As Steve Tate carefully chops a long renewable row of “Cut-and-Come-Again” lettuce for the evening’s 65-person dinner at Goat Lady Dairy, he tells a story of sustainability that defines his family, his livelihood and his generation.
Tate, 60, his wife Lee and their two adult sons operate the popular dairy and whole foods dining tradition in northern Randolph County. His late sister, Ginnie, moved from Illinois and purchased the abandoned farm in 1984.
Tate still marvels at his sister’s visionary business plan that attracted his family to leave Minneapolis in 1995 and become partners.
“Experts we talked to literally laughed at my sister’s plan to milk goats and make cheese,” says Tate who, today, can take pride in a booming and personally fulfilling business that was ideally positioned to catch the wave of the local foods trend.
Goat Lady Dairy is a model of balance. Tate uses the analogy of a three-legged milking stool to describe his gauge of success: “(within the business) Planet, profit and people each have to be equally nurtured for the stool to function.” He describes the farm as a mission and recalls the zeal of youth in the 1950s and 1960s. His circle of friends was inspired by back-to-land writers like Scott and Helen Nearing whose 1954 book, Living the Good Life, and other titles informed a generation seeking authenticity, a more just society and environmental stewardship.
However, Tate articulates his free-market philosophy with the intensity of a well-schooled businessman (he and Lee hold advanced degrees in psychology and education). “We took short courses offered by university dairy departments at the time,” says Tate. “But most importantly, because of our educations, we knew how to think and problem solve.”
Today, the family-owned enterprise includes a total of 75 acres and three business lines: cheese, community supported agriculture and special events. Goat Lady Dairy cheeses are sold across NC to chefs and specialty stores and at Greensboro farmers markets. Dairy products, pasture raised meats and organic vegetables from the farm are served to the many guests who dine at the dairy one weekend per month (reservations required). Also, the land is protected by the Piedmont Triad Land Conservancy to assure it will always be either farmed or undeveloped. The dairy’s rustic dining hall is a charming location for weddings, receptions and similar events. Four full-time employees and a team of part-timers make it all come together in a folksy but profitable brand.
Sustainability is woven into every aspect of the operation, including the exit strategy of the senior Tates. “I’ve counseled families with family businesses and we’ve found that it’s important that you really have to set a date to retire to allow the next generation to step in,” says Tate. “Ours is November 17, 2016.”
Steve and Lee Tate have six more years before handing over the business to their sons, but they’re already passing on their experience and knowledge to the younger generations at large. “I’m so impressed with young people today who seek me out about sustainable farming,” says Tate. “When I was 20, I sincerely believed we’d have to be living in bubble cities when I was 60, but today I’m very hopeful to see environmentalism so mainstream.”
As Tate describes the past 15 years, it becomes clear that the experience of the Baby Boom generation certainly influenced everything that is Goat Lady Dairy.
“The 60s were a time when we were excited about improving the world,” he says. “The ‘peace and prosperity’ of the 1950s was good because out of that stability, we Boomers could question things.”
Tate is optimistic about the future and the possibilities of grassroots movements like local foods, sustainable agriculture and alternative energy. “It took the American consumer to do this by gradually getting educated and voting with their dollars,” he says.
The Goat Lady Dairy philosophy sums up the mission: “When you change a person’s relationship with their food, you change them and the world forever.”