After placing in the top 25 out of 400 entries in the H-E-B grocery store chain’s Quest for Texas Best competition, the pace of business at Thompson Dairy Farms has picked up dramatically. And, with a little luck, the farm’s goat cheese may next find a global market.
Owner and head cheese maker Adam Thompson began marketing hand-crafted aged cheeses from goat’s milk at Rio Grande Valley farmers markets, where he developed a loyal following. Then the business got a big boost after he and his wife Lori threw their hat in the ring for the H-E-B competition.
“I saw an opportunity for growth,” Thompson said. “We didn’t win the top prize but they said they wanted to work with us. We’re now in almost 40 H-E-Bs and they tell us that might double sometime soon.”
The Thompsons bought their five-acre farm in Bayview eight years ago, about the same time their daughter was born. “We decided to have a farm house and teach our kids about where their food comes from,” he said. The little girl was unable to digest cow’s milk and so the Thompsons got some goats and switched to goat’s milk.
Then Thompson began experimenting with cheese making, becoming licensed for commercial sales in 2014. Today, with a herd of more than 40 goats and plans for more, Thompson Dairy Farms can produce a variety of cheese styles such as gouda and gruyere, but the most popular is feta cheese.
“You can make any cheese out of goat’s milk,” he said, noting the natural aging process doesn’t always make for the prettiest chunk of cheese. “But the uglier it is the better it’s going to taste.”
The goats are like family to the Thompsons, who bottle-feed the babies and socialize them with humans and other pets like the family dogs. Thompson said he hopes to double the size of the herd in the near future.
Non-pasteurized cheese is aged in a “cave environment,” a climate-controlled room cooled to a constant 50 degrees with 85-percent humidity. Thompson recently acquired a pasteurizer that will allow for greater productivity and an expansion of product lines. The $20,000 piece of equipment is part of a pattern of re-investing in the business, which has also included the addition of a refrigerated truck. “We don’t have any debt on the farm,” he said. “We are self-funded and put most everything we make back into the farm.”
It took about two years from getting noticed by H-E-B to actually delivering shelf-ready feta cheese to the grocery stores. Logistics had to be worked out, packaging designed and a host of other concerns addressed to meet H-E-B’s standards. “It’s been a journey,” Thompson said, “but they are real good to work with.”
The cheese is sold at about a dozen H-E-B stores throughout the Valley and as far away as Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Austin and Houston. “The Valley stores are the best. We’ve got a lot of Valley support.”
Thompson also is working with the Small Business Administration to become a cheese exporter. The SBA has a loan program designed specifically to help businesses prepare to export by providing funds for capital improvements and marketing. “We have got some interest from Italy and maybe some buyers in Kuwait,” he said. “If you’ve got the money you can expand. We would like to look at a full processing line.”
And the Thompsons have discovered other products made from goat’s milk beyond cheese. La Rose Soap Co. is the brainchild of Lori Thompson. Goat’s milk from the farm and other ingredients such as organic base oils are processed into bar soap by Sarati Laboratories, also in Bayview.
While Thompson Dairy Farms is experiencing a rapid growth spurt, the Thompsons remain true to its more humble beginnings. “We still do our farmers markets where we can interact with our customers.” Their products can be found at a number of farmers markets in the Valley and one in Corpus Christi.