The Milk Maid of Tampa
The drive to The Dancing Goat Dairy doesn’t take you by acres of rolling farm land, or through quaint little towns, each with a single four-way stop. Instead, you’ll encounter more stop lights than you can count, passing gas stations, big-box stores, and the entrances to dozens of apartment communities and subdivisions.
In fact, The Dancing Goat is in one of those subdivisions, though the acreage is a little bigger than the typical cookie-cutter plots, and you’re as likely to see barns and horses in the backyards as trampolines and dogs.
Pam Lunn and her husband Jim bought a house plus an extra lot here 20 years ago, when they were working on the Veterans Expressway project as part of their jobs with a large engineering firm. They wanted room to move and for their kids to play, and Twin Branch Acres gave them that.
It also introduced them to a new kind of “pet,” when a neighbor asked Pam and her daughter Carleigh, who was seven or eight at the time, to take care of a baby goat for a few days.
The journey from goat babysitter to full-scale urban farm was a gradual one. First, a few goats as pets. Then, involvement in 4-H by Pam’s children, Clinton and Carleigh. And then a bit of milking, just to provide for the family and a few friends.
It was the recession of the early 2000s that tipped the scale from hobby to business. Pam owned a company that supported road-building contracts, her most lucrative one with her former company, where Jim still worked. When he was laid off in 2002, they still had the income from her work; when the company continued to tighten up and canceled her contract, they needed cash flow, and goat milk was one way to fill the gap.
In the beginning, it was one of several ventures – in addition to some smaller contracts, Pam dealt poker at nearby Tampa Bay Downs and did some catering work – but in 2007 she decided she was going to be a farmer. “What do you know about farming?” Jim asked. “I don’t know,” she replied. “But we’re going to find out.”’
Scenes from the farm, including Philip Maero with BadaBing, a Polish rooster.
On August 17, 2007, Pam received the license to sell her product from the Florida Department of Agriculture. That afternoon, she made her first delivery.
Mind you, her license was – and is – to sell the products for pet consumption only, since the milk is unpasteurized and illegal to sell for human use under Florida law. But lots of pets must be living well, as she’s gone from milking four goats for 12 gallons of milk a week, to close to 30, producing about 70 gallons, as well as kefir, chevre cheese and goat milk soap, and also selling eggs from the chickens who now are a big part of her farm.
After years of reinvesting every penny back into the business, the farm almost broke even in 2014, and expects to turn a bit of profit in 2015, especially when the property earns its greenbelt classification, a tax status that will base the appraisal on its agricultural use, rather than its development value, a change that should cut her taxes by more than half.
Pam has built the farm with lots of sweat, a few tears and very little sleep. In addition to early morning and evening milkings, there’s the care of the animals, from drawing blood to clipping hooves to birthing kids. Then there’s the cleaning, the upkeep and the repairs – goats and chickens make lots of manure, batteries run out quickly when you use a flashlight every night, wood rots in the subtropical humidity faster than Florida storms kick up on hot summer afternoons.
There’s getting her product to the people: Loading up the van and trailer every weekend for farmers’ markets, delivering to a few stores, arranging pickup at the farm on Wednesday afternoons. And, in the modern age of small-scale farming, there are always emails to respond to and at-least-occasional Facebook updates.
In the early days, Pam largely did it by herself after a disability rendered Jim more support than actual labor (though you will see him at markets from time to time). Today, she’s built a network of volunteers; people who want to learn about dairy farming, support local agriculture, or simply like the animals and enjoy the work.
Pam, resident Chicken Whisperer “Uncle Phil” and Head Milker Shawn Wright stand with Missy the horse and Sammi the dog, one of several rescue animals that live on the farm.
Pam recently began producing goats’ milk soap for sale.
A HERD OF HELP
The volunteers who keep The Dancing Goat running are an interesting lot. There’s Shawn, the head milker – introduced to the farm by his girlfriend Steffie, the head nanny (goat midwife). Shawn’s a tall lanky guy who started on the farm right after a long hospital stay, working in exchange for free goat’s milk, which helped his condition. In retrospect Pam (somewhat) regrets having him load hay on his first day: “I knew he was really skinny,” she says. “I didn’t know he was sick!”
There’s José, a tattoo-covered, motorcycle-riding Taino Indian originally from Puerto Rico with the “soul of an angel.” Pam values him not only as a handyman, but as someone who truly “gets” animals – she says that she’d have no one else with her in those cases where an animal has to be put down due to sickness.
And Philip, a bookkeeper turned chicken whisperer who first started working on the farm in exchange for a home for his “outlaw” chicken – a unique Polish rooster who didn’t suit his neighbors. Now Phil and BadaBing, the rooster, have found a place that feels like home.
Here, it’s worth noting that Pam tries to come across as tough, but her heart has the melting point of butter. In her “spare” time, she’s a youth dairy goat superintendent each year at the state fair, and a mentor for kids (the human kind) in the agricultural program at nearby Alonso High School. “I want them to be interested in agriculture,” she says. “We need a next generation of farmers.”
That soft core extends to her love of the animals that are her livelihood.
Every goat has a name and is treated well – the bucks nuzzle Pam as she walks by; the “girls” eagerly walk from their comfy stalls when the gates are open, leading their milkers to the stand for their twice-daily duty. Once they become permanent residents on the farm, they have forever homes, as evidenced by the many that are here long past their prime milking days and one, Sophie, who never did produce. (She’s a hermaphrodite, a fairly common condition in goats … these are things you learn on a farm.)
While she reiterates that she does not accept animal donations (please don’t bring her any), Pam has created quite the menagerie on her three-acre oasis. Not the least of which are the cats, perched on posts and languishing in sunny spots. They’re holdovers from the one official animal welfare role Pam plays as a farm branch of the National Humane Society – she takes in kittens, nursing them on goat milk and fresh air until they are healthy and adoptable.
It’s obvious Pam – whose childhood classmates can’t believe “Prissy Pamela Martin” is a farmer – has found her place in the world, a little slice of paradise tucked between strip shopping malls and swampland.
It’s a place she continues to expand, not only by building her business with new products and creative services (ever considered renting a goat for natural vegetation management?) but by inspiring others: the volunteers who keep things running, the customers who are revamping the food system with every purchase, and, most important, the young people she influences through her work to introduce them to farming.
She’s made an impact on many, for sure, but most notable, perhaps, is her son Clinton. He’s now in college, majoring in urban and regional planning, with an emphasis on – what else? – urban farming.
The Dancing Goat Dairy, Tampa, 813-818-0305/813-784-0353, facebook.com/dancinggoatdairy; At Saturday Morning Market in St. Petersburg each Saturday; Sweetwater Organic Farm Market in Tampa on Sundays; pickups available by appointment at the farm on Wednesdays. For information on volunteering to help deliver baby goats (yes, really!), email firstname.lastname@example.org.
$13 FOR A GALLON OF PET FOOD?
“I’m not so delusional as to think that Fido and Princess are the benefactors of our product.”
It’s a phrase Pam Lunn repeats so often, it sounds almost robotic. Same for her directive to the market goers who feel compelled to ask about the “For Pet Consumption Only” sign Pam displays when she’s set up at farmers’ markets around the area. “Read the sign,” she says. “And please don’t ask me if you can drink the milk.”
Raw – or unpasteurized – milk is a hotly debated topic nationwide. The question is safety: Pasteurization heats the milk to a point where harmful bacteria are killed, but raw milk advocates argue that the process also kills good-for-you bacteria and enzymes, which has led to greater instances of health issues like allergies and asthma.
In Florida, while it’s illegal to sell raw milk for human use, there’s no law covering selling for animal consumption, and the Department of Agriculture allows it, with proper licensing for the farmer and labeling for the product.
It’s pretty obvious the Ag department doesn’t believe people are paying $13 a gallon for milk, but has chosen to focus on ensuring farmers are following proper sanitation rules, rather than limiting what consumers are doing with the product they buy.
“You can buy a can of dog food from the store and eat it,” says Pam. “Nobody’s going to go arrest the manufacturer. “If someone was selling milk and getting complaints, they’d come down hard. After all this time, I’ve never had a complaint. We’re not fancy, we’re functional … I follow the rules, dot my I’s and cross my T’s.”
Choosing to consume raw milk products is a personal choice – like eating raw oysters or runny eggs. One of the best ways to know you’re getting a product with less chance of issues? Know your farmer, know your food. It’s a good motto for anything you consume.