Hope Hall of Sunflower Farm believes in open doors, raising animals and simplicity
The Nigerian dwarf goats at Sunflower Farm make a lively herd. They definitely don’t shy away from human attention and affection. On a chilly afternoon in late January, the herd immediately shifts their gaze from munching on a pile of pine boughs and ambles over as we near the fence. Owner Hope Hall knows all of her 25 goat kids by name and by character. One of the two males, Don Pedro, comes right up to the gate, jumps up and sticks his soft nose over the fence to be pat. We lock eyes, and he rubs his head against the wooden post in an effort to scratch an itch. A smaller black and white goat, a 1-year-old named Mildred, expresses herself by baaing repeatedly to acknowledge our presence.
“Goats are my favorite livestock because they’re very interactive. They look you in the eye like a dog, and they have super distinct personalities,” Hall says. “They genuinely like human attention, but they’re also herd animals, so they’re happy being together and they don’t need as much attention as a dog.”
Hall and her husband Chris moved to Sunflower Farm in Cumberland in 2010 with four goats (one pregnant), two children and a vision of transforming the property into a working farm. Within a week of moving in, their first goat babies were born. Fast forward to January 2018, and Sunflower Farm has an ever-expanding herd, with 19 pregnant females and about 50 babies expected in the spring. Most of the goats will be sold to families who will breed them or use them as dairy goats or outdoor pets. Hall explains that Nigerian dwarf goats and their kids are easy to sell because of their smaller size and docile, friendly behavior. “They’re easy on the land, too, because they eat less and take up less room, and they make an exceptional goat cheese. Their milk has almost twice the butter fat content, so for every gallon of milk, I can make twice as much cheese,” Hall says.
The Halls built a cheese kitchen in 2012 between the barn and their house, where Hope Hall makes goat cheese to sell on site. Each morning she wakes up early to milk the goats then brings the milk in to pasteurize and add culture and rennet. “By the time I go to bed, it’s formed a curd and is ready for me to scoop and hang. By morning, it’s ready to be put in the cheese fridge.” It’s a simple and time-efficient process that Hall says, “fits in with our idea of simplicity in a busy time. We’re trying to provide opportunities for people to just sit and unwind, which is important to us because we think that’s something a lot of us are really craving.”
Sunflower Farm is quiet in the winter, allowing Hall and her husband (who, like her, is also a teacher at Thornton Academy) and their flock of goats some much-needed down time. They share the year-round farm responsibilities: She manages the cheese-making and milking, while he handles the building and operation tasks involved with running a farm. Together they share the task of feeding the goats.
Sunflower Farm has evolved over time according to the Halls’ interests and vision. “We don’t have a business plan. Every year we’ve followed what feels good and what gives us great energy and it’s taken us in cool directions.” In 2016, the farm started offering “Bold Goat Yoga” during the summer and fall months. As a certified yoga teacher and 25-year-veteran English teacher with a busy schedule, Hall needed a place where she could practice yoga without the hassle of leaving home. She teamed up with Gretchen Campos from Greener Postures Yoga to offer outdoor yoga classes with the goats at the farm on Thursday evenings from May through September. After that first year, Hall added more teachers to accommodate the group of 50-80 people attending classes, including participants driving all the way from Boston and northern Maine.
“Depending on the time of season, if goat moms don’t want their kids to be near humans, we practice with or next to the goats. The goats all come down to the fence and sit and watch us,” Hall says, explaining the goats’ keen awareness of human energy. “Participants will put hay by their mat if they want more goat attention. The goats know when it’s shavasana and they all come and lie down with us.”
The farm is also open for visiting, and adults and children can come and hang out with the goats free of charge. “It’s cool to see what happens when children (and adults) come and relax and stay really still with the goats—it’s this really natural meditation.”
Sunflower Farm is a “no cull” farm, meaning none of their animals are killed for any reason, unlike most dairy farms that often kill older, sick or infirm goats, and males “unless they’re good breeding stock.” Sunflower Farm has two neutered males, Don Pedro and Rocky, and 23 females. “Rocky was born when the barn was full of 150 people and he didn’t look like he was going to make it. We tube fed him and he survived, so we had to keep him,” Hall says of their desire to help and keep the “underdogs” alive. All of the female goats were bred in one heat cycle through a male goat that Sunflower Farm borrowed from nearby Toots Farm in Cumberland.
Hope explains that while farming is a “huge daily commitment” that doesn’t allow time for vacation or travel, it is also incredibly rewarding work. “Every time I make the cheese, it’s such a beautiful process. The cycle of the goats is similar to the cycle of the school year and getting a fresh start. It’s always constantly changing, so it doesn’t feel like the same thing every day.” She’s also motivated by having a place to plant seeds for her creative ideas. In June, she’s launching a day-long women’s wellness retreat with workshops led by women, including jewelry-making, a cooking class making foods that align with the chakras, and a journaling/writing workshop. Hall is planning to offer weekly workshops during the summer months to help maintain the farm’s financial stability and allow people to continue to visit free of charge. She says the farm helps her “design and create the things that I want to do, like sit a field and slow down and listen to goats munching on hay. I want to come to workshops with other women and think about who I want to be instead of rushing from one thing to the next. That part of the farm fuels me and motivates me to keep going.”
In 2017, Hall launched the Be the Goat Challenge, a fundraising initiative where artists submit renderings of goats that people bid on online to raise money for designated nonprofits. This year’s challenge raised funds for the Cambodian Scholarship Foundation, which sends women to school in Cambodia, and JMG (Jobs for Maine Grads), which helps Maine high school students make career connections and learn job skills to apply after graduation. “I thought it would be fun to get as many artistic renditions of goats as we could around the country, and people bid on them and the top bidder sends a check and we donate all the proceeds to an organization. One woman wrote a nice poem about all the things that goats are and how we as women can benefit from those things and challenge them.” While we were talking, a neighbor stopped by with a felted wool goat for the auction. “People are amazed by how connected they’ve become to the farm, and it’s created a real community of neighbors and volunteers,” Hall says.
Ultimately, Hall’s goal is to “lift the veil on farming and provide an example of a farm that’s raising animals humanely and making that totally accessible to the public.” The challenge is to reduce visitation barriers for people, while also allowing the Halls time to care for the animals and keep the farm running. As they enter their eighth spring in operation, Hall wants to continue to grow and open her doors (and fences) to let people enjoy all that the farm has to offer. Looking ahead to the future, she also wants to create a three-season yoga studio behind the barn and continue to offer more workshops. “It’s been growing every year. We want to be a no cull farm that can make a profit so that we can prove that it can be done, and we want to feel good about what we’re doing.”
Mercedes Grandin is a freelance writer, editor, English teacher and tutor. She lives in Brunswick with her husband Erik and their chocolate Labrador Fozzie.