Defining Value at Decimal Place Farm

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{photos by Jenna Mobley, written by Alex Lampert}

Just south of the perimeter, heading down Moreland Ave, the average Atlantan may be surprised to find a small, bucolic goat farm named Decimal Place Farm directly East of the airport. An anomaly here, it’s located at the end of an unmarked gravel road in an otherwise residential neighborhood. The farm, run by Mary Rigdon, was named for it’s initial iteration, when it was one-tenth of an acre. Now spanning 40 acres, Decimal Place is home to 64 pristine Sanaan goats, housed in a barn with a milking and cheesemaking facility adjacent, and a sprawling field leading into open woods whose grounds are dappled with varieties of grasses for grazing.

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The clean, cream-colored goats are a graceful breed and stand with an air of poise while the younger ones sweetly, clumsily knock into one another. This distinct breed originates from the Sane Valley in Switzerland and is characterized by its white color and ears that stand up from the goats’ heads rather than flop down. They play with each other, starting out high on their hind legs and crashing downward head first. They lay and rest in the morning sun. They watch those of us who are visiting with curiosity and many approach us as we near their pens. Their domesticity exudes a quiet calmness, a remarkable ease for which Mary is responsible.

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First thing in the morning, every morning, Mary and her staff wake up to milk the goats. Mary makes sure not to wake them too early, or they’ll be grumpy and difficult, and not too late, when they’ll be too rambunctious. But right on time, everyday, they’re led, ten at a time, into the milking facility that Tony Scharko of Scharko Farms built, where they have their hearty breakfast while Mary and her staff work their seamless process of carefully milking them.

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When CFM decided to visit Decimal Place, seamless was not a word that I had imagined would describe milking goats. But, Mary chose to work with Sanaans for many good reasons, including their demeanor. The goats are docile and expressive; they smile. While petting one in the barn during our visit and I noticed a goat leaning its head so tenderly back into my hand. I looked at Mary with some surprise and said, “they’re so sweet,” and she replied, “well, of course they are!” But, the seamlessness of it all is not just the breed, it’s Mary. Every decision she makes is based on what’s healthy for the animals, and, therefore, healthy for the people who eat Decimal Place cheese. From the research put into finding the right cleaning solution for the goats’ udders before they’re milked, to selecting the right grass species to plant in the woods for their feed, to the tours she leads for children who visit her farm, there’s a noteworthy degree of thought and kindness that goes into how the farm is run.

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“You see, I got into this because I love the animals,” she said when I asked about the farm’s cheese recipes. Their cheese is, indeed, very good. Atlanta’s beloved chefs, including the likes of Angus Brown and Steven Satterfield, use it in their restaurants. For Mary, though, while the quality of the cheese is important, it comes after the health of the goats, the land off of which they feed, and the health of her customers. Animals are her domain.

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After receiving a Bachelor’s in Animal Sciences at UGA, Mary worked in research for the USDA on a plot of 5,000 acres in Oklahoma with sheep. From there, she moved to Texas, running a farm on even more land and 2,000 head of Rambouillet sheep. “This was back when Reagan devalued oil and the housing market crashed,” Mary explained. Tired of not having good access to cash and having her family live off of their savings, Mary decided it was time for them to move to Atlanta, where she knew she could find opportunities working in the rapidly growing city. While she worked in construction, she maintained Decimal Place Farm, a tenth of an acre in Grant Park where every square inch was gardened. She continued researching animals and looked for land to once again have a farm. Dairy goats, as luck would have it, make sweet milk out of plants like honeysuckle and kudzu, which grow in abundance here, and certainly help a dairy goat farmer when so much of their work is “fencing and grazing, grazing and fencing” as Mary puts it.

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As we walked the grounds, Mary took us through how the Farm 2 School visits to her farm go. Every place on the farm – the creek bed, the grasses, an interesting looking tree – is another exciting lesson to engage young children in how the land works and how every different part plays an important role in the farm’s ecology. These lessons stick with the children, too. Today, young adults approach Mary at the Grant Park Farmers Market with excitement, telling her their memories from their visit to Decimal Place fifteen or twenty years ago. The farm is also engaged in ongoing research projects with UGA and other agricultural institutions. Three graduate students of Animal Sciences have conducted their theses at Decimal Place.

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Just as each place on the farm teaches a different lesson, every subject in discussion with Mary is another cerebral point of departure into unexpected territory. Her expansive curiosity both builds upon itself and is channelled further out and deeper into this place, extending well beyond the subjects touched upon in our interview. The farm will continue to grow and morph along with her seemingly infinite interest in the animals and the land. A decimal place, after all, is not a period. Rather than the dot that indicates a full stop, the decimal place yields infinitely more detail, more nuance, more room to explore. The path of following what one loves has an ever changing sweet spot where it intersects with what could be. Coupling that with Mary’s penchant for research ensures many more happy visits to Decimal Place Farm to come.2015-08-14 Decimal Place -84
You can find Mary and Decimal Place Farm under their tent at the Grant Park Farmers Market. Decimal Place cheese is also sold under the Scharko Farms & Friends tent at the East Atlanta Village Farmers Market. Or, you can visit this coming weekend on Tour de Farm, Decimal Place marks the beginning and end of the two day bicycle tour of farms around Conyers and Stockbridge.

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Community Farmers Markets