Annette Codding and I are standing in her goat barn.
It was a chilly afternoon, but the sun hitting the farm kept her ten acres warm. We had just stepped out from her garden, in which she was growing onions, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, and more. The most interesting feature was the set of tomato vines hanging off of a frame at the back of the garden.
“I didn’t even start growing these,” Annette tells me as we approach the vines. “A friend gave them to me and I’ve just been growing them since.” She plucks a tiny orange tomato off a vine and hands it to me. She informs me it’ll be the “best thing I’ve ever tasted”. She was right. I don’t think I had ever tasted a fresh plant of any kind, literally fresh from the vine. This tomato was small, but burst sharply, igniting a vibrant flavor in my mouth.
After we left the garden, we stepped into her barn where her goats lived. Inside, several female goats stared out from their pens, their unique eyes watching us as we stepped back and forth, Annette telling me about how she became the lady who makes goat milk soap. She’s purchased another property across the street, four times larger than her current property. She’s not intending to add more animals to her farm. In fact, she balked at the idea. “No, I’ve purchased pine tree seeds.” These seeds will take up the rest of her farm, along with her goats, chickens, dogs, steer, her lone horse and maybe a pig or two.
For the extent of Annette’s two hour tour of the farm, we talked nonstop, veering off topic every few minutes or so, and having to maneuver our way back. “Have you heard of this story,” she suddenly starts, “of this guy who lived in California in the late 70s?” She shares a parable, of sorts, about a man forty years ago who was diagnosed with cancer. His doctors gave him six to nine months to live. To live out the rest of his life, he and his wife traveled to his home country of Greece. Specifically, to Ikaria, a small island in the north of the Aegean sea. His mother was there and the man intended to live out his days there. After a while, however, he started feeling strong enough to go work on the fields. He did so every day. After a little while longer, he started feeling strong enough to go play games with his friends in the pub at night.
The man lived for another forty years, or so the parable goes. And so, late in his life, he returned to America to seek out the doctors who diagnosed him, only to discover all the doctors were dead. Annette is thrilled by this story, and is also thrilled to tell me that the man doesn’t know how old he actually was because, on the man’s island, “no one wears watches.”
Annette looks at her goats, the jar of whey next to us, the barn cat waddling around, the two dogs sitting at our feet, and she seems to feel a kinship with this man. It’s clear to see why.
Annette moved to this property from Apopka ten years ago. When she originally purchased this land, there was no intention for it to lead toward her business with goat milk. The first goat didn’t arrive until a few years after the purchase, and the goat wasn’t even her purchase. Her mother bought the first goat, a female named Coco. Coco had a baby but, due to unfortunate circumstances, lost it. Coco had just became a mother, which meant she needed to be milked. Annette took over these duties herself, adopting the goat. Soon, her property was home to more and more of the friendly farm animal.
The rest, for Cassia Fresh Farms, is history.
Annette and her goats preempted a boom in the goat industry by just a few months. The past decade has seen a major growth in goat farming, with some counties in Florida tripling their goat population in just a few years. This is largely due in part to the influx of citizens from countries where goat is one of, if not the most consumed type of meat. Australia sits at the top for goat exporting, and America is their biggest customer by a massive margin. The second largest customer to Australia is Taiwan, who spent close to 25 million on goat in 2017. The United States spent close to 180 million in 2017, making up 66% of all goat meat exports from Australia that year.
Fifteen years ago, Florida was in the top 25 for goat milk production. Now, we’re not only in the top ten for goat meat production, but in the top five in the Southeast.
The goat industry is starting to be a big deal around here.
These numbers start to sound harrowing when you’re speaking on a grand scale, but at Cassia Fresh Farms, it’s just part of Annette’s routine. Last September, her milk goats gave birth. She’s been milking these goats every day, once at dawn and once at dusk. She will milk them up until the next mother goats give birth in March. She’ll milk them with the same routine until, likely, September again.
From the barn, the milk can go to several different places. In one case, Annette and her mother separate the curds (more solid parts, used for cheese) and whey (the watery part) for different purposes. The whey is kept in a large pickle jar in the barn that Annette dumps into a bag of feed and delivers to her pig, Black Friday, who howled and bounced whenever we approached. The curds are used for cheese and cheese spread. Annette put a bowl of this spread in front of me, along with a stack of crackers and a glass of goat milk, and I nearly cleaned the thing out. There really is something about freshly made food that can’t be put into words.
While I ate my snack, Annette demonstrated how she makes her other main goat product: soap. Using olive oil, coconut oil, lye, shea butter and, of course, goat milk, Annette mixes colors and fragrances to create her dozens of unique soaps and scents. She cooks in her own kitchen, clearing the entire space to avoid contamination. Each component is weighed precisely, down to the very gram. She uses a homemade wooden box that she keeps at the perfect length using a stick that one of her sons found in her yard. It takes approximately two hours to make a block, then four to six weeks for the mixture to go through saponification, the chemical reaction that creates soap.
Her soaps are beautiful and many come with stories. Big Timber is a smooth, musky soap, with black and brown swirls mixed in. It’s named for a town she visited with her family in which she encountered the scent that inspired the soap. Her Lemongrass soap was created as a means to create clean-smelling soap for the kitchen. She creates soap to fit trends, like her charcoal soap or her lavender soap. One soap that is about to be released for the first time has a very raw, floral smell, with decorations that looked like flower petals along the top. When I asked if those were actual dried plants, Annette chuckled. “It’s leftover soap shavings that I colored and placed on top.”
This was all part of a trend that you can see all across Annette’s farm. The whey from the goats help feed the pig. The pig and the chickens feed the family. The eggs from the chickens are sold with the soap. The dogs on the farm watch the larger animals. One such dog, named Maple, has a singular duty, and that is to watch the two male goats, who are kept in a separate pen. Everything at Cassia Fresh Farm is part of a cycle, or a process, or a system.
Even Annette’s farm shop, which is open on her property every Wednesday and Saturday morning, serves several purposes. Tables along the walls are lined with her soap, and a set of metal trays in a tower in the corner hold soaps still being set. A chalkboard at the back wall lists prices for eggs, soap, milk, cheese and more. Outside of functioning as the shop, this room serves as a schoolroom for certain homeschool teachers in the area. Desks sit in the center of the room, and a diagram of a goat was sketched on the chalkboard when I entered. Annette had taught a lesson in agricultural science to the students that day. One had left his binder behind and Annette tucked it away, knowing he’d return for it tomorrow.
As more time passed at Cassia Fresh Farm, it became clearer and clearer why the story of the olive farmer who forgot to die resonated with Annette. The man had made a life for himself, living off of his own work, working peacefully and supporting his community. Annette and her family are doing exactly that. Lake County, where Cassia is nestled, continues to struggle with the relationship between rural farms and continued suburban development. Despite this, Annette is confident in her new forty acres and the place it will hold for the rest of her life. She’s planning on naming her new property “Ikaria”, after the island that the Greek man returned to over forty years ago. She plans on continuing his legacy. She hopes to keep expanding her soap business, maybe even selling her products on Etsy.
Regardless, Annette will keep on caring for her animals, and doing her very best to live well.
To visit Cassia Fresh Farm Store, click here: https://cassiafreshfarm.com/. The store is open on Wednesday and Saturday from 10AM to Noon. Feel free to call ahead to see if there are eggs, cheese, or chicken available.
Nick D’Alessandro is a native Orlandoan and proud of it. He is passionate about Florida's history and culture, and loves researching stories around the state. Along with his work with Townie Tourist, Nick is the creator and host of Wait Five Minutes: The Floridian Podcast, which publishes every Friday. He can be found around Orlando desperately searching for the perfect blueberry muffin.