By Liz Hansen
For many Americans, January is a month for reflection and self-improvement. Our resolutions begin with the best of intentions, usually centered around health and goodwill, they are a testament of how we long to be better, both as individuals and as a society. But after a couple months or so, resolutions take a back seat to busy schedules, deadlines, and social commitments. Our human nature takes over and we submit to convenience and instant gratification, creating a perpetual cycle of guilt. Every year I long for a better solution to leading a happy, healthy and satisfactory kind of life. Rhonda Gothberg, owner and purveyor of Gothberg Farms, seems to have discovered the secrets to such a lifestyle, and as you may have guessed, it has everything to do with living and supporting local.
If you told Rhonda 20 years ago that she’d be raising goats, selling, and making phenomenal cheese products at retirement age, she probably would’ve laughed you right out the door. But Rhonda has proven to be one of the best goat cheese makers in the region, and her products have become highly sought after across the Pacific Northwest. From the Willows to places like the Marriott in Bellevue, everyone wants a bite. Her product list is lengthy and characterized by unique flavors, like cinnamon Gouda with maple syrup beer, and Chickchack Cheddar that emphasizes notes of hickory and cocoa. The goat’s milk itself is rich and creamy, and doesn’t have that side flavor that is reminiscent of…dare I say, goat smell. One would assume the fresh flavor and diversity of products (32 to be exact) is what’s made her so successful. And while that may be true, Rhonda attributes her success to the local relationships she has and illustrates how it’s made all the difference in the success of her business and contentment in life overall. Additionally, Rhonda and her husband are extremely resourceful, capitalizing on the wealth of local relationships and resources they’ve fostered over the years and their own natural abilities.
“It’s not particularly anything I’ve done, I just try to take really good care of my animals and try make a good, nutritious, wholesome product for our local community. That’s really my goal.” Says Rhonda. She was a nurse before she was a goat farmer and cheese maker, and her nurturing nature is prevalent in her business and farming ethics. The relationships she maintains with employees, neighbors, business associates, community members, and even her goats, are extremely important to her. She offers benefits to her employees and their starting wages are above the state minimum. “These are real, working people, right here,” Rhonda says. “Investing in them, is investing in the community.” As you can imagine, a majority of her employees have been involved with the farm for many years, and she relishes the relationships she has with them. She’s known her “hay guy” for over 20 years and their relationship is more analogous to close family friend than a business acquaintance. Her cheese makers are all women and she describes the space they’ve created as a positive one, “a place to talk it out in a supportive environment.” It’s the kind of setting workers can express themselves and share their trials and tribulations, it’s become a community. “If those walls could talk!” says Rhonda. “We get that XM radio going on outlaw country and sing and dance.”
Rhonda’s goats and her relationship with them are also exceptional. Each one has a name, and they’re excited to see Rhonda when we enter the barn. Her oldest goat and long-time friend, Ditto, is 13 years old “she’s been with me the whole time,” noting Gothberg Farms 14th anniversary in August. Ditto is retired and many farmers would have culled her from the herd. “Every life that’s born here gets an equal chance,” says Rhonda. She takes their well-being very seriously and even honors their personal preferences, like which station they prefer to be milked at, each one getting their fair share of love and affection. All 18 goats are milked by hand and tended to personally by Rhonda and her farm workers. The health of each individual goat can be assessed and monitored as they need it, allowing Rhonda to use natural and minimally invasive healing methods. She tells me this is why she’ll never be certified organic because on the rare occasion a goat is sick, she’d rather treat it than put it down. She has also created her own special food blend, an incredibly healthy and balanced grain blend that has been certified by vets. Her feed store blends it specially for her, and even sells it to the public it’s so good!
It’s no wonder Rhonda is so healthy, active, and content with her life. She runs circles around her twenty-something farm hands, and her personality is optimistic and a delight to be around. To me she is a living testament of how living in coordination with the land and community can create an incredibly positive impact. “We’re doers,” says Rhonda. The farm keeps her busy with the things she enjoys and “there’s always something to do.” Not to mention, she’s created a product, and a lifestyle, that is immensely healthful. “You have your very own super power when you can create your meat, milk, cheese, orchard, produce, [etc].” Pride and autonomy is a big deal in our search for contentment. Gotherberg Farms is old fashioned, low tech, and artisan. “We’re proud of our end product, and if we’re not, it won’t go out.” Additionally, Rhonda takes pride in contributing to the community that means so much to her. “Every dollar that gets made here, goes back in here. That’s huge.”
Now, I realize we all can’t quit our jobs to be goat farmers (oh what a dream that would be!), but we can strive to make deeper connections within our community and make good choices in the most important aspect of our health- our food. Eating and buying local has the power to give us autonomy over our food and establish deeper connections to the people to work tirelessly to bring products that are good for our bodies, hearts, minds, and local ecosystems. So, perhaps this year our new year’s resolutions should include a little more local flare. After all, as Rhonda can attest, supporting local is the same as supporting ourselves!
You can try Gothberg Cheese at our local Bellingham Farmers Market, The Co-op, various restaurants around town like The Chuckanut Manor or the Harbor Side Restaurant in the Hotel Bellwether, and of course their honor system farm stand located in the driveway of Gothberg Farms.