For the love of goats
A Few Differences Between Commercial and Backyard Farms
I’m really glad we only have one neighbor after this week. And I’m really glad that he’s in the habit of setting off fireworks, shooting things in his yard, and using heavy equipment on a daily basis.
I got home last Sunday from work and promptly fell on my knees screaming – screaming – to the Divine. Because we only have the one neighbor, nobody called the police.
I could never be a commercial goat farmer, so I’m glad that’s not in the offing.
We got started on our little homesteading adventure because of a little goat named Sandy. She was unexpected, and when she was born, I had never imagined myself becoming a goat farmer. And then somehow she became my goat, and then Withywindle Farm came to be.
Commercial farms are, out of necessity, somewhat impersonal operations. The staff, cloven-hoofed though they may be, are employees; they are expected to produce something useful, whether milk or kids or meat or fiber or some combination thereof. That doesn’t mean they are treated unkindly, but if you’re dealing with a herd in the double- or triple-digits, it can be harder to get to know each one individually. Health problems are easy to identify, even in a large herd. Personalities, though, are more difficult to recognize when your time and attention are divided among many creatures. Some people have the good fortune of working for a company where the CEO knows your name and your business, while others are just one of many nameless folks carrying on the work. I reckon farms can be somewhat the same.
This is not a commercial operation.
Homesteading and small-scale farming allow for a higher degree of familiarity between boss and employee. Our place is like that. We have three milking goats whose work is to produce kids and thus milk. Because this is a tiny operation by all standards, the bosses are on a first-name basis with each of the girls on the line. We discuss work plans and objectives. The girls are presently on probation for their lack of compliance with expected output goals (i.e., they refuse to get bred). They are under warning that if they don’t produce, they will find themselves otherwise employed (i.e., they’re going to auction).
But, as in many family-run operations, there’s a catch.
Our first goat, our little Sandy, was exempted from expectations of productivity in the traditional farmstead sense. She had her own special job to do: Teach.
Because of her initial health problems, we never expected to breed Sandy. She was born with poorly-attached tendons in her hind legs, circulatory problems, and an extraneous teat on one side. Even for a critically-endangered breed, these were not desirable characteristics in a breeding doe. But her personality and joie de vivre were enough to make her a very special ambassador for the San Clemente Island breed and an advocate of backyard farming (or at least sourcing food locally). Within the first year of her life, she found herself employed by two museums and the public face of urban agriculture in a Boston suburb… work which led her to meet both a Senator and the Governor. She lived in the house for the first year of her life, which led us to search out a home of our own – hence Withywindle Farm. Sandy’s job was to explain the history of the much-maligned goat, and she did it well.
As far as we know, our property has never been home to livestock before. The previous owners kept chickens once upon a time, but we weren’t fearful of what might lurk in the soil due to years of farming. And for the first year of our experiment in backyard farming, we were blissfully without problems.
The second year was fraught with disaster. One of our firstborn kid goats died of low blood sugar, cause unknown. Then there was the stillborn. Then our buck died of interstitial pneumonia or a heart attack – no money for a necropsy means no answers. There was a terrible accident resulting in an irreversible spinal injury and euthanasia. Our free-range chickens were massacred by a fisher in the morning twilight. All of those incidents, horrible as they were, proved to be nothing compared to the horror that was the parasites.
Sandy, who had spent the first eighteen months of her life thinking she was a person and living in the house, had never built up any kind of natural immunity to anything. So when she came down with lungworm and coccidiosis, it was a very, very difficult thing to combat.
The vet told us we were doing everything right. Massive doses of Ivermectin and steroids helped at first, followed by a strict diet of all-she-could-eat 16% protein sweet feed, second-cut hay, Manna-Pro, electrolyte water, and anything non-poisonous available for browse. Sandy moved into the bathroom (and promptly learned how to turn on the vintage wall-mounted heater). She recovered well enough to go back outside during the day, with an insulated coat to fend off the cold. Her weight stubbornly refused to increase, but her temperament returned mostly to normal. The booster of Ivomec seemed to kill off all the evil parasites at last, and so we focused on curing the anemia that plagued our little Sandy so.
If we were commercial farmers, her unexpected death would have gone on the records as ‘Sandy died – COD anemia’.
But we aren’t commercial producers, and Sandy wasn’t an assembly-line girl.
Sandy was an educator in her own right; so many lives were affected by her willingness to be that first goat that children and adults alike had the opportunity to meet, to reach out and touch. She represented one of the rarest breeds of goat in the world, and did it well. She was our baby. She dressed up for Halloween and visited Santa at the mall. Hell, she was the flower-goat in our wedding and came along on our honeymoon! Not too many goats have those claims to fame.
So when I found her dead, after all her progress and efforts in recovering from her maladies, I screamed. I cried. It was as though someone had taken part of my soul from me. That little goat, ever my baby, my companion, tried so hard and achieved so much, and was taken from us much too soon. Then again, for a little goat that wasn’t expected to live more than a day or two, she had a remarkably full and exceptional life.
Any commercial farmer would be right to call me crazy for getting so attached to one member of the ‘staff’. But this is no commercial farm, and it may have been nepotism, but this business will never be the same without Sandy.
Norah Messier is the somewhat hapless Farmerette-in-Chief of Withywindle Farm, a backyard homestead nestled in the woods along the idyllic Tremont Mill Pond and Weweantic River in West Wareham, Massachusetts. When she’s not trying to persuade her goats to get bred and give milk or cajole the chickens into laying eggs, Norah is most likely found puttering in her garden, attempting new and exciting vintage cooking experiments, or plotting farm expansions. She lives with her eternally supportive husband, Christopher, an enormous Great Pyrenees puppy, and four cats who are variously found in the cupboards or atop doors or otherwise causing mayhem. The goats, thankfully, now live outside. In her other life, Norah works full-time as a farm educator (and goat chaser) at a living history museum.
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