Dairy owner Joyce Nusz is in it for the goats—and their cheese
Joyce Nusz looks like she’s in danger of being swept out to sea as she wades hip-deep through waves of writhing dairy goats.
We’re a long way from any ocean, however, though it is said by those who study such things that Nevada’s Great Basin was submerged beneath a vast inland sea 10 million years ago. Today, this is desert country.
Nusz, who’s 65, co-owns the Oasis Farmstead Goat Dairy northwest of Fallon with her husband, Dave. The dairy, which specializes in fine goat cheeses, is situated on a 160-acre one-time horse ranch that’s been in her family since 1939, when her father purchased it for the price of somebody else’s back taxes.
My border collies and I observe her plight from the safety of a corral gate. Like lifeguards, the dogs stare vigilantly into the riptide of white and brown. They break their gazes only to eye the cawing peacock or to afford my hands the occasional darting glance, hoping for a call to action.
Not this morning. These goats require no coercion to remain right where they are, in the milking barn. They’re full to bursting and eager for relief.
Steve Miller, Joyce’s son, opens the door from the inside and swings it unceremoniously outward into the stockyard.
“You’ve heard of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain?” Miller asks as the goats fill the 15-yoke milking platform to near capacity in seconds, “Well, here we have the running of the goats.”
Joyce started the dairy in 1999 while working for the Nevada Dairyman’s Association as a milk tester. Since then, she and her crew have grown her herd from a few goats into a thriving herd of more than 250. Some of the breeds on the ranch are Alpine, Saanen, Lamancha, Nubian, Hagenberg and “a lot of mixes along the way,” she says.
Getting the dairy up and running wasn’t without obstacles.
The Nuszes made a substantial investment in the thoroughly modern 2,800-square-foot dairy building. Listening to the story, however, it’s clear that money was the least of the problems that threatened to keep her from realizing her dream.
“When we began, the state really didn’t have any regulations to deal with us,” Steve Miller explains. There were no certified goat dairies operating in Nevada at the time.
While Joyce claims rights to the driving vision for the dairy, she credits her son with completing much of the footwork that helped it become a reality.
“It’s [an ongoing] education process for us and the state both,” Miller says.
Dave Nusz says the state of Nevada looked to other states, such as California, for precedence.
The issues of regulation were compounded by the fact that the person at the state with whom Miller had been communicating for many months retired less than a week before the dairy’s maiden inspection.
As if this weren’t enough, after opening, a bout of “floppy kid” swept the nation’s goat population, and the dairy was not immune. Floppy-kid syndrome is an illness that affects kids; they are normal at birth and then, at around three to 10 days old, they suddenly develop extreme muscular weakness and sometimes paralysis. The symptoms are similar to those of infant botulism, and an infected kid cannot suckle. The disease has no cost-effective cure, and its ultimate resolution is euthanasia.
After much research on Joyce’s part and several postmortems, it was determined that Fallon’s well-documented selenium- and copper- deficient soil probably made Joyce’s goats more susceptible to the disease. Licking blocks containing the required minerals are mixed specially for the ranch now and seem to have abated the problem, but not before the deaths of dozens of kids at a time when Joyce was still building her herd and could ill afford the loss.
On top of this, Joyce recently contracted shingles, a debilitating form of the chicken pox virus whose symptoms include excruciating lesions on the sciatic nerve. Prior to this setback, she was milking about 90 goats twice a day, which takes about an hour and a half each time. She has since recovered, but she now milks only in the mornings.
In spite of the setbacks, in 1999 the state certified the dairy as a Grade-A goat dairy. To this day, it is the sole recipient of this distinction in Nevada.
Elaborating on the inspiration for the dairy, Miller says, “We wanted to try to get [the local citizens] to broaden their [cultural and culinary] horizons a little bit, and that’s been real tough in a meat-and-potatoes state. Educating [people] that goats do produce milk and cheese has been tough.”
While the dairy has tried a variety of tactics, its best venues for sales have been the local farmers’ markets.
“We have some very loyal customers,” Miller says. Some of these include restaurants such as the Silver Peak in Reno.
Consequently, he can be found at the Village Shopping Center at the intersection of California Avenue and Booth Street in Reno on Saturdays, selling the dairy’s products, which include a variety of flavored soft cheeses as well as pasteurized and “raw” brie, Mediterranean brie and queso blanco.
Some of the milking process is mechanized, but the dairy’s hard cheese wheels are still turned by hand. Creating these products is a very labor-intensive process. Even so, the dairy currently produces around 200 pounds of cheese per week. This feat is accomplished with only four “employees"—Joyce, Dave, Steve and his wife, Mona. The jobs rotate, but Joyce is the primary goat keeper, a job she adores.
Standing among her “girls,” Joyce reflects on the experience of owning and operating the dairy. Before she speaks, she opens her arms wide as if to embrace the entire herd.
“I love it. It’s been gratifying,” she says, in spite of all the hardships.
A smile engulfs her face, and she reaches down to gently caress the ear of a nearby doe.