June 2, 2012 6:11:22 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
BY JAN SWOOPE
Ernest Mast's Homestead Acres is nestled deep in Noxubee County, past vast fields that call up the phrase "God's country." Miles of dirt road bordered by corn and soybeans lead to its white rail fence and a neat ranch-style farmhouse, originally built by Ernest's father.
A welcoming committee of speckled hens, interspersed with a few indifferent cats and a curious duck, patrol the central farmyard. In the face of a brewing storm, the chickens peck their way toward a massive barn. Just inside, a bay mare nurses her week-old filly, and a soulful-eyed Jersey calf vets all visitors.
Across the center aisle, dairy goats Posy, Millie and Hilda are being milked, attached to whirring apparatus at their compact milking station. When the storm sweeps in on whipping winds, hay flies and rain pummels the barn's metal roof high overhead. But the three does take it all in stride, just as Mast and his helpers -- daughter, Brittany, and son, Darrell -- do. For a seasoned farm family, this is just another afternoon milking.
Ernest Mast has a strong attachment to this menagerie, and especially to this land, where he grew up. After living in other states for more than two decades, he returned to his roots with his family in 2008. When not busy in his construction business, Mast Builders LLC, he devotes much of his time to the goats that provide his family, neighbors and surrounding communities with healthy raw goat milk and yogurt.
As a young boy in Mississippi, Ernest Mast grew up drinking raw milk from cows; he even maintained a herd of dairy cows later while living in Wisconsin.
"When we sold them and went to buying our milk, it just didn't taste the same," he said, with a shake of the head.
"I first got interested in dairy goats when we were living in Wisconsin," explained Mast, releasing the does from the milk station back into their larger pen as the storm lost its edge. "I researched for months and visited several dairies."
He admits he was at first a little skeptical of goat milk -- until he actually drank some produced by an award-winning dairy. He was a convert.
Dairy goat milk and its products are experiencing slow, steady growth as consumers become more aware of their higher protein and lower cholesterol levels.
This naturally homogenized source of nutrients is easier to digest than cow's milk, good news for the lactose intolerant, the Alabama Farmers Co-op reports. Goat milk digests in about 20 minutes, whereas cow's milk takes several hours. It also has more buffering capacity than over-the-counter antacids, the USDA and Prairie View A&M University in Texas tell us. It's a go-to product for babies -- human and animal -- that can't tolerate cow's milk.
At Homestead Acres, milk collected in sterilized pails goes straight to the house, where it is immediately strained, cooled with ice packs, dated and transferred to a freezer in glass jugs for an hour to rapidly chill. It's then moved to a refrigerator. The resulting raw milk -- slightly sweet with sometimes a salty undertone -- is ready for direct consumption, or for making yogurt.
Mast's current goal is to build up a herd of Nubians, recognizable by their endearingly floppy ears and distinctive "cry." He wants to eventually be able to make goat cheese. His wife would like to try her hand at making goat milk soap.
The woman of the house
Sitting in the bright farmhouse kitchen, Lois Ann Mast gently cleaned fresh, free range eggs and placed them in cartons. Large pots of just-picked green beans for canning bubbled on the stove, next to a counter already boasting a colorful riot of canned pickled beets and sauer kraut.
"Ernie always wanted to come back here, to be near his parents," she smiled, applying a cloth to an egg. "He knew what he wanted to do -- he had goats within two months of us getting here."
Lois Ann oversees the household and is the order-taker for Homestead Acres.
Sharing responsibilities, the Masts are able to offer goat milk, yogurt, eggs, Jersey butter and Jersey cream to others. A laundry room annex built on the back of the house serves as their "market room."
"We're very homegrown," said Lois Ann. "People call in and I write down the orders. We tag what they want with their name and put it in the refrigerator out there. People come pick it up and put the money in an honor box or fill in a ticket book where they charge what they got."
Some make the drive from Columbus, Starkville, West Point and surrounding areas, especially for goat milk, an uncommon commodity in the Golden Triangle.
Morning comes early on the farm, and the work is never "done." The goats alone, currently a mix of Sanaans and Nubians, must be milked twice each day. But the rhythm of farm life -- the nurturing, tending, reaping, replenishing -- is central to the heartbeat of Homestead Acres.
"I have a lot of memories tied to being here, where I grew up," said Ernest. "It's always been my dream to live close to my parents in their later years. I just never dreamed it would be on the home farm, with them living next door. That's been a blessing I never thought would happen."
Ernest and Lois Ann, who have been married 36 years and raised six children, get great satisfaction from being able to provide healthy milk and vegetables for their own household and Ernest's parents, but also for as many of their children and 14 grandchildren as they can. And there is something deeper to share.
"When they come home, our grandchildren can experience some of the things I did growing up," Ernest said. "The chores, learning about animals, taking care of them, the birthings, seeing the mamas with their babies in the spring ... oh, they just love that," he smiled, mentioning the "kids" born into the goat herd very recently.
"I love my goats; I love animals," he said. "They bring challenges, you know, but there's just something about them."
(Editor's note: To learn more about Homestead Acres, contact the Masts at 662-242-0968.)
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.