All around the Island, people keep goats for milk and laughter, too

Constellation of Goat Lovers

by Susie Middleton

You’d never know it, but there are goat folks all over Martha’s Vineyard. They’re not walking around town wearing “I love goats” tee-shirts (yet), so you might not recognize them. They don’t have a website or a meeting place. But they do have a network, one of those typically informal Vineyard ways of connecting that’s based on trust and sharing. Some of these folks are farmers, some are homeowners, but they’re in every town in every corner of the Island. In fact, for fun, you could draw an imaginary line between all of the goat folks on the Vineyard and it would form the triangular shape of the constellation Capricornus—the sea goat.

If you’re thinking of joining the constellation, start by asking a goat lover this one question, “Why goats?” Then watch his or her face. The lips will say, “I’m trying to be more self-sufficient. I like having the milk.” But the impish grin, the gleam in the eyes, and the very next words out of the mouth will belie the practical: “And goats are fun. They’ve a great sense of humor, they’re really curious, they love to play.” You have met a person who’s in love.

This is the thing about goats: They make a lot of sense—right here, right now—in our scary-headline world of food recalls and diminishing dollars. They don’t take up much room and don’t eat much, they’re clean and have very few health problems, and they can supply a small household with daily milk—not to mention yogurt, fresh cheese, and even a little meat. They could also supply some milk and cheese to our Island community through a licensed dairy.

Yet you can’t separate a goat’s functionality from its personality. In order to keep goats, you need to wrap your head around the idea of a farm animal that’s more like a pet—and then be able to understand, conversely, that your pet is a farm animal. To do this, listen in on some stories and advice from the brightest stars in the Vineyard’s constellation of Capricornus.

“I never minded milking twice a day. People would say, ‘Oh, you’re tied down.’ But I liked being tied down, liked the ritual. Get up in the morning, feed and milk the goats. End of the day, feed and milk the goats. I loved it,” says Bob Skydell, co-owner of Fiddlehead Farm, who had goats for 15 years on his Chilmark property. “When I moved from New York, I told everyone I was going to raise goats on Martha’s Vineyard. I’d never done it, but I just knew I loved goats. Some people are horse people, some people love cows. For me, there’s just something about goats. I love their sense of humor.”

“All my goats had names. Lester was my beloved wether. He was the original party animal. He drank beer; you’d put a bottle up to him and he’d just suck it down. He loved to be in a smoke-filled room, had a great time one year at a New Year’s Eve party. And my nephew used to ride around on him,” Bob recalls. “My goat Nibby loved to look at the stars. I swear. I’d go into the barn at night and count goats and start worrying, because one was missing. Then I’d go out into the yard, and there she’d be—only on clear nights—looking up at the stars. She was kind of a loner. Then there was Claire, the trouble maker. She loved to get inside the house and eat out of the fruit bowl” he continued.

“Sometimes I would take the goats for a walk in the woods. They loved that. Some people have trouble with goats, but I never did,” Bob remembers. “I believe that if you treat goats like stupid animals, they will act stupid. But when they have a little bit of social contact, they’re happy.”

Bob got his first goats from the Vineyard’s original goat lady, Ann Hopkins. Ann was a true Island character in the best sense. She transplanted her well-to-do Boston roots to the Vineyard in the 1960s and bought an 18-acre parcel in Christiantown, which she cleared with goats and sheep. Thereafter, cigarette dangling eternally in hand, she gathered, raised, and nurtured all kinds of animals and waterfowl (and the occasional college kid) and was always the one to call if an ewe or doe was having trouble delivering. She sold her goat kids, too, and many of them are still around the Island.

After Ann’s death in 2003, her nephew Sam Hopkins and his wife, Sue Hopkins, took over responsibilities on the farm, and these days, they’re the folks to call if you want to breed your goat (they have three billy goats), to buy a kid, or to simply ask a goat question.

“You’ve got to realize,” Sam says, “that goats are herd animals, so you can’t just have one. You’ll need to keep two to keep each other company.” Sue adds that a little human company doesn’t hurt either. “When I come home from work, they come running down the hill to greet me.”

Sam goes on to list their basic needs— like food and shelter. “They don’t like rain or snow so they need a sturdy shed to protect them from the elements. And while they don’t need a big outdoor space to hang out in, the area has to be securely fenced, preferably with both regular and electric fencing.” All the goat folks agree that this is the biggest challenge to owning goats—they’re escape artists, and they will jump fences and rails, open doors, and climb through windows if given half a chance.

As far as food goes, Sam says, “They need a little hay and lots of foraged browse. Goats are ruminants, and the fiber they get from browse stimulates ruminating, which helps keep them warm in winter.” Browse (as opposed to pasture, which sheep love) is branches, leaves, bushes, and flowers. Goats also love pine needles—something we’ve no shortage of on the Island. They do need a supplement of grain when they’re pregnant, and they all need plenty of water, heated in the winter.

From Sam and Sue’s place, the constellation connects to North Tabor Farm, where Matthew Dix, Rebecca Miller, and their three children keep a small herd of goats, including three milkers right now. One of their does was mated with a Hopkins buck this year, and the other with a new buck at Flat Point Farm.

“For me, it’s personal,” Matthew says about the goats. “I love the wholeness of feeding and milking the goats, but what I value most is that curious personality they developed in all those years of nomadic life.” Many years ago, Matthew would ride his bicycle up to Bob Skydell’s place to help him milk, and the experience hooked him on goats. These days, Rebecca says she notices how milking relaxes Matthew, and also how much he enjoys making fresh cheese from the milk. Matthew also happens to be the go-to guy for disbudding young goats. He says he is willing to do this process, which is basically the cauterization of a kid’s horns, “because it needs to be done right—and right away, really in the first few days.” Goats in large herds on large pieces of land can more safely manage horns, but dairy goats in small herds can hurt themselves, each other, or you if they retain their horns.

Matthew likes to have a year-round supply of milk. To do this, he’ll hold off breeding one doe while the other two are pregnant (does will not give milk during the last few months of pregnancy). Then he’ll breed that doe in the fall. “It might seem funny,” Matthew says, “but many people don’t realize that you have to breed a goat, like any other animal, before it can give milk. We get asked about this all the time. Welcome to the world of raising goats—what this also means is that you have to be comfortable giving up the doe’s kids (especially the males) for slaughter or for sale if you’re going to keep a goat for milk. Otherwise, “Just do the math,” Matthew says. Most does have twins, so you could wind up with a pretty big herd pretty quickly if you didn’t dispense with some of the offspring. There is a small market for goat meat on the Island. Members of the Brazilian community will buy kids. Goat meat—which is the number one meat eaten in the world and the fastest growing meat market in the U.S.—is delicious, and you can just as easily stock the meat in your own freezer.

Or you could have a goat roast, like Doug Brush and Emily Fischer have done for the last couple of years over at Flat Point Farm, since they started breeding goats a few years ago. Emily is widely known on the Island as a respected shepherdess, and she also now makes goat soap out of their excess milk. “I started making the soap when I realized how hard—and expensive—it would be to sell milk and cheese legally on the Island.” Her soaps (see sources, p. 51) are lovely, scented with essential oils like rose geranium, lavender, and ginger. They’re also a pretty cool testament to the all-around usefulness of a goat.

Of all the goat folks on the Island, Doug and Emily have probably given the most serious thought to pursuing the dream of a goat dairy. Doug and a friend put a financial plan together a few years ago. But the investment in facilities would be hefty, and Doug and Emily now have a child on the way. “It’s not just the money, though,” Emily points out. “It’s really, really hard work. And you need to be both a good farmer and a good cheese maker.” To sell milk you need a licensed milking parlor, which is a certain level of investment, Doug explains. But to make cheese, you need a certified cheese-making facility with a septic system, and that’s another thing altogether. For now, the young farmers will concentrate on Doug’s chicken CSA, Emily’s soap business, and their first born.

Coming full circle back to Chilmark, Rebecca Gilbert has a very special breed of goat at Native Earth Teaching Farm. These goats are special not because they’re unusual (there are many in farms throughout Massachusetts), but because they so perfectly personify the magic of a goat. They are pygmy goats—miniatures—and they are the friendliest animals on Rebecca’s farm.

Their sole purpose at Native Earth is to be welcoming to children, to help city kids make a safe and comfortable connection with a farm animal. Rebecca could breed them for milk, but she hasn’t yet. (Little goats give smaller amounts of milk, but their milk is particularly sweet and tasty.) For now, despite the fact that the rest of the animals on her farm are working animals, she is happy to have the pygmy goats simply for the (human) kids—and for future goat folks to fall in love with.