Jessica Bell and Sandra Coffman, Split Creek Farm LLC
Jessica Bell and Sandra Coffman are the co-owners of Split Creek Farm, a dairy goat farm in South Carolina. This Bachelor in Animal Science and retired Deputy Chief of Police now run a 27 acre farm, along with the charitable organization Goats 4 Goodness they founded. Here’s their story.
If Jessica grew up being in touch with the world of agriculture, spending summers at her grandparents’ farm in rural Kansas and participating in local 4-H, it was new to Sandra when she started mentoring under Jessica in 2016. A retired Deputy Chief of Police from US Capitol Police in Washington, DC., Sandra holds a MS in Management from the Johns Hopkins University while Jessica holds a BS in Animal Science from Clemson University as well as an Associates Degree as a Veterinary Technician. You’d think them an unlikely pair and maybe you’d be right, but they have proven to also be a great one.
“I have over 25 years of experience working with the goats and producing the quality artisan products of Split Creek Farm”, Jessica says. “Sandra discovered her love of goats later in life, and started mentoring under me a few years ago. Together, we run the farm: me as the primary manager of day to day farm operations while Sandra oversees daily operations at the farm.”
“My job, next to a full time job as a Veterinary Technician in Clemson, SC, includes all aspects of goat milk product production, herd management and animal wellness”, Jessica explains.
“I serve as the primary coordinator for outreach, education, sales and distribution on the farm”, Sandra, who has a passion for education, educating other about small farm operations and goats in general, adds.
Split Creek Farm is located in the foothills of Northwest South Carolina, within 30 minutes of Greenville, which is a large city for the state of South Carolina. Their farm is 27 acres big and counts around 250-300 dairy goats. “Locally, we are in a quiet rural area surrounded by other agricultural properties but with residential and commercial growth starting to creep towards us.” The summers in Anderson are hot and muggy, while winters are cold and wet. The temperature typically varies from high 20’sF (approx.-6°C, red.) to high 90’sF (approx. 32°C, red.). “This extreme variation means our animals are prone to health issues, such as parasites and upper respiratory infections.”
A day at Split Creek Farm
A typical day on the farm consists of the morning milking and feeding, followed by daily wellness checks of the animals as well as pen cleaning. “These daily chores must be accomplished 365 days a year and completed on a tight schedule. We begin promptly at 6 a.m. every day. Once these tasks are done, we can begin tackling our never-ending to-do list which includes things like fence work and other repairs, cutting fallen trees, rotating animals to new pastures, performing routine medical and wellness care, bushhogging pastures and maintaining overgrowth of grass along miles of fence lines, building new shelters for the animals, repairing roofs,… you name it, and we do it!”
Next to the work on the farm, there is of course an administrative side to the business and management of the herd. “These duties include routine business practices such as hiring and training new staff, managing our customer accounts and filling, delivering and shipping cheese orders to restaurants and local retailers focused on “farm fresh” products.” On top of those administrative duties, the herd’s health and performance testing need to be meticulously tracked. “We’re talking about scheduled vaccinations, de-worming, hoof trimming with regards to the herd’s health. As for performance testing: each month every doe in milk production is hand milked for a 24 hour period. Her milk is weighed and sampled then sent off to a testing lab for analysis which provides us with a report of milk components of fat/protein for each animal as well as the overall herd. This information is very helpful in the cheesemaking process as milk fat/protein contents have a direct correlation to cheese product yield.”
While running the farm and administration is crucial, it is also very important to be present and seen. This is something Jessica and Sandra understand very well. “There’s the management of popular social media, because everyone needs a cute photo or video of a goat to brighten up their day! And then there is the seasonal showing and exhibition of our animals, hosting special events like group tours, virtual tours, goat yoga and our highly attended Spring Means Babies celebration, that brings an average of 1000-1200 visitors to our farm for this 5 hour event!”
“In addition to the points above, as a true farmstead operation, we process our milk into our products on site. Every day, we are in some stage of cheese production, whether it is setting batches, dipping, packaging, or delivering our products to restaurants or stores. Different seasons dictate our other duties. Spring is delivering new babies and training new moms to learn their “job”. Fall is breeding season, so we are more focused on looking at genetics and finding the best suited matches to provide us with a better next generation of animal.”
Perception of women in agriculture
Split Creek Farm is female owned and its team of employees is also nearly 100% female. Yet, they are still confronted with the difference in perception towards women on a farm and the fact that, unfortunately, women are still not taken as seriously as men in the field of agriculture. “Most commonly we see this occur from the standpoint of how to operate our own machinery, how to fix broken machinery, mending fences, handling hard-headed animals.”
“Occasionally, we have a visitor ask to meet the owner – clearly implying that a man must own and operate the farm – to which we respond “I am the owner”. Admittedly, there is some pleasure gained by both of us in responding to these inquiries with the long list of things two women and our nearly 100% female employees perform every day to keep the farm running.”
Jessica and Sandra have been operating in their location for so many years that the local community knows how things work at Split Creek farm. So when, on occasion, outside help is needed for electrical or machine repairs, they are rarely patronized or have things mansplained to them by contractors. “In the few instances in which we have used new companies, however, we have both received the condescending “honey” and “sweetie” label that tends to get us a smidge riled up!”
Their involvement as active members in their local community has proven invaluable in establishing their reputation, Jessica says. “We are “the goat ladies at Split Creek (laughs). Our involvement earned us a great amount of respect and support, many times, from our community. We have proven our ability to hold our own through many challenges and most of our long-term contractors realize that we do know what we are doing, so they have no problem treating us as equals.”
For Sandra and Jessica, their animals are their family first and all other things are secondary to this point. Their deep love for animals in a production dairy business can, at times, result in decisions that do not necessarily make good business sense. Such is the case with the farm’s Princess Aurora.
“Princess Aurora started her life in this world with a challenge. When she was born, her momma was a little aggressive in trying to clean her newborn, resulting in injury to all of Aurora’s hooves. Within 8 hours after her debut to the work, Aurora had to undergo surgery to suture several areas and graft tissue to cover exposed bone. Sedation of a goat at any age is very risky but Aurora needed immediate surgery to have any hope for long and happy life. Her surgery lasted about an hour but it took her nearly 18 hours to awake – hence, her name, Princess Aurora… awakened only by love’s true kiss: ours.”
‘Aurora was special from the start, needing meticulous daily care to keep her healing hooves clean and protected. This daily care involved every member of our staff which meant Aurora became quite spoiled and held a special place in every heart at the farm. At about six months of age, then fully healed, it was obvious that at least one of her hooves would never grow normally which left her with a tiny peg sized hoof base on a front leg. As she continued to grow, she began to modify her movements when walking or playing and noticeably stopped attempting to use her little peg hoofed leg. She was never in pain, but her behaviors in avoiding use of a front leg meant more strain on her “good” leg which, over time, would result in weak tendons and other lasting damage to her ever developing body.”
Jessica and Sandra tried a variety of supports, braces, and wraps for Aurora in hopes of managing her challenges, “with the old tried and true farm MacGyver approach.” Each invention they thought of seemed to help, but nothing seemed to be a real, long term solution for Aurora. “Luckily, after months of research, investigation, phone calls to Veterinary Schools, rescues, etc. we were able to find Dr. Adam H. Biedrzycki, at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. “Dr. Adam” specializes in state-of-the-art 3D mapping to create prosthetics for animals and he was willing to give Aurora, his very first goat prosthetic patient, an evaluation to try and help her.”
And so Aurora traveled to Florida and spent a week with Dr. Adam in December 2021. “She was fitted with a prosthetic “slipper” – fit for the Princess she is – and she became Dr. Adam’s very first goat prosthetic recipient. Aurora’s semi-permanent prosthetic provides her with a hoof base on her “bad” leg that is the same size as the hoof on her “good” leg.” Thanks to the care of her owners, Aurora now runs, jumps, plays with greater enthusiasm, and uses all four of her legs with little noticeable differences.
“We realize, and were told by many other goat breeders, that investing in Aurora – who we have no expectation of ever being more than a pet at our farm – was a crazy business decision. But we are not solely guided by our business: our hearts and love for our animals motivate us and Princess Aurora is a daily reminder to us to never give up!”
At the time, Sandra and Jessica posted a Go Fund Me campaign to raise money for Aurora’s prosthetic, and to their surprise, an anonymous donor paid the entire bill for her evaluation, initial fitting, and care while in Florida. “The kind contributions received from the Go Fund Me will be used in her continuing care to include new prosthetic molds as she continues to grow into a happy, healthy goat.”
Number 3 best feta cheese in the world
When asked about their most beautiful memory, Sandra and Jessica have to think. “There are so many beautiful single moments in every day for us. One stand out achievement for us came in 2018 with the results of the World Championship Cheese Contest results, though.”
The 2018 World Cheese Championship Contest marked the first time Jessica and Sandra, as new owners of Split Creek Farm, entered their product in a world competition. The product they entered was their Feta, marinated in olive oil with sundried tomatoes and herbs, a recipe that won first place in the same contest in 2010.
“As is often the case for us, we were dealing with juggling 100 balls when the deadline for entry submissions to the 2018 contest rolled around. Caught completely flat footed with the realization that we had literally a couple of hours to prepare and ship our entry on the last possible day, I literally pulled our retail product off the farm store’s shelf – without taste testing, group evaluation and consensus – and sent it to be judged in world competition”, Jessica remembers.
“When the results were posted we were overjoyed to see that our “every day” cheese product scored a 99.3 in world competition, beating our 2010 score of 99.2! While we placed 6th in the world in 2018, our cheese was placed behind stiff, large scale commercial cheese producers. Our little artisan cheese making operation in Anderson, South Carolina was surely part of many Google searches on that day!”
Split Creek Farm has continued to compete in this contest since 2018. In 2020 they achieved a ranking of number 1 in the United States and number 5 in the world. And, in the 2022 World Championship Cheese Contest, their feta maintained its number 1 ranking in the United States but moved up to number 3 in the world in its class.
“As you might imagine we are thrilled with this continued success and recognition!”
Love what you are doing
If they would have a piece of advice for young women wanting to start a career in agriculture, Sandra and Jessica mention a long list of requirements that a farmer needs to meet. “Farming in any form is very hard work, it requires commitment and dedication beyond what most people can even imagine. Beyond those attributes, there is a never-ending need to be resilient, creative, and forward focused if anyone wishes for any type of success in the agricultural field.”
“So our initial response to this question was “don’t do it!” even though this isn’t really how we feel, or we wouldn’t be putting in the long hours, investing our hearts and losing months of sleep during kidding season to feed our passion.”
“To this end, one of our primary discussions with anyone seeking employment with us involves this narrative and question: picture in your mind the hardest day you can imagine. Now add 50% more to that day. This will be a normal day as an employee here. Do you still want to apply?”
“There is absolute truth in this scenario. Every day is hard in some form or another and some days end with a feeling of complete defeat. But we put ourselves to bed each night knowing we did the best we could do today, and strive to wake up the next day to do our very best all over again. Our best advice to anyone is to be sure you love what you are doing because our passion and love for our animals is absolutely what fills our hearts and keeps us going, every single day.”
Jessica Bell (42) from New Jersey and Sandra Coffman (53) from Virginia both live in Anderson, South Carolina, where they run Split Creek Farm LLC, a 27 acre dairy goat farm counting a herd of 250-300 goats.
Sandra and Jessica also founded the Goats 4 Goodness organization with the overarching goal to “Do Good Things” for people, animals and the environment. Goats 4 Goodness strives to educate, provides limited animal sanctuary, partners with grazing companies for invasive species management and offers unique therapy opportunities for those with mental health issues. It is also a host site for Make A Wish foundation to provide Wish recipients and their families with a unique place to visit.
The nonprofit can be found via the Goats 4 Goodness website or Facebook page.