Commentary: Goat producers face a “hard truth”

So what month is it?

Goatober, if you're onboard with what can only be termed a rather offbeat promotion.

The "campaign" is being conducted under the auspices of Heritage Farms USA, which many in the business recognize as a wholesaler of specialty, artisanal and heritage-breed animal foods, mostly marketed to upscale restaurants and urban butcher shops.

I don't know if Goatober will catch on with consumers, but the marketing effort to popularize goat meat has piggybacked on the cuts, presentation and the menu offerings used to promote lamb: Rack of goat, leg of goat and goat chops are all available at artisanal butcher shops as alternatives for lamb dishes. Proponents swear that the flavor and texture are, in fact, similar to the rich mouthfeel and distinctive flavor characteristic of farm-raised lamb.

Erin Fairbanks, the project coordinator behind what's called the "No Goat Left Behind" movement, is spearheading a parallel initiative to get foodservice chefs to add goat meat to their menus and regular diners to add it their diets with good reason.

She calls it "a hard truth" that consumers have to confront: To boost production of the widely popular goat cheese, goat milk production has to increase, which means farmers need to grow their herds and breed more does.

"Unfortunately, after they're born, the male goats, or bucklings, have no role on a dairy farm," Fairbanks told The Huffington Post. "So most farmers are faced with difficult choices."

She contended that responsible dairy farmers especially the artisanal producers who market to an "enlightened" upscale consumer want all their goats to begin and end life on the farm. However, that's costly in fact, it's impossible unless the market for goat meat can be expanded, and that's not possible unless more people are willing to sample goat meat, or chevon, as its more fanciful branding is labeled.

A different breed altogether

Goats themselves are remarkable animals. They can forage successfully on marginal land, and in fact prefer brushy, overgrown fields to manicured pasture.

Although it's generally expensive, goat cheese is highly nutritious, containing about 8% more protein, 20% more calcium and only 80 calories and 6 grams of fat per ounce, compared with cow's milk cheese, which contains around 100 calories and 10 g of fat per ounce. Goat cheese also has a distinctive flavor and texture that cannot be duplicated.

Full disclosure: I myself had a couple dairy goats back in the good old days when I lived on a rented farmstead in Oregon's Willamette Valley. I found the Nubian-cross does I had to be easy to manage, save for the occasional escape and far-flung romp through a suburban development down the road, and they were as friendly and docile as household pets. I was actually able to take the goats on walks along the relatively quiet rural roads nearby, and they'd tag along like trained dogs, stopping when I did to browse the weeds and blackberry vines alongside the road, then trotting along again when I called their names and resumed the walk.

On average, those does were able to produce a quart a day apiece, which was quite enough for friends and family. Only I didn't have to deal with the "problem" Fairbanks discussed, because several friendly neighborhood Latino families were all too happy to buy any young bucks I cared to sell, and I even got invited to one of their goat roasts once.

But despite the often amateur hour feel to the marketing of goat's milk, cheese and meat, I hope Goatober succeeds, if only for related reasons.

For one, it increases the awareness of production agriculture for consumers who otherwise don't think twice about the source or the infrastructure required to putting a package of hamburger into their supermarket meat case. To buy goat cheese, milk or meat, however, you've got to get closer to the actual producer, and you're likely to encounter a very personal story of the family producing those food choices, and that's agood thing.

Second, sustaining any area of specialty agriculture is beneficial, because it allows family-run farms to stay in business on a land base and with a capitalization far smaller than most commercial livestock operations. That keeps rural economies healthier, provides opportunities for entry to agriculture for the next generation of farmers and preserves open space and "green" areas vital to the ecological vitality of the farmland in proximity to major population areas.

Finally, and I can only speculate as to why it is, but the issues of animal welfare and the controversies over slaughter and fabrication just don't seem as contentious with goats as they are with virtually every other meat animal. During my short-lived stint as a wanna-be dairy farmer, I had numerous conversations with diehard veggies remember, this was in Oregon back in the "80s who would sooner slash their wrists than take a bite of a burger, and almost all of them thought that raising goats then selling them off to Mexican families to be roasted on a spit was "cute."

There is even less prejudice among vegetarians about consuming goat's milk and goat cheese versus the horrible and dreaded cow's milk.

Maybe because goats are cute. Maybe because they're smaller, livelier and friendlier than cows. Maybe they remind people of deer that we imagine spend their lives romping around the forest nibbling on twigs and berries.

I don't know the exact reasons, but the entire business of breeding, raising and ultimately slaughtering goats just doesn't create the same revulsion among the squeamish as production of beef or pork seems to do.

For that reason alone, I'd love to see hundreds of new goat dairies come into the industry and tens of thousands of new customers sampling goat meat, as well as goat cheese.

It would not only add a nutritious new category to the American diet, it might change a few hearts and minds about the value and vitality of animal agriculture itself.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.