The frisky ruminants—and their products—are kicking it up
Goats are personable. Do you need one? If you live inside the city, probably not. Chattanooga has an ordinance forbidding goats on properties smaller than five acres, and realistically you’d need more than that. But that doesn’t mean you can’t participate in the growing love of all things goat. Goat farms are springing up all over, and you’ll find goat products at every farmers market.
“Goats eat the poison ivy, the privet, the honeysuckle, the kudzu, the English ivy,” said goat farmer Mary Hart Rigdon. “They eat what everybody wants cleared out of their places and turn it into good milk.”
Mary Hart—the “goat-to” gal in the biz, having for over 20 years run Decimal Place Farm, a micro-dairy close enough to Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport that its barn doors rattle at takeoff and touchdown—says goat milk is more easily digestible than cow’s. In addition to a delicious crumbly feta that she sells to Atlanta chefs as well as at farmers markets, she makes tuma, a mozzarella-like goat cheese she says enables cheese-allergic children to have pizza birthday parties.
In Chattanooga, we’re a little behind Atlanta in access to local goat dairy products. Why? Fear, explained a man distributing goat milk at a weekday farmers market who declined to be interviewed, photographed or named. Though he’s doing nothing illegal, he said, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture has tried to entrap him often enough that he’d just as soon keep a low profile.
Waitaminnit. Johnny Law busts people for milk?
Mary Hart, who, before she shelled out $100,000 to qualify as a grade-A (commercial-level) dairy, had her own dust-ups with Johnny, explained: American dairy standards, she said, designed for cow-not-goat, macro-not-micro operations, are spelled out in an arm-thick federal document that each state interprets individually, then uses, with varying individual twists, to b-slap the small farmer. “All of the rules and regulations can be arbitrary and capricious, which makes it very frustrating and heart-wrenching,” she said. But if regs vary from state to state, the controversy at the aforementioned Chattanooga farmers market is a national one—raw v. pasteurized milk. Natural-food proponents, including, notably, the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF), ascribe innumerable health benefits to raw, or unpasteurized, milk. But ag officials worry it carries disease and they call the shots.
So selling raw milk for human consumption was completely illegal in Tennessee until, in 2009, the state legislature effected a compromise by passing a “herd share” bill. Under a herd-share arrangement, you pay the farmer a onetime fee to become part-owner of his animals. This entitles you to pay a periodic “boarding fee” in exchange for milk, which you can now legally drink because, on paper, it’s from your own animal.
Herd-share goat milk is what our nervous non-interviewee at the farmers market was distributing. If you want some, you can find him and other local dairies by clicking on WAPF’s “milk finder” at www.realmilk.com.
And that’s pretty much your only option for local goat milk. Even pasteurizing grade-A’s like Mary Hart’s don’t outright sell it. To do so, the regs would require her to buy an industrial bottle-and-capping machine. “It’s a step too far,” she said.
For local goat milk products, though, the news is better: Herd-share cheese and butter are now legal along with the raw milk, and besides, the Chattanooga area now has its own brand-new grade-A cheesery.
Rafting Goat Cheese is right by the Ocoee River in Old Fort, and proprietor Mack Haynes says his goats love playing on boats; hence the name.
Haynes, who does pasteurize, started his micro-dairy after a career in mega-dairies, so he knew industry standards going in and reports no friction with Johnny Cheese. “The first thing I ever did was call the Tennessee Department of Agriculture,” he said. “They actually helped me get grant money and worked with me every step of the way.”
Haynes plans to launch a feta next year but for now sells a cream-style goat cheese, plain and with savory or sweet additions. He has varieties called Sgt. Peppercorn and Peach Amaretto.
Rafting Goat cheeses are available at Harvest Grocery in Hixson. Haynes sells them himself at the Chattanooga Market downtown on Sundays and neighborhood farmers markets throughout the week.
At those markets, you may also buy goat-milk soaps and lotions made by White Ivy Farm, Zenflower Organics, Dixie Soaps (who also occasionally offer their delicious goat-milk fudge) and other local artisans who say goat milk is a luxurious natural moisturizer.
Goats: Nature’s Gardeners
In 2006, the Public Work Department engaged a team of goats to chew city-owned acreage on Missionary Ridge free of the kudzu that was choking out visibility. By 2007, the goats had not only succeeded in eating the Ridge safe for democracy but had chomped their way to super stardom. They were all over television and featured in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. They even had a country music song written about them.
Singer Randy Mitchell sang to the tune of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe”:
“That stuff was growin’ everywhere, even chokin’ out the railroad bridge,
But now there’s kudzu-eatin’ goats out on Missionary Ridge.”
Mitchell ended his song with a promise the goats would be back:
“Next year from April to October. they’ll chomp on that evil weed,
An environmentally friendly way of tendin’ to this necessary deed.”
Alas, it was not to be! Shortly afterwards, the kudzu-eatin’ goat program was sacrificed on the altar of municipal cost-cuttin’, and if Chattanooga has any intention of reinstatin’ them, the Public Works Department is not returnin’ phone calls to say so.
What, then, is the status of Capra aegagrus hircus in Chattanooga today? The good news is that though goats no longer have a place in the city budget, they maintain a certain bleating, crazy-eyed presence on city hillsides thanks to private entrepreneurs with kudzu of their own.
“People seem to be fascinated by them,” said Bob Perlaky, campground manager at Raccoon Mountain Caverns. “But their primary purpose is to eat.”
Perlaky, whose family owns the 30-acre cave-and-camping attraction in Lookout Valley, was talking about the four pygmy goats Raccoon Mountain acquired in July. Pygmies are roughly dog-sized with a certain baby-animal winsomeness, but Perlaky insists that’s secondary to vegetation control. “It’s kind of important at a campground because if you have tall grass, there’s a chance you might have snakes,” he said. “Our guests don’t like snakes.”
The goats saved man-hours and fuel dollars this summer by noshing down undergrowth on hard-to-reach hillsides previously tamed by employees with power tools, said Perlaky. “Plus, because it’s on such a steep slope, it’s all cut with weed-eaters and the noise offends some of the campers,” he said. “The goats don’t offend them.”
Perlaky admits he’s not immune to the goats’ charms himself. “The interesting thing is, they have personalities,” he said.
The little animals are friendly if you’re on the other side of fence, bashful if you’re on theirs, said Perlaky—but when the sun goes over the ridge and it’s time for their daily treat of sweet feed, all shyness evaporates if their keeper, Josh, is one minute late. “They come down here and start boo-hooing until we get Josh to get them that feed bucket,” said Perlaky.
The goats will require hay and more feed as underbrush dies off this winter. Perlaky doesn’t mind. “They’ve done such a good job and we’re so impressed with them, they’ve earned a spot here,” he said.
On the other side of town, another Chattanooga business has brought goats back to Missionary Ridge itself. Ashley Hale, manager of Sugar’s Ribs, explained that restaurant owner Lawton Haygood raises goats at his Lookout Mountain home and periodically rotates some to the precipitous property overlooking I-24.
“The kids enjoy them, and he brings pregnant ones here to have their babies,” she said.
The five Sugar’s Ribs goats, all female (males have a raunchy billy-goat stench unconducive to dining pleasure) graze the steep slopes around the restaurant enjoying a panoramic view of the city, while on the deck guests eat barbecue enjoying a panoramic view plus goats. Behind the restaurant is a crèche area for mama goats and their babies, with a barn and a springy piece of steel they use as a trampoline. “The babies will hop and gallop and leap and run and bounce,” said Hale.
It’s free entertainment because the goats cost nothing to feed. “They just eat the kudzu, the plants, the flowers and the food that the customers give them,” said Hale.
She, like Perlaky, finds the organic weed-eaters simpatico, particularly a blue-horned goat named Valentine she bottle-fed as a kid. (Blue goat horns do not occur in nature; Valentine’s got that way from a certain goatish contempt for FRESH PAINT signs.)
You might say, in fact, that Chattanooga is truly becoming a goats town.