Getting One’s Goat
New farm connects newly arrived Americans with fresh goat meat
Written onMay 23 , 2014
Although Vermont is known for its goat’s milk cheeses, it hasn’t always been an easy place to find local goat meat. To acquire a goat, Chuda Dhaurali used to trek to Boston or New Hampshire from his home in Burlington, spending money on gas and occasionally getting lost in the process. Sometimes “it would take the whole day,” he says. Between the cost of travel, and of the goat itself, the bill for all of that effort could be a whopping $500.
Frozen goat meat, much of it imported from Australia or New Zealand, was available at a handful of Burlington-area stores, but Chuda celebrates Hindu holidays, and certain Hindu religious observances require the purchase of live animals, which are slaughtered as offerings, and for celebratory meals.
By the fall of 2013, however, the trips outside of Vermont were no longer needed. In March of that year, Chuda and his wife, Gita, acquired their first herd of 80 or so goats, and brought the kids to Pine Island Farm, a new farm in Colchester for newly arrived Americans seeking goat meat. The animals, primarily male “bucklings”—which are often sold by dairy operations, or even composted just after birth—came primarily from Fat Toad Farm in Brookfield, with a handful from Blue Ledge Farm and Boston Post Dairy. This year, Chuda’s flock will number at least 120, and Theogene Mahoro and Theonest Rwayitari from an extended Rwandan family will be raising an additional 100 on the property, too.
On a blustery day at the end of this past March, the wind whipped across the Pine Island flats. Inside the barn, baby goats in a variety of colors—some black with white patches on their faces and chests, some tan with black stripes—bleated, ran through hay, and lept over logs, butting heads with nascent horns. Chuda and his fellow farmers were feeding and watering the animals, and making sure they were warm enough, given the unseasonable weather.
For Chuda, 34, caring for creatures is nothing new. As a child, he helped raise goats and other animals on his family’s land in Bhutan. “We had horses, cows, buffalo,” he recalls. “I was definitely a farmer.” Exiled to a refugee camp in Nepal during Bhutan’s ethnic cleansing, Chuda’s father served as a goat trader, buying animals and reselling them at markets. But when Chuda emigrated to Vermont in 2009, he found that goat meat wasn’t easy to come by. And neither was farmland.
Karen Freudenberger arrived in Vermont the same year as Chuda. Seeking work in her field of community development, the longtime resident of Madagascar and Senegal began volunteering at the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, also in Colchester. There, she heard story after story of New Americans of various religions and backgrounds struggling to access, acquire, and pay for goat. The most dramatic tale she recalls was of someone who decided that driving around with a live animal in the car wasn’t working out. A concerned passerby, noticing an animal being slaughtered by the side of the road, called in the cops. The man who had killed the beast “got pulled over by the sheriff,” she says.
Such tales struck a chord with Karen. “Why can’t [the New American population] raise their own goats?” she wondered. “We’re trying to maintain Vermont’s working landscape, [yet] people are driving all over the countryside…to access fresh goat meat.” With a group drawn from the Burmese, Bhutanese, and Somali communities, Karen began to brainstorm ways to create a viable goat farm. Meanwhile, independently, Chuda was “trying to figure out if he could raise goats, but not really seeing how the pieces could fit together for him,” Karen says.
A key aspect fell into place when the Vermont Land Trust purchased a property in Colchester, just over the Winooski line. With a farmhouse, an animal barn, and approximately 80 acres of grazing land—including a mile of river frontage—Pine Island Farm seemed like a match for the budding goat project. The Vermont Land Trust and the Association of Africans Living in Vermont formed a partnership, and Karen—who had previously been donating her time to the project—was hired as the farm manager. As she searched for a farmer who could spearhead that project, she learned of Chuda’s interest. Given his farming background and his enthusiasm for goats, it became clear to Karen that she had found a match.
When Chuda and his wife moved into the Colchester farmhouse, the project—then called the Vermont Goat Collaborative—was born. This year, between Chuda and the Rwandan family (each have their own flock) Pine Island will sell roughly 220 goats. That number is likely to increase with time, with more farmers joining the mix. Karen, in addition to helping with chores, is responsible for “long-term strategizing and visioning, getting financial support, and mentoring the farmers as they come on.”
Discussion about the need for meat goats often centers around the Muslim community and its need for Halal slaughter. Chuda also talks of selling numerous animals to the Hindu community around the time of Dasara and Diwali—two important fall festivals. But Karen is quick to mention that eaters of goat come from many ethnic groups and ascribe to a variety of religious practices. “We have [customers] from Bhutan, Burma, Nigeria, United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, India, Iraq, Pakistan, Togo, Ghana, Congo, Egypt, Bangladesh, and Rwanda,” she notes, “and quite a few from the Middle East.”
Last year, Chuda spent a week at Fat Toad Farm to acquire additional knowledge about caring for goats in Vermont. After he brings the young kids home, he feeds them milk. Later in the season, he takes them to graze in pastures and browse alongside the river. But in the end, no matter who his customer is, he isn’t responsible for the processing. A custom slaughter facility in the barn, paid for primarily by a $10,868 Working Enterprise Grant from the state, plus an additional grant for a wastewater system, allows customers to buy live animals and do the slaughtering themselves. Pine Island Farm provides all of the necessary equipment and packaging.
Last year, the facility was unheated. About slaughtering in the cold Chuda says, “It was very hard. This year, we are planning to put in a heater.” But every improvement to infrastructure comes at a cost, and Pine Island Farm faces a serious challenge in aiming to offer a highly prized meat at an affordable price. “Demand is so high,” says Chuda. “Only 200 to 300 goats is not sufficient for the customers.” However high the demand, though, the majority of it comes from people who do not have much money. “The reality is that we’re dealing with a very low-income population,” Karen explains.
In 2013, Chuda chose to charge approximately $3 per pound of live weight (which includes meat, bones, and all of the inedible bits, too). “I think that’s what the market will bear,” Karen suggests. But even at that seemingly low price, the petite 7- to 8-month-old goats that Chuda sells cost between $200 and $225. While the cost is substantially less than Chuda used to pay for a goat in Boston, it’s still a significant sum. For customers, there’s also the time it takes to visit the farm, slaughter, clean up, and bring the beast home for cooking.
However, the amount of money received for the goats doesn’t come close to covering the costs of running the farm. Right now, says Karen, Chuda and the other goat farmers aren’t able to pay themselves. “There’s no way anybody could support a family raising goats,” she notes. While that per-pound price covers the cost of the baby bucklings and of feed, Chuda “is not paying for the land, he’s not paying for the building. If you put labor into it, it doesn’t really add up.”
Currently, Chuda is working on analyzing expenditures to develop a better sense of the true costs of raising goats, but acquiring that data probably won’t translate into profitability. If the Pine Island goat farmers were to charge enough to cover costs and pay for labor, they would price their product right out of the market of people who are actually interested in and struggling to purchase goat meat. “Good advisors have come and said, ‘Why don’t you raise goats and sell them in New York?’” Karen says. “But that would be contrary to the farm’s mission, which is to meet the food desires of [Vermont’s] New American community. People are very, very happy to have the goat meat.”
Selling to local restaurants at a higher price per pound could be a way of buffering costs. However, raising meat for the restaurant market is a different task than raising it for consumers. For one thing, animals sold for wholesale would need to be slaughtered in a facility inspected by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. For another, restaurants make money on bigger, fleshier animals—the more portions of meat they can sell from a single carcass, the better they’re able to recoup the initial investment—and goats are notoriously bony beasts. To serve chefs well, Chuda and company would need to raise some animals for quite a bit longer than they do now.
All of this complexity might be why Karen considers the goat businesses to be “phase 1” of a larger plan for the Pine Island property. Down the road, she says, there could be a number of individuals and entrepreneurs engaging in land-based work there. Vegetable gardens and rice paddies are under discussion, and a UVM class is doing a feasibility study on meeting the New American community’s demand for “tough chicken,” as Karen puts it. “We would buy cull chickens from egg farms, bring them over, fluff them up, and then sell them,” she explains.
But even as these plans are underway, Karen says, “The big vision is that the farm should be responsive to the needs of New Americans and evolve over time in ways I can’t even imagine right now."
Photo of Chuda Dhaurali courtesy of Karen Freudenberger