A Vermont farm meets a need by utilizing recycled land and animals.
Pine Island Farm is not a typical recycling operation. On what was once an abandoned farm in the floodplain of the Winooski River in Colchester, Vermont, goats that would otherwise have been discarded are “recycled” to help supply a local demand for meat.
Every week, nearly 1.5 million pounds of goat meat is imported into the U.S. from Australia and New Zealand. Among those purchasing goat meat are some 6,000 New Americans from Asia, Africa and the Middle East living in the Burlington, Vermont, area. Because goat meat is scarce and expensive there, it tends to be reserved for holidays and special events.
A winning combination
As she worked in a Burlington resettlement program serving Somali, Burmese and Bhutanese immigrants, Karen Freudenberger became aware that it was difficult for these New Americans to get goat meat. They were driving from Burlington to markets in Boston and New York to purchase goat meat for religious holidays and other celebrations. Travel expenses plus the cost of a single goat easily exceeded $500.
As she looked for ways to make goat meat available locally and at a more reasonable price, Freudenberger found that excess bucklings born at nearby goat dairies were being composted or otherwise discarded. A community developer with experience in the Peace Corps and international aid organizations, Freudenberger likes putting parts together, and she saw people with the ability to raise meat for themselves and an inexpensive supply of young animals that might otherwise be thrown away. She also saw a nearby farm in need of a new operator, and the Vermont Goat Collaborative was born.
The underutilized farm, recently acquired by the Vermont Land Trust, is located in a bend of the Winooski River in Colchester. Of the 230 acres, 100 are in a permanent floodplain. Eighty acres are now used for grazing, and the farm’s buildings and pens are situated on 10 acres that serve several other purposes. Next year, the farm will add vegetable growing when 8 upland acres are divided into 0.125-, 0.5 and 1-acre community garden plots.
This past February, Freudenberger and Vermont Goat Collaborative farmers Chuda Dhaurali, a goat farmer in his native Bhutan, plus Theoneste Rwayitare and Theogene Maharo, farmers from Rwanda, began collecting bucklings and a few discarded doelings from five significant contributors: Fat Toad Farm in Brookfield, Blue Ledge Farm in Leicester, Twig Farm in West Cornwall, Sage Farm in Stowe, and Boston Post Dairy in Enosburg Falls. The animals are usually in their first day to third week of life, all old enough to have received colostrum from their mothers. Farmers are paid $5 for bucklings in their first week of life, $7.50 in their second week, and $10 for their third. The difference in price is based on the approximate weekly cost Pine Island Farm would have had to pay for milk replacer.
“We try to pick up 10 to 20 goats at a time when they are between one and 10 days old,” Freudenberger said. “To help control costs, we also try to keep pickups within 50 miles of our farm.” In keeping with the farm’s practice of making use of recycled materials, “sweaters” fashioned from seconds of Christmas stockings offered by a local company are used to help keep the new bucklings warm.
In addition Pine Island Farm accepts goats delivered from known sources. “We need to be very careful about not introducing disease to the herd,” Freudenberger noted. The farm also accepts older cull goats, generally does, which are always kept separate from the bucklings.
In 2014, 80 bucklings arrived during February. By mid-April, the total had increased to 200. “Although we raised some late-season bucklings in 2012, we have since seen that these animals will not be big enough for slaughter in September. Although there is a ready market for goat meat in the spring, overwintering the animals is expensive,” Freudenberger said. “Next year we will only accept bucklings born by April 1.”
Most of the bucklings are dairy goats: Alpine, Nubian, Saanen, La Mancha, Nigerian Dwarfs, and mixed. Because of their stocky build, Nigerian Dwarfs are preferred by buyers and are often the first chosen.
The first months
Snow lies deep when the first bucklings arrive at Pine Island Farm in February. For about two months, snow keeps them in the barn except for their escorted daily walk on the plowed farm road. “Alpines love being outside in weather down to 15 degrees Fahrenheit,” Freudenberger noted, “but Nubians are wimps. They just stand outside and cry.”
Some bucklings come to Pine Island Farm never having used a bottle.
For their first eight or so weeks of life, they are fed reconstituted powdered goat milk replacer from five-nipple bucket feeders. In the beginning, bucklings are fed five times a day. Feedings are reduced every couple of weeks before weaning at about six weeks. Hay and grain are offered around two weeks; both are sampled, but generally ignored for several more weeks. When they are not being weaned and are eating well, the bucklings are castrated.
As soon as the ground dries, the young goats are put out to pasture in a rotational grazing system where electric fences are moved every day or two. Water is supplied in 5-gallon buckets refilled several times a day in summer. Bucklings are brought back to the barn every night because of coyotes and other predators. The addition of guard llamas is being considered. Religious considerations of Muslim buyers preclude the presence of dogs anywhere on the farm.
Around 100 families, most New Americans, from Burlington, Winooski and Essex Junction, come to Pine Island Farm to purchase live goats. A few goats are sold throughout late spring and summer for family celebrations such as graduations and weddings, but most are selected on Goat Choosing Weekend (the third weekend in September). By September, when goats are around eight months old, they weigh about 65 pounds. Goats are sold by live weight, which generally works out to $150 to $200 per animal. In 2013, 117 goats were sold and slaughtered. To reduce the possibility of roadside slaughtering, no one is allowed to leave the farm with a live animal.
Families select goats based on their ethnic group’s traditional preferences. According to Freudenberger, Bhutanese people prefer castrated male goats, while many Africans prefer uncastrated males. Burmese prefer old (culled) females. All, Freudenberger noted, prefer tougher, bonier dairy goats to the meat goats Americans prefer. If New American customers have one complaint about the goat meat raised at Pine Island Farm, it is this: It is too tender! Most cook meat and bones in stews and would prefer that the meat stay together in chunks.
When customers come to the farm to choose their goats they make an appointment to slaughter, generally in the following 10 days to two weeks. Customers usually slaughter their own goats, but Chuda Dhaurali is available to help the inexperienced or those lacking in swift, humane technique. The user fee for the farm’s slaughter room is $10 per animal for a two-hour period during which two people may process two goats. The fee includes all equipment, food-safe plastic bags for packaging, and propane for the torch used to remove hair from hides. In the end, there is little waste. With the exception of four hooves, two horns, and a small amount of entrails, everything, including the head, is used.
When they’re finished in the slaughter room, customers are responsible for cleaning it. Farm staff then steam clean it with water heated to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. In the week following Goat Choosing Weekend, slaughters are done at the rate of 10 per day. The slaughter room is inspected monthly by the Vermont Department of Agriculture.
Building a farm
During the first year, Pine Island Farm raised and slaughtered 117 goats; the second year that number increased to 200. “Two hundred is the maximum number for current conditions,” Freudenberger said. “In the future, we could have 250 goats, but for now the barn’s ventilating system is a limiting factor.”
Pine Island Farm could provide space for more farmers, but so far it cannot support them. To support themselves, farmers must also work in town. “We cannot raise more goats now, but we are hoping to add some chickens—cull layers—and the farmers to raise them,” Freudenberger explained.
Under terms set by the Vermont Land Trust for Pine Island Farm’s use of the land, the farm must become self-sustaining within four years. Freudenberger said, “In order to do that, we are planning to become a membership farm. We will have producer members and user members. We anticipate that producers will contribute about 10 percent of their profits to paying the farm’s overhead costs: taxes, insurance and maintenance. User members’ modest annual fee will also contribute to overhead expenses.”
The farm is also aiming to develop the land and curb costs by continuing to improve pasture and browse and by growing hay for the goats. Having their own hay will also make it possible for farmers to hold more goats over the winter for the spring market, and thus provide farmers with another source of income.