourself) with advanced registration. You could try walking in and signing up too, but they do book up. It’s a popular place!

The original farm was for dairy cows in the early 1900s. It ran til the 1940s, then sat vacant. About 17 years ago, Dee Harley and her husband started farming. They learned the art of making goat cheese from their friend Nancy, who used to buy their goat milk. After Nancy moved away, the farm started making its own cheese with milk from their six goats. Now Harley Famrs keeps 200 goats – all related to the original six (that’s called a “closed” population).

Sustainability is important to the farm. They have green tanks to collect rainwater. They make (and sell) their own compost. They grow their own garden with chives and flowers, which they use in the their goat cheese and they sell to local growers. Tours help sustain the farm financially, to keep the goat cheese prices affordable.

We went into the milking parlor, and learned that the milking process takes four hours (two hours to sterilize the goats in the milking parlor, and two hours to process the milk). The milking machines look like the octopus you use when scuba diving. The goats here are numbered, not named (except for Angie, who is the practice goat for milking).

These goats are pasture-fed (they eat 17 native grasses on site) with supplemental grain from their silo – a treat they get during milking. The goats are milked twice a day, starting at 5:30 a.m. Each goat produces ½ gallon during a milking session (that would be one gallon a day).

The kids all got to try milking the goat (whose udders get treated with iodine during the hand-milking process). To do this, you make an “okay” sign with your hand. The top of the circle grasps the udder, and the three fingers go around the udder for squeezing. The udder is warm, soft and a little hairy. You have to look for blood and mucous on first squirt – using a container with a mesh on top which screens that out. If the goat is sick, they pull her from the line and give her antibiotics.

The goats get milked most months, except the four months when they’re pregnant and feeding babies (around November to February). The goats mate in November, and the male goats get sold off each year. They also rent goats to clear land, and sell some too (“Harley’s Herd").

After we took turns milking Angie, we toured the garden, visited the goats in the field, and looked at the farm’s tiny kittens. Then it was time to make our own cheese. Our guide handed out hair nets, and the kids started making comments: “I’m a lunch lady!” “I’m a cone-head!”

Inside we saw the milk's holding tank. The milk gets transferred into a pasteurizer to get rid of the bacteria. It stays there for 30 minutes at 145 degrees. They add vegetable-based rennet culture at same time to help the milk solidify. Later they add salt. That's it! They move the solids (curds) to cheesecloth bags, and the whey (yellow liquid) drains out. It’s a 48 hour process. The curds stay in the cheese cloth overnight, and it moves to the refrigerator to use when ready.

We made a Monet cheese, adding edible flowers and spices to the bottom of the pan before pressing the curds from the cheesecloth in. Then we went to the hay loft, where there was an enormous table where we parked ourselves to eat the cheese. Not surprisingly, the warm and picturesque room is available for private parties and the farm dinners run by Harley Farms.

And of course we could stop at the end at the farm store, where their rounds of cheese sell for $4-$15. You can stop by there any time they're open - you don't have to be on a tour.

Weekend Harley Farm tours run $20 a person (kids under 5 are free). School groups cost $250 for 25 kids and 5 adults. The tours are two hours.

If you want to stay in the area, Pescadero has a cute downtown and you can do some strawberry picking at Phipps Country Store. This Via article has more on Pescadero. Bring a picnic and head to the coast - there are coastal state parks.

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