Photo by Heather Middleton
By Joel Hall
Nestled in a residential neighborhood just north of Fort Gillem, Decimal Place Farm, in Conley -- and the more than 20 goats on the property -- have quietly produced goat cheese for the past 15 years.
The farm's feta cheese recently caught the attention of state agriculture officials, making it one of 24 final state entries in the annual Flavor of Georgia Food Product Contest. On March 16, as part of Georgia Agricultural Awareness Day, Gov. Sonny Perdue will announce the winners, who will receive state recognition and the right to have their product stamped with the 2010 Flavor of Georgia logo.
According to Sharon P. Kane, a food business development specialist with the University of Georgia, the Flavor of Georgia competition began in 2007 as a partnership among the university, the Governor's Agricultural Advisory Commission, and the Georgia Agribusiness Council. She said the competition gives Georgia producers of sauces, sweets, dairy products, meat products, snacks, jams, and jellies a chance to gain more recognition around the region.
The contest provides "publicity and exposure for Georgia food businesses, for processors, and producers," Kane said. "It's just additional exposure. For a small business, it's always helpful in getting things off the ground and expanding. We've done follow-up surveys and over 80 percent of the participants saw an increased interest in their product. Nearly 64 percent saw an increase in their sales."
Mary Hart Rigdon, owner and operator of Decimal Place Farm, didn't start making cheese with the intention of gaining recognition, she said. A University of Georgia graduate with a bachelor's degree in animal science, and the wife of a mathematician, Rigdon began making cheese in the early 1990s from a small home in Grant Park, she said.
"When my husband and I got married, we had a tenth of an acre in Grant Park," Rigdon said. "We had that small property and I was growing vegetables and raising rabbits. I lived there in town, but my heart is really on the farm."
In 1995, the Rigdon family moved to Conley and purchased the land, which is now an 18-acre farm. It was there that Rigdon purchased several Saanen goats -- named after the Saanen valley in Switzerland -- and began practicing the craft of making feta, mozzarella, and cheddar cheeses.
"We're not studied in France or anything ... we just keep practicing," Rigdon said. "I went to the library and found recipes and tried to make them at home. We've progressed and have tried to improve what we can make. As long as you have that good, quality product to start with, the only thing is just getting the process down."
Rigdon said that in 2007 and 2009, her cheese took first place in the American Dairy Goat Association (ADGA) Cheese Making Competition, her feta cheese winning first place in 2007 and her cheddar winning first place last year. This year will be her first year entering the Flavor of Georgia Food Product Contest, she said.
According to Rigdon, the farm currently only produces cheese for family and friends, and has never sold its cheese in Georgia. To do so, she said, requires "grade A" recognition from the Georgia Department of Agriculture. She hopes the competition will put a spotlight on Decimal Place Farm and eventually allow it to sell its products locally.
"I'm excited that the University of Georgia gives us a chance to showcase like this," Rigdon said. "I'm thrilled to be one of the finalists, using a product that I make right here in the county from scratch. All I'd really like to do would be to be legalized to sell in my state so I can offer the product to people locally."
Kane said this year's Flavor of Georgia Food Product Contest started with 79 food entries from around the state and that the competition would have winners in each food category, as well as an overall winner. Judges for the competition this year include food industry experts, as well as Jamie and Bobby Deen, the sons of celebrity cook Paula Deen and co-hosts of the Food Network series, "Road Tasted," she said.
Perdue will announce the state winner on March 16 at the Georgia Railroad Freight Depot. For more information, call (706) 542-9809 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.