Story and photos by Derek Albert
A 5 a.m. phone call that prompts Nathan Miller to strap up his boots to bear a 20-degree wind chill in late January can mean only one thing—kids are on the way. While Miller often does welcome school kids to visit Circle M Farms, these kids are of the four-legged variety.
Dairy producers have maintained a strong foothold in the rolling meadows of Washington Parish making agriculture the basis of the area’s economy. While barns that house much of the area’s dairy cattle operations dot the landscape, the Millers’ Franklinton farmstead is home to a different cloven-hooved species.
Nathan Miller, wife Erin and a couple of farmhands raise a growing goat herd that consists of Nubian, Saanen and Alpine goat breeds. But the burgeoning goat breeders are experimenting with crossbreeding on their family operation.
“We’ve been doing our own crosses very similar to how they are doing crosses in beef and dairy cattle,” Miller said. “The F1 cross—the hybrid vigor that comes out of those animals is amazing.”
The family’s goat operation began in 2015 with a herd consisting mostly of Nubians, Miller said. That particular breed is popular for both milk and meat products, but Miller recognized their value in the quality of its milk.
“The Nubians are very similar to milking short-horned cattle—or Jersey--in that their milk contains really high fat content,” Miller explained. “The Alpine and the Saanen tend to be very similar to Holsteins, where they can fill up a bucket, but it’s not quite as nutritious as the Nubian milk.”
The differing nutritive qualities, production volumes and varying textures are perfect for blending into the various products that the dairy churns out, but Miller has taken to blending milk from one exotic species that makes the operation unique.
Seven head of water buffalo also call Circle M Farms home. Miller explained the docile, yet intelligent creatures are descendants of a herd that were shipped to the U.S. from Southern Italy in the mid-1970s. The exotic breed can no longer be imported into the United States due to the proliferation of brucellosis, Miller said. he is currently blending the water buffalo milk into a 50-50 blend with goat’s milk to create a blue cheese he has dubbed ‘Rougarou Blue’ because, like the fictitious creature, the product is an amalgamation from different animals.
The Millers also have additional future plans for the water buffalo milk that harkens back to the animal’s Southern Italian roots.
“There are some chefs who want to do some things with the water buffalo milk, but we want to make some mozzarella,” Miller said. “True buffalo mozzarella is legit. If you talk to some of the Italians, they’ll tell you there is nothing better than buffalo mozzarella.”
Southern Maids Dairy milked 77 goats during the 2021 production season. Most of the year’s bounty was sold to New Orleans-based retailer St. James Cheese Company. Consumers can experience the Millers’ array of dairy products from St. James who markets the Millers’ pasteurized milk, yogurt, several varieties of goat cheese, feta and their farm-to-table favorite, cheesecakes. For now, unless you search out the few New Orleans restaurants that feature some of the Southern Maids Dairy products—or buy directly from the Millers—you could be hard-pressed to find the artisanal products. The scarcity is by design.
“We really wanted to be a specialty product,” Erin said. “We don’t want to be in 40 different retail facilities. We want to keep that niche market.”
Neither of the Millers—who are raising sons Jackson,3, and Austin, 5-- aspired to brace sub-freezing temperatures to birth goat kids or herd dozens of goats eight at a time through the operation’s homemade dairy. In fact, maintaining the 40-acre farm is not even either of their full-time jobs. N
Nathan bounced around South Louisiana as the son of a Baptist preacher before settling down along the Northshore to pursue the only career he said he ever wanted to pursue—law enforcement. From behind the badge to behind the wheel, Nathan changed career paths to drive trucks from his homestead in Franklinton. Erin said as close as she came to farming during her Crescent City upbringing was a neighbor who raised chickens.
“We have done everything ourselves with our own capital,” Miller said about financing the agricultural enterprise. “It’s tough…buying fuel, fertilizer, seed and hay right now is not fun,” Miller said of the current industry-wide increases in input costs.
To aid in keeping the input costs at a manageable level, Miller dedicate about 10 acres of the farmstead’s 40-acre total to forage production. While he said he does purchase some peanut hay and alfalfa to feed some of his multi-species herd, he grows crimson clover, ryegrass, wheat and oats for most of the farm’s feed.
As for the future of Southern Maids Dairy, all aspects of the farm are seeing some sort of expansion for the family operation to meet growing demands. Miller just finished the slab for a goat barn that double the current capacity. The operation’s cheese production facility will increase its holding capacity with the installation of new larger pasteurization tanks. Miller said the size of the growing operation is contingent upon only a couple pf factors—the demand for their artisanal products and he and his wife’s sanity.
“I don’t know that we want to get much bigger than we are going to be this year,” Nathan forecasted.
“Seventy-seven (goats) was pretty busy last year, so doubling that will be even busier. We will see what happens at the end of this year. If we keep having demand for it, we will continue to process it.”
For a look at the many products that the Millers sell and the animals that help to make them, visit the Circle M Farms/Southern Maids Dairy Facebook page. For a look at the St. James Cheese company, visit their Web site, www.stjamescheese.com.