Coming soon to a back yard near you?
story and photos By Jess Watson
I press my forehead into the side of Prima’s warm belly, looking down as
I concentrate on the first pull, struggling to break the seal. A stream of hot goat milk from each teat skitters the test container and threatens to topple it. I check the smell and consistency of these first pulls to monitor Prima’s heath and the safety of her milk, then set it aside.
Prima is fully occupied on the other end of the milking stanchion, chomping away happily on alfalfa, corn, oats, barley, flax, and seaweed. I pull the stainless steel milking pan into position and, grabbing both teats, get into my milking rhythm. I love the dense ringing sound of the milk against the side of the pail. It changes in tone depending on the accuracy of my aim: One long descending note from my left hand, two short bursts of sound from my right. I emerge from the milking shed 10 minutes later, feeling victorious because it looks like she gave six cups of milk today, and I worked for those last drops. If you’re here with me, you know this is not the bucolic setting of a western Marin County farm or Central Valley dairy. You can hear BART pass a block away, and the freeway interchange is just behind us. We’re in Oakland’s urban flatlands, and the surprising thing is that these are not the only goats around.
Over the past few years, a handful of intrepid urban farmers—with a surprising variety of motivations—have brought goats into their back yards. They experience the pleasure of seeing a perfect set of curds form when they make their feta cheese, and they chafe under twice-daily milking schedules. Several are convinced that goats are a key component of working toward a more sustainable urban environment.
Jim Montgomery, a high school math teacher and co-owner of Green Faerie Farm in West Berkeley, was an early adopter and has owned goats for eight years. He estimates that of the 30 or so goat-owners he knows of in the East Bay, about 10 raise the animals for milk.
“Goats are an appropriate livestock for urban living,” says Montgomery. “They have about as much impact on your yard as a dog. They can be as personable for company, but they’re herbivores and are domesticated to provide milk and meat. They’re an excellent complement in a gardening situation, producing manure that is perfect to go right into the soil. Their milk is also more digestible than cow’s milk for many people.”
West Oakland resident and City Girl Farms founder Abeni Massey has been keeping two Nigerian dwarf goats on a rented half-acre lot in San Lorenzo for a year. The property is an historically African American–owned farmstead where Massey is growing vegetables and fruits, or as she puts it, “sharecropping,” in exchange for 10 percent of her produce. She purchased Orla Mae and Milky from her neighbor Novella Carpenter, who wrote about goat tending as part of her urban farming experiences in her recent memoir Farm City. As of this writing, Milky was due to give birth in November, at which point Massey expects to bring the goats back
to her West Oakland home.
Massey has used the goat milk to make chevre, feta, yogurt, and kefir. “I suppose initially my motivation was that I wanted to provide my own milk and dairy products. The root is very selfish—I don’t want to be dependent,” she says. “For me it’s about self-sufficiency.”
But she acknowledges that keeping goats is hard at times. “It’s a lot of commitment: what are you going to do if you go on vacation, how are you going to breed them to keep them producing milk . . . Some days I’m like, ‘This is completely crazy.’”
Kitty Sharkey, owner of Havenscourt Homestead in East Oakland near the Coliseum, has other motivations for tending four Nigerian dwarf goats. She is on medical leave and keeps them as therapy animals, even cuddling with them in her hammock. However, in addition to their status as pets, they are a key component in Sharkey’s goal toward 75 percent self-sufficiency. “Aside from the love, joy, and therapy they provide, I want them to produce,” she says. Sharkey estimates that she currently generates 50 to 60 percent of her total food needs. (More info at www.havenscourthomestead.com .)
Others acquire goats as part of an educational mission. Jeannie McKenzie and Frankie Morrow of Pineheaven Farm in Montclair seek to set up an example homestead in the Oakland hills, offering tours for local school groups and helping Girl Scouts earn the newly reintroduced Farm Badge. They teach the Backyard Chickens class at the Institute for Urban Homesteading and became interested in goats after making goat cheese at a friend’s farm in Marin. (More info at www.pineheavenfarm.com .)
Morrow and McKenzie leaped into goat ownership and laugh now at their introduction—the goats initially ate their electric fence, and the couple had to babysit, even sleeping outside with them, for three days. Over the course of a year, the initial herd of two goats multiplied to 10, a number that felt unmanageable even on a sizeable property. The couple quickly realized they needed to assemble a team of volunteers to help with the milking shifts. Morrow and McKenzie recently sold two goats and are looking to reduce the size of their herd further.
“I don’t think we realized how much work it was going to be,” says Morrow. “But working with the animals creates this state of groundedness. After all the chores, I take a few deep breaths and realize: This is amazing.”
Goats are legal in most East Bay cities, but a good relationship with neighbors is crucial. Owners can be cited for noise or neighborhood blight if the city receives complaints. Most goat owners who were contacted reported improved relations with neighbors as a result of owning goats.
“It’s a wonderful way to meet more people in the neighborhood, especially young people,” says Molly. She and her husband, Crow, have kept two Oberhasli goats at their North Oakland residence for two years, and they often walk the goats on leashes around the neighborhood. Crow says he is frequently asked, “What kinds of dogs are those? Are those Dobermans?”(Oberhaslis have brown and black coloring, reminiscent of a Doberman.)
Molly and Crow have a toddler and maintain busy lives in other ways as well, and so tapping into support from their community is what has made it possible for them to own goats. They currently have a solid group of 10 milkers who take much of the burden of twice-daily milkings off their hands. In exchange, the milkers gain experience with livestock and get to try out goat ownership without the full commitment. “This is an improvement over old-style farming in that we can go out at night,” says Molly. “Real farmers can’t, which makes the lifestyle seem unappealing.”
Crow also receives help with mucking out the pens, since three different people asked for goat manure at the end of the rainy season. “I felt like a big old Tom Sawyer sitting there getting my pen mucked,” said Crow, smiling. “They kept thanking me!”
In the end, is it worth the effort?
Most of the goat farmers contacted felt that the financial return on the goats was about even. Molly and Crow calculated that the goats cost $75/month in hay and produced at least $160 worth of milk. The calculation is based on the value of non-organic pasteurized goat milk available at the store, but in fact, the couple enjoys organic raw goat milk daily. They don’t see a financial return, since stringent FDA regulations surrounding raw milk forbid them from selling their product except as pet food. Rather, they are convinced that the benefit is to their health and well-being. As Kitty Sharkey says, “These guys pay for themselves in chevre and companionship.”
Abeni Massey is working to educate her neighbors on the benefits of owning goats: She sees them as a great connection between older community members who may have been raised on farms, and young kids searching for activities or employment. “I want farm animals to become as normal and commonplace as dogs in my neighborhood. It’s a way of cutting your budget and being self-sufficient.”
Massey has advice, however, for those considering getting goats: “Think about it, think about it, think about it. You have to really be sure it’s something you want to do. Be honest about where you are personally, and do not get into it because it’s a trend or fad.”
Jess Watson is a freelance journalist on the urban farming beat and a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at UCSC. She spends far too much time fermenting, foraging, canning, and blogging about it all from her North Oakland home. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or just check out her blog at www.quirkyurbanite.blogspot.com .