In April, most of the North Fork's farms are still sleeping. Asparagus is a few weeks away; the season won't kick into high gear until June when strawberries and salad greens and squash start in earnest. But Catapano Goat Dairy in Peconic is already humming . . . or, rather, bleating.
Karen and Michael Catapano's goats started giving birth in March. As the baby goats switched from an all-milk diet to one supplemented by alfalfa, the Catapanos and their staff began milking the mothers. By mid-April the milk yield was sufficient to start making cheese and, on April 16, the farm opened for business.
In the barn, Karen and her right-hand woman Debbie Slack surveyed the troops. "Hi Izzy," Karen called to Isabelle, the herd's "lead goat" for the past five years.
Karen cradled in her arms a tiny kid who had been born the day before. Even at birth, the kids can walk, and while their mothers tend to stay in their designated stalls, the babies toddle around the barn. "Sometimes the babies get confused and go back to the wrong stall," Karen explained, "but the mothers never get confused; they always recognize their babies."
This is the Catapanos' eighth spring as goat farmers. And it very nearly was their last. In fall 2009, they made the wrenching decision to sell the five-acre farm. Since they bought the business in 2003, it had taken every ounce of extra time and energy the couple had to offer. Michael, the principal cheese maker, is also a doctor who runs an urgent-care center in Cutchogue. Karen, in charge of the goats and the cosmetic production, is a registered nurse who also handles much of the center's paperwork.
In October 2009, Michael, age 56, discovered that he had an enlarged heart vessel. A cardiologist commanded him to reduce his workload and his stress load STAT. Karen was heartbroken at the prospect of selling but could think of no other solution to the problem.
Buy this farm, please!
When they put the farm up for sale, the Catapanos were in for another shock: No buyers came forward. Karen was dumbfounded. Who wouldn't want to buy this farm?
For Karen, the farm was "a culmination of everything that was important to me -- the goats are beautiful, my staff is great, the customers are fabulous -- everyone comes here with such joy."
Indeed, running an animal farm with a retail operation seemed to be Karen's career destiny. She grew up in Oyster Bay in a household filled with animals. "We had dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, a pheasant, an owl. Any injured animal we took in."
She majored in biology at Southampton College and considered becoming a veterinarian, but in the end settled on nursing. She met Michael when they were both working at Southampton Hospital and they married in 2001, a second marriage for both. Around the same time, Karen left the hospital to become a pharmaceutical sales rep.
In 2003, Karen was at "a crossroads." She hated her new job. Her son had just shipped out to Iraq. She was filled with enthusiasm for the North Fork's agricultural renaissance, but she was spending her days trying to persuade doctors to buy Merck products.
Since 2000 there had been a goat dairy on the North Fork, Captain Kid, in Mattituck. When it was put up for sale in 2002, she and Michael decided to buy it and, by 2003,
Captain Kid became Catapano Goat Dairy. Karen felt that she had found her life's work; the surprise was that Michael did, too. He had grown up on a farm in Bethpage and his family still owns Catapano Farms, a nursery in Southold. But what drew Michael in was not the goats -- it was the cheese. Never having had any discernible interest in cheese before, Michael was soon smitten. The physician loved the chemistry of the process. "It's all about how you manipulate the variables," he said. "You start with the milk, but then there's the type of culture you add to curdle it, the size of the curds, whether to cook it and at what temperature, how much to press the curds."
Michael also found he enjoyed the interaction with the public. "At the ER, I was meeting people on the worst day of their lives," he said. "It was fun to do something that people actually enjoyed experiencing."
Their cheese stands alone
In 2005, everything changed for Catapano Dairy. Two years after he made his first goat cheese, Michael entered it in the American Cheese Society's annual competition. That summer he won first place in his category: Catapano's chevre was declared the country's best fresh goat cheese.
Karen recalled "the first Saturday after the awards, we sold out by noon. People were coming from the city. People came from Coach Farms and Cypress Grove -- they couldn't believe it."
The Catapano's 44 goats could not possibly keep up with the demand, and the one-acre Mattituck farm couldn't accommodate any more goats. "We needed to increase the herd," said Karen, "and we needed a barn where they could spend the winter." The couple found a house surrounded by five acres of woods. There was enough room for a barn, a cheese-making facility, and pasture to accommodate 90 goats as well as a horse, two mini horses, a llama, a few dozen chickens and assorted dogs and cats. In spring 2006, they opened up in Peconic.
The new location allowed Karen to expand her Delicate Doe line of soaps and creams. The cheese business continued to grow. Catapano chevre became a staple at local farm stands and markets and at the finest restaurants on the North and South forks.
But success was taking a toll on Michael. In 2008 he opened StatHealth, an urgent-care center. He was working overtime at the center and still supervising cheese production at the farm. Something had to give, and it was Michael's health.
What the farm is about
A few months after the Catapanos put the farm up for sale, offers began to trickle in. Some prospective buyers had a feel for the business but no financing. Others had the money but wanted to change the business in ways that Karen could not countenance. "One buyer wanted to move it to the South Fork," she said.
In November 2010, a small group of investors came forward. One of the investors had a daughter in her 20s who was, along with her boyfriend, involved in food. The "grown-ups" would buy the farm, the "kids" would run it. From the beginning, Karen had a bad feeling.
"They kept asking about market share and could they see our list of wholesale accounts," she said, "but they didn't ask about the goats." The farm's "sales and marketing" operation, Karen thought, was self-evident: "All you have to know is that we sell out of cheese, we win awards -- look at the restaurants who put us on their menus."
Despite a growing feeling that she was making a mistake, Karen soldiered ahead with the deal.
But in late January the investors' bank notified them of a change in the terms of the loan. Rather than renegotiate the financing, the investors pulled the plug. "When we got the call, Michael was ashen. And I had to control myself because I couldn't be as joyous as I wanted to be."
Was this a sign from above? Had they been too hasty? Was selling their only option? Karen and Michael began to strategize, and they found that yes, there was a way forward for them as goat farmers. Michael hired a medical assistant at the clinic and started looking for a second doctor to share his workload. Karen's longtime assistant Debbie Slack increased her hours to four days a week and took over making the soaps and creams.
Just as important, Michael and Karen moved out of the farmhouse and into a house on the water in Cutchogue. "It made a big difference to be away from the business at night," Karen said.
On Feb. 14, Karen sent out an email to everyone on the dairy's mailing list. "While many of you are aware that Michael and I have had the goat farm for sale . . . we have decided to change our plans and keep it. . . . Our thoughts were to lighten our workload by transferring the dairy business to other able farmers. But this is easier said than done, for many reasons. . . . Thanks for your support and we look forward to seeing you this year! Karen and Michael."
Catapano Dairy Farm sells nine varieties of award-winning fresh goat cheese ($10 for 5 ounces) as well as goat feta, goat Gouda, goat ricotta, goat-milk fudge and the Delicate Doe line of handmade soaps and skin creams made with goat milk. The little blue retail shed is open for business every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tours (with an interactive milking demonstration) are by appointment and cost $10 a person. Catapano Dairy Farm is at 33705 North Rd., Peconic, 631-765-8042, catapanodairyfarm.com.