From the 5 north, to the Sierra Highway, just 5 miles beyond the snow-capped, quaint, apple-pie-cooling-on-the-windowsill-town of Wrightwood, take Barrel Springs Road to Mount Emma Road to Fort Tejon Road and finally a dirt path — Big Pines Road leads you to a big red barn that is the nerve center of Angeles Crest Creamery.
When you arrive you’ll likely be greeted by two polar-white Great Pyrenees dogs, fluffy and curious. They’ll nose your hand until you pet them, and the alpha likely will station himself on your feet until their owner, Gloria Putnam, arrives. There are four of these robust dogs, who guard the herd of 60 Nubian, Saanen, Alpine and Snubian goats.
After the induction from the dog, Grit, the male stud goat, a Nubian with no horns and eyes almost crossed, will likely greet you, nudge for a pet, nip at your sleeve, and some of the other free-roaming goats will follow close behind. Along with the goats is a hefty black-and-white spotted pig. Baby goats baa as they do in nursery rhymes. A turkey gobbles around.
Beyond the barn, sunlight glints off a classic Airstream trailer. In the distance you can make out a tiny yellow homesteading cabin, complete with porch and outdoor clawfoot tub. Guests can stay on the ranch and learn to milk goats, hike with the goats as they forage on the ranch, and enjoy healthy and delicious food.
Putnam, our host and goatherd, cruises around on her golf cart, a radio that doubles as a GPS to track the dogs hooked into her jeans. She wears knee-high evergreen Hunter rain boots, to protect her feet from the mud and cold. Her background, she says, isn’t in farming or goats — she’s a physicist by trade and worked in the tech industry. She began this venture back in Altadena, where she owned 20 goats and would host people for dinners and cheese-making classes. Her guests would comment, “Wow, this is so sustainable,” yet tugging at her was the unfinished truth, the feed, a grain she had sent in from somewhere else … a menace on her conscience.
Almost immediately she informs me, “The Earth has 50 more harvests.” Upon further research I found this number is an average. According to an article in Popular Science, in the United Kingdom that number is 100 harvests and in the United States the number is even higher, but for other parts of the world — Africa, India, China and parts of South America — the number of remaining harvests is lower, meaning that in less than 60 years the topsoil will no longer support the growing and harvesting of food.
The number of harvests we have left, whether it’s 60 or 90 or 30, isn’t the point. The point is that if we do not change the way we farm and build, we will run out of soil. We came here to learn about goats but we are now learning about soil, and that is exactly as Putnam would like it.
She’s practical and pretty in a T-shirt, jeans, jacket and a thick mane of wild curly brown hair; she’s sure-footed in and out of the pen lining up the goats for milking. She wanted to know if there was a way she could build a sustainable agricultural project. It began as a question, a way to develop her metropolitan farm-to-table hobby into something radical.
“I’m learning here,” Putnam says, “is there a way to replicate this? Can we act as a food shed for all of L.A.? It’s an interesting question.” Angeles Crest Creamery’s mission is the development of a regenerative mountain agriculture. What exactly does that mean? Put simply, produce food that improves the land with the least input, the least amount of deviations. Putnam is changing the idea of what it means to make good food, she says. “We need a more radical idea about what we considered it meant to make good food in the past.”
Agricultural consultant Dr. Sarah Taber recently said, “If land has a large amount of water, grow crops; if you have a large amount of land and little water, grow ruminants.” Put even more simply: Do what the land does.
Tiny barn mice skitter across the ground as Putnam lines up the does for milking. The first goat to get fed is her very first goat, Rosie, who gets to eat undisturbed. Once she’s done, four does eagerly scramble in at a time; each one steps on a platform and munches away. Putnam says she’s made only slight modifications here: She supplements the goats’ food in the winter, and she’s added the dogs to protect the goats from predators.
Putnam wipes the does' udders with an antibacterial wipe and then gives each teet a squirt to clear out any blockage before milking them. All the while she explains the process and her project: “In the best of all possible worlds, we’d have enough agritourism, so the place pays for itself and I could teach workshops.” Putnam leads hikes, and encourages folks to stay overnight and participate in milking and coffee-roasting lessons. Later she’ll cook the milk for six hours in a metal vat and make delicious jars of cajeta, goat’s milk caramel. You can purchase these items on the farm's Facebook page.
When asked what the most difficult lesson has been so far, Putnam says learning by way of her mistakes — sometimes that means costing animals their lives. She’s had a lot of painful lessons over the years, mostly from lack of knowledge in their care, specifically how to care for them when they’re giving birth. As for her most rewarding moment, she says that changes over time. She does remember, for example, when she first moved to the 70-acre-ranch, it was just her and 20 goats and she had one wheel of 2-year-old aged Gouda she’d made. To stay here with the goats and eat the delicious cheese she made was satisfying.
Like me, initially you may have thought it was about the goats — feeding them, birthing them — but in time you discover it’s about something much greater. It’s about the Earth and sustainability. It’s about more giving and less taking.
Angeles Crest Creamery, 19830 Big Pines Hwy., Valyermo; events listings at eventbrite.com/o/angeles-crest-creamery-11098711927