Goat Local? Meat For Refugees, And The Rest Of Us

Mar 23, 2014

It's easy to find goat milk and goat cheese in Vermont. Goat meat, not so much.

That makes it hard for members of the state's refugee population. The city of Burlington is home to more than 6,000 Africans, South Asians and Central Europeans who are accustomed to eating goat on a regular basis.

But there's a movement afoot to meet the demand not only of refugees in Vermont, but of ethnic populations throughout New England and what may be a growing mainstream market for the meat. 

Supply For Refugees' Demand

At Pine Island Farm in Colchester, a project called the Vermont Goat Collaborative is providing new Americans with the opportunity to raise and sell goats to members of their community. Now in its second year (Seven Days reported on its debut in 2013), the collaborative is growing, thanks in part to its ability to make use of an abundant – and often unwanted – class of animal: male kids from goat dairy farms.

On a recent clear, frigid afternoon, Theoneste Rwayitare helped shuttle 57 bucklings in and out of a pen with a small milking station. The kids, some as young as a week old, only stopped bleating when they found the plastic nipples that yielded warm, powdered milk.

There's a movement afoot to meet the demand not only of refugees in Vermont, but of ethnic populations throughout New England and what may be a growing mainstream market for the meat.

Rwayitare is a Rwandan refugee. He arrived in Burlington just a year ago; he joined his brother, Theogene Mataro, who had been resettled here several years prior.

This month, the brothers joined Chuda Dhaurali, a Bhutanese refugee, at the Vermont Goat Collaborative.

All three have experience in the goat market. Dhaurali spent nearly 20 years working more or less as a goat trader in a refugee camp in Nepal. And Rwayitare says goats were one of many animals that his family raised in Kenya.

"The goat are not complicated to farm [in Kenya]," he says. "[It's not] hard work."

A Local Solution

But refugees resettled in Burlington find that it is hard work to even buy the goat meat that was so integral to their diets at home. Before Chuda Dhaurali became the first farmer here last year, he would drive all the way to Boston to find goat meat.

"It is very expensive," Dhaurali says. "It's gas, and we need to eat on the way – it's almost, like, three hours. So if we get one goat from there, it's almost $500."

Thanks to a custom slaughter facility at Pine Island Farm, customers are able to slaughter the meat right on site - something that, in some cases, more closely approximates the experience of acquiring goat meat in their home countries.

Now Dhaurali is selling the goats he raises for less than half that. And thanks to a custom slaughter facility at Pine Island Farm, customers are able to slaughter the meat right on site – something that, in some cases, more closely approximates the experience of acquiring goat meat in their home countries. In Rwanda, for example, Rwayitare says it's common to slaughter and cook up a goat for a big wedding party. Meanwhile, in Bhutan, it's one goat per household for the festival of Dasara, according to Dhaurali. 

Thanks to this project, goat meat is beginning to take its place in Vermont's hallowed local food scene. Before Karen Freudenberger, project manager at Pine Island Farm and the brains behind the operation, launched the collaborative, most goat consumed in Vermont was coming from much further away than Boston.

"We found that 3,000 goats are being imported to Vermont as frozen meat from Australia and New Zealand every year," Freudenberger says. "And that seemed, on one hand, a travesty in a state that's trying to maintain its working landscape, but on the other hand a huge opportunity."

Freudenberger partnered with AALV (formerly the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, the organization now also supports refugees from other continents) and the Vermont Land Trust, which owns the 236-acre Pine Island Farm.

Win-Win-Win

This is the first time the Vermont Land Trust has worked with Vermont's refugees. Vice President for Conservation Siobhan Smith says supporting the Vermont Goat Collaborative seemed like a natural fit.

"We felt that this was a wonderful opportunity to work with an underserved community of folks who would be able to easily access this property," Smith says. "It's within three miles of Winooski and five miles of Burlington, and it seemed like a really excellent opportunity to marry our goals with their [refugees'] needs."

The project meets the needs of another demographic in Vermont agriculture: dairy goat farmers. Male goats are essentially useless on these operations, since they can't be milked.

The project meets the needs of another demographic in Vermont agriculture: dairy goat farmers. Male goats are essentially useless on these operations, since they can't be milked.

That means that bucklings born on dairy farms often meet an untimely end.

"Especially on the very large farms, they would just tend to compost the babies at birth," Freudenberger says. "And many other farms just felt so uncomfortable doing that that they took huge amounts of time to go around and find people who wanted a pet goat here and a pet goat there. And it was just a real headache for them."

The latter was often the case at Fat Toad Farm in Brookfield, a 60-head operation that produces goat's milk caramel. Owner Steve Reid said the farm has always had a "no kill" policy, but that meant many arduous hours and days finding new homes for the bucklings the farm didn't need.

Now, Fat Toad is one of six dairies giving their unwanted bucklings to the Vermont Goat Collaborative. Reid acknowledges that the goats will still be killed eventually. "But it's after a very, very happy summer," he says.

"It's a great arrangement for us, just to know we have somebody who will take them," Reid says.

The arrangement works great for many refugees' palettes, too, as tougher meat from castrated males yields the preferred flavor.

The arrangement works great for many refugees' palettes, too, as the meat from castrated males yields the preferred flavor.

Reid's most recent contribution to the Vermont Goat Collaborative came in the form of 20 week-old bucklings, which Chuda Dhaurali and Theogene Mahoro, Rwayitare's brother, loaded into the back of a red Honda minivan. Dhaurali had removed the back seats and lined the van with hay. Once the van heats up, he says, the bucklings usually fall asleep.

Tapping The Regional Market

It's one thing to supply a small market of new Americans living in Chittenden County. But Shirley Richardson has much grander designs. 

In 2011, Richardson started Vermont Chevon, an organization devoted to scaling up the dairy goat meat model until Vermont is a major regional exporter of the meat.

The United States imports about $42 million worth of goat meat each year, according to Richardson. And in her mind, Vermont is in a perfect position to get a piece of that ... goat. 

The United States imports about $42 million worth of goat meat each year, according to Shirley Richardson of Vermont Chevon. And in her mind, Vermont is in a perfect position to get a piece of that ... goat.

"We used to be a main exporter of goat meat, but right now we're a main importer. It's a significant economic opportunity for the state of Vermont to become a center where the animals are raised," she says. "And our program really is designed to support farmers [and be the] connector from the farm to the plate."

By Richardson's reckoning, the major markets for goat meat are in cities along the Eastern seaboard. Meanwhile, Vermont's preserved and underused agricultural land is provides perfect conditions for raising goats.  

"They're natural browsers, and do very well gaining weight on that kind of land," Richardson says, adding that dairy farmers looking to diversify their operations could find goat raising a profitable enterprise.

Both her organization and the Vermont Goat Collaborative have received grants from the Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Fund to get the burgeoning goat meat industry off the ground. 

Goat, Anyone?

At least part of Richardson's plan for a Vermont goat boom is contingent upon the mainstream market developing a taste for the meat. And there's reason to believe that will happen, she says. 

"It's the most consumed meat in the world," she says. 

And with goat's stellar nutrition profile, it may not be long before it goes the way of, say, the acai berry. 

"It's the healthiest meat of any of the commonly eaten meats," Richardson says. "The goat grows its fat on the outside, not marbled like [with] beef, lamb and pork. So it automatically comes onto your plate with far fewer calories, much less cholesterol and fat, but with the same amount of protein as beef, and with more iron." 

"The goat grows its fat on the outside, not marbled like [with] beef, lamb and pork. So it automatically comes onto your plate with far fewer calories, much less cholesterol and fat, but with the same amount of protein as beef, and with more iron." - Shirley Richardson

Goat is better for you than even chicken or fish, Richardson says. 

And?

"It's extremely flavorful."

For the uninitiated, Theoneste Rwayitare recommends a delicacy called brochette: 

"You put [goat] on a stick," he says. "And you prepare with barbecue. When you eat brochette with barbecue, it really, really tastes good."