Getting your goat
July/Aug. 2007 California Country magazine
By Tracy Sellers
Once considered a "poor man's cow," goats are proving they're rich with fans across the state and beyond.
Here's an animal whose significance may surprise you
Only in California is "getting your goat" a good thing. And that's because the frisky, furry, funny animals are resurging in popularity as more people discover their importance in farming and ranching. Once considered a "poor man's cow," goats are proving they're rich with fans across the state--and beyond.
Goats were first domesticated about 10,000 years ago in the mountains of Iran. Ancient cultures and tribes kept them for their milk, hair, meat and skins. Today, goats are the most popular domesticated animals in the world, and goat meat and milk are the most widely consumed animal products.
Of the myriad products derived from goats, cheese was among the first. Today, goat cheese is considered a specialty, and at the industry's forefront is Jennifer Bice.
For 39 years Bice has been milking, breeding and loving goats at Redwood Hill Farm in Sonoma. It all started in 1968 when her parents moved from Los Angeles to Sonoma County.
"We got two of every animal," she recalled. "It was kind of like Noah's Ark for awhile around here. But goats were what stuck."
Bice's father raised a herd whose milk he bottled and sold. He also started a goat program in the local 4-H Club, and in it Bice learned about raising animals conscientiously.
"I always say we're like overgrown 4-H'ers," she said.
In 1978 Bice assumed ownership of the family farm and looked to expand the business. She soon learned there was one major obstacle--no one knew what goat cheese was.
"Back in those days, people didn't know a chèvre from a Chevrolet, to tell you the truth," she said.
In the 1980s goat's milk experienced what Bice calls "the gourmet crossover," in which people became more accepting of new and different locally grown items. Suddenly, at product demos in grocery stores, people who wouldn't have stopped two years before would lean across the samples of milk and yogurt to ask, "Don't you make cheese?"
Before long, Bice's small goat farm turned into the goat farm in California, which now churns out some of the best farmstead goat cheese in the country. Bice's brother, Scott, runs the farm, while her sister, Sharon, heads the public relations department.
The family operation makes five types of cheese: feta, a traditional cheese originally made by Greek shepherds; chèvre (literally "goat" in French), a fluffy, soft cheese; Camellia, a small, rind-ripened cheese; Crottin, the American Cheese Society's "Best Farmstead Goat Cheese" of 2000 and 2002; and Bucheret, a French-inspired cheese enjoyed as a snack or dessert.
The dairy goat breeds producing the cheese at Redwood Hill Farm include Alpine, LaMancha, Nubian, Oberhasli, Saanen and Toggenburg. An individual goat from these breeds can produce more than 2,000 pounds of milk per year.
Soap made from goat's milk? Sarah Hawkins creates more than two dozen different scents.
What if you've got dairy goats, but you don't like goat cheese? Do what Sarah Hawkins did: Turn goat's milk into goat soap.
"I always thought goats were such hard workers," said Hawkins, who remembers admiring them from afar as a child in the Bay Area. "No matter what they did on the farm, they would give 100 percent. You could just tell they meant business."
The goats' business at Hawkins' Vacaville farm is to produce milk for soap.
"People always ask, 'Goat's milk soap? Isn't it going to smell bad, like how goats smell bad?'" Hawkins said. "But that's one of the biggest mistakes people make about goats. They don't smell bad at all."
Hawkins and her fiancé, Andy Pestana, make 27 different scents for their English Hills Soap Co.
"Goat's milk is actually really good for the skin," she said. "It's much milder than regular soap and it hydrates the skin better, too. I've become an expert, believe me."
In addition to great cheeses and soaps, goats are responsible for one of the hottest new items in the freezer section: Laloo's Goat's Milk Ice Cream (pronounced lay-looz).
The partnership between former Hollywood producer Laura Howard, left, and goat farmer Donna Pacheco has yielded one of the hottest new items in the freezer section: goat's milk ice cream.
Laura Howard, the brains behind this Petaluma-based business, works with local farmer Donna Pacheco, producer of the award-winning Achadinha goat cheese.
The partnership has proven rewarding for these two entrepreneurs as well as their lactose-challenged customers. Goat's milk contains less lactose than cow's milk, so it is sometimes recommended for infants and others who have difficulty with cows' milk.
"People hug me and say, 'I can have real ice cream again. Thank you,'" Howard said.
Once relegated to health food stores, products from goat's milk now attract mainstream consumers because of their digestibility, as well as their high protein value and low cholesterol and calorie counts. According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, goat's milk and cheese sales rose 20 percent in the last year.
Health benefits are just one reason goats have seen a rise in popularity, especially in California. Loss of agricultural land is another reason. The majority of farms in California are small farms--around 62 percent are less than 50 acres--making them ideal for the smaller, more compact goat.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, California has more than 140,000 goats, putting it in a virtual tie with Texas and Wisconsin for the title of top goat state in the nation. About 100,000 of the Golden State's goats are raised for meat.
Goat meat has become particularly popular in California due to a strong Latin American and Asian American influence, according to a 2006 report by the University of California Small Farm Center. California, therefore, has gone from an importer of goat meat to an exporter.
Yet another byproduct making Californians giddy for goats is one of the world's softest luxury goods: cashmere. Ajamu and Talibah Al-Rafiq left fast-paced Bay Area careers in 1990 to raise goats in the hills of Calaveras County.
While some entrepreneurs put goats to work chomping up unwanted vegetation, others like Ajamu and Talibah Al-Rafiq take a softer approach to business: they produce cashmere.
Their company, California Cashmere Co., operates the state's only cashmere-processing factory and one of the few in North America. More than 90 percent of the world's cashmere comes from Asia. Still, after some research, the Al-Rafiqs decided to try it for themselves.
"We started with only 32 goats and we had no idea what we were doing, but we were determined," Ajamu Al-Rafiq said.
The couple now has 300 goats and maintains five different bloodlines producing cashmere that ranges from white to brown to black. Each goat produces about 2 to 2 1/2 pounds of cashmere a year. The Al-Rafiqs clean and process the raw cashmere, then sell the finished product for $288 a pound. Talibah Al-Rafiq also knits sweaters, scarves and hats to sell.
The Al-Rafiqs both grew up on farms and yearned to get back to a simpler way of life. Goats offered that, albeit in a roundabout way.
"At first we thought we wanted goats just for fire protection, but then it turned into so much more," Talibah Al-Rafiq said.
Fire protection and weed abatement are yet additional jobs of goats across California. From San Diego to the northern reaches of the state, voracious goats are doing what they love to do: eat. They roam overgrown fields, eradicating dense brush, which given high temperatures and dry conditions, can turn into one big tinderbox.
"A small group of 65 goats can eat through almost 1 acre of land in one day," said Julie Austin of Goat Central, located in El Dorado County. Goat Central provides a "green alternative" to removing unwanted vegetation.
"'Will work for food' is a pretty good way to describe the goats," Austin said.
The goats are cost-efficient and good for the environment because once the goats eat through an area, it becomes easier to maintain.
"You actually change the composition of vegetation and remove those weeds," Austin said. "The regrowth is more palatable and easier to handle."
But there are other reasons Austin enjoys goats.
"They make funny noises and each one has it's own distinctive personality," she said. "They make coming to work fun."
Hawkins agreed, saying, "They really are a joy to be around. They're the whole reason I got into farming in the first place."
These women are pleased that goats are finally getting their time in the spotlight.
"They do so much for us and they've been overlooked for so long, it's great to see people realize what they mean to agriculture as a whole," Bice said.
Tracy Sellers is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation and the popular weekly television program "California Country." She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.