- By Addie Broyles American-Statesman Staff
Jenna Kelly-Landes mastered the art of persuasion during her 20s when she worked as a public policy lobbyist and consultant, but she still has a hard time getting restaurants to return her calls about cheese.
Now a cheesemaker and dairy farmer, she makes chevre, feta and halloumi with milk from the goats on her 65-acre Bee Tree Farm in eastern Travis County. For the past year, she’s been trying to get her foot in the door in the local food scene in Austin.
As if raising and milking goats weren’t a full-time job, she also pasteurizes the milk, makes the cheese and markets and sells it to customers.
Oh, and she has 2-year-old twins.
“We took a bet on the dairy and IVF the same year,” Kelly-Landes, 36, says.
Her journey to becoming a cheesemaker began about a decade ago when she and her husband, Jeremy Crawley, who were both raised in Georgetown, read books like “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” and started to get curious about agrarian life.
“The minute I got into grad school, we got chickens for our backyard in a cul-de-sac in suburban Austin,” she says. By the following summer, curiosity about buying property in the country turned into a contract on an initial 15 acres of overgrown land south of Manor. Scruffy mesquite and cactus covered the ground. An abandoned couch sat near the gate.
“The weekend after we closed, we came out here with a picnic lunch to start clearing the land. We brought a pitchfork and a pair of garden shears. It’s so hilarious now,” she says. “We had no idea what we were doing.”
They bought a tractor and chainsaws to replace the gardening tools. They built fences and shot rattlesnakes. For two years, the couple traveled during the workweek for their city jobs and cleared the land on the weekends.
They started making plans to build a house, but Kelly-Landes didn’t want to build a farm only to go to a job in the city. She had to figure out how to make a living off the land. Cows were unruly. Chickens weren’t lucrative enough. Goats, however, had always been special. Her family kept a pet goat when she was a child, and she knew they were as useful as they were entertaining.
She reached out to Amelia Sweetheart, the second-generation owner of Pure Luck Farm and Dairy in Dripping Springs, who is one of the best-known cheesemakers in the state.
“She’s the most supportive person in terms of wanting to grow the Texas cheese community,” Kelly-Landes says, but also was honest about how difficult every step would be.
Thanks to Sweetheart, Kelly-Landes knew she’d need to start working with state inspectors several years before she hoped to break ground on the dairy, much less actually start selling cheese. Despite the unknowns, Kelly-Landes decided it was time to get her first goats.
“I was on a trajectory that could have been good for me and my husband professionally,” she says. “The scariest part was slamming the door on the professional path. When I made the decision to shut that door, I knew there was no turning back.”
That was 2012. She wouldn’t sell her first package of chevre for another four years. Building a dairy from scratch took longer than getting her master’s degree, but now that she’s fully operational, she knows that goat-rearing and cheesemaking are the work she wants to do for the rest of her life.
Clever and cunning
In her small dairy, Kelly-Landes can milk about half of her goats at a time, sometimes twice a day.
The milk goes into a pasteurizer in the commercial kitchen next door, where she then transforms it into the three cheeses she’s making right now. Because the cheese is produced completely on her farm, she’s considered a farmstead cheesemaker, one of just a few in Texas.
“I didn’t come to this because I was dreaming to be a cheesemaker,” she says. “I was dreaming of a way I could make a life off the goats and with the goats.”
She relishes the long walks they take around the hilly, wooded property. A trio of Great Pyrenees dogs wrangles the herd, but the goats stick together, quietly bleating or rubbing up against their favorite human for a scratch on the forehead.
Kelly-Landes is happy to oblige, keeping the goats within reach as she walks them from the dairy to the barn. “Goats are clever and cunning. They fight and make up. They respect each other, they disrupt each other and hold grudges,” she says. “They have all these characteristics of human society that I respect.”
They all have names, including two milkers named Luci and Lynda, offspring of two of her original goats, Lady Bird and a buck named LBJ. She has more than 30 goats in all, including some babies that she raises near the house and a handful of males.
“We try to provide the most natural spaces for the animals we keep,” she says. “It’s hard to dairy in wild spaces, but I see how they act on those walks. They are doing what they are supposed to be doing.”
Little fish, big pond
Kelly-Landes first started selling cheese in Williamson County at the farmers market and to chef Jacob Hilbert at the Hollow. Farmhouse Delivery picked her up, then Boggy Creek Farm for its farm stand and Lenoir. Antonelli’s Cheese Shop started selling her cheese over the summer, and they also act as a distributor and broker and are helping her get her cheeses into local restaurants. You can now find her cheeses at Epicerie, Hightower, Stella Public House and Halcyon.
Local, sustainable food is a tough business to be in, even in a local-loving city like Austin. Restaurants struggle to keep dining rooms full, and farmers struggle to staff multiple farmers markets each weekend and keep their wholesale prices competitive but profitable.
Kelly-Landes knows she’s entering a market that already has two prominent goat cheesemakers with loyal clients — Pure Luck and CKC. She’s in the sample-giving and door-knocking phase to drum up a customer base.
“I’m a little fish in a huge food pond of a food community,” she says.
She’s trying to set herself apart with halloumi, a Middle Eastern cheese that you couldn’t find locally until she started to make it. The byproduct of halloumi is ricotta, a cheese that doesn’t last as long as others and so needs to be sold quickly. Because Kelly-Landes doesn’t have a buyer for it, she’s feeding it to the animals.
Balancing business and family is a struggle she’s still learning how to handle.
“It’s really tough to get the timing right between when you’re going to make your cheese, when you’re going to milk the goats in the morning, when you’re going to have child care for your children, when your husband, who is the primary caregiver, is going to work,” she says. “I live in the middle of my work. The baby goats are right by the house. I’m always on social media. There’s not a place I can be with the kids where I can be disengaged.”
Yet she knows her children are watching her build something she’s passionate about. “If I didn’t absolutely love the animals, it wouldn’t be worth it,” she says.
With several solid accounts, she has some steady business, but the road ahead is about as unclear as the land she and her husband bought all those years ago.
“We’re living the dream, but the hard part is stopping and remembering how far we’ve come. It’s so much harder than I thought it was going to be,” she says. “It’s either who you are or who you aren’t.”