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Goats have begun to look like weed-eaters to most American beef producers but they don’t look much like dinner.
Yet that’s exactly what goats look like in other parts of the globe. Goat meat is the most commonly eaten meat in the world and immigrants don’t want to give it up when they move here. In turn, that is the very thing which has made goats viable weed-control tools on American ranches.
“I was surprised that in America they didn’t know about goat,” says Wilson Muinamia, who moved to central Ohio from Kenya. Goat meat is not only a food staple to him, it is culturally important, he explains. Buying a goat for someone else is a sign of respect for a friend or guest.
Like Muinamia, other immigrants are seeking out goat meat. It is in demand among immigrants from Africa and the Middle East as well as South and Central America. As farmers recognize the market opportunities, American goat production is increasing. The number of goats slaughtered in the U.S. at federally inspected facilities went up from 595,000 in 2002 to 638,000 in 2007, according to Scott Hollis, the statistician with the National Agricultural Statistics Service who compiles data on goats. Those numbers don’t include goats that were slaughtered on farms and not reported, he adds.
At the same time, imports of goat meat rose from 503.9 metric tons in 2002 to 1,241.5 metric tons in 2007. “I think the demand is there and I don’t think the U.S. supply can fill it,” says Hollis.
Imported goat meat provides significant competition for American producers, says Larry Smith, vice president of North Carolina Meat Goat Producers, Inc. “They can raise it cheaper and process it and bring it in cheaper.” Most imports come from Australia and the meat is generally frozen. American producers can get a competitive advantage by focusing on quality and marketing their meat fresh, Smith says.
The North Carolina Meat Goat Producer’s Association is a marketing cooperative that was started in 2001. The co-op is now handling 500 to 600 goats per year, serving members in North and South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. It’s one example of the many regional efforts to assemble larger groups of graded goats for shipment to processors.
Nearly half of the meat goats produced in the U.S. are raised in Texas, and the state has several well-established markets for goats. Markets are also being developed in other areas of the country. For instance, Union Stockyards in Hillsboro, Ohio started having graded goat sales last year to assemble shipments of goats for processors on the East Coast.
One of the obstacles delaying further expansion of the goat market is a lack of slaughter facilities, says David Mangione, an associate professor with Ohio State University Extension. Consumers generally prefer fresh goat meat, but if there are no processors nearby it can be difficult to get. Also, many Muslim consumers want meat processed according to their religious specifications. Some small, local processing facilities won’t qualify. If they slaughter pork that becomes an issue because of the religious beliefs of the consumer, says Mangione.
Another factor that may limit sales of American-raised goat is price. Consumers generally prefer fresh goat meat, but imported, frozen goat is less expensive, Mangione says. Much of the increased demand comes from immigrants who have low disposable incomes at first. But, he adds, as their incomes rise, they may switch to the higher-priced fresh meat.
Filling local markets
If immigrant or refugee communities settle near your farm, the demand for goat meat may come directly to your door. That’s what happened to the Blystone family in central Ohio. In the 1990s, Joe Blystone started selling live sheep to immigrants who saw his animals in his fields. He recognized the demand and set up an on-farm custom slaughter facility in 2000. His daughter, Katherine Harrison, now manages the business. On an average week, they slaughter about 40 goats and another 40 sheep, but around holidays they sometimes process 100 animals in one day, says Harrison. She buys the animals from other farmers in the area.
About 50 percent of Blystone Farm’s customers are Muslim, 40 percent are Orthodox Christian, and the rest are a variety, including a few Hispanic Catholics. “The customers want to make sure the slaughter is done by someone of their religion,” Harrison explains. To accommodate them, the farm has both Christian and Muslim butchers on staff.
Customers typically come to the farm, pick out a live animal, then wait for it to be slaughtered. Being able to see the animal before slaughter is important, says Wilson Muinamia, who was one of Blystone Farm’s first customers.
“You look at an animal and you know if it’s healthy,” he explains. Muinamia also prefers to have meat he knows is fresh. “In Kenya, we’re not used to eating refrigerated meat,” he explains. “When you go to the grocery, you don’t know how long it’s been there.”
Another benefit Blystone Farm offers customers is processing of cuts not available elsewhere, adds Harrison. When they custom butcher an animal after the customer buys it, they can cut it to the customer’s specifications. For instance, she estimates that 98 percent of her customers want the stomach and about 90 percent want at least part of the head. “We’re glad to do anything we can to get them set,” Harrison says.
Ohio law was updated recently to allow for on-farm processing, but not all states allow it. In North Carolina, for instance, on-farm slaughter isn’t legal and the state doesn’t have enough USDA inspected facilities to meet the demand, says Martha Mobley, agricultural extension agent in Franklin County.
Local processing fees are so high they push fresh goat meat prices out of range for many consumers. For instance, she recently paid $70 to process a 35-pound kid. Some low-income Hispanic consumers in the area might be interested in goat meat, but Mobley says they can’t really afford such prices.
Mobley and her husband raise beef cattle and goats, then sell the meat at an upscale farmers’ market near Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. Interest in goat meat is growing among their customers, most of whom are native-born Americans, she says. Some are looking for something different or are interested in goat because it is leaner than other red meats. Others are world travelers who have eaten goat in other countries and want to eat it at home as well.
“We’re seeing more and more Americans wanting to try it,” she says.
Keck writes from Raymond, Ohio.