A Goat Revival: Farmers Work to Expand Our Palate to Include Goat Meat
Local farmers and nonprofits are making goat easier to raise, slaughter and yes, eat
SPRING IS GOAT KIDDING SEASON IN UPSTATE NEW YORK. ACROSS DEWY, NEWLY SPROUTED PASTURES, YOUNG
GOATS ARE FINDING THEIR LEGS, TEETERING OUT INTO THE WORLD, UNSURE OF WHAT LIES AHEAD.
For most of the does (female goats), the answer is a lifetime of producing milk that will end up as cheese or other goat’s milk products. The market for goat cheese in the United States is one of the fastest-growing among all specialty cheeses, and though there are as many as 360,000 milk goats grazing on around 30,000 dairy goat farms across the country, we still import roughly 50 percent of our goat cheese from France due to an enduring demand. We just can’t get enough of creamy, tangy chèvre.
While it’s all well and good to crumble goat cheese on salads and spread it on baguettes, the reality is that with milk and cheese comes meat. Yet for many consumers and chefs, the stark fact that the bucks (male goats) are a necessary—and often discarded— by-product of goat dairy products is not one that crosses their minds.
THE BUCK STOPS HERE
“As a cheese eater, I’m creating these meat animals, which I’d never thought of before. These are the biological realities of the cheese-meat continuum,” Erin Fairbanks provides as an eater’s revelation. She’s been at the helm of Heritage Foods USA’s Goatober program since it began in 2011, an initiative that sources sustainable goat meat and partners with fine dining restaurants across New York City to serve goat-centric dishes throughout the month of October. The goal of the program, originally conceived by cheesemonger Anne Saxelby after she learned that males are of little use on a dairy farm since they cannot be milked, is to help create a financially viable end market for farmers throughout the Northeast. “Meat is a seasonable thing, just like heirloom vegetables are,” Fairbanks adds.
Without a market for goat chops and shanks, however, the futures of those newborn kids are often cut short. In the fourth edition of Storey’s Guide to Raising Dairy Goats —one of the seminal reference texts for goat farmers—there are specific instructions on how to euthanize new male goats. Though the practice is highly opposed by goat farmers, it is a sign of the need for greater sustainability across the industry as opposed to the current focus (and economic support) on the dairy side of things. Dr. Tatiana Stanton, an associate at Cornell’s Goat Extension program who has raised goats across the U.S. and around the world for over 20 years, is among those who abhor the premature euthanizing and see it as a sign of greater issues facing farmers.
“I knew one farmer in California who was euthanizing her kids, and I have no idea why. It was inconceivable to me,” says Dr. Stanton. “The New England farmers I run into these days are distressed— they’re barely getting anything for their goats at auction, and they’d like to raise them themselves, but they don’t have a good enough market to pay for the expense.”
Trevor Lowell, a former goat farmer in Southwest Montana now studying food policy in New York, says that though the farm he worked for was successful, they could easily have found themselves in the same position as other less fortunate farmers.
“We were operating under physical and financial constraints. We already had more goats than the land could support,” he recalls. As director of Sprout Creek Farms in Poughkeepsie, Margo Morris says: “If you’re going to have goats, you need to start doing something with them.”
What that something is all-too-often is determined by what farmers can manage to sell. Though the cost of raising a goat for meat is roughly half the cost of raising a dairy goat—around $1,000 for meat animals versus $2,000 for a milk goat, according to Morris’s rough estimates—the difficulty of finding willing buyers for goat meat is a huge deterrent. No farmer wants to have to make the choice between going out of business and euthanizing their kids, but to stop the practice, farmers need a steady market for their livestock.
Heritage Foods USA, based in Brooklyn, is just one part of a growing coalition of farmers, nonprofit organizations, butchers and chefs working to expand Americans’ culinary palates to include goat meat. Though we, as Americans, like to think of ourselves as global trendsetters, we’re actually quite late to the table: goat meat is the most consumed red meat worldwide, accounting for 70 percent of all red meat consumption, as goat meat can be kosher and halal as well. It is frequently the star of slow-cooked Caribbean barbacoas and Indian goat curries, or braised to perfection in Peruvian and other Latin American cuisines. Americans, however, remain stubborn beef consumers: we collectively consumed 28.5 billion pounds in 2012 alone.
“We’re such voracious consumers of hamburger, and there’s been a lot of effort put into establishing that market,” says Fairbanks. “The same work hasn’t been done for goats.”
We weren’t always a cattle-obsessed nation. Tighter quarters in early American colonies and the mingling of different European settlers meant that smaller, more resourceful livestock like sheep and goats were de rigueur. One of the most popular breeds of goat in the U.S. today, the LaMancha, was developed in America by crossing various breeds that came over from Europe.
“When we went outward toward the West and Prairies, cattle became our source for meat because we had big wide open spaces,” Morris said. “The sheep and goats took a back seat, but they both used to be very important in the colonial diet, especially mutton.”
GETTING MY GOAT
So somewhere deep in the American hardwiring is a taste for goat. But it’s not just our palates that need changing: It’s our infrastructure. Glynwood, an organization working to support independent farmers, took a deep look into the issue of humane slaughtering facilities in the Hudson Valley and the Northeast. They found an acute demand for locally raised, humanely processed meat, including goat, alongside a huge shortage of USDA-approved slaughter facilities, which can cost between $2 million and $3 million to build. In response, back in 2010 they developed the first and only in-unit mobile slaughterhouse in the United States, which has helped make it easier for farmers to safely and humanely ready goat meat for the market.
Though the challenges and barriers for goat meat are myriad, the reasons to surmount them are just as compelling. For one thing, they produce one of the healthiest red meats you can eat. With less than half the fat and a third of the saturated fat of beef, goat is a far leaner choice, something worth considering seriously in a nation where 600,000 people die of cardiovascular disease a year. (In a study of over 37,000 men and 83,000 women by Harvard’s School of Public Health, beef and other fatty red meats were found to shorten life spans and increase rates of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and certain cancers.) Goats are also one of the most sustainable forms of livestock out there and are relatively inexpensive to raise, both to the farmer and the environment. “It’s a very sustainable form of livestock,” says Fairbanks. “There’s very few inputs, since goats are pasture-based by nature.”
It seems that we’re slowly but surely coming around. Those in the goat business told me they have begun to witness a sea change in appetites in recent years.
“America has been steadily opening up to different cuisines: the different ways people use meat in different cultures has taken off,” says Morris. “We saw the same thing happen with osso buco. Now you find it on high-class menus everywhere, and it’s actually a peasant dish.” Sprout Creek often serves roasted goat at their monthly brunches, to give people the opportunity to try it.
“That’s most of the battle,” says Morris. “People need to try it to know it’s okay.”
Sprout Creek’s version is more than okay—it’s rolled in herbs and slow-roasted, so tender it pulls off the bone, and it has a fragrant, delicate flavor. Restaurants and chefs like Tom Colicchio, Back Forty, the Momofuku group and Union Square Café have also thrown their support behind Goatober, which has seen steady growth since Heritage Foods USA started the effort in 2011 with 350 animals. This year, they sold 500 sustainably raised goats to some of New York’s best restaurants.
“This is a new and emerging market, and it’s pretty exciting since we might be one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t regularly eat goat meat,” Morris says. “It’s a back-to-the-future moment in a way.