We wanted to know more about the the goat farm and creamery owned by Max Sandvoss ’98 in upstate New York and his transition from actor to experienced farmer and cheesemaker. Max, known as Stephen while at Taft, runs First Light with his brother, Trystan, and their team of employees. With evocatively named cheeses like Sun-Kissed Caprese, Tuscan Sunset, and Moonshot, he and his brother are committed to the entire natural process, with grass-fed animals and organic pastures, and they sell their cheeses at farmers’ markets and to stores and restaurants across their region.
Why raise dairy goats? What made you and your brother start with them, and how did the cheesemaking begin?
I have always loved goat cheese and goats, but my life didn’t head in that direction at first. After college, I was an actor for a couple of years, mostly TV and indie movies, and I lived in LA. Toward the end of my time there, my agent got in a major car accident and was in a coma for many months. I got a chance to rethink what I wanted to do with my life.
At the time, my brother was working at a small farmstead creamery in the Pacific Northwest. I visited a couple times, and it felt right, so I moved there and learned how to care for goats and make cheese. We moved to Western New York and started First Light in 2010.
Do you still purchase milk from a neighboring organic cow farm for cheesemaking?
First Light is right up the road from an extremely well-managed organic Jersey dairy. Right now our goat herd is 190 milking does strong, so we make fresh and aged organic cow’s milk and goat’s milk cheeses of many different kinds.
What’s the current focus for your products, and where is your time directed most?
Right now First Light is on the menus of about 150 restaurants. Our cheese is carried in many wineries and high-end co-ops and small markets in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and throughout the Finger Lakes. We’re in 52 Wegmans in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. The next step for us is Whole Foods, hopefully in the Tri-State Area and the Northeast soon. Look out for it!
Do you still do a Dairy Share CSA (community supported agriculture) program for your dairy products?
We have a dairy CSA that delivers our milk, cheese, and yogurt to members in Buffalo and Rochester.
What do you love the most about doing this work?
I love where I live. I love making the kind of food I want to eat. It’s particularly gratifying to develop friendships with chefs who love our cheese.
What are some of the hardest parts of your farming life?
The hardest part of this job is kidding season, when hundreds of babies are born. It is busy.
What’s one of the crazier funny moments?
We make a wine-brined goat’s milk Gouda called Moonshot. Two years ago, using a GoPro camera, we decided to try to catch some footage of goats drinking “wine” that was really just molasses and water. They went nuts for it, and we got lots of awesome footage of our goats drinking “wine” from wine glasses and even right out of the bottle. Goats are pretty great on-camera talent, and they always get a laugh out of me.
Are you glad you moved back East?
Between my brother, Trystan, and me, we’ve been exposed to a lot of what’s out there, what’s possible. I’ve lived many different places, and I miss most of them, but I’m glad to be where I am.
[Ed. note: Sandvoss’s mother and stepdad happen to have a dairy farm up the
road from where he and his brother started First Light. The area is perfect for dairying, with a temperate climate with fertile soil.]
What’s next for your business?
Our goal is to bring our cheese east to New York City, Boston, and everywhere great in between, including Connecticut, and west to Ohio and beyond. Wegmans is taking us company-wide this fall, so we’ll be in six states beginning Labor Day!
—Linda Hedman Beyus
See more about First Light at firstlightfarmer.com and instagram.com/firstlightfarmer.