BUXTON — A chorus of bleats greets Marie Clements as she walks across the road toward the pens where she and her husband, Tim, keep a couple dozen miniature goats.
“They’re going to be noisy now because they’re going to see me,” Clements warned, “and they know it’s suppertime.”
One by one, the Nigerian dwarf goats introduce themselves to a visitor. Diva is the light-colored one who, two years ago, produced more milk than any other Nigerian dwarf in the country but lost the official title because she measured an inch too tall at her shoulders. (She did get an honorable mention.)
A snow-white goat named Blizzard nuzzles the fence, looking for attention. Quad has beautiful markings but will never be bred because she has four teats instead of two.
“She’s gorgeous,” Clements said, “and we’ve kept her hoping that somebody will want her as a pet because she’s a love. She’s very friendly, as you can see, and she was just beautiful, and we didn’t have the heart to do anything else with her.”
The Clements, owners of Creeping Thyme Farm, started raising goats when they were looking for a hobby to keep them busy during retirement. They didn’t plan to fall in love with the animals and end up with 30 goats, the maximum the town will allow them on their property. Or to make a ton, literally, of goat cheese in a year (2,027 pounds), which they sell at local farmers markets and farm stands to cover the cost of hay, grain and medical care for their goats.
Marie Clements has even become proficient at “all that stuff that might have grossed me out before,” such as giving prenatal shots and reaching inside a kidding goat to turn the little one around to the right position.
The Clements represent a growing segment of the Maine farming community – goat farms, both those that raise goats for show, and dairies that produce milk, cheese and other products. In 1994 there were just four licensed goat dairies in the state, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The numbers started trending upward in 2007, but the real surge came in 2012 and 2013; nine dairies opened in each of those years. Today, there are 49 goat dairies in the state. About a half-dozen are commercial dairies that milk 100 goats or more.
The numbers don’t include the farms that raise goats only for show, worrying more about pedigrees and conformation than milk and cheese.
Overall, the goat community has grown so much in Maine that this year, for the first time, the 13,000-member American Dairy Goat Association, the largest dairy goat registry in the United States, will bring its annual convention to Portland. The convention has never been held in Maine before, and it’s been 21 years since it’s been to New England.
The gathering – with seminars, classes, cheese-making workshops and competitions – is a way for goat fans and farmers to get together, share information and compete. The convention wraps up with the “Spotlight Sale,” an auction of some of the best dairy goats in the United States; entrants must provide goat milk production records and meet other criteria to so much as receive an invitation to sell goats at the auction.
“They come into the ballroom with their sparkling glitter on their back (that’s the goats) and their dressed-up showman (that’s the handlers),” said Jennifer Mellet, president of the Southern Maine Dairy Goat Association and co-chair of the convention. “And they go for quite a pretty penny.”
The record is held by an Alpine buck who went for $16,000 at the 2003 convention in Tennessee. But that’s like winning the goat genetics lottery. More typically, unregistered goats on an average farm sell for $100 to $120, while registered animals go for $200 to $500.
FLAVOR OF THE MONTH
Why have goats suddenly become so popular?
Many experts point to the new back-to-the land movement and the popularity of small-scale agriculture in Maine. People who want to dip their toe into farming often find goats’ size and manageability attractive, certainly compared to cows. If you’ve got a backyard of two or three acres, you can have some goats, says Karl Schatz, who cares for eight adult Alpine goats and four kids with his wife, Margaret Hathaway, on Ten Apple Farm in Gray. The couple collaborated on two recent books, “The Year of the Goat” and “Living With Goats” and have been raising goats themselves for 10 years.
“People get a couple of chickens, and then they get hooked on raising animals and they want to raise something else, and goats are an attractive next step up, or in some cases entry,” Schatz said.
Mellet cites another factor. “When the economy is struggling,” she said, “the business at the American Dairy Goat Association goes up.”
Phil Cassette, whose family breeds champion Alpines and Nubians on Chateau Briant Farm in Saco and who is co-chairman of the ADGA convention, said there have been three distinct periods of growth in the goat industry in the United States over the past 40 years. In the 1970s, the growth was fueled by self-sufficiency. The back-to-the-landers of that generation raised goats in order to drink and eat the milk and cheese themselves, he said.
Gradually, that began to change. Though today many restaurants have goat cheese somewhere on the menu, in the 1970s and early 1980s, that was hardly the case. A handful of people at the forefront of artisan cheese making – people like Judy Schad in Indiana and Laura Chenel in California, who became the country’s first commercial producer of goat cheese – helped popularize goat cheese in the United States.
In the past decade there’s been “significant growth” in two additional areas, Cassette said. First, growing American demands for local foods have spurred people to start small goat farms so they can sell goat cheese at farmers markets and restaurants. As he put it: “What we’re seeing is much more of a concern of ‘Where does my food come from and what is in my food?'”
The increasing demand for artisanal goat cheese, yogurt and other products made from goat’s milk in New England is reflected in a new project from Vermont Creamery in Websterville – the Ayres Brook goat dairy. The dairy is milking 225 goats right now, with the hope of eventually increasing the herd to 500 animals, or more. The farm will also serve as a teaching and training venue for people who want to get into the industry.
“The demand for their product is that high,” Mellett said, adding that representatives from Vermont Creamery will be speaking at the ADGA conference.
A GOOD MATCH
The second recent growth spurt, Cassette said, began in 2005, when the ADGA officially recognized the Nigerian dwarf breed. With that acceptance, the miniature goats have quickly become the association’s second most popular registered breed.
“It’s a smaller-sized animal, a little easier to handle,” he said. Adult does of larger breeds weigh about 130 pounds, the males weigh about 200 pounds. By comparison, Nigerian females weigh 60 to 80 pounds, while bucks weigh about 120 pounds. Cassette said he hears from seniors who once raised full-sized dairy goats, but are “downsizing,” to Nigerian dwarf goats, which require less space.
Dwarf goats have even started showing up on urban farms in cities like Brooklyn, New York, and Oakland, California, Shatz said.
Still, Nubians, which win people over with their appealing floppy ears and roman nose – remain No. 1, “and we expect them to stay that way for a while,” Cassette said.
Tami Hussey of Biddeford and her daughter Reegan, 15, picked Nubians when they started raising goats (spurred by Reegan’s sensitivity to cow’s milk). When that breed proved a little headstrong and loud, they switched to smaller and gentler Oberhasli goats. Reegan caught the “show bug” and got active in 4-H; she hopes to attend the upcoming ADGA conference on a youth scholarship.
When the Husseys purchased their first Oberhasli goats in 2006, there weren’t many around, but since then the breed has become more popular in Maine. “They’re very quiet in the barn,” Hussey said. “You can actually do things in the barn without them bleating in your ear.”
The family uses their goat milk to feed their goats, pigs and veal calves they raise and eat. (Hussey’s husband runs a custom slaughterhouse.)
It’s hard to make generalizations about the state’s goat farmers. People with show herds might milk 15 to 20 animals at a time because they like the products made from goat milk but don’t want to make it a big business, Cassette said. They either consume the products themselves, or sell them at nearby farmers markets.
Larger dairies, on the other hand, rarely show their animals as it would cut down on production.
“And they are not only selling to farmers markets, they are also selling directly to restaurants,” Cassette said.
But ask any goat owner why they wanted a goat in the first place, and chances are he’ll rhapsodize about the caprine personality. Goats are affectionate, social animals.
“You can have goats that will follow you around as much as any dog will,” Cassette said. And, he added, goats, like dogs, are always happy to see you when you come home.
Marie and Tim Clements say having a goat is like having a 2-year-old. The goats love routine, insisting on lining up for milking in the same order every day. They want to be on the same milk stand every day, and be milked by the same person.
“They hate the rain,” Marie Clements added. “They don’t like getting their feet wet. They’re scared of puddles. They think they’re going to fall through to China. They’re petrified of ice, which in Maine in the winter is not a good thing.”
The Clements became goat owners at about the time Marie was looking to retire from her job at Unum. The couple started out with a female goat to milk and a male to keep her company, but the herd grew quickly. (They now call their farm a “micro-dairy.”) It’s something Marie warns people about when they take her goat classes. In addition to learning how to shave an udder and trim hooves, her students get a math lesson.
“If you want milk, you’ve got to breed them every year,” Clements said. “You’ve got to have kids and figure out what you’re going to do with those kids. We had 48 kids this year. Half of them probably are going to be males and not worth much. The other half are going to be does that you might be able to sell. You can’t keep them all yourself. Each one of these little does, to have milk, has two to four kids. Sometimes one, sometimes five, but two to four is the average per doe.
“You do the math. It happens quickly.”
The Clements rise at 5:30 or 6:30 each morning and spend the next couple of hours milking the 16 to 18 goats they keep in milk at a time. Tim starts chilling the milk so he can make cheese in their on-site commercial kitchen. Marie gives the goats their hay and water, then sometimes makes fudge.
Most of the goats give two to four cups of milk. During the peak summer months, they produce between three and five gallons a day total. That’s not much compared to larger goats, but Marie Clements said they chose Nigerian dwarf goats in part because their milk contains higher amounts of protein and butterfat, which makes for better quality milk. The couple makes plain chevre, garlic and herb chevre, queso fresco with black olives and green peppers, manchego and feta. They also make four flavors of fudge and a yogurt – one of their most popular products – that won best in show at a national competition.
“We try really hard to use everything,” Marie Clements said. “Whey is a byproduct of making cheese, and that goes to a pig farmer to feed their pigs. We bottle the milk to sell, and if we don’t sell it I freeze it and make soap out of it.”
They sell at the Kennebunk farmers market and at several farm stands. Despite calls from other farmers markets looking for a source of goat cheese, there’s only so much milk they can produce. “There’s a great market out there,” Tim Clements said. “We could sell 10 times what we make – if we had it.”
During their classes to wannabe goat herders, the Clements are careful not to romanticize goat-rearing or sugar coat the work it takes. The goats have to be milked every day, which means no vacations and, in Tim Clements’ case, missing his daughter’s graduation from law school. Marie talks about pulling goats across the road, from one pen to another, in the middle of a Maine snowstorm.
And then there’s that pesky math. The Clements sometimes struggle with subtraction: There are a couple of older goats at Creeping Thyme Farm that no longer produce milk, but are living out their lives in the pens around the Clements’ home. (Goats live 12 to 14 years.)
But that’s not always practical. The Clements just got a meat license so they can start selling goat meat. Sending a goat to be butchered can be a rude awakening when it’s a favorite that rubbed up against you or came running when you called.
“Some of us get more attached than others,” Marie Clements said, laughing as she rolled her eyes over at her husband. “Some of us have more of a business head and say ‘OK, we’re getting close to our maximum number. Do we want to keep one of this year’s kids that looks like she’s going to be a really, really good doe and get rid of an older goat who’s almost at the end of her milking?’
“Those are tough decisions to make,” she said still looking at her husband, “and every goat he’s ever met is his friend.”