Sequoia Farm’s 96 acres undulate over the rolling hills of Big Valley near the town of Belleville, where the side roads are rutted by Amish wagon wheels and the open fields are generally unrestrained by fencing. Draft horses pulling a wagon slow you down to a pace that allows you to realize just how beautiful the valley is, with rich brown soil recently tilled and ready to be planted. You slow down.
But not all things are slow here. Byler Goat Dairy is amping up production and creating a center of industry that radiates as far as Lancaster, where the milk is shipped on a weekly basis. James and Darla Byler raise goats at Sequoia Farm, named after the huge, virgin oak trees on the property.
One of those trees is adjacent to the barn that James’ great-grandmother, Lydia Peachey, built in 1920 using lumber from the farm. Jim’s father was born at the farm and the family connection to the land is a driving force.
Sequoia Farm formerly was a dairy operation, but the Bylers sold off the herd in the mid-1980s, when the family’s interest in dairy farming waned. At the time, James was working as a truck driver, a job that provided more income. But his first love, after Darla, was the farm, so he found a way to revive it.
In March 2009, at the age of 52, James decided he needed to make the farm self-supporting and create a new industry. He had goats when he was a child and always wanted to be a goat farmer, so he acquired a herd and commenced.
The Internet taught Darla about cheesemaking, and James started to market his products at the Boalsburg farmers market. These days, he is a vendor at Boalsburg on Tuesdays and at the North Atherton Street farmers markets on Saturdays, and he also sells his products at the Weis markets on Rolling Ridge Drive and in Bellefonte, at Wegmans and at Nature’s Pantry.
Darla recently worked on a 25-gallon batch of chocolate milk that she bottles herself with a pump system. The chocolate milk is sold in pints, quarts and half gallons — and given away as samples at the farmers markets, which seems to pretty much guarantee that there is always a line in front of their vendor table.
The fresh goat milk is sold as raw or pasteurized milk and is popular with people who are lactose intolerant because it is easier to digest.
Darla makes fresh goat milk cheeses, currently a plain soft chevre as well as one infused with herbs and garlic. She also makes two varieties of cheese curds, similar to a firm, fresh ricotta; drinkable yogurt in “to go” bottles; and kefir, a goat milk beverage fermented with lactic acid bacteria and yeasts.
The farm sends its fresh goat milk out to cheesemakers in Turbotville and Halifax for varieties such as goat milk cheddar, gouda, feta and flavored, Italian-style cheeses because the farmers currently do not have the ability to make and age the cheeses in their facility.
In the summer, when the goats are producing a lot of milk, Darla makes an ice cream mix that she sends out to be made into the finished product. Her vanilla, butter pecan and black raspberry ice creams are the best-kept secrets in town. Oops — the word just got out.
Currently, the farm has 75 milking goats that are milked 10 at a time to produce about 50 gallons of milk a day.
The breeds are Nubian, Alpine and Saanen. The grain that the animals eat is grown on the farm and the animals also have access to grass in the pasture.
The goats are milked at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. each day, while they eat, so they are happy to queue up and get hooked to the milking machine.
At the current level of production, the farm is considered a microdairy, though James dreams of some of his children taking over the operation some day, and his goal is to increase the business.
It has to get larger; the Byler family is growing. There are four Byler offspring who range in age from 28 to 34, and the couple now has eight grandchildren 6 years old and younger.
That number will increase to 10 in August. Three of the granddaughters live nearby, and Jim is training one of the goats to pull a cart so the girls can get a ride around the farm.
The Bylers also are active members of the Brethren in Christ Church, a Christian denomination with Anabaptist roots that started in 1778 in Pennsylvania, and live a life centered on values that build community and help maintain their special place of peace at Sequoia Farm.
They are connected — via the Web and cellphone — as much as is necessary to build their business, but James and Darla primarily enjoy the life they were born into and seek to preserve their farming tradition.
“This was a dairy farm, but then no one wanted to milk cows anymore,” James said. “We wanted to make an operational farm that we could pass on to our family, something that could be self-supporting. The farmers markets have become so much stronger, and the retail market for goat dairy products seemed to be exploding. I felt we were at the right place at the right time.”
Indeed, perhaps the right place for all time.