Longform

Declarations of Independents

Page 2 of 6

"Unfortunately," says Forester, who at the age of 75 still roams the grounds of Sunsport Gardens, sans clothes, on a golf cart, "the city life is creeping up on us."

The one-room Loxahatchee Groves schoolhouse, which opened in 1918 with eight students, now sits at the Florida State Fairgrounds, a testament to the way folks once lived. If westward growth continues unabated in Palm Beach County, just a few decades from now all of Loxahatchee Groves could be consigned to the scrapheap of history, a relic of the past.

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.

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.)

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Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko