Mary Rigdon’s verdant patch of land, dotted with wildflowers and forty white dairy goats, is tucked in an industrial corner of south Atlanta. In this unlikely spot, beneath a thunderously loud flight path of the nearby world’s busiest airport, Rigdon and her tiny team at Decimal Place Farm have been quietly making some of the South’s best goat cheese for the last decade. Rigdon’s chevre, feta, and cheddar have become staples in Atlanta kitchens; her current wholesale clientele includes Miller Union, 8 Arm, Bellina Alimentari, Farm Burger, and Wrecking Bar Brewpub—an impressive roster for someone who taught herself the finicky craft of cheesemaking from a stack of old library books.
Rich and creamy without ever tasting fatty or overpoweringly “goat-y,” Rigdon’s cheese makes an impression. At one farmer’s market years ago, Rigdon supplied Chef Terry Koval (then of Farm Burger) with chevre for a burger he planned to demonstrate. “He took it back to where he was setting up and tasted it, and came right back and said, ‘I’ve never tasted a goat cheese like this,’” Rigdon recalls. Now, it’s a mainstay on his cheese board at Wrecking Bar.
At Miller Union, chef Steven Satterfield whips Rigdon’s feta with buttermilk and serves it with black-pepper crackers year-round, and often incorporates the chevre into seasonal dishes. (This spring, it’s sprinkled on a spinach and strawberry salad with rhubarb vinaigrette.) “Her cheese just has a nice, clean taste to it,” Satterfield says. “It has a middle-palate flavor that I really like a lot.” Rigdon has delivered to his kitchen nearly every week in the nine years since the restaurant opened.
Rigdon, who is from Cape May, New Jersey, has spent most of her adult life working on farms. Upon graduating from the University of Georgia’s animal science program, she headed west to Oklahoma for a job at a USDA grazing research farm. There, along with hundreds of sheep, she worked with knowledgeable shepherd from New Zealand, who taught her many of the practices she now employs at Decimal Place, like rotational grazing. After a stint on a wool farm in Texas, Rigdon made her way back to Georgia, where she worked in construction in the height of Atlanta’s 1980s development boom.
The vision of starting her own dairy struck during a trip to England, when she tried sheep’s milk yogurt at a rural grocery. The yogurt was so creamy that she immediately hiked to the dairy, where she chatted with the owner and toured the farm. Back home in Atlanta, Rigdon decided to find land and start her own herd of goats. (Why goats? In addition to being “personable,” Rigdon says, goats chow down on invasive plants like kudzu, poison ivy, and honeysuckle. They’re hyper-efficient. Plus, she says, “Sheep are flighty.”)
On a shoestring budget, she set out to learn how to make cheese. She checked out library books like Mary Jane Toth’s “Goats Produce, Too!”, but instead of buying molds and cheesecloth, she lined colanders with cotton bedsheets to drain her cheese. In 1995, she finally acquired forty acres of land and her first two goats. More than a decade later, after unofficially making cheese for family and friends, Rigdon decided to get her official dairy license. “I just had so many people coming down the driveway,” she says. “So many people were just finding me.”
Now, Decimal Place is home to Rigdon, her family, three full-time employees, and her herd, which now includes a fifty playful, pink-eared new kids, born over the last several weeks. Every morning, the does dutifully line up to supply about 1.5 gallons of milk each, which is transformed into tubs of chevre, feta, and dense pressed cheddar, as well as a few flavored cheeses, like Rigdon’s chevre made with lavender flowers and fennel seed.
As for what makes Rigdon’s cheese so special, she claims no secret recipes. For her, it comes down to the daily rigor of keeping her goats healthy and happy: keeping a watchful eye on her herd, strategically switching their grazing, and ensuring they don’t munch on flora that affects the flavor of their milk (like pine needles). All that maintenance is, she says, “the most important part of what goes on here.” To understand how that translates, she adds, go buy a log of mass-market goat cheese, taste them side-by-side with hers, and discover for yourself.
Though her cheese has won the regard of some of Atlanta’s best chefs, acclaim isn’t Rigdon’s primary motivation. As we wander through the dense thicket of woods across the creek from the barn, where she lets the goats graze each morning after milking, I ask her what the best part of her job is. The fridge stocked floor-to-ceiling with cheese? Watching baby goats prance around during their “recess?” Seeing her farm’s name mentioned on the menus of award-winning restaurants? Rigdon looks around at her herd, chuckling as a doe stands up on her spindly hind legs to snatch some leaves of a muscadine vine. She gestures at the scene. “It’s just this, right here.”
Atlantans can find Mary’s cheeses at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market and Freedom Farmers Market, as well as Rainbow Natural Foods and Pine Street Market.