Getting to Know the Goats at Prairie Fruits Farm
The Summer 22' Common Ground Farm Tour Circuit continues! This time we went for a quick drive and stopped off at Prairie Fruits Farm right here in Champaign. We have been selling their cheese for many years now and they are definitely a customer favorite.
We walked into the Farm Store and were immediately greeted by Blu - the resident farm dog and gracious host. Next, we met Wes, who owns and operates the farm with his wife Leslie. Wes and Leslie moved to Champaign-Urbana and started the farm in 2003. Wes grew up on a farm as a kid so he was very familiar with farming and raising livestock. Leslie fell in love with goats and farming while attending a PhD program in Costa Rica. When they opened their doors, they were the first licensed Farmstead Creamery in Illinois, which means that all of their milk and cheese is produced on the farm where the creamery sits. Today they have 7 acres of organically farmed land, and a fleet of happy, healthy goats.
The first stop on our tour was to see their beautiful patio and pergola where they host local food dinners. The dinners began in 2008 as a way to connect to other local farmers and showcase the amazing food that is grown and produced right here in Central Illinois. The building process took off with a rocky start. The area they had chosen was rife with mosquitos, so they built a large raised platform to keep them at bay, and just before their first dinner, the platform crumbled. Not the type to give up easily, they redesigned the area with a stone patio and an amazing wooden pergola hand-built by 8 women and 2 men. The dinners were a massive success, even drawing in celebrity chef Rick Bayless, to whom they provide cheese to for his Chicago restaurant. Benefit dinners with Rick Bayless have helped to fund half of Prairie Fruits Farm's commercial kitchen, as well as $20,000 for local organization Eastern Illinois Foodbank. For now, the dinners are on hold due to Covid concerns, but you can still visit the farm every weekend and enjoy cheese, wine, and gelato on their lovely patio.
After the patio, we wandered over to their lush herb garden. Prairie Fruits grows a variety of herbs and vegetables, some of which are added to their cheese and gelato. They have oregano, milkweed, dill, mint, grapes from Cary's Garden of Eatin', local hops, rhubarb, horseradish, and a field of 3 sisters - beans, corn, and squash. Wes handed each of us a large green leaf and had us try it - turns out it was horseradish, which is delicious but leaves an aftertaste not to be desired. To help cleanse our palette, Wes offered a sampling of their mint gelato. While most mint-flavored food uses mint extract resulting in a green color, they actually steep the mint in milk prior to making the gelato, leading to a beautiful white-colored dessert that tastes like chocolate mint.
We headed to the milking parlor to see where the goats come every day to be milked. Goats are very food motivated, so it is easy to entice them into the milking parlor with a little snack. It was here that Wes gave us a lesson on what it truly means to be pasture-raised. In the farming industry, "pasture-raised" is a loose term, similar to free range or cage-free. According to Wes, less than 1% of livestock in the US are truly pasture-raised. Prairie Fruits Farm is Animal Welfare Approved by A Greener World, meaning "animals are raised outdoors on pasture or range for their entire lives on an independent farm using truly sustainable, high-welfare farming practices" (https://agreenerworld.org/certifications/animal-welfare-approved/standards/). The goats are free to wander the large acreage pasture and their quality of life is reflected in the quality of their products. Wes believes "the most important thing is we are radically transparent", and they have a lot to show for it. As we started walking towards the pasture, the goats spotted us immediately and began the slow march to meet us at the gate. We were instantly surrounded, each of us having to divert our attention between 5-6 goats at once while they said hello and showed us their love. The goats had a variety of unique and eclectic names - individually suited to their specific personalities. It was truly apparent how happy these goats are, and you can tell it is because of how Wes and Leslie run their farm and care for them. If you've never been out to the farm, I can't recommend it enough - being swarmed by friendly and enthusiastic goats was truly a highlight of my life.
We made a quick detour to the baby goat pin (there are no words to describe the cuteness) before heading back to the Farm Store to sample cheese and more gelato. Prairie Fruits makes a variety of cheeses, all made direct from milk to creamery right on the farm. Goat's milk and cheese is a great alternative because it is easier to digest than cow's milk. Wes attributes this to the different goat breeds, their feed, their low-stress lifestyle, and the process of chilling the milk quickly to a low temperature. For the second time ever (and just so happened to be in the same week), I tried raw milk. Prairie Fruits Farm can't legally distribute raw milk, but they can sell it at their Farm Store since it is produced on sight. They make cheeses ranging from soft chevre to tangy feta, to a harder Palota Roja with a spicy pepper rind. Just last week, they entered into the 2022 American Cheese Society's annual competition and won two categories! In the category of Cheeses Aged Less Than 60 days, the Fleur de la Prairie was #1, and in the category of Fresh Rindlesss Goat's Milk Cheese Aged 0 to 30 days, their Chevre Frais took first place.
We are honored to have spent a wonderful morning out at their farm and are so lucky to have them as a staple of our local food community.