The Year of the Goat Project
In August of 2003, we embarked on a year-long exploration of the goat industry and culture in America. We left our jobs (at Time Magazine and Magnolia Bakery) in New York City and drove over 40,000 miles, visiting 43 states, in order to document in words, photographs and sound, the vast number of farmers, ranchers, cheese makers, chefs, vets, butchers, circus trainers, and enthusiasts who make up this unusual slice of America. We called the project, “The Year of the Goat,” and much of our travel and many of our visits were chronicled on the web site yearofthegoat.net (currently offline – but we hope will be back soon!). A book, The Year of the Goat: 40,000 Miles and the Quest for the Perfect Cheese, written by Margaret about our adventures in the world of goats, was published by The Lyons Press in 2007. A 15th Anniversary edition with a new introduction by Margaret and new section of photographs by Karl was published by Down East Books in 2022, and is available through this website and in bookstores across the USA.
Why would two people and a dog leave behind their New York lives to scour the country for goats?
We couldn’t explain what drew us both to the idea. We knew only that we were growing tired of our lives in New York, feeling creatively stilted and physically confined, and that there was something appealing in the fantasy of ourselves as dairy goat farmers.
Why goats? Karl had been to a goat farm in the Berkshires; I had milked one at the Kansas State Fair: this was the extent of our goat experience. Something about them, however, captured our fancy. They’re smaller than cows, as is the market for their milk, so one can become a dairy goat farmer with a herd of just a few animals, which can be kept on a minimal number of acres. In addition, since the milk production of a small herd would be, well, small, making something like cheese could be done by hand rather than machine.
As much as farming, I liked the idea of experimenting with cheeses and yogurts. Karl liked the idea of working with animals. We both liked the funny beards. And so we searched the web for goats, becoming members of Yahoo’s Goats 101 chat group, getting membership information about the American Dairy Goat Association (ADGA), buying book upon eco-friendly small farming book from Amazon. We started to become, to a degree, laptop farmers. But we also continued with our daily lives, going off in the morning to our Manhattan jobs and returning each evening to our Brooklyn apartment, our dog Godfrey, and our farm dreams.
We realized soon into the fantasy that our situation — limited finances, total inexperience — made it unlikely that we would be able to leave the city and immediately start a successful dairy farm within the next few years. In fact it was more than unlikely, it was pretty much impossible. In the late spring, when we’d just returned from a trip to South Africa, hungry for more adventure, the idea of a goat project was born. We didn’t have to buy goats, we realized, we could be satisfied by investigating them.
Armed with computers, cameras, and many questions, our project is an adventure into the heart of goat culture. What began as a query about goat farming has gradually expanded into an exploration of something much larger. As we’ve talked with people about our somewhat inexplicable interest in goats, we’ve discovered that the entire goat culture extends far beyond what we’d originally investigated. In addition to dairy and meat farming, there are goat festivals throughout the country, and nearly everyone we’ve talked to has some kind of goat anecdote (a goatecdote?) to report.
We began our project in what, according to the Chinese zodiac, was the year of the goat. The goat is the patron of the arts, a somewhat pessimistic and hypersensitive patron, but an encourager of creative pursuits. The zodiac goat promotes harmony, a refocus on family and loved ones, and like the animals themselves, geographical wanderings. Heeding the wisdom of the goat, we quit our jobs, stored our possessions, and went off to follow the herd.