PLATTEVILLE, Wis. -- Katie Hedrich's parents spent part of their honeymoon visiting a Tennessee goat farm.
On family vacations later, the couple and their five children would visit dairy goat farms.
Established in 1978 with two goats, the family's business, LaClare Farms, today is one of the state's top commercial dairy goat milk producers. Its current production involves milking 375 head of dairy goats.
The keynote speaker Friday morning at the annual Wisconsin Dairy Goat Association convention at University of Wisconsin-Platteville, Hedrich recounted her family's story. Hedrich is a master cheesemaker.
According to Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, there are 360,000 milk goats in the U.S. Wisconsin is the state with the most -- 46,000 -- followed by California, Iowa, Texas and Minnesota. During 2012, the number of milk goats increased in Wisconsin and Minnesota but declined in the other states.
Dairy goat milk and goat cheese continue to see slow, steady growth as consumers become more aware of the higher protein and lower cholesterol levels found in the products, according to the Ames, Iowa-based resource center. Goat milk is regarded as a natural source of nutrients and an alternative to cow's milk, and it is easy to digest.
Hedrich is confident that demand will keep growing.
"There's a lot happening in the industry," she said. "There's a lot of potential and a lot of opportunities. Look outside our borders. It's very interesting to see how many foreign companies actually own a lot of the goat industry. They know. They understand. They get it."
The Ontario, Canada-based Woolwich Dairy operates a goat cheese plant in Lancaster; in Belmont, Montchevre-Betin is the largest goat milk cheese producer in the country. Arnaud Solandt, the company's president, is from France.
Wisconsin officials are taking notice. Ben Brancel, state agriculture department secretary, and Dan Smith, division administrator for the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, attended the convention Friday.
"We believe the goat industry is getting some momentum and some initiative moving forward in the future," Smith said. "It's a very committed industry. The demand is driving it. The consumer has an interest in it. We need to build the industry at the producer level, through the processing plants and distribution points, and into the consumer's refrigerator."
The two-day conference concludes today. It is geared toward producers and those beginning in the goat industry.