An immigrant-fueled demand for goat meat and dairy products has led to a mini-boom in the number of farmers nationwide who are capitalizing on the relatively inexpensive and easy-to-raise livestock.
The growth is especially true in New York and other eastern states where immigrants from the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and southern Asia are settling, said Duncan Hilchey, an agricultural development specialist at Cornell University.
"Of the top 20 immigrant groups into New York City, 18 or 19 come from goat meat-eating countries," Hilchey said. "Immigrants are bringing their food traditions to the Northeast, and that's creating opportunity."
The number of goat farms in New York rose 50 percent to 2,473 in 2002, from 1,646 farms in 1997, according to the 2002 Census of Agriculture. Nationally, the number of goat farms rose 19.5 percent to 91,462 in 2002 from 76,543 in 1997.
"Goat meat just has the highest demand right now," said Dennis Hamm, who in 1999 converted his cattle and horse farm in Lindley, about 80 miles south of Rochester, to a goat-raising operation. "We have no trouble selling it. We're about at our maximum right now."
Hilchey said 30 to 40 live markets have sprung up in New York City where consumers can pick out the animal they want and have it slaughtered to their specifications. Hamm sends most of his animals to a Vermont company that supplies high-end restaurants in Boston and New York.
Goat meat fetches $1.70 to $2.25 a pound in the live markets in New York City and $4 to $6 a pound in retail grocers, according to Lisa Boyle, a goat breeder and marketer in Middletown.
The meat has 50 percent to 65 percent less fat than similarly prepared beef and as much as 60 percent less fat than lamb. The cholesterol content of goat meat, also called chevon, is similar to that of beef, lamb, pork and chicken and is much lower than some dairy and poultry products and some seafood, researchers say.
The switch to goat farming is painless for many farmers because the animals are adaptable to a range of environmental conditions.
"Our area doesn't have the greatest land," said Hamm, vice president of the Empire State Meat Goat Producers Association. Raising goats "takes advantage of the kind of land that is suitable for pasture land. It's hilly with a lot of brush."
Tatiana L. Stanton, an extension associate with the Northeast Sheep & Goat Marketing Program at Cornell University, said goats are easier to handle than beef cattle or dairy cows and require less capital investment and equipment.
"It's something children can help with, and they're easy for people who don't have a lot of animal background," she said. "Goats bond well with people, even though they can be mischievous animals and can be good escape artists. It's nothing like running a dairy farm."
Ollie Oliver, of LaFayette, 10 miles south of Syracuse, started raising goats about five years ago. His farm is now "almost 100 percent" devoted to raising goats. He owns slightly fewer than 50 head.
"It's not my primary source of income yet, but we're on track to get it to that point," Oliver said. "I think we can continue to grow. As the ethnic population continues to grow, we're going to grow with it."