Marcia St. John runs one of the only grass- and brush-fed goat dairies in Washington.
Marcia St. John runs one of the only grass- and brush-fed goat dairies in Washington.

Marcia St. John was preparing for a digital apocalypse when she bought her first dairy goats.

With the new millennium approaching, she wanted to know how to feed her family in case the Y2K problem threw the world into chaos. She illegally stowed four Oberhasli does in her Ballard backyard in November 1999.

A collapse never occurred, but the experience drastically changed St. John’s perspective. She eventually closed her profitable, high-end cleaning business, and started a creamery. Today, just outside Monroe, she she is one of the few certified commercial raw milk operations in the state.  

St. John said when she saw a photo of the black and mahogany Oberhasli, she knew thought they were beautiful. They have proven to be a gentle breed with compatible, distinct personalities and a natural inclination to bond.

“They are very emotional creatures,” she said.

While researching Y2K, St. John also became interested in heirloom seeds. She started small-scale farming in Seattle about a decade ago. Her operation expanded, and she moved out of the city in search of greener pastures.

St. John first moved to a farm in Issaquah. After her first husband died, she later remarried and moved St. John’s Creamery to a larger plot in Lake Stevens that suited her needs. She wasn’t able to stay on that land after her divorce,  and scrambled to find space for her herd, which has grown to 165 goats.

The owners of Dog Mountain Farm let her stay on their land in Carnation. St. John was grateful for the welcome, but felt the effects of the move.

Equipment and animals were relocated, milking machinery had to be reinstalled, and potential revenue was lost before Washington State Department of Agriculture could approve the new facility, according to a crowdfunding account set up by a friend to help cover some of the costs. 

St. John repeated the experience again this winter. She found a property to rent on Fern Bluff Road near Monroe. Her white hand-drawn signs are posted along U.S. Highway 2, directing people down Fern Bluff Road to a former cow dairy.

Customers are greeted by a small gang of boisterous but friendly dogs. St. John keeps coolers full of raw milk outside, up against the building where it’s processed. Encounters with rogue goat kids, chickens, or large dogs are common while wandering the property.

“They usually take advantage of gates that aren’t shut or fences that are broken,” St. John said.

Mothers who have already given birth are housed in a pen with their babies by early May. St. John and her  interns take the herd out grazing every day, and they spend up to 10 hours milking.

Dairies like St. John’s follow very strict procedures set by the Washington State Department of Agriculture. A representative of the agency visits the property almost every month to perform tests and make sure the operation is up to code. Washington has adopted a few federal regulations to monitor production as well.

“In the United States, goat milk and other dairy goat products are valued by a growing number of connoisseur consumers,” according to the USDA. “Because of its unique nutritional and biochemical properties, goat milk is also increasingly used by people with cow milk allergies and gastrointestinal disorders.”

Only a few comprehensive studies have been conducted about goat management on a national scale, according to the USDA. The most recent National Animal Health Monitoring System, which is a nonregulatory unit of the agency, was completed in 2009, and the next will be in 2019.

Goats are also raised for their meat, according to the USDA. St. John said raw milk is more regulated because it isn’t pasteurized. The work is tiresome and the hours are long, but being with the animals makes it worthwhile — it’s a very different lifestyle than in the city. 

“Each and every goat has a name, a unique personality, appearance, and place in our hearts,” she writes on her company’s website. “They are healthy and happy in our temperate climate, and are protected by our Anatolian Shepherds.”

For a while, St. John thought most farmers were working full-time, like herself. She said she only recently found out many people have other jobs to help fund their operations.

To make ends meet, she sells baby goats  and milkers every year in addition to the raw milk. She also grows vegetables and raises chickens.

St. John hosts classes in cheese making and caring for goats, and will hire interns in exchange for room and board. She has a steady group of volunteers who help her when the chores pile up.

St. John also breeds and sells the babies of her Anatolian Shepard for extra income. The breed originated in Turkey, and is known for its protective nature.

In each room a half dozen goats wander up and start nudging and tugging at St. John when she joins them. She explained the species has a reputation for chewing anything and everything, but that is because they test things out with their mouths. 

St. John will have to move again shortly. She has a month or two left where she will be at the site in Monroe. She doesn’t have enough to pay upfront for the farm, and the owner is ready to sell. She has her sights on a farm in Arlington.

“I think it’s absolutely beautiful,” she said.