By Marcus Green
Gil Myers began raising goats nine years ago to keep wild brush in check. But word traveled quickly among Kentucky's goat meat connoisseurs, turning what began as pasture maintenance into a profitable enterprise.
Today Myers tends to dozens of meat goats on his LaRue County farm and sells breeding stock to the state's goat producers and meat goats to those with an appetite for the meat high in protein and low in saturated fat.
And thanks to a relatively short five-month gestation period, he can sell several crops of goats a year - a fantasy come true for tobacco farmers whose hopes ride on one annual harvest. For Myers, money from goats has already replaced the income he once made from tobacco.
With tobacco's stronghold on the decline in Kentucky, farmers continue to branch into alternative crops and livestock. Among the exotic experiments taking place on farms across the state: catfish, shrimp, alpacas and bison.
But goats are gaining ground. Ten years after the Boer goat was introduced into the United States, Kentucky ranks among the leading producers of meat goats, according to a study commissioned by the Governor's Office of Agricultural Policy.
The report says Kentucky's herd of meat goats - estimated at 100,000 to 150,000 - may make it the third-largest in the nation. In addition, demand for meat goats is expected to double every seven years.
The economic engine driving goat production, however, is the nation's surging ethnic population. Some 28 million people in the United States are foreign-born, according to estimates from the 2000 census, and many of them grew up eating goat meat.
The Islamic holy period of Ramadan in November ranks among the busiest times of the year for Big Clifty, Ky., goat farmer Lonny Johnson, who raises 225 goats on 100 acres. Ethnic markets make up a big chunk of his business.
"That's what their basic meat supply is - the goats," he said. "They don't eat the beef or the pork."
Meanwhile, Bowling Green and Paintsville have begun graded goat sales since the state's first such auction was launched in Marion, Ky., last December. Each sale averages about 500 head sold at a time, said Tess Caudill, marketing specialist for the Department of Agriculture.
"What we're trying to do is pull together large numbers of kids to make them attractive packages for meat goat buyers," she said.
The buyers are usually big packing plants or representatives of ethnically owned plants in the Midwest. Their customers include Muslims and Hispanics on the East Coast and in Midwest cities with pockets of ethnic consumers.
Chicago and Detroit are seen as attractive markets, but Kentucky goat producers are being encouraged to build relationships with local ethnic leaders to tap into regional markets such as Nashville, Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio.
"You constantly have to be looking to move the producers close to the consumer, and right now what we've done is establish a system where we can make sure we get these kids marketed in a timely manner the best we can right now," Caudill said. "But there's always room to improve."
If Kentucky hopes to become more than a goat supplier, it must follow the lead of other states that have dedicated processing plants. Processing in-state would allow producers to generate higher prices and make slaughter more efficient.
It would also save Saif Amoozegar the hassle of driving to Detroit every 10 days to buy $3,000 worth of meat made in accordance with Halal - a Muslim requirement that meat be blessed before it's produced.
The Detroit plant is the closest place to buy Halal meat, said Amoozegar, who owns the Parisa International Supermarket in Lexington. Most of his customers who request goat meat are Muslims, so he has no choice but to buy from the Michigan distributor.
"I'd be more than happy to deal in Kentucky rather than drive seven hours to Detroit," he said.
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