Max fills a small plastic squeeze bottle with a green liquid (teat dip). “Hi Puzzle. Morning, Mayhem.” He turns, explaining: “It’s the same order, every day, twice a day. If not exactly, then very close.” The goats are creatures of habit, and in many ways, as the machine pops then starts to hum, and the first task of the day begins in earnest, so are the Sandvoss brothers.They knew what they were getting into. Though they grew in a suburb of New York City and attended prestigious colleges, in their twenties, they separately left promising careers and lit out for the territory. For them, this meant apprenticing at a small farm in Washington State, where they learned and honed the skills they are demonstrating right now, as the sun starts to come up over Western New York.
You have to be a morning person if you’re a farmer. You also have to be an evening person. And during kidding season, when the farm’s population doubles or triples (several of the goats gave birth to quads this season), you’d better count on being a middle-of-the-night person too. “We work hard. A lot of people work hard, not just farmers. But there’s a satisfying rhythm to this lifestyle. Of course, it’s the goats doing most of the work. But we turn what they make into delicious food, which is extremely rewarding,” Trystan says.
Max volunteers: “Our mom found some pictures of us from when we were little kids. We were at a summer camp that was on an old farm where we learned how to take care of animals — feeding, mucking out stalls. I don’t think that’s what did it, but it’s interesting to see that — the germ of it all, in a way.”
Trystan offers, “I like goats. They’re manageable, in terms of their size. They’re expressive and they have unique personalities.” Just as he says it, a cacophony of cries explodes from the barn. “Hungry babies,” he says, then turns to Max. “You want to feed kids or clean?”
First Light Farm is on an L-shaped plot of land that was a pear orchard in the 1920s. Much of their corner of Genesee County was pears then, and most of it is dairy country now — including their stepdad’s Lor-Rob Dairy, the next farm up the road from First Light.
It was he who brought them to Western NY. Their mom, Joyce, married him in 2007, and together they began a quiet but earnest campaign to bring them back from the West Coast.
It wasn’t difficult to do. The land here is perfect for dairying — a relatively temperate climate with fertile soil, the wide expanses of gently rolling fields — though there tend to be more cows than goats.
First Light Farm produces both goat’s milk and cow’s milk dairy products. In four fast years that they’ve been here, their product line has expanded quickly and to great effect.
“We started out with a fairly small supply of goat’s milk, so we reached out to our neighbor, who runs a Certified Organic Jersey Dairy, and started making blended milk cheeses,” Trystan explains, flipping a switch above a tangle of plumbing lines marked, “Electrobrain.” “Since then, our herd has multiplied and our supply has grown. So we have the ability to make lots of different kinds of cheeses, and we’ve moved beyond cheese too. We’re at the scale where we can be flexible and make what people ask for.”
People have been asking for yogurt, and now, after a 600 square foot expansion of the creamery they originally built in 2010, this spring, the Sandvoss brothers are debuting whole cream-top yogurt. Cream-top yogurt is thick, and because of the strain of cultures they’ve settled on, it’s sweet and rich. They also have started bottling milk, introducing to Buffalo and Rochester a new way of thinking about fluid milk.
Or is it new? According to the brothers, rather than an innovation, cream-top whole milk is actually more of a throwback to the way we used to consume milk, before the industrialization of the dairy industry. When Trystan and Max describe their milk, it tends to be in terms of what it’s not: “non-homogenized,” “not standardized,” “low temperature pasteurized” (the lowest legal temperature allowed by law, it turns out), “single farm-sourced,” which in particular points to the fact that milk available in grocery stores is collectivized from many farms in enormous silos housed at milk plants before being widely distributed.
Trystan is quick to point out: “We meet a lot of people at farmer’s markets who have a wide range of food values. We don’t denigrate anybody’s values. We just stand behind our practices and believe in the integrity of the artisanal process. We make small batches; we use our hands. Our goal when we started First Light was to make the kind of food we like to eat.”
Max adds, “The best way to make decisions about food is first to get to know the person who makes it or grows it. And then taste it.”
As rustic as the barn is, and as bucolic as their rolling pastures are, however, the creamery could be mistaken for a lab: sparkling white walls, stainless steel. The Sandvoss brothers have combined traditional recipes and an approach based on passion with cutting edge technology. It’s 2:00 pm, now, and at the moment, Trystan is checking the pH of the curd, which has a loose texture that he’s deemed correct. “6.18. Hit the target,” he says with satisfaction, as Max notes it on their iPad. From the large windows of the creamery, the goats are visible out on the pasture, grouped in little clusters, munching happily on grass, unaware of the alchemy that’s happening inside at the moment.
Though their step-father is a farmer, the Sandvoss brothers don’t come from a long line of dairymen, and a stark truth of First Light is that they inherited neither their trade nor their farm itself. As Trystan starts to lay cheesecloth into round stainless steel forms, Max addresses in a roundabout way the question they are asked most commonly.
“We found our way to farming. We chose this life. Our dad was an immigrant from Switzerland. He worked his way through Yale and
became a lawyer, and eventually opened his own firm. He was… a spirited individualist. Our mom comes from a long line of hardy Midwesterners. Just like our dad, she was driven and charismatic and self motivated, and had a long career as a public school teacher. When our dad died unexpectedly in 1997, she held our family together, and made sure that the opportunities they’d planned for us didn’t disappear. People came out of the woodwork and helped us along the way.”
Trystan is now loading the forms into a press, and Max is assisting. The cheese will press overnight, then be put into an aging cave where it will be held at 55 degrees Fahrenheit for three weeks, at which point it will be Monterrey Jack cheese, which First Light calls Eastern Standard Jack. Max continues: “We’re happy to share our story with people. Between the two of us, we’ve lived all over the country and had a lot of education, in the large sense of the word, in the sense of exposure to what’s out there, what’s possible. We’re happy people are interested.”
What’s next for First Light? This spring, Trystan and Max will launch Dairy Share, which Trystan explains with excitement. “So, since the beginning, we’ve always been thinking about how to do better. Dairy Share is a CSA model of distribution that allows people to get exceptional, artisanal dairy products delivered weekly to retail stores that act as drop points. Because all of it is pre-sold, we can lower our prices substantially.”
“It combines the advantages of a traditional CSA with the convenience of retail shopping,” Max explains, pointing out that the reason Dairy CSAs are rare to non-existent is the refrigeration requirement that doesn’t necessarily apply to vegetables, fruits and baked goods. “We thought a lot about how to surmount that challenge, and eventually we approached some of the retail stores that were already selling our stuff and pitched the idea. And we found it was a real winner.” In addition, the structure of Dairy Share allows customers a lot of options which other CSAs may not have the flexibility to offer.
As the golden light of afternoon filters across the farm, there’s just a moment for a deeper reflection. Trystan takes a deep breath, then says: “We’re lucky guys. We know it. Our parents and our mentors always told us we could do anything we want with our lives. We’ve been given a lot.”
They’re changing back into farm clothes now — overalls and boots. Max agrees: “What we’re doing? It’s a lot of work, but it’s not just us. This wouldn’t be possible without the help of a lot of people — our friends and family.”
An alarm on Max’s iPhone chirps — 5:15pm, time to roll. Trystan adds, “A business like ours thrives because people get excited about it and share it with their friends. So, we’re building a community. That’s the heart of it.”
The hum and pop of the milking machine fires up, the hungry, excited cries of the goats echo across First Light Farm, and as the brothers head out to the barn, a cycle nearly as old as civilization rounds itself out.