Declarations of Independents

Forget strip malls, condos, and highways. Loxahatchee Groves is a place of dirt roads, wild pets, and eccentric residents.

So drive on, to this tiny stretch of unpaved South Florida -- while you still can.

Once you've turned onto F Road, take your time. You'll see people on horseback and black racer snakes slithering across the road. (Not to worry, though. As Greg "Snakeman" Longhurst, who lives on Gruber Lane along with half a dozen snakes, will tell you, "They're not venomous.") The first stop is about four miles north of Southern Boulevard. Drive between two stone pillars at the end of the road, and you'll see the sign for Turtle Creek Dairy, the only commercial producer of goat cheese in the state of Florida.

At 7 a.m. every morning, Jim Berke can be found inside a drab building milking goats. After the animals, 60 in all, are herded into the building through a small door, they stumble up a set of metal steps and take their places around a circular, mechanized milking device. Plastic cups are attached to the goats' teats, and milk is sucked from their bodies through a rubber hose and into a cooling tank. The only reason the goats put up with this process is because Berke bribes them. "They know that after they milk, they eat," he explains.

The bard of Loxahatchee Groves: On weekends County Judge Nelson Bailey dons palm-frond hat and cow whip to tell stories about Florida's past
The bard of Loxahatchee Groves: On weekends County Judge Nelson Bailey dons palm-frond hat and cow whip to tell stories about Florida's past
Hugo Forester has run the Sunsport Gardens nudist colony for 35 years
Hugo Forester has run the Sunsport Gardens nudist colony for 35 years

Berke is a large man with a shaved head and a kind face. He wears dirt-caked shorts, a white T-shirt, and rubber boots that come up to his calves. His assistant is Victoria, an exchange student from Russia who's taking part in a program run by the Future Farmers of America. Berke keeps a steady supply of exchange students busy at the dairy, sometimes two at a time, mostly from Scandinavian countries and Eastern Europe.

In 1973 Berke moved to Loxahatchee Groves from a New York City high-rise apartment building. At the age of 26, he had a bachelor's degree in biology from New York University, he'd traveled through Europe, and, as he recalls, he was "tired of the concrete, the plastic, the hustle and the bustle." So he literally moved into a thatched-roof hut. There was no running water or electricity. Berke wielded a machete and cooked on an open fire. People called him "Jungle Jimmy."

At the time he could drive along the dirt roads of Loxahatchee Groves in his 1962 Volkswagen and not see another soul. He recalls coming home late one night after closing up the natural foods restaurant that he owned in North Palm Beach for a couple of years in the late '70s. Just as he turned off Northlake Boulevard onto a dirt road, the car conked out. As Berke resolved to spend the night sleeping in the back seat, a pickup truck pulled up behind him. It was filled with beer-drinking locals who were out coon hunting, but they were more than happy to take $20 in exchange for a tow home. As Berke sat in the car behind the pickup, a drunk stood up in the bed of the truck and pissed all over the Volkswagen's windshield. Despite the unwanted car wash, Berke was relieved to find a way home.

About ten years later, in 1989, Berke founded Turtle Creek Dairy with his now ex-wife. He'd seen a newspaper story about a Virginia farmer who ran a successful business producing goat cheese for the well-heeled denizens of Washington, D.C., and the northern Virginia suburbs and figured there was a similar marketing opportunity in Palm Beach County. There was just one problem: Goats don't like hot, humid weather. They prefer wet, cold, dreary places like, say, Katmandu. "If I had these same goats in a West Virginia alfalfa field, I'd get probably 20 to 25 percent more production," says Berke. To compensate for the heat, he gives the goats a high-protein diet of New Mexico hay and feed made especially for Turtle Creek Dairy by a mill in Okeechobee.

Twice a week Berke pasteurizes the goat milk, which is pumped from the cooling chamber into a pasteurization tank, where it is heated to 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Later he adds a culture to the milk, then an enzyme that causes it to coagulate. Within a week about 70 pounds of goat cheese is ready for delivery to such high-end establishments as the Breakers and La Vieille Maison. The market for goat cheese is strongest between November and April. (Even goat farming is dictated by the seasonal migration of snowbirds in Palm Beach County.)

Aside from the one-pound packages Berke sells to restaurants, Turtle Creek Dairy also produces half-pound portions of cheese, cheese spreads (with sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, or mixed herbs) and goat-milk fudge to sell at farmers' markets and gourmet shops.

As Berke has progressed over the years from hut dweller to restaurateur to dairy farmer, he's seen Loxahatchee Groves also change considerably but not always to his liking. More than a decade ago, one of his neighbors planned to install a radio tower that would have obscured Berke's view of the sunset. "To me that's a form of pollution," Berke says. "I've always appreciated the fact that, at the end of the day, I can hear birds chirp, see a nice sunset." Luckily other Loxahatchee Groves residents complained about the radio tower, and the idea was scrapped.

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