Pete Messmer '10 - Lively Run Goat Dairy
By Keith Davis
On the way to graduating magna cum laude in English education, Pete Messmer ’10 had plenty of chances to tell his suburban-bred classmates about baling hay, milking goats, and helping make goat cheese on his parents’ farm near Interlaken, New York.
“Most people who’d grown up in suburbia were interested in all that,” Messmer said. “And it was interesting for me, introducing counterpoints to standard suburban thoughts about country life.”
Messmer enjoyed his literature and education courses as well as student teaching, but when senior year came around, teaching didn’t seem like a good fit.
“I wanted to be my own man rather than work for someone else,” he said. “Plus, I hated to see what my parents had labored to build for 15 years fall apart.”
So after graduating, Messmer went back to the goat farm his parents, Steve and Susanne Messmer, had bought in 1995. The previous owners, a Cornell professor and his teacher wife, had operated the enterprise as a hobby farm, producing 20 to 50 pounds of cheese a week. Under Pete’s parents’ direction, Lively Run makes between 6,000 and 7,000 pounds a week.
“My dad had been an engineer and was stationed in Germany in the 1980s. That’s where he met my mother. After his tour was up, he and Mom stayed in Germany for 10 years and then came back to the United States with me and my brother in tow. I was about three. They lived off his income as an engineer, investing that money into the farm. We’re now at the point where we can float the operation on its own.”
Messmer is the cheese maker, a role bestowed by his mother. His brother, Dave, owner of a furniture-making business, maintains the equipment and tends the herd of 30 goats. Since the herd doesn’t meet all the milk needs for cheese making, Dave makes daily runs to surrounding farms.
Because cheese making requires knowing how different strains of bacteria cultures couple with various enzymes to produce distinctive kinds of cheese, there’s science to what Messmer does. But it’s also an art, involving lots of nuances: how much milk fat do you separate from how much water? Which molds do you age the cheese in and for how long?
“I learned by watching my mother and doing a lot of reading and a fair amount of travel in southwestern Germany mostly and the Lorraine region of France.”
With his parents nearing retirement, Messmer and his brother plan to become partners.
“Our gross sales have increased every year, and we plan to keep growing,” Messmer said. “But I want to keep things on the artisan level and stay involved in every facet of production.”
The challenges in doing that include finding ways to quantify the operation to make it more efficient, increasing the herd size so that they don’t have to buy milk from other farms (which may require hiring a herdsman), and hosting, on average, an inspector a week.
“Our yearly output is miniscule compared to huge plants like Kraft, but we have to comply with the same mountain of regulations they do.”
Working with family members isn’t a problem, said Messmer. “If we have a problem, we work it out.”
He’s also working out the problem of educating consumers.
“Even five years ago, a lot of Americans recoiled at the thought of goat cheese,” Messmer said. “But it’s now more accepted. So is the emphasis on locally produced food. Area restaurants, farmers’ markets, and Wegman’s are buying our cheese. If, somewhere down the line, some company wants to buy us out for a couple million, I’d be hard pressed to say no, but that’s pie in the sky. Right now I can say we’ve worked hard for the last 10 years, and we’ll work hard for the next 10, too.”