Thursday, March 18, 2004

Immigrant tastes push goat sales

By Anna Guido
Enquirer contributor

Jeremy Cook is raising Boer goats in his Triple J Farm in Piner. The state has a program to promote this livestock option.
Photos by TONY JONES/The Cincinnati Enquirer

Changing demographics have spurred a new Tristate farming specialty for which Kentucky already is ranked third nationally in production.

The specialty? Goats.

"It's the mark of the future in farming - the way to go," said Jeremy Cook, a Piner goat farmer and vice president of the Kentucky Goat Producers Association.

Cook's 40 goats on his 22-acre farm in Kenton County are among about 1,000 head in Northern Kentucky and an estimated 150,000 statewide.

A growing number of Hispanic, African and Islamic consumers, coupled with state incentives to diversify farming operations - and lessen Kentucky's dependence on tobacco as a cash crop - are driving the industry.

Gilberto Esparza, executive director of the Hispanic Resource Center in Covington, said cabrito - baby goat - is a delicacy in Hispanic cultures. "Every weekend, it was cabrito for us," said Esparza, who grew up in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. "It's what we eat."

More than 700,000 people immigrate into the United States each year. Many immigrants, who now make up 11.5 percent of the U.S. population, come from cultures that prefer goat to other meats.

Precisely how this has translated into goat meat sales isn't clear because there are no federal statistics on such sales.

Eighty percent of the meat consumed in the world is goat. Most of the goat meat consumed in the United States is imported from Australia and New Zealand.

Texas is the nation's front-runner in goat production with more than 750,000 head. North Carolina is second.

The wholesale (or live weight) price of goat meat in January was $1.50 a pound, a record. The retail price ranges from $3.99 to $4.99 a pound.

The prime ages and weights for killing goats are about 5 months and 40 to 65 pounds.

About a third of the goats in the United States are milked (primarily for cheese making).

Source: University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, Enquirer research

But there was a 34 percent increase in the numbers of goats slaughtered nationally from 1998 to 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

There were 1.9 million U.S. goats in 1997, 1 million of which were raised for meat, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture. Last year, the United States imported 17 million pounds of goat meat valued at $20 million, the agriculture department says.

Goat farming may make sense for Kentucky because of its location. An estimated 3.5 million people east of the Mississippi who eat goat meat live within a short distance of the commonwealth, according to Cook.

But a problem for the local goat industry is that there is no government-approved slaughter facility to process the meat. (One is under development in Scottsville, in south central Kentucky near Interstate 65 and the Tennessee border.)

As a result, nearly 75 percent of the goats raised in Northern Kentucky end up in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania for slaughter. The rest are sold directly to consumers who slaughter them at the farm - underscoring the need for farmers to make direct connections to the ethnic customers who buy goat meat.

An additional problem for the farmers is the goats must be slaughtered according to specific cultural and religious standards. (For goat meat to be acceptable to Muslims, for example, no pork can be processed in the same building.) But Tristate meat processing facilities are not suitable for meeting these and other standards.

Finally, some customers have specific requirements - preferring the meat from male goats because it's firmer and more pungent, for example. Such requests may be hard for retailers to fulfill.

Going to goats

Rick Bruin and his wife, Patty, have been raising goats at their Berry, Grant County, farm for five years. With little infrastructure in place to process and market goats, they realize it's a long-term investment.

"It's difficult now for consumers to buy goat meat at a local grocery or restaurant," said Bruin.

The short list of supermarkets includes Jadeep's Indian Grocery in Clifton, Jungle Jim's in Fairfield and Halal Market in West Chester. Goat is on the menu at La Mexicana restaurant in Newport.

With tobacco on the decline in Kentucky, farmers such as the Bruins are trying new crops and livestock - from catfish to shrimp to bison.

State officials have been particularly aggressive in pushing the goat alternative - in part, according to Kentucky State University economists, because the commonwealth has more family farms than any other state east of the Mississippi River, and 85 percent of them produced tobacco.

The Kentucky Department of Agriculture has established a Goat Diversification Cost-Share Program that provides up to $5,000 in assistance for barn renovations, equipment purchases and breeding stock purchases.

The program is financed by the 1998 settlement between the states and the major tobacco companies.

To date, 81 counties are participating in the program and more than $2.5 million has been distributed to farmers, said Tess Caudill, whose marketing job with the state department is to build the infrastructure and create the channels needed to get Kentucky goats to processors and consumers.

Ohio's emerging market

In Ohio, goat farming is concentrated in the southern part of the state, with the number of producers estimated at about 600 statewide, or just 15 percent of Kentucky's total, said David Mangione, livestock specialist for the Ohio State University Extension in Piketon, Ohio, and a member of the Ohio Meat Goat Task Force.

The interest in goat farming in Ohio started about three years ago, and the industry continues to grow, Mangione said.

But Ohio also lacks the infrastructure needed for the industry to expand faster.

"We need more culturally specific processing facilities to address the needs of the emerging ethnic and faith consumer populations," Mangione said. "We're in a huge learning curve right now about these consumer populations."


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