A Walk To Remember
At Manor’s Bee Tree Farm & Dairy, it’s all about the goats
by Laurel Miller
Photographs by Filipa Rodrigues
Jenna Kelly Landes wants to revise your notions of what it’s like to be a farmstead cheesemaker. While her social media feeds for Bee Tree Farm & Dairy depict drool-worthy pastoral imagery- frolicking kids, farm visitors strolling wildflower fields accompanied by goats with names like Reba McIntire, Julep and Lavender, bone-white curds being transformed into chevre- Landes accompanies many of these photos and blog posts with the brutal truth.
“Slumped on the couch a few weeks ago, I asked [my husband] Jeremy if perhaps the dairy, the farm, the goats were a colossal mistake, wiping tears of regret as I fondled some rose-colored memories of our past life, all set to the tune in my head of ‘If I Could Turn Back Time.’ Which is to say, in very blunt terms, so far 2018 has used us at its punching bag.”
These from-the-heart revelations are far from self-pitying, however, and just as many reflect the deep love she has for her animals and work. Landes is all about complete transparency when it comes to the triumphs and tragedies inherent to being a small-scale cheesemaker and working mother- one who, until 2016, had a successful career in education related policy work.
Landes grew up in Georgetown riding horses and generally enamored of anything with four legs or wings. She married her college sweetheart, and while she was in grad school at UT, the couple impulsively purchased 15 acres in Manor (today, the farm is 65 acres, total).
Fast-forward to 2012. Landes was a contractor for the Texas Education Agency but felt something vital was missing from her life. “I wanted to dedicate my life to animals,” she says, “but I was also very driven to carve out something for myself from our land, and to create my own identity. It was about getting some control back in my life.”
The couple was already living in the house they’d built in Manor when Landes bought two Nubian-Alpine goats from award-winning cheesemaker Amelia Sweethardt of Pure Luck Farm & Dairy, in Dripping Springs.
Landes began experimenting with cheesemaking at home, and using what she admits were “significant savings,” the couple broke ground on their dairy and creamery in late 2014. With the ongoing help of Sweethardt, whom Landes credits as being a mentor (“She took me under her wing and was my primary sounding board- none of this would have happened as quickly as it did without her.”) the necessary permits and Grade A dairy license were obtained, and Bee Tree Farm sold its first legal cheeses in the spring of 2016. In the middle of all of this upheaval, Landes gave birth to twins in July 2015.
“We’d been trying for years to start a family, but it wasn’t happening,” she says. “Then I got pregnant. It’s been really crazy, but fortunately, we had a ton of family to help out with childcare- having kids wasn’t going to stop me from moving forward with the dairy. That said, work these days has to slip often in order to make time for family, and Jeremy pulls an enormous amount of weight in the parenting department.”
Landes notes that her evolution to cheesemaker has been “trial by fire.” Today, she has 40 Nubian, Alpine and cross-breed does and four bucks, and part-time help with cheesemaking and herd management. Bee Tree produces four pasteurized cheeses: a creamy feta, halloumi, a heart-shaped fresh chevre called Mi Corazon, Diablito, a chipotle honey chevre, and Besos, a riff on the thick Icelandic-style cultured product called skyr (one of Landes’s customers describes it as, “the magical love child of yogurt and mascarpone.” Agreed.).
“The most gratifying aspect of cheesemaking is being able to control every aspect of the creation of this food, from the animal’s breeding and birth, to milking and making the final product,” says Landes. “It makes it so much more meaningful…I would never make cheese with milk purchased from another farm. The singular reason I make cheese is because it’s sourced from my own herd.”
Landes’s dairy products are sold at the Wednesday Mueller farmers market, as well as Wheatsville Co-op, Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, Boggy Creek Farm, Central Market (starting February 2019) and via Farmhouse Delivery. Bee Tree cheeses are also on the menu at Epicerie, Lenoir, Winebelly, Drink.Well., and 24 Diner.
A growing component of Landes’s business, however, are classes and farm tours.
“Meeting my customers is one of my favorite parts of being a cheesemaker,” says Landes. “I love seeing the way people fall in love with the goats.” There’s a bigger picture as to why Bee Tree has opened the farm to the public, however.
“A lot of people don’t consider the financial aspects of dairy … I’m very upfront, both on social media and tours. I want people to know the realities of cheesemaking, why I charge what I do, the real costs of agriculture. I think my customers appreciate it.”
While many farmstead cheesemakers offer tours, there’s something both intimate and blissfully informal about Bee Tree’s caprine events. Guests wander the pasture, drink in hand, often accompanied by the six Anatolian-Pyrenees-cross livestock guardian dogs (including frequent social media subject Frankie, still a pup), or sit around chatting with blissed-out baby goats in their laps. Landes is the consummate host, chatting with guests, pouring wine, selling cheese and answering questions. Many of her visitors are regulars who attend every event.
As for the animals in question, “They love the attention,” says Landes. “But this is also a great source of revenue and a way to provide a hands-on connection for customers with the source of their food.”
Despite the inevitable setbacks, Landes has found her happy place. “It’s truly about my love of the goats that I do this. But I find the whole cycle of dairy to be beautiful.”