Young woman’s goat dairy in Waialua is her ‘dream come true’
Honolulu Star Advertiser, November 25, 2015
Not long ago Emma Bello was your average college student, a 2009 graduate of Leilehua High School enrolled in Leeward Community College’s culinary program with a focus in pastry.
Then, in 2010 while on a summer job on Maui, she had an epiphany. Her destiny, she realized, was to raise babies — goat babies.
“I fell in love with the goats — end of story. It just hit me,” she said of her time at Surfing Goat Dairy in Kula. “I ended up staying a whole year.”
Today Bello, 25, tends a herd of 70 goats on her own spankin’- new, 86-acre goat dairy in Waialua — the only certified one on Oahu — called Sweet Land Farm, where she produces a light, spreadable chevre in five flavors. Already her product is popular at farmers markets, and waiting in the wings is a deal with Whole Foods Market slated for early next year. And if that isn’t enough, chef Alan Wong has taken to championing Bello, putting her product on his menu and front and center at food events.
During her time at Leeward, Bello did an externship at Wong’s restaurant, and the chef knew she had plans for a dairy.
“I told her, ‘When you’re ready, give us a call.’ She did, and we went out to her farm and tried the cheese. It’s a great fresh chevre — creamy with good balance and slight acidity,” he said. “We bought her cheese on the spot. We were her first paying customer.”
Bello makes cheese three times a week in 32- to 52-gallon batches in her certified kitchen on-site. The process takes more than a day, from pasteurizing the milk to adding culture. After 24 hours of solidifying, the cheese is scooped into cheesecloth bags, which then rest in slotted trays over buckets and are slowly drained of liquidy whey. Bello goes by sight and feel to decide when the cheese has drained enough to achieve the proper consistency — creamy and spreadable.
She hopes someday to add tomme, Gouda and “bloomy rind” cheeses to her production.
Bello and her family — parents Mary and Eric, and brother Austin — have big plans for Sweet Land, including agri-tours, a retail store and a cafe. Among the products for sale will be a signature dessert that combines Bello’s culinary training with the fruits of her labor: a pineapple cheesecake that’s already earned raves from family and friends. Another product for the shelves, and soon, the farmers markets, is her mother’s “killer” caramel sauce, produced with goat milk and honey that Bello hopes will soon be sourced from hives on-site.
The success of the entire operation, however, begins with those goats that Bello so loves.
Bello milks her goats twice daily, at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. On average, each produces one to two gallons a day.
Ideal dairy goats are bred to have specific characteristics: big udders, teats that aren’t too large or small (so inflation attachments to milk them fit just right), sturdy hooves and legs that aren’t overly heavy, an ability to birth with few issues, and longevity.
Bello is working to develop such a herd. She breeds her goats at 1-1/2 years old, and gestation is five months. Kids are hand-raised by Bello.
“I become their mom,” she said, adding that happy, loving goats have fewer health problems and longer lives. “I want that relationship. I name them all and I talk to them.”
Her maternal role is evident when she enters a pen of 30 7-month-old kids. They flock to Bello, some jumping up on hind hooves, bumping her thin body around to compete for attention, and she is all smiles.
“I love my goats,” she said. “But I can’t be caught dead in a bikini. I’m always bruised all over.”
Beyond a loving mom, “to get good cheese, you need clean, healthy goats, good bedding and housing, and a variety of high-quality feed,” she said. “People say they can taste what the goats eat in the cheese.”
Bello’s goats enjoy a diverse menu of leaves and bark from invasive trees on the farm, including silver oak, christmasberry, haole koa, tulip and eucalyptus, plus branches from tree-trimming companies of coconut fronds, mango, lychee and cyprus trees. Added to the feed mix is Guinea grass on the farm.
In fact, there’s so much tall Guinea grass that Austin Bello has plans for his own business, cutting, baling and wrapping the grass to sell as feed for cows. It’s just one part of the family’s plans to develop a sustainable system at Sweet Land. Wood shavings from Bello’s parents’ millwork business provide bedding for the goats, and the goat waste — hard, dry pellets — is put back into the land as fertilizer.
The farm and all the plans in the works are a family effort. When Emma Bello shared her vision with her parents, Eric Bello financed his daughter’s dream by selling his extensive collection of military vehicles.
Meanwhile, she got experience at Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery in California, and by the time she finished her degree from Leeward this year, she had bred her first goats, purchased from Kauai Kunana Dairy and Redwood Hill.
It’s almost no surprise that Bello has turned to a life of agriculture, since it’s in her blood. She is part of the Peterson family, the iconic clan from Wahiawa that made its name as egg farmers.
As Bello surveys her farm, much of it still undeveloped, what she sees is potential.
“Six years ago I thought I would be baking all my life. But I realized I didn’t want to be in a kitchen all day; I wanted to be outside,” she said. “I grew up working on projects on weekends with my family. They’ve been a huge influence. I’m a workaholic, I love getting my hands dirty. We’ve got a thousand projects going on at one time.
“This is my dream come true. I don’t see this as work. I see it as a way of life.”