Four generations of Ryals men churn out a living on a sustainable farm
Blake Ryals wakes well before dawn to leave his Tylertown, Mississippi farm and makes the drive to sell his wares at the farmers markets in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. His early alarm clock is nothing new. He has always been a farmer. In fact, there are now four generations of Ryals men tending to the goats, pigs, and cows that roam their property.
Blake’s grandfather, Bill Sr., founded a small cow dairy on the land that now houses The Rocking R Dairy. About seven years ago Bill Ryals, Blake’s father, made the decision to begin milking goats. Goat’s milk is actually the dairy choice for most of the world; many people who can’t tolerate cow’s milk can drink goat’s milk without experiencing digestive problems. Although the farm pasteurizes its goat’s milk, there is no need for the milk to be homogenized because the fat globules are smaller and remain suspended in solution, instead of rising to the top to create a skin of cream.
As the Ryals’ goat herd grew, so did their surplus of milk, until Blake began a second career as a cheese maker. About five years ago, he started making a fresh chèvre, a soft, very mild, fresh-tasting cheese that spreads easily and can be substituted for cream cheese. (Chèvre is versatile and works well as a salad topping; it also does wonders for a homemade pizza.) A short time later, Blake began making feta. The result was a standout cheese that was lighter and creamier than the sheep’s milk feta found in stores.
About three years ago the dairy had grown to include over two-hundred doe goats that had to be milked twice daily, and Blake Ryals still found himself with extra goat’s milk. So he tried his hand at making cheddar. The result was a cheese aged a minimum of sixty days, creating a mild, smooth cheddar that melts well (perfect for grilled cheese sandwiches and quesadillas). The cheddar also gave the farm a product to sell with a longer shelf life.
With a complete dairy portfolio available, including milk, chèvre, cheddar, cheese curds, and yogurt, patrons of the farmers markets as well as New Orleans chefs began to take note of The Rocking R Dairy stock. “The farmers markets really gave us a platform,” says Blake Ryals. “With these markets, we can just be farmers. We are not salesmen.”
The St. James Cheese Company in New Orleans began to stock its shelves with Rocking R Dairy products; and a couple of years ago restaurants like Iris, Domenica, and Herbsaint began featuring Ryals’ cheese on the menus. Blake’s favorite recipe is the roasted cauliflower with whipped goat feta and sea salt served at Chef John Besh’s Domenica restaurant in New Orleans’ Central Business District. “It is so simple and fresh,” Blake says.
Another new niche for the farm cropped up when Blake noticed that people continued to ask for goat meat at the local markets. There was one problem; dairy goats do not produce exceptional meat. But the Ryals had a solution that had been wandering their farm for many years. Blake’s father, Bill, had been raising and showing prize Boer goats since 1993. Boers, a larger and sturdier variety of goat imported from South Africa, are raised for meat production.
“A Boer goat is a goat worth butchering. They are the Angus of the goat world,” Blake says. “Boers produce much better meat than the goats of thirty years ago.”
Now, the Boers that are not suitable for show are butchered as part of a partnership with Roucher’s Meat Market in Plaquemine. Roucher’s packages the meat and ensures all products leave the facility with the mandatory state inspection. This enables the Ryals to sell their meat at both the farmers markets and to restaurants. All of Chef Donald Link’s New Orleans restaurants, which include Herbsaint and Cochon, use the farm’s Boer goat meat.
With the goat meat production doing so well, the Ryals men turned their attention to swine production. Blake and Bill began feeding leftover whey, a watery by-product of cheese production, to their pigs. Now they have about forty sows, which produce a litter every four months and are butchered every six months. These whey-fed pigs have garnered culinary attention, specifically from the restaurant Cochon, which began to also buy the Ryals’ pork. That’s high praise indeed, supplying pork to a restaurant whose name is French for “pig.”
For now Blake is busy running The Rocking R and being a father to his three sons—Ethan, Brady, and Eli—who are beginning to help out with the goats and pigs. When asked what was next for the farm, Blake Ryals says, “We’re farmers. We take it one day at a time. We just want to keep things going.”
Details. Details. Details.
The Rocking R Dairy
42 Airline Highway
Red Stick Farmers Market
Saturdays: 500 Main Street
Thurdays: 6400 Perkins Rd (Pennington Center)
Baton Rouge, LA
Crescent City Farmers Market
New Orleans, LA
Open Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday
St. James Cheese Company
5004 Prytania Street
New Orleans, LA