April 16, 2010

Get Your Goat

byceWhen Redwood Hill Farm’s Jennifer Bice took over her family’s goat dairy and creamery in 1978, she faced a truly uphill battle. “I would do goat cheese demos at stores or farmers markets and people would start backing away or gagging at the sound of it,” she recalls.

Jennifer and her late husband loved raising goats, however; so they persevered. Today the Sonoma-based Redwood Hill is known for goat milk, artisan goat’s milk cheese, yogurt, and kefir. People often flock to an opportunity to sample their products — partly because goat products are much more widely available than they have been in the past. “When you see magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal publishing recipes that use goat products, it’s a sign that it’s really trickled down to the masses.”

Jennifer still gets a lot of questions from customers, however. “They want to know if what they’ve heard about the health benefits is true,” she says. “And people looking for an alternative to industrial-scale factory farming want to know how we raise the animals.”

Since the goat industry (if you can call it that) has no trade groups, Jennifer recently joined two other makers of goat’s milk products, Laura Howard, of Laloo’s Goat’s Milk Ice Cream and Mary Keehn of Cypress Grove Chevre, to create an educational campaign and website called SuperGoat, to bring more awareness to the “other” dairy.

Because there are no known Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) for goats to date, the products made from their milk tend to be both humane and more ecologically friendly than other dairy. According to the SuperGoat website, “goats don’t decimate the land or pollute the air nearly as much as cows. They are light on their feet and because they are smaller they don’t require as much energy, food or land.” In addition, the kinds of growth hormones that are commonly used on cows have never been developed for dairy goats. Another big environmental plus is the nature of their manure, which is pellet-like and doesn’t require large open-air lagoons like those needed to store cow manure.

goat_kidsEven as the market for goat cheese and other goat products grows, Jennifer says, there’s still little chance that it will ever resemble the cow dairy industry. One reason, she points out, is that it takes 10 goats to produce the milk of one cow, meaning goat products will always require much more labor. Add to that the fact that there are no government subsidies for goat farmers, and the limits to scaling up are clear. On the one hand, this means it’s unlikely the price of goat products will ever get to be as low as cow dairy; on the other hand, the businesses are not likely to become industrial-scale operations.

“Our 200-head milking herd is like a 20-cow dairy, says Jennifer. “In this day and age, even a 400-cow dairy is considered small.” Another factor is the personality of the goats. “They’re very active and interactive, and much more like dogs than cows,” she adds. “So they don’t really lend themselves to mass production and factory farming. They learn how to open gates, they dance around. People who raise cows can’t easily switch to goats.”

After decades of inroads into the market by goat cheese makers, products like goat’s milk yogurt and ice cream have also begun to enter the mainstream. According to Laura Howard of Laloo’s, the growing demand has to do with a rising number of people with sensitivities to cow dairy.

For example, the fat molecules in goat’s milk are one-fifth the size of those that make up cow’s milk, and goat’s milk does not contain alpha S1 casein protein, the most common allergen in dairy products. Both factors make it much easier to digest for many with allergies and lactose intolerance.

While many dairy-sensitive people turn to plant-based alternatives, Laura points out, those products have also often become increasingly industrialized. “To crush a soybean and ship it from South America in a Tetra Pak carton uses a tremendous amount of petroleum and resources. Those businesses are, like the dairy cow industry, very centralized.”  

When she speaks of the farms the SuperGoat campaign highlights, however, Laura sees a much different landscape. “Our businesses are all based on farms operating on really small margins in order to keep the animals as close to nature as possible.”

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »