Canada: The goat gambol

Alberta goat farmers devoted to their herds, as demand for product grows

By Cheryl Arkison, edmontonjournal.comEDMONTON – The sight of a herd of goats in the heart of cattle country usually elicits little more than a sigh and a ‘Oh, how cute!’ But for goat farmers like Merna Gisler, those animals represent a thriving industry.

“Goats are really an alternative lifestyle, they really complement all sorts of agriculture,” says Gisler, president of the Alberta Goat Breeders Association.

Cows and goats coexist well on the same farm because they eat differently when put out to pasture. But don’t imagine that the goats are heading into the field and eating trash. Goats are actually finicky eaters. They will, however, eat the brush and weeds that cows shun.

Goat meat is mild in flavour. Some find it gamy, but if you like lamb, you will like goat.

The meat is what it’s all about and goat meat has become an in-demand product. There are more than 200 documented goat farmers in Alberta but they’re still only meeting 10-to-15 per cent of the demand. Imports are accounting for the rest.

Fuelling the demand is Alberta’s diverse ethnic population. Goat meat is eaten regularly outside of North America and as these communities resettle here in Alberta, so does the demand for goat meat. The most common place to find goat meat today in Alberta is at a Halal meat shop.

You can also buy goat meat directly from the farmer, or from specialty meat shops. A number of Alberta’s farmers’ markets, like Edmonton’s City Market, have vendors selling goat meat. Like any other meat in the province, goat meat must be processed in a licensed and inspected facility.

The demand for goat products is also growing on the dairy side. Goat cheese is no longer the exclusive treat of gourmets. Goat milk and yogurt, in addition to the typical chèvre and other cheese products are growing in popularity. Goat milk provides an alternative to cow’s milk and soy products for individuals on specialized diets for intolerances. My own kids, for example, drink goat milk to keep their eczema at bay.

Fairwinds Farm, a certified organic goat dairy located in Fort Macleod, has been growing steadily for the last decade. Anita Oudshoorn started the operation in the 1990s with only two goats.

“Once you get two goats, you get more, “ says Oudshoorn. Now her farm boasts a herd of 400 and a dairy business that supplies goat milk, yogurt, and cheese to natural food markets across the province.

With a high demand for goat products more and more people are entering the business. The goat industry was hit hard with the BSE crisis, as their exports to the United States were also banned. The industry is now rebounding.

“By and large, you’ve got a great group coming into the business,” says Maureen Lewis, a goat farmer near Three Hills. “Because the starting impetus is a customer driven business, it brings in good people.”

Lewis supplies meat to specialty meat shops and the individual buyer. Her farm also has a breeding stock of goats — a setup is common to many goat farmers.

Goat farming is proving particularly appealing to young families and those with off-farm jobs as well. Goats are easier to work with than other animals, the facilities are smaller, and no one is likely to get trampled when the livestock rarely exceeds 100 pounds.

“But you have to think differently with a goat,” says Gisler. “They are unique. They have a personality. Sheep are followers, goats are leaders; they are more of an independent thinker.”

Goat farmers are devoted to their herds, whether they keep only a handful of goats or hundreds. The personality of the animal is unique and the care required is gentle. And like all farming, the goat business is no skatewalk.

“Milking goats sounds very romantic, but it is very labour intensive,” says Oudshoorn.

Gisler echoes that sentiment. “People who are thinking of getting into the industry who don’t know a lot about goats, need to know that goats need care. They need the specialized care.”

The Alberta Goat Breeders Association is hosting an information session for people interested in goat farming on August 20. Check in on their website for more information.