NEK Case Study #4: Goats, Goats and more Goats!

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Posted: July 5, 2016

A Goat Story: Vermont Chevon creates a market for goat meat

Since 2011, Vermont Chevon has been slowly building a second-life for Vermont’s goat industry. Vermont Chevon buys surplus livestock and turns it into a premium protein source that is healthier and leaner than other meats. Likewise, Shirley Richardson has built a second-career for herself, starting Vermont Chevon after retiring from education. Richardson grew up on a dairy farm. Before starting Vermont Chevon, she ran Tannery Farm out of her home, raising goats for cashmere and meat, finding tenderness for the lovable creatures. After learning the United States imports millions of pounds of goat meat each year and hearing from dairy-goat farmers that they had no use for bucks (male goats) and doe kids, Richardson decided to focus on farming goats. The launch of Vermont Chevon came soon after.

Shirley in the field with goats

Goat meat (or chevon, the French word for it) is prized in many cultures around the world. In 2014, the U.S. imported roughly 43.2 million pounds of goat meat valued at $95 million, a dramatic increase from 3 million pounds valued at $2 million in 1990. Australia supplies the U.S. with 97% of its commercial goat meat. Two factors account for the increase in goat meat demand. First is the rise of ethnic immigrants. In Boston, for instance, over 50% of the population is now an ethnicity that is not white American or European ancestry. Many immigrant cultures seek a desire to enjoy familiar foods and to pass on their heritage to their children. Second is the increased “foodie” culture that is driving experimentation and enjoyment of unique and gourmet foods. Take butcher Adam Danforth, the winner of a 2015 James Beard award for his book on meat, who not only wrote about the culinary joys of goat meat but who has also used meat from Vermont Chevon in demos.

Vermont Chevon provides a solution for a farm problem: what to do with goats six years old or younger that have reached the end of their dairying years or are culled from the herd. The kids (young goats) go to one of three places, Richardson’s farm in Danville, a Vermont Chevon- farm in Randolph, or 40-acres of pasture that is unusable to a dairy farmer in Benson but is perfect for goats, who will eat anything. After age six, goat meat loses the type of flavor for which it is known. Kids have not built up the muscle mass to provide the type of rich flavor and tenderness desired by goat-meat connoisseurs.

Richardson and one of her partners, Katja Evans, a veterinarian technician, care for the goats. Richardson started Vermont Chevon with a partner who left the company once it was in a stable position. Then, Richardson brought on Evans and Miles Hooper, the son of Allison Hooper. Miles Hooper was all too familiar with dairy goats from his mom’s years running Vermont Creamery. The work, and the youthfulness of Evans and Hooper, is “fun, exciting, and energizing” for the 71-year old Richardson. Her retirement turned into a full time job. The three divide up the tasks of running the company, which was largely self-financed. Early on, Richardson received some grants to do market exploration and business planning. She tried crowdfunding – seeking contributions to help businesses start or scale-up new ventures – but the partners decided to continue the road of self-financing. Women-run non-farm businesses account for one-third of Vermont’s business ownership. In the NEK in 2012, 16.5% of farms were principally run by women operators, compared with 22% of Vermont farms. Nationally, the Census of Agriculture found that women principally ran only 5% of farms in 1978; that number rose to 11% in 2012.

Despite the low numbers of women-run businesses in Vermont, Richardson finds good company in her fellow food and farm businesswomen. She cites Allison Hooper as a good example of a woman who has the really good skills of bringing in people to fit a business; Hooper started Vermont Creamery in 1984, being one of the first people nationally to make goats’ milk chèvre – today a cheese that is ubiquitous in grocery stores but was “exotic” to the American palate. Laini Fondillier of Lazy Lady Farm is another woman Richardson cites as a good example of excelling in the food business. For 32 years, Fondillier has operated a goat cheese farm in Westfield, fueled by renewable energy. Fondillier sells her excess goats to Richardson, making for a symbiotic partnership of the goats’ useful life.

Challenges

For Richardson, her biggest challenge is transportation. There is a high demand for goat meat outside of Vermont, specifically in Boston and New York City. Getting it from here to there is a puzzle Richardson has yet to solve. She has tried harvesting and trucking from one company, harvesting and distribution from other companies, harvesting from another facility, or trying to hitch a ride with other trucks heading to bigger cities. Currently, her solution is to drive it herself.

Processed meat from Vermont Chevon is available at some places in Vermont, mostly in the Chittenden County area (with the exception of Libbey’s Market in Lyndon). However, the demand is really in the urban areas. The numbers of refrigerated trucks that go to Boston – especially those that go directly to the buyer, and those with available space – are limited. Those that do go often charge prices Richardson cannot afford. Some distributors or truckers will go to a warehouse in Boston, but that means the customers (butchers, chefs, etc.) need to find their own transportation from the warehouse.

Time for a close-up!

Butchers usually want whole carcasses, which are larger and heavier to transport, taking up more space than the boxes of meat cut “8-ways” or “4-ways” desired by chefs. Whole carcasses need to stay below 40 degrees. Richardson is on the lookout for creative opportunities and collaborations to move the goat meat to Boston. Her last resort is to purchase a company truck.

Richardson also faces an almost bigger hurdle: public perception. While many in the ethnic market may prefer goat to other meat, there is still a lot of work to do around getting the majority of Americans to try goat. Richardson is always on the go leading tastings and cooking demonstrations to get people to try this meat, or cold-calling potential customers.

Richardson has carved a niche in marketing to participate in regional and national organizations. The Chefs Collaborative, a national network of chefs and food professionals, is how Richardson and Danforth connected. She is involved in Vermont’s Farm-to-Plate Network and the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association. A 2016 partnership with the Moringa Project in Boston is raising greater awareness of Vermont Chevon. Moringa as a city-wide effort showcasing one crop, one meat (goat), and one fish through a coordinated marketing campaign.

Conclusion

Those new to purchasing goat meat may meet sticker shock. Richardson is working to lower the price of her goat meat and more marketing may help do that, but it is still a premium product. She hopes the health benefits of goat will factor into the decision making process to purchase it over other meat. Richardson envisions the future to include fewer trips to Boston to sell goat and more opportunities to share transportation costs. She is exploring potential large contracts. It is not hard for her to imagine needing to import goats from outside Vermont, an effort that requires working closely with state agencies and inventorying the availability of goats in Vermont. Richardson knows it is not easy to create a market for something that is still considered exotic to many palates. She continues to build her business by cultivating relationships, working with available resources like the Center for an Agricultural Economy, and surrounding herself with other accomplished business people such as Hooper and Charlene Lewey. She is willing to explore creative partnerships, take risks, and get her hands dirty. For her, it is all part of being an educator and a woman with a keen eye whose age seems limitless.

The Northeast Kingdom Food System Plan is under development! This case study will be included in the Plan (draft scheduled for release July 2016) highlighting the work of Vermont Chevon to build a Vermont-based goat meat market across New England.

Many thanks to Shirley Richardson for contributing to this piece.

 

For more information about the NEK Food System Plan, please contact Taylar Foster, Program Manager, at nekfoodsystemplan@gmail.com.

 

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