By Lesley S. King
Sometimes, in life, we don’t know what our dreams are until we’ve traveled the meandering road to find them. Such is the story of Sweetwoods Dairy in Peña Blanca. Today, I stand among fields with views stretching down to the Rio Grande bosque south of Santa Fe. Next to me Patrice Harrison-Inglis steps through her herd of goats. They neigh and nudge against us, nibbling her fingertips and my jacket, a faint hint of sour muskiness in the air.
“That’s Flyer—named because of her ears,” Patrice says, pointing out a goat with long floppy ears. “And that’s Shamrock,” she continues. “I’m not a number person, so each has to have a name.”
That points to the very personal nature of this farm, which produces the coveted little rounds of soft goat cheese flavored with a variety of fresh ingredients including basil, garlic, dill and green chile. The farm also sells hard cheeses, feta, yogurt and goat milk. A fixture at the Farmers’ Market since 1991, the business has grown right alongside many of its clientele. “I have customers who as babies drank our milk and now they’re grown up and buying chile cheese,” Patrice says.
The story of this “hobby that got out of control,” as she calls it, began in northern California, where Patrice and her husband Harrison lived a fast-paced city life. One day, their infant son, Ben, became ill. His leukemia forced the family to move to the country so they could live more modestly. Patrice continued her career as a secretary for a computer company in Silicon Valley, while Harrison stayed home to care for Ben and maintain their primitive cabin in trade for rent. The family bought a pregnant goat to milk, and Patrice, in her spare time, began making cheese. Over the years, the hobby expanded until the family—now with two children—moved to New Mexico, Harrison’s home state, to become full-time cheese makers.
Today, with a fall sun slanting in the sky, that small start has become a herd of 100 goats comprised of three breeds. The white-colored Swiss Saanens, the brown French Alpines and the mixed-colored American La Mancha each have their own unique traits. “I favor the Saneens, because they’re very sociable,” says Patrice. “The Alpines like to fight with each other, and the American ones are very contrary and meddlesome. They’ll pick a gate latch open and let everyone out. They’re also very playful, though,” she adds fondly. We push the herd into a chute which leads to the milking parlor. Then, inside, Patrice opens a gate and allows five goats onto a platform much like a fashion modeling runway. They immediately dip their heads into buckets of grain, while Patrice hooks the milker to their udders.
Theplace is immaculately clean, as is the cheese-making kitchen adjacent, where we head after all the goats have made a pass through the parlor. The secret of Sweetwoods' cheese is a Bulgarian yogurt culture which makes it mild, with only a hint of“goaty” flavor. As well, the goats are fed sweet alfalfa, which adds to the delicate flavor of the milk. Patrice’s son Les joins us in the kitchen, stirring in a stainless steel vat milk that will become cajeta, caramel syrup prized in many New Mexican recipes. In recent years, Les has taken on more and more of the family business. The reason is another tragedy in the meandering road of the family’s life.
Above us on the wall is inscribed: “The Lord is near to the broken hearted; He saves those who are crushed in spirit.” With the Sweetwoods business booming—“We have markets that are waiting for our cheese,” says Patrice—her family life has met with immense challenge. Her husband, Harrison, who built their home and barns and has been an active part of the business, is now confined to a wheelchair, the result of exposure years ago to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. And, most recently, their son Ben—who first spurred the move toward this business and had 21years free of the leukemia that plagued him as a child—was hit and killed by a car while bicycling.
The weight of the latter tragedy was so heavy that, for the first time, Patrice considered closing the dairy. She thought that Harrison and Les would be relieved, after all these years of helping with her expanded hobby. But she was wrong. “They insisted that we keep going,” she says with a catch in her throat.
Now, she and I are back outside in a pen among the kid goats. With youthful exuberance they jump on her legs, and when she kneels within them, they crawl onto her lap. She helped birth these babies. Then she bottle fed them until they could eat hay. One day they will be milkers in the herd. “They play so much,” she says, her blue eyes sparkling with fondness and hope. “When they’re young, they always play.” She stands up and looks around at her herd, the fields stretching down to the bosque and the bright blue sky. I’m reminded of another phrase that she, a devout Christian, has written on the milking parlor wall: “When you see these things, rejoice, for your salvation is near.”