Get Good with Goats: Inside the World of Goat Farming
The day I visited with Erin Bligh, the owner of Dancing Goats Dairy in Newbury, Mass., it was bitterly cold and windy. Inside the barn, however, it was clear that spring had begun. A batch of brand new kids jumped around exuberantly, head-butting and collapsing into each other and exuding pure joy as Bligh and I fed them out of repurposed Heineken bottles.
“I try to not get too attached at this stage of the game,” Bligh said while cuddling with a brown and white-spotted little doe. “But some make it more difficult than others.”
Bligh says she couldn’t have foreseen a future in farming until, while studying literature for a semester in France, she fell in love — with farming and cheese. “All I really had was a good idea of what I loved, and what I didn’t want to do,” Bligh said. “I decided to take a risk, perhaps the biggest risk I’ve taken to date … and it has certainly been worth it.”
Bligh learned how to farm and make cheese at Consider Bardwell Farm in West Pawlet, Vermont, where she spent several months as a kidding intern, dividing her time between goat care and a formal cheesemaking apprenticeship. Upon completing her internship, Bligh, originally from North Andover, returned to Massachusetts and secured a land lease from Tendercrop Farm, which would become Dancing Goats Dairy’s current home.
At that point, she had two goats, gifts from Consider Bardwell. Today, the number has grown to 45 — most of them are floppy-eared Nubians.
The product spread at Dancing Goats would likely elicit admiration from cheesemongers and rookies alike. Traditional hand-ladled chèvre is offered in a variety of seasonally-changing flavors. Dancing Goats also produces chèvre buttons, marinated chèvre, washed-rind cheeses prepared in local beers and ciders, and cocoa-rubbed tomme. Other seasonally-available products include goat milk caramel, goat milk fudge, and handcrafted soaps.
When Bligh speaks about her goals as a farmer and as a food producer, she is candid: “We’re really trying to work with our local community to change the face of what food looks like. I’d love to see sustainably-produced, wholesome food become the norm. I think it’s important to rebuild the connection between food and where it comes from, to reconnect consumers to the source.”
Our conversation circled back to why Bligh believes farming and producing nutrient-dense food on a small scale matters today, despite its challenges.
“Right now, there’s an opportunity to readjust the social consciousness with regard to how food is produced,” she said. “I think more people are finally beginning to see food as medicine and understand the dangers of food that is produced industrially.”
The goats at Clark Farm in Carlisle, Mass., spent this past winter in a greenhouse where they were treated to warmer temperatures and an “organic salad bar” of leftover, un-harvestable spinach in exchange for their fertilization of the greenhouse soil. On another blustery afternoon in March, Clark Farm’s seven newest kids tumbled and leaped under the watchful eye of Rose, the herd’s 6-year-old matriarch, who wears her pink collar like a crown and “hates when it’s taken off,” according to assistant farm manager Mary Liz Watson.
Fresh Herbed Chèvre: Serves: 12
– 6 ounces Dancing Goats Dairy sea salt chèvre
– Fresh cilantro Fresh dill
– 3 to 4 sundried tomatoes 2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1. Form chèvre into ball and press onto a small plate. Smooth out any cracks and crevices until the chèvre is in the shape of a half sphere.
2. Dice sundried tomatoes and combine with olive oil in a small bowl.
3. Finely chop cilantro and dill and add to sundried tomato and olive oil mixture.
4. Pour oil mixture over chèvre and serve with warm bread or crackers.
Andrew Rodgers, the farm’s manager, is an unlikely farmer. He worked in high-tech marketing research until, at 26, he decided to return to school and study soil science. “At a certain point,” Rodgers recalled, “I realized that there was so much more to the world, to how things worked, than I was well-versed in. Farming has been a way into a fuller, more self-sufficient way of life.”
Rodgers came to Clark Farm in 2012. Together with owners Geoff Freeman and Marjie Findlay, he has built a thriving CSA and farm community in Greater Carlisle.
When the goats first arrived in 2013, they were there mostly for fun. “Goats are hardier than sheep. They have much more personality,” Rodgers said. “We originally thought we’d try having them as a sort of experiment, and it’s been one that has definitely proved to be interesting and worthwhile.”
The herd has grown from two to 15, much to the delight of the crew and CSA members who often are caught visiting with and photographing the goats as part of their CSA pickup routine.
From a farming standpoint, the goats at Clark Farm serve three main purposes. Primarily, they are landscapers, helping to quickly eat and clear patches of poison ivy and other unwanted brush from the farm. They also work as fertilizers, keeping the farm’s soil healthy through rotational grazing, the practice of sequentially moving herds of animals from pasture to pasture to regenerate grass growth. Clark Farm also offers various sizes of goat meat shares, which have increased in popularity with the community over the past several years.
Many goat farms also keep sheep, including Lillooet Sheep & Cheesery in Boxford, Mass.
Gillian Marino and her husband, Nathaniel Higley, Lillooet’s owners since 2015, work together with their herd of seven landscaping goats and 26 East Friesian sheep to produce artisan sheep milk cheeses. Marino, who studied neuroscience before apprenticing at a sheep farm just outside of Tuscany, Italy, finds the cheesemaking lifestyle to be “incredibly scientific and artistic — at the same time.”
Production at Lillooet is currently very small-scale, with plans to begin full-scale production and service to local restaurants, farmers markets and cheese shops later this year. An on-site farm stand is also in development.
For as long as we have known each other, the relationship between humans and goats has proved complex. Goats were one of the earliest animals to be domesticated. Archaeological records show Neolithic farmers in the Near East keeping herds of ibex, possibly the modern farm goat’s closest wild ancestor, nearly 11,000 years ago. Since then, the goat has enjoyed a rich and at times contradictory place in human agriculture and culture. Consider, for example, the association in Western mythology and literature between goats and the devil.
The association isn’t always purely negative. One of Norse mythology’s most important gods, Thor, is usually depicted in a goat-drawn chariot. In Chinese astrology, the goat symbolizes goodness, peace and kindness.
As it has in folklore for centuries, the modern goat continues to wear many different masks. If you have ever spent time around goats, you likely understand this complexity. Goat behavior is at once entertaining, confusing and utterly fascinating. I’ve spent hours watching these animals, perplexed by the seeming intricacy of their inner worlds and amused at their playful behavior. My appreciation for these curious creatures continues to grow as I spend more time in their presence.
Dancing Goats Dairy
Lillooet Sheep & Cheesery