The Growing Demand for Goat Meat

Photo by Kelsey Robinov/Salt Institute for Documentary Studies

Spain has cabrito. Italians make capretto and cured morcetta. In Greece, there's gida. Portugal calls its kids cabra. Birria is a popular Mexican street food, and Brazilian politicians often down goat stomach, or buchada, as a sign of connection with the people.

Still, except for ethnic markets in Latino, East African, and South Asian neighborhoods, the mainland United States appears to be the last place on earth to find goat meat. For this reason, it's sometimes called the soccer of meats.

But that's changing, especially as the number of locally produced and humanely slaughtered animals rises. Much of the growth in goat meat's popularity seems driven by sales at farmers' markets and a few adventurous chefs.

Even Maine, the land of the "frozen chosen"--one of the nation's whitest, least diverse places--has a growing market for goat meat, sometimes rebranded as "chevon."

Bill Niman, the original founder of Niman Ranch, left retirement to raise stout, muscular Boer goats in California with his wife, Nicolette Hahn Niman [Curator's note: Please see "Why We Raise Goats," the Nimans' post today]. The couple sell goat to high-end restaurants, including Eccolo in Berkeley. In New York, chef Scott Conant has made moist roasted baby goat with peas his signature dish at Scarpetta, and the New York Times' Henry Alford wrote that "Novelty and great flavor aren't the only draws here--the meat is lower in fat than chicken but higher in protein than beef."

Even Maine, the land of the "frozen chosen"--one of the nation's whitest, least diverse places--has a growing market for goat meat, sometimes rebranded as "chevon." In the last five years, the number of meat goats in Maine increased by 53 percent, more than double the national average, according to USDA data.

smith june18 goathead post.jpg

Photo by Kelsey Robinov/Salt Institute for Documentary Studies

In rural Dresden, Marge Kilkelly, a former state legislator, lives down a gravel drive at Dragon Fly Cove Farm, where she raises a small herd of Boer-cross goats. The white animals with distinctive brown faces, native to South Africa, browse on shrubs and trees around her wooden homestead.

"Goats are uniquely suited to Maine and the Northeast," she says. "We have small farms with rocky, craggy land. Many of our pastures are overgrown. Those are the kinds of places that goats particularly like."

She's also a part of Thyme for Goat, a collaboration among four farms, who send their animals to a USDA-inspected slaughter facility, where they're killed humanely for retail customers at farmers' markets. Kilkelly says 90 percent of her customers have never eaten goat meat and buy it because it's lean, local meat. (The meat revival is a boon to cheesemakers; after all, male kids, especially those crossed with meat bucks and dairy does that need to be "freshened" up, are incapable of ever producing milk.) That's hardly the only market.

In recent decades, thousands of East African refugees moved to Maine, opening at least half a dozen halal markets in Portland and Lewiston and serving up spicy sambusas (crispy triangular-shaped pastries stuffed with meat, onions, cumin, salt, hot pepper, and cardamom). Many markets stock their freezers with imported meats, though, and for Maine goat farmers the local market for goat meat has, so far, been difficult to tap into. Although the extension agency of the University of Maine in Cumberland County has attempted to spur production and encourage farmers to market goat specifically to Somali and Sudanese communities, the cultural learning curve for both producers and buyers has made it difficult for Maine goat to move into the ethnic marketplace.

Dawud Ummah, an imam who raised goats at Pleasant Valley Acres Farm in Cumberland, a suburb of Portland, had some customers sign up to buy a goat; when the end of the season came, they didn't have enough money to buy his fresh meat, and he sometimes had to sell it at a loss. But that hasn't stopped him from trying to raise meat goats humanely again this year.

"Right now, for real good organic meat, immigrants--they're poor--they can't afford it," he says. "They buy it for sacrifice, but not for daily eating."

Another problem facing many small meat producers--the shortage of slaughterhouses--is exacerbated for those selling goats, because halal slaughter is prohibited in places where pigs are also processed. State- and federally inspected slaughterhouses can make religious exemptions for Muslims to perform ritual slaughters, which involve cutting the trachea, esophagus, and two jugular veins, but not the spinal cord, with a very sharp knife. Customers can also arrange to custom-process animals on the farm to remain in accordance with both halal and state law, but these meats cannot legally be sold at markets. Maine state law mandates that custom-processed meat be used exclusively by the animal's owner, members of the owner's household, and any nonpaying guests.

"There is a lot of underground stuff going on that is really hard to find," Dr. Henrietta Beaufait, program manager for Maine's Department of Agriculture, Division of Animal Health and Industry, told me recently. "When you are finding goat's feet and hides in someone's backyard, that shouldn't be there."

Beaufait said the agency treated black-market goat meat primarily as a food safety and education issue. "I don't know how intentional it is," she said. "I think it's more of a cultural issue. The people consuming and eating it are not used to having to deal with regulations. They're coming from places where you can just go buy your goat and kill it in your bathtub and do whatever you want with it. Well, that's not how it's done in this country...The rules are there for a reason."

Another goat farmer, Henry Hamilton, who runs the Maine Fun Farm in Oxford, told me that the immigrants who buy his goats are accustomed to extra-lean meat from animals that were extensively grazed. Because other customers liked tender goat chops and steaks, he finds it difficult to sell animals to two markets. Hamilton said the Africans he meets want goat meat for making stews, and sometimes choose a cheaper alternative to his animals: Australian goat meat that had been frozen and shipped.

"The Americans I know don't want to eat something that's been frozen for six months," he said. "The African community... they have a different diet, different tastes. In a generation or two, we'll see that change."