Karen Catapano_Profile

Career Transformation from Nurse to Goat Farmer!

I grew up in Oyster Bay, Long Island surrounded by animals.  My dad brought home a lot of strays and we had a menagerie that included horses, dogs, cats, turtles and even an injured owl. Many people think they like animals but then lose their enthusiasm when they’re faced with the work and the mess that goes along with them.  Not me, I loved it all.

Karen Catapano in front of cheese shop.

A Practical Career Choice

After attending college, I worked as an assistant for a veterinarian at Tufts University. I concentrated on becoming a vet myself.  That plan was diverted when my husband, at the time, went to law school. We had planned to have children and knew that it would be too much for both of us to be pursuing demanding careers, so I bowed out and went to nursing school instead.  It turned out that nursing school was a lot harder than I imagined. But I did well and worked as a critical care nurse when I graduated.

After two years as a critical care nurse, I transitioned to doing community healthcare outreach.  I loved educating people and found the fun factor was much better for me than the intensity of critical care.   It was an enjoyable job, and a lot of people benefited from my work.  When we moved from Massachusetts back to New York, I went back to doing what I’ve always loved; taking care of horses on a farm, dancing, and teaching exercise classes. All of which were a big part of my background.

Kids on their goat boat.

Kids on their goat boat.

An opportunity arose to be part of a new cardiac rehab unit at Southampton Hospital.  It was perfect for me since it allowed me to take my critical patient experience and blend it with education, which is important for cardiac patients. With a staff of 21 medical professionals, we worked as a strong team.  We traveled all over the country for our programs, and I met fascinating people like Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra, and the team from Duke University. We  conducted research that reproduced angina distress symptoms with verbal cues.  That job was awesome, and that’s where I met Mike, my second husband, who was the Director of ER! Unfortunately, our wonderful program was dissolved when the hospital ran into financial difficulties. I faced more career transitions– first as a nursing supervisor and then as a sales representative for a large Pharmaceutical company. Being a sales rep turned out to not be what I had expected; instead of educating doctors, I handed out company logo’d trinkets.  I just put my head down and did it, but I kept my eyes open for something else.

 

Back to My Love of Animals

I found myself circling back and gravitating to what I loved most– my animals– and started breeding dogs.  While I loved the puppies, I didn’t always like the business of it; dealing with the problems and some of the people with whom I had to interact. I heard about a small goat farm on the North Fork of Long Island that was up for sale.  The owners were having a tough time making a go of it.  From what I know now, it’s a multi-faceted business that requires a vast skill set, the ability to multi-task and be prepared for the next thing that blows up.  To this day, my husband and I can’t remember whose idea this was.  I swear that he said “Karen, do you want to buy this farm” and he says that I said, “Mike, I really need to buy this farm”.  Whichever it was, we plunged ahead and bought the farm!  I left Merck the next day, and in 2003, we opened for business: www.catapanodairyfarm.com

Karen and dark baby in barn.

There was a big learning curve. The only experience we had was a short stint Mike and I did on a farm in upstate NY just prior to buying our farm. He worked with the cheese maker while I worked with the animal caretaker.  After a short period of time working on the farm, we made the decision to go forward with the purchase.  We had 18 goats to start with. That may seem like a lot of goats, but they don’t produce as much milk as cows, which is why it’s more expensive. This is not a money-making business. The perks are great, but you don’t go into it for the money, because it’s not going to happen at the boutique level.

We ran the first farm for a couple of years.  In retrospect, when I took on all these different jobs, it was like getting pregnant; if you don’t know what you’re getting into, you don’t question it, you just do it. And if you overthink things you’ll never do anything, but at the same time, it’s worth doing your homework.  If I had known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it.  But having done it, I’m so glad that we did. We made all the repairs and changes that needed to be made, got it back into the right shape for a working farm, and it turned out to be a lot of fun.  I loved all the people we met.

Tiny visitor enjoying the babies.

Tiny visitor enjoying the babies.

In our second year, unbeknownst to me, my husband entered the American Cheese Society contest, which is the most prestigious of the cheese awards. He won 1st place!  It was amazing to me because the first time he made cheese was when we worked briefly on the farm in upstate, prior to buying the goat farm. He had two weeks of knowledge!

Good cheese making comes down to three things; understanding chemistry (I suppose his degree in chemistry was a big help!), being consistent in your approach and having a very clean environment. He was a natural at it.  In addition, the animals must be well taken care of , which I do lovingly.   If you have healthy animals, a good clean kitchen and beautiful milk, all of which we have, you’re going to make excellent cheese. We now have one hundred goats, which is what we need to make the amount of cheese we sell to local wineries and restaurants. Always selling out! Additionally, we make beautiful soaps and skin care products on site, and they are very popular.

 

Living My Passion

What I’m doing now is a culmination of everything I’ve been exposed to, and have enjoyed, throughout my life.  A big part of it is animal care taking and there’s a lot of education involved.

We’ve had the same staff of five people since we first opened our farm!  We work together very closely, everyone pitches in and the excitement is like what I experienced in critical care triage. There’s something happening all the time; the goats are out now, we’re out of feed, the hay delivery didn’t come! Oh my gosh, that big order of feta was supposed to be chevre!  It’s not boring and no two days are the same.  What we provide goes beyond the food products, in some cases it’s therapeutic.  We have many elderly people who enjoy coming here and sitting with the goats.  Many are of European descent who grew up with goats and the experience brings them back to their younger days.

We have won 4 times at the ACS competitions

We have won 4 times at the ACS competitions

Mike and I started this business at the beginning of a new marriage. Instead of having more children, this was our baby. I can’t stress enough that if you choose to undertake a venture like this, you must have the right partner. My son was also involved, making local deliveries for us. After he went into the military and was deployed to Iraq, being so engrossed in the farm saved me from being consumed by worry about him.

Farm mgr Deb and newborn.

Farm manager Deb and newborn.

What I do is hard work, but I like hard work.  I also love being my own boss with no one hovering over me.  Even the smallest decisions are rewarding when they come from your own heart, experience or thought. And, if they don’t work, then you grow.  I still have time to exercise and dance which helps to keep me happy so I am at my best for people around me.

What I’ve done in my life and in my career may not be the right thing for everyone, but if there are women reading this who are unhappy with their jobs or situations in life, I hope they approach change as I did.  I found something that allowed me to bring together all my passions and past experiences. I can see myself working until I’m 100 years old!

www.catapanodairyfarm.com

The farm is open to the public and tours are conducted once a month.

Related:

Barbara Holmes Achieves Lifelong Ambition of Becoming a Model: in her ‘50’s!

Julie Ricciardi’s Spiritual Journey from Corporate Executive to Mission Driven Non-Profit Executive

Career Transformation: Ashley Richardson’s Transition from Corporate Exec to Successful Entrepreneur

Never too Late: How a High School Dropout Became a Successful School Principal

 

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