While growing up in Oyster Bay, Karen Catapano of Peconic never dreamed she’d end up being a goat farmer. Sure, she loved animals, as did her parents, and there were always dogs, cats and even pheasants around the house.
“It was great,” says Catapano, “Any wild thing that strayed into our yard became part of the family. We even had an owl once. But no goats.”
Catapano eventually left Oyster Bay, attended school in Boston and became a registered nurse. She returned to Long Island, to the South Shore, where she enjoyed a successful career working as a cardiac care nurse at Southampton Hospital, running a cardiac rehabilitation unit and overseeing a large community wellness program. She also created a certificate program to educate health professionals in the care of older patients, basing the course on what she learned while earning her master’s degree in gerontology, the branch of medicine that deals with aging.
After Southampton Hospital ran into financial difficulties and shut down many of its programs, Catapano found herself working behind a desk.
“That was so not what I wanted to be doing,” she says. “They were trying hard not to let people go, but I was not happy.”
So she left and took a job with Merck Pharmaceuticals, but found that unfulfilling as well.
“I wanted to leave Merck but I didn’t know where I wanted to go. I loved education, but that wasn’t part of my job at Merck,” she says.
It was in 2001 when Catapano, who was living in Southampton at the time with her physician husband Michael, heard about a Mattituck goat farm for sale.
“Still to this day I have no idea why we bought it,” she says, laughing. “I’m positive Michael said we should buy it; he thinks I said we should buy it. We made them an offer and they said yes. Next thing I know I own a goat farm and I’m a goat farmer.”
Prior to purchasing the farm — and just to get an idea if this was something they might want to do — they had visited the Sherman Hill Farmstead, a dairy goat farm in upstate New York.
“The owner offered classes, so Michael took the cheese-making class and I took the animal husbandry class,” remembers Catapano. “He took right to the cheese-making. He has an emergency medicine degree, it’s all about chemistry and cleanliness and that’s basically what cheese-making is. I’d worked for a vet when I was going to school so I took to the animal part. You don’t know how important that is until later because had either one of us not been able to excel in our area we would have had problems here.”
When you look at successful farm families with a husband and wife or partner team, they each have an area where they do well, says Catapano. “You have to have a mutual respect.”
So Karen and Michael Catapano were now the proud owners of a somewhat run-down Mattituck goat farm. There was a house and a small barn on the one-acre property and there were 18 goats. As it turned out the goats were poor milkers and not in the best of health, so Catapano had to replace the herd. And the barn wasn’t in the best of shape either, so it had to be fixed. And the house needed some renovation.
“Any idea that we had that we were going to buy this little hobby farm and retire and live happily ever after went out the window after the first night,” says Catapano with a chuckle. “That wasn’t going to happen.”
Karen Catapano spent the next few years building up the herd and learning everything she could about goats while Michael perfected his cheese-making skills. The cheese they were producing at the farm was gaining a good reputation and a loyal following and in 2005 Michael won first place in a prestigious American Cheese Society competition.
Eventually the Catapanos realized that the one-acre farm on a particularly dangerous curve in Mattituck was not the ideal location and moved to a five-acre spread on Route 48 in Peconic, where they’ve been operating the Catapano Dairy Farm and selling award-winning cheeses for over 10 years.
In addition to the goats, they have chickens, a dog, two miniature horses and a llama named Inky.
“He thinks he’s a goat,” says Catapano. “We got him as an orphan and put him in with the goats and so, well, in his mind he’s a goat.”
Catapano, who seems to have boundless energy, produces a skin care line and goat milk soaps in addition to caring for over a hundred animals. She got the idea for the soap making when she left her toiletry bag home while traveling and someone gave her a bar of goat milk soap to try. She loved it.
She hired a soap maker to teach her how to make soap, set up a small factory in a room at her house where she and her husband used to host dance parties and started selling right away.
You might wonder if Karen Catapano ever has time to sleep (she swears she does) since not only is she a goat farmer, but she works part time at a medical clinic, teaches ballet two mornings a week and takes dance classes. She gives tours of the dairy farm to scout and school groups and in a few weeks will be bringing a goat up to a local nursing home to visit with the seniors.
Catapano credits the success of the farm not only to her husband, but to her “family of people” who make it all possible: Ovidio, a cheesemaker and farm helper; Pablo, who cares for the animals and can tell each goat apart from the other; Deb, her farm manager who manages the wholesale, the retail store and just about everything else.
Although running the farm is an immense undertaking, Catapano has no regrets. As she talks about her life at the farm, she cradles a five-day-old baby goat in her arms and laughs as it reaches up to nuzzle her ear.
“It’s just the way of life now. It’s about the goats. Things flow smoothly; it’s peaceful and nice.”