An unusual and surprising phenomenon is occurring in Athens, GA and across the nation. An unsung hero of the livestock world is fast making a name for itself amongst farmers, land managers, gourmet chefs, and culinary connoisseurs. Goats! The caprine kind are on the prowl and coming to a neighborhood near you!
Goat brush clearing to the rescue! Capra aegagrus hircus, the domesticated goat, has been cared for by humans for over 10,000 years. Goats have been bred for milk, meat, fiber, hides, and in modern times, as human companions. Goats have a highly inquisitive and sociable nature and often bond with people to a degree matched only by dogs in the animal kingdom. Historically, goats have figured prominently in the culture and agriculture of almost every society and civilization – except in the modern Western world. Believe it or not, goat is by far the most commonly consumed red meat in the world, representing 70% of total consumption. From the cultures of the Caribbean and Mexico to the developing countries of Africa and the entire Jewish and Muslim worlds, goat meat is commonly consumed in cultural celebrations and as daily fare. Yet Americans are beginning to take note – the number of meat goats in this country has doubled every 10 years for the past three decades, according to the USDA.
So what’s the big deal about goats? Unlike cows, goats are browsers. This means they wander from place to place nipping at the growing tips of woody shrubs and small trees, just as deer do. Cows are grazers; they like to forage on continuous expanses of grasses and herbaceous plants. Yes, goats also like to eat lush grasses and cows will nip at woody shrubs, if given the chance. But a cow will not grow, thrive, and become a marketable meat product without access to fertile pasture or concentrated feeds. Goats, on the other hand, thrive on a diet of tough woody plants – things like privet, ivy, kudzu, pine needles, and most of the other coarse vegetation that blankets the Southeast. Plus, goats are relatively small animals, so they are easy to pick up and cart around to wherever there is a good food source (and it’s hard to throw a stick around here without it landing in a patch of something that goats love to eat).
But who wants to come home to goat on the dinner table? Well, quite a few turned out on a recent Spring evening at the Terrapin Brewery in Athens where a who’s who of local chefs roasted a privet-raised goat and offered an international smorgasbord of goat dishes to the crowd. No one was disappointed in the fare, to say the least. The appreciation for the delicious quality of the meat was expressed over and over throughout the evening by the party-goers, though this came as a surprise to some. Many Americans have a vague notion that goat meat is gamey, like venison. The reputation probably stems from the smell given off by billy goats during the Fall rut, which is rank indeed. Though a few cultures consider the meat of ‘intact’ adult males to be a delicacy, most people prefer the meat of young neutered goats (they’re called wethers in goat lingo). At this stage the meat is tender and delicious and can be prepared in all the ways we’re accustomed to with beef and pork – steaks, ribs, chops, roasts, sausage, etc.
So will goat be the next big thing in sustainably-produced meat products? The answer to this may have a lot to do with economics. Think of all the idle land around here that is absolutely choked with exotic invasive plants – vacant lots in urban areas, suburban greenspaces, and all the depleted farmland that no one can seem to find an economically-viable use for. In the outlying areas of Atlanta, Athens, and other southern cities, small and large, the sequence of land use over time has often followed this general trend:
- intensive agriculture persists until it exhausts the soil;
- pine plantations are established as the only remaining form of agriculture that is viable;
- eventually, as urban areas expand, residential subdivisions become a more profitable form of land use and the former farmland becomes part of suburbia.
Now, add to this the most recent development in suburban land use to this sequence, the ‘failed subdivision’. Often referred to as ‘PVC farms’ because of the white pipes of utility lines that were stubbed in at each prospective home site and now rise above the weeds, often visible from the road, these are the unlucky plots of developers whose plans were cut short by the real estate crash of 2008. Highway 78, running between Athens and Atlanta is a poster child for this unique form of contemporary land use – or un-use, as it is. The ecology of these common, yet unpopulated places, has been determined by the bulldozer. The process of grading for roadways, drainage features, and building sites leaves a palette of bare red clay that only the hardiest species can contend with. First there are a few forbes and grasses; brambles often enter the picture by year 2 or 3; by year 4, pine seedlings are rocketing skyward and sweetgum is usually not far behind. Thus a subdivision graded between 2004 and 2008, as most of the ‘failures’ were, is now a waist to head high thicket of brush. For humans this ecosystem may seem like a wasteland; for goats, this is like the Garden of Eden.
So, back to the economics of land use. These properties are now a tremendous liability for their owners. Some have been foreclosed on and are now owned by banks. Many others have been bought up by large development groups who have deep enough pockets to weather the financial storm brought on by the real estate crash. At any rate, these lands are idle and incur significant costs to their owners in property taxes and maintenance. And some say there is a twenty year supply of single family housing stock already built in this country. In other words, for the coming generation, the market that these subdivisions were intended for may be slim to none. So what will be the economic demand that will drive the next development of land use on the suburban fringe?
Goat brush clearing to the rescue! Instead of paying to have their property maintained by gas-powered ‘bush hogs’, why not use live goats? A future generation of goat farmers could offer property maintenance to developers at lower rates because the primary costs of land access and feed would be taken care of in the exchange. Furthermore, a unique and modern form of agriculture would be introduced to the landscape, with the potential to spawn a host of positive outcomes, both economically and ecologically. In lieu of any other viable real estate strategy, perhaps this may somehow light the path towards an as-yet-unimagined development scenario. If we compare the cost of access to fertile pasture land suitable for the fattening of cattle with the cost savings of using goats to perform property maintenance, goat husbandry starts to make $ense. If we further compare the costs of transporting a meat product from a distant rural area to an urban market versus from nearby suburban areas, the idea of converting pvc farms to goat farms gains even greater credence. And though it is relevant, a discussion of the absurd idiosyncrasies of the beef industry (that involve shipping live animals all over the country for various stages of growth, finishing, and processing) will have to be saved for a later article.
The revelers at Athens’ recent goat roast are already convinced. The party was a follow up to several other goat-themed events which occurred recently on the UGA campus, where students have implemented a plan to use goats to control a privet-infested area along Tanyard Creek, one of the campus’ primary waterways. A staple of traditional agriculture around the world, the friendly and not-so-capricious goat just might offer Americans a way to turn some modern environmental problems into economic assets. Edible enterprises such as this may even be a key component in a future vision of sustainable agriculture that is light, lean, smart, and flexible – where every landscape is looked at for its potential to support an appropriate mode of food production and systems are designed to change and evolve to keep pace with shifts in economic and environmental conditions. Future farmers may be emerging from surprising locales, armed with the knowledge that sustainability and economic viability mean making the most of minimal resources. Baaaaaaahhh! Here they come!
In conjunction with Urban Agriculture Incorporated, Tree of Life Farms will soon be offering brush control services for landowners and a line of goat meat products.
Please see the following links for more on the recent goat revival in Athens and elsewhere:
Southern Meat Goats:
Local Press Coverage of UGA Goats