Alpine goats

My farm ideas mostly begin with a bite.  The tart juice from my grandfather’ s Concord grapes left such a mark that we planted a small vineyard of them on a south-facing hill.  The russet-skinned Ashmead Kernel apple at a farmers’ market a few years back inspired our fledgling orchard, an AK sapling within.  Why would I not include berries after foraging for blueberries with my great uncle in New Hampshire and for blackberries with my grandfather in the Mt. Hood foothills?

Having been a lifelong dairy aficionado, I knew we would need a milking animal.  I concluded, in a rare moment of prudence, that a goat would be better than a cow because they are smaller and, therefore, easier to handle.  Nor would they leave us with unwieldy quantities of milk (because how we would ever cope with an endless supply of cream, cheese, ice cream, and butter?).  Plus, the memory of a Berkeley breakfast kept creeping in: a thick slice of country bread smeared with chèvre and heaped with soft-scrambled eggs.  Slow-roasted tomatoes glistening with olive oil on the side.  A latte bowl at my right hand.  Why not get some goats?

Last July, we picked up two little Alpine doelings (female goats less than one year old) from a goat farm down the road.  These were the two, Cindy assured us, with the best teats for hand milking.  Let them eat brush, leaves, twigs, and supplement them with baking soda, kelp, and salt, she advised.  We wrangled them into the back of our car and drove home, giggling at Jane’s nervous expulsion of mouth flatulence.

They were half-sisters, one light, one dark.  Being Bennetts ourselves, we naturally named them Jane and Lizzy Bennet(t) after Jane Austen’s legendary sisters.  We could breed them in about a year; they would freshen (come into milk), and we would begin to collect our bounty, in early 2015.

Jane, Alpine goat

Moveable goat fencing, a water trough, a shelter, a bale of hay and a hedgerow dense with brush awaited them at home.  We gave them a few days to acclimate to our land and then got to work getting to know them. Though younger, Lizzy was the dominant one.  She could not get enough berries, dried or fresh.  She peed whenever I greeted her.  Jane was more timid, except for when she was hungry and would stand up with her hooves resting on my back.  They spent their days languidly eating in the hedgerow–honeysuckle (in German, literally, “goat leaf”), poison ivy, wild grape and rose, bark, most anything green or brown.  Dusk was for play.  They would lock their non-existent horns and gambol about their paddock with the jerky, jubilant movements of a happy drunk.  It was farm-love.  They made us laugh and cleared away brush; we gave them nourishment, shelter, and affection.

Lizzy, Alpine goat

But the nourishment led to growth, which led to confidence; coupled with their innate intelligence and curiosity makes pandemonium, goat-style.  Suddenly, the fence–the one sold as “goat fencing”–was merely a suggested boundary.  Either one could sail over it, front paws tucked beneath, with a swift grace.  This opened a whole new world.

There was destruction.  The roof of the chicken nesting boxes (shingles torn off from employing it as a half-pipe).  The rose planted in memory of our recently deceased cat India (eaten).  The metal hardware cloth covering their shelter (eaten).  Leaves and bark of apple and cherry saplings and a 40-year-old peach tree (eaten).  Their 6,000-volt electric fencing (eaten).  Electrical wires feeding the fence (eaten).  Chicken food, dog food, anything, whether or not having the most minute semblance food (eaten).

And there was good old-fashioned mischief.  Beehive boxes (head-butted and splayed open, three times in 24 hours).  Buck, our 90-pound Great Pyrenees livestock guard dog (set free, whenever they felt like it).  The fence energizer (knocked over, ad infinitum).  Dagny, our German shepherd family dog (getting her to give chase only to leap into the safety of their fenced area, dozens of times a day).

Goat eating flowers

It was too much.  As much as I daydreamed about waking up one frosty spring morning to kids (baby goats) or learning the craft of aging cheese, it was clear that we did not have the right infrastructure.  We needed higher fencing, permanent fencing, something to contain them!  We worried about them running into the road.  We worried about the orchard we spent so much time planting and tending last year, the grapes that we nurtured for the last two years and that should finally bear fruit this year.  We worried about what would happen if Dagny actually caught them.

We secured a buyer, a family from near Lexington that is even newer to farming than us (imagine!).  They were building a herd of milk goats; Jane and Lizzy would be their third and fourth members.

Last Saturday, their final day with us, I awoke to Jane standing atop the beehive boxes.  Soon after, they hijacked Buck’s house and didn’t peek their heads out until the buyers came.  We led them to the new family’s truck and stood around talking.  My last memory of Lizzy was of her ravenously trying eat the plants we bought at last week’s plant sale while my mom and I frantically moved them into the garage farm room.  Elinor giggled uncontrollably in the background.  With the plants safely in the farm room, Lizzy stood close to us on the driveway.  She peed, looked away, then looked down at the pool below her and took a sip.  She looked at us and curled up her top lip.  Bittersweet, she seemed to say.  Yes, Lizzy, I agree.

Alpine goats

But my last memory of them will not be the most lasting.  One December morning a week after little Henry was “due” to join us, we moved the goats, with their fencing and shelter, to a new part of the hedgerow.  It was taking longer than usual and perhaps our emotions were heightened as can happen in the period after the (reliably inaccurate) due date.

The details are cloudy, but I do recall with the utmost clarity the highlights of the fight between Dave and I that ensued.  Pretext: goats.  Magnitude: epic.  Best quote: “No one delivers a baby in less than two hours, Dave.”  Later that night, I went into labor after Elinor had just fallen asleep.  Henry was in my arms fifty-two minutes later.  I like to think that it was the fire in my belly left over from the fight–our goat fight–that launched Henry into this world with such momentum.  Destruction and mischief for mind-blowing childbirth: that is a trade I would make any day.

Jane, Alpine goat

Text and photo © 2014 Blue Egg Kitchen

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