Idaho couple make goat cheese, build a life near Tetons

Kids rush to greet Nate Ray as he delivers their morning meal at his farm in Victor. The young goats are given a month with their mothers before being separated. After three months of being bottle fed, they transition to a diet of hay.
Kids rush to greet Nate Ray as he delivers their morning meal at his farm in Victor. The young goats are given a month with their mothers before being separated. After three months of being bottle fed, they transition to a diet of hay. Jackson Hole News & Guide via AP

Farms don’t happen overnight. Nate Ray and his wife, Ginny Robbins, spent years building their goat cheese farm from scratch.

Five years ago the couple started Winter Winds Farm on Idaho’s eastern edge. They had only four goats, made their cheese in their kitchen and sold it at the Jackson Hole Farmers Market in Wyoming. Ray worked nights as a head chef in Jackson Hole while he saved money to build his farm.

Today the farm has a cheese-making operation with a stainless-steel refrigeration tank, a large vat in a cheese-making room, milking stands for 23 goats and a cheese cave next to pens that house 50 goats.

“Since I kind of built this paycheck to paycheck and did a lot of the work myself, it feels great to be set up and actually doing what I’ve been trying to get to for years: making cheese and producing, instead of just the construction and building phase,” Ray said.

He milks the goats twice a day, every day. The milk is stored in a bulk tank, and every three days Ray makes one of his varieties of cheese. There’s chevre, a soft, fresh variety with a mild flavor; chevre smoked with applewood; tomme, a semi-hard alpine-style cheese; and crottin, a surface-ripened cheese like brie with a rich, tangy flavor.

The soft cheeses must be pasteurized, and the harder cheeses like the tomme must be aged for at least 60 days. While he’s making the cheeses he adds bacteria to the vat to give the cheese its flavor and hinder bad bacteria, and yeast, which adds flavor and creates a rind.

That whole time he’s turning the milk into curds and whey, and depending on which cheese he’s making that day the curd will differ. The bigger the curd, the softer the cheese is. The smaller the curd, the harder the cheese.

Ray is the only employee besides his wife, who helps with the animals when she’s not at her full-time job at Intermountain Aquatics, a habitat restoration company in Driggs.

Ray may not be working in a kitchen anymore, but he’s still a chef at heart, and he uses that mindset.

“I have a good palate, so I know what a good cheese tastes like,” he said. “I know what I’m looking for, I know what kind of final product I’m trying to get. ... But it also comes down to I’m still just making a food product.”

Ray aims to make a new variety each season and get the recipe down. He is trying his hand at making goat cheese Gouda this year.

“You don’t really get instant gratification,” Ray said. “In the restaurant, 10 minutes later you can have something great, whereas cheese making, it takes a lot more time.”

Last year he produced 1,500 pounds of cheese. In comparison the state of Wisconsin made 3 billion pounds of cheese in 2015. Winter Winds Farm will be producing more and more every year, because its facilities can accommodate 100 goats, twice as many as it has now.

While cheese-making brings out the culinary side of Ray, he also has to care for the goats, which is more of a challenge.

“Animal husbandry is frustrating and rewarding and easy and hard all at the same time,” he said.

The goats are fed twice a day, and the kids are bottle-fed twice a day until they can eat solid food. Then there’s hoof trimming, coat brushing and baby-sitting goats that get sick. During the spring the goats are also giving birth; this year 40 kids were born.

Charting every detail, Ray said he keeps meticulous notes so he can look back on batches that turned out well (or badly) and what little variations occurred: how much bacteria and rennet he added, the temperature levels, when the whey was stirred, when it was drained, when it was put in the molds.

This math is easy. It’s knowing what’s happening with the bacteria, because you change the temperature or you change the amount of time the curd is in the whey and the bacteria is growing.

Nate Ray, goat cheese maker

Ray originally went to Western Michigan University to follow in his father’s footsteps as an engineer, but he decided to switch to community college for culinary school. The first few times Ray made cheese he was working in New England restaurants, making mozzarella and ricotta. He was hooked.

He visited a few goat cheese farms in Vermont and saw how everything was done. He decided to move to Oregon and worked at a goat cheese farm for two years. “I learned how to raise animals, make cheese and how to run a business,” Ray said.

He and his wife made the move to the Tetons in 2009. After working in a kitchen for so long, he wanted to own his own business.

They bought 8 acres between Victor and Driggs on the north end of a field. The property holds the cheese-making operation, their quaint home, three goat pens and barns, all built by the couple and their family.

“We can do all the things we love right from our house,” Ray said. “I don’t have to travel on vacation to do the things I like. I can do them right from my doorstep.”

This story is condensed from the original, published by the Jackson Hole News & Guide.