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My colleague Allison Aubrey's story last week about giving an African a goat as an act of charity got me wondering: Why don't we see more goats here in the United States?
After all, there's a lot to love about goats. Their meat is healthful — lower in saturated fat and cholesterol than beef, pork, or even chicken. And it's not an unfamiliar taste. "I wouldn't be able to taste the difference between goat and beef, honestly," Jack Mauldin, who raises goats near Ecton, Tex., tells The Salt.
Goats aren't picky about what they eat. They like tough-to-digest shrubs that cows avoid. In fact, they've been used to restore wildlife habitat in areas that have been overrun by woody invasive species like the multiflora rose. They can prosper in places that a lot of other animals find dry and barren. Some have called goat meat "the other (sustainable) red meat."
Many people swear by goat's milk, or goat cheese — as April Fulton has reported, it's swiftly gone from hippie chick to hip and chic. And there's the lovely fleece — mohair — from the Angora breed.
Plus, goats are pretty cute.
So it's no surprise that goats are popular across much of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Why not in the United States?
Many websites claim that goat is the most widely consumed meat worldwide, but I haven't found any reliable statistics confirming this claim. Globally, cattle outnumber goats by about 50 percent. But that's nothing compared to the imbalance in the United States: 96 million cattle versus 3 million goats.
The reason simply seems to be a matter of cultural tradition. There's little history of goat-eating here, and even less of goat-raising.
But that's changing, driven by the shifting demographics and cultural traditions of America. Immigrants from Mexico, Africa, and the Middle East want the familiar taste of goat meat, and they're willing to pay high prices for it. "Demand [for goat meat] is high," says Frank Craddock, the resident expert on goats at Texas A-M University's agricultural extension center in San Angelo. Demand spikes on Muslim holidays, such as Eid ul-Adha, or festival of sacrifice.
With the help of these groups, the population of goats in the U.S. has been growing steadily. In fact, there has been a spectacular increase since 1995 in the number of goats raised for meat. But that's partly because farmers stopped raising the Angora breed of goats when the government stopped subsidizing production of mohair in 1995. Farmers switched to a South African breed, the Boer goat, which is mainly valuable for its meat.
There's also a new crop of urban farmers who are buying goats for the backyard. Jennie Grant of Seattle is one such goat lover, whose story was chronicled this month in USA Today. Grant started the Goat Justice League, a group that advocates for raising goats within the city limits of Seattle.
But not everyone who has raised goats would do it again. NPR senior producer Gisele Grayson remembers one summer in Virginia when she and her brother had a high-maintenance billy goat on loan.
Grayson says goats have a big appetite, which is great if you need some help clearing brush. But once it starts, nothing in the yard is safe. "It will tear through your yard and woods, and eat everything to the bone," she says.
They're also loyal. "When we'd drive to town, it would chase us up the long driveway, bleating," she says. "We'd have to drive through the gate, walk it back through, lock the gate, and hop over the fence. It wasn't happy to see us go."
But goats also play rough, and this one liked to sharpen its horns on trees and the house, one time even ripping out a phone wire in the process. It also gave off an "unmistakable musk" that had a way of rubbing off on people.
"Our summer ended and we gave the goat back to its original owner," says Grayson. "It was an adventure owning the goat, but the advice I can offer potential goat owners is this: Choose your goat wisely – a full-grown billy goat is nothing but trouble."