By Samantha Miller
October 16, 2000 12:00 PM

It’s doubtful that students in Judith Schad’s University of Louisville English classes were ever this eager to see her—but then again, she never treated them to handfuls of hay. On daily rounds to check on her 300 goats, Schad, 58, uses her gray T-shirt to wipe No. 184’s nose and bends down to cradle the latest kid. “It’s hard to make happy cheese,” she says, “with unhappy animals.”

What the dickens is a former English doctoral student doing amid this baaing bunch? Producing award-winning goat cheeses at her tiny Capriole dairy farm in Greenville, Ind., that’s what. Schad has been at it full time since dropping out of academia in 1981. “She’s the queen of goat cheese,” says Jean Joho, chef at Chicago’s ultrahaute Everest restaurant. “She definitely makes the best in America.” And Joho wholeheartedly backs the plainspoken Schad’s claim: “I think my cheeses, at their best, can stand up and bark at anything in the world.”

Her 13 varieties, from simple, soft chevres to sharper aged cheeses, certainly have foodies begging for more. The higher-priced spreads fetch up to $20 a pound at chichi shops around the country and tempt diners at such top restaurants as TV chef Emeril Lagasse’s New Orleans eatery Emeril’s. Schad has even won the cheese equivalent of an Oscar: Her Wabash Cannonball, an aged variety with a rind of ash and white mold, bagged the American Cheese Society’s award for the best cheese in the nation in 1995. Banon, soaked in brandy and wrapped in chestnut leaves, recently won its second blue ribbon in the marinated goat cheese category. “She came out of nowhere,” says Steve Jenkins, author of the guide Cheese Primer. “She’s done things in a short time that have taken others a lifetime.”

Schad took a while to find her calling. “I’m a city girl who discovered she was a country girl at heart,” she says. Reared by a lawyer father and secretary mother in New Albany, Ind., she shunned the outdoors to devour novels by Robert Louis Stevenson and Honoré de Balzac. She earned a bachelor’s degree in education at the University of Kentucky and wed high school sweetheart Larry, now 58 and a lawyer, just before graduating in 1964.

Schad taught high school English, then devoted herself to rearing their three children—first in New Albany, then on the 80-acre rural farmstead they bought in 1976. (Sons Matthew, 32, and Sam, 27, are lawyers; daughter Kate, 28, works at the dairy.) Then, in 1976, feeling the pull of her literary passion, Schad enrolled at the nearby University of Louisville and worked toward a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature while editing a literary magazine, writing fiction and teaching. “She would have been a stunning Renaissance scholar,” says Sena Jeter Naslund, a creative-writing professor (and author of the bestselling novel Ahab’s Wife) who came to know Schad as a talented writer—and cook: “One Christmas she made me a gingerbread house so beautiful, it made me cry.”

Schad, who left school before completing her degree, was already perfecting her tangier treats. She had bought a few goats when her children joined the 4-H Club, and “we had all this milk,” she recalls. “I tried to get the kids to drink it, but they thought goat milk was gross. So I started making cheese.” Her first efforts, guided by library books, weren’t world class—”the dogs ended up eating a lot of it,” she admits. But she graduated to selling her cheeses at local farmers’ markets, then to stores in Chicago. In 1988 she and Larry invested in a $40,000 milking machine, and he began getting up at 5 a.m. to milk their herd. “It’s very peaceful in the morning,” he says.

Today Schad has four employees and rings up $375,000 in annual sales. She has no plans to expand, further. “I don’t necessarily think bigger is better,” she says. After all, she prides herself on by-hand production and pampered goats who roam freely and aren’t given artificial hormones. Does Schad miss the literary life? Nah. A great cheese “is like a great book,” she says. “It keeps getting better and better the deeper you get into it.”

Samantha Miller

John Slania in Greenville