goat

Humble Heart Farms raises Saanen goats without using hormones, steroids or herbicides. (Photo: Shutterstock)

If you've ever dreamed of pulling up stakes, moving to the Appalachian foothills and running a 20-acre goat cheese farm, now's your chance. And even if you haven't, you might want to think about it.

The owners of Humble Heart Farms, located on a plateau in far northern Alabama, are moving to Costa Rica to help friends start a goat farm there. To make sure their own goats remain in good hands, they're using a clever technique to "sell" the farm: an essay contest with a $150 entry fee. If they get at least 2,500 entries, they'll make enough to cover the farm's estimated $345,000 value, give $20,000 to the new owners for operating costs and still move to Costa Rica with a cushion.

The farm is in good shape, owner Paul Spell tells MNN. The winner will get a mature business with established customers, plus a debt-free house and 55 goats raised without hormones or steroids. The only catch is that it's a seasonal business, although the prize includes money for the first winter.

"We get most of our revenues from farmers markets and restaurants," says Spell, who has run the farm with his wife, Leslie, for the past 10 years. "In the wintertime it's pretty slow, so they would need the $20,000 for operating expenses to get through winter. The summer will take care of itself."

Running a goat farm is a lot of work, so the prize includes a month of training, too. "This is a job that you don't have to be a rocket scientist to learn, but you do have to be willing to learn and do research," Spell says. "We had virtually no training before we took this over." In addition to the upfront assistance, he adds "this is a situation where we're always a phone call away, forever."

goat cheese

The Spells produce eight different flavors of goat cheese, as well as frozen desserts. (Photo: Humble Heart Farms)

The contest asks for $150 and a 200-word essay explaining why you're "the perfect fit to continue the farmstead goat cheese tradition." Entries will be accepted until Oct. 1, and each will then be assigned a random ID number for judging (the Spells ask entrants not to identify themselves in the essay). The Spells will narrow the field down to 20, and the winner will be chosen by a panel of three independent judges, including an employee of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

If the contest doesn't reach at least 2,500 entries, everyone who did enter will get their $150 back. Otherwise, the winner will be announced Oct. 15. "Ideally they could take over Nov. 1," Paul Spell says, "and we would train them for the month of November."

This kind of essay contest may be unusual, but it's not unprecedented. In fact, the Spells got the idea after hearing about a similar contest to win a bed and breakfast in Maine. Earlier this year, owner Janice Sage announced she's holding an essay contest to pass on the 200-year-old Center Lovell Inn, which is fitting since she received the property via an essay contest from the previous owners in 1993.

Sage's contest also has a $125 entry fee, and while the concept has raised a few eyebrows — charging money for a sweepstakes could constitute illegal gambling — her contest has been deemed legal because writing an essay relies on skill, not luck. The same legal rationale applies to the Humble Heart Farms essay contest, according to the Spells.

Humble Heart Farms

Being in charge of a 20-acre farm isn't easy, but there's always some down time. (Photo: Humble Heart Farms)

Before the Spells got into goat cheese, Paul worked in radio advertising and Leslie was a stock broker. They've built up a following as farmers over the past decade, and Humble Heart Farms is now "at the height of its success," according to Huntsville's WHNT. Although they're retiring to Costa Rica for now, the Spells say they'll return to northern Alabama afterward.

Managing a farm isn't a 9-to-5 job, Paul Spell points out, and it can monopolize your time — especially during the milking season. But it's also an enriching lifestyle, he says, and his favorite part about the past 10 years at Humble Heart Farms has been watching his 14-year-old son grow up there. "One of the reasons we got into it is he is part of our lives and part of this," Spell says. "He knows how to work, and he knows about the animals. He's very kind and gentle to them, and at the same time he's very wise."

Plus, he adds, farming is a job that keeps you outdoors, active and appreciative.

"As corny as it sounds, you're part of the Earth," he says. "It's a little bit hard, but the thing is, if you like doing this stuff, working hard at it is like playing. It's all fun. There are times when it's very tiring, but also — you know, the other day, I stopped my tractor and looked over the acreage and just thought to myself, 'This is great. This is beautiful.' It's just very rewarding."

For a full list of rules and instructions on how to enter, check out the contest website.

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.