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Virginia family taps market for goat meat

WILLIS, Va. (AP)--June and Rick Syx named their kid "For Sale.'' He was frisky and furry, his front was black, and his back half looked like it was dipped in a can of white paint.

He was a meat goat, and he has since been eaten.

Syx Acres Farm, in Willis, tapped into a burgeoning culinary market for goats last summer.

"We're hoping the goats at some point will grow to a point where it will hold us through the winter,'' June Syx said.

The Syxes have had a tough year financially. Rick, 44, a mechanic by trade, had tried raising cattle five years ago. A drop in prices in the wholesale beef market forced him out of that business. He worked repairing construction equipment and runs a tractor-repair business on the side, but it's been slow because of the economy; farmers sooner would fix equipment themselves than hire Rick. June, 48, works only April through November as a waitress at Mabry Mill Restaurant, about nine miles from their Floyd County farm.

On the hunt for a new income source, Rick Syx bought seven goats for $465 in August 2008.

"We knew nothing about goats,'' said June Syx, who grew up as a city girl outside New York. "We just started buying books and reading about goats.'' Their research tells them the profit margin for raising meat goats can be more than four times that of beef cattle.

The Syxes' six does bore 13 kids by January, tripling the herd. Since then, the couple have made back the initial investment and sold 20 goats, each for $75 on average, to people interested in eating or herding. Eventually, Syx Acres Farm hopes to have almost 200 goats, Rick Syx said.

"The goat market is still a young market, so we went ahead and took an adventure,'' he said, his back issues of Goat Rancher magazine next to him on a table in his living room.

The choice between sending Schnookums to a slaughterhouse versus allowing him to frolic in the farm isn't an easy one.

Schnookums, one of Syx Acres' three bucks, dashes across the fenced-in field like he owns it. He jumps onto a large wooden crate and looks toward the white farmhouse, raising his yellow-bearded head and doglike body 2 feet above the others. Maa, maa, he bleats. He's a cutie.

"Each goat has their own character,'' Rick Syx said. "I haven't had to kill one myself, and I don't think I could kill one myself. I could process it, that don't bother me.''

The Syxes name their animals: There's Dana, named after June's niece; Longshot, who barely made it through her first winter; Frenchy, her twin; Chappy, the gang's leader; and Curly and Moe, who saw their buddy Larry sold.

The Syxes haven't eaten goat yet.

Of the goats they've sold, June Syx said she knows of four that have met the butcher.

Goats are good animals for a farm to raise: They're low-maintenance and quick to breed, with a five-month gestation.

Peter Houchin, a financial consultant, raised cattle and sheep in Florida before beginning to build a farm in Virginia three years ago with his wife, Patricia. They took on meat and milk goats to diversify their Patrick Springs farm, Running River Ranch.

Goats--called "browsers'' by farmers--are willing to eat weeds and brush as well as grass, unlike sheep and cows, their more selective grazing brethren.

Phyllis Beall calls goats "redneck weed whackers.''

Beall, 74, drives a golf cart around her 40-acre farm in Floyd County to take care of her herd. She's been raising goats for almost 40 years, sometimes keeping more than 60 animals during the summer and selling most of them in the fall.

The 13 goats she has this winter walk in a line around one of her property's ponds, bleating as they go. Beall talks to them and picks brambles off their fur.

"A whole lot more people keep goats now,'' she said. "Somebody always wants one, somebody's always calling.''

In Virginia, the total number of meat goats climbed 74 percent, to 62,000, from 2002 to 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's statistics service.

"That's a pretty substantial growth rate for any livestock species,'' said Spencer Neale, a commodities specialist at the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. "Cattle go up and down, pigs go up and down, and this one is just going up and up.''

June and Rick Syx invite buyers to their farm to pick out a desired specimen. The shopper buys the animal live, then may send it to a meat processor.

Like many goat meat farmers in Virginia, the Syxes aren't certified by the government to butcher or sell meat themselves.

Beall sells 15 to 20 live goats every summer for up to $100 each, depending on size, at Christiansburg Livestock Market or to individual buyers, she said. They're usually Boers, a muscular South African breed introduced to the United States in the early 1990s.

"They take them by the truckload up north,'' Beall said, likely to New Holland, Pa., an epicenter of the East Coast meat goat trade. U.S. slaughterhouses killed 866,000 goats last year, 5 percent more than the previous year, according to USDA statistics.

Houchin sends his grass-fed animals to a federally inspected processing plant, where they're slaughtered, processed and wrapped, for $50 to $75 a goat. He gets about 40 pounds of meat from an average buck.

The demand for packaged meat in Virginia isn't as strong as it is near New York City or Washington, D.C., where a concentration of Muslim, Hispanic and Caribbean immigrants and restaurants drive the market, especially during holidays such as Christmas, Easter and Ramadan.

In Southwest Virginia, people are more likely to buy goats for their own herds rather than their dinner tables, Houchin said.

Houchin tried peddling goats at the Martinsville and Danville farmers markets in May 2008 . He quit by the end of the year.

"We were just shrugging our shoulders and thinking, 'This is not worthwhile,'" he said. "Right now we can ship UPS to an individual, and that works reasonably well. But if we want to actually supply the market, then we have to work out a different distribution system.''

And there's competition: The United States imported 23.7 million pounds of goat meat last year, according to the USDA. A wholesale box of meat imported from Australia, the largest exporter, is cheap at about $2 a pound, Houchin said.

Specialty shops such as Mediterranean Goods Market in Northeast Roanoke get those cardboard boxes via a supplier in Washington, owner Muhsen al-Sahlan said. The market sells frozen shoulders, ribs and legs for $3.75 a pound.

Houchin sells his goat for $2 more than that per pound, on average, receiving an order a month for goat meat on his Web site or by supplying butcher shops in Greensboro, N.C., and Martinsville, he said.

He also will provide meat to Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op. The store hasn't carried goat yet, but plans to sell a small amount to gauge customers' demand, said John Bryant, marketing director. Kroger's Mid-Atlantic division, which includes Virginia, doesn't carry goat.

The Houchins enjoy goat occasionally. The lean, red meat has a beef like consistency and sometimes takes on a pungency like lamb or venison, though it's more subtle and doesn't smell "goaty,'' Houchin said.

It's best cooked low and slow, stewed or curried, he added.

A few times a year, Beall's friend kills one of her goats, skins it, peppers it and sticks it on a spit over an open fire.

Beall invites her friends and family--sometimes as many as 200 people--to share the "luscious'' meat. They slather it with lemon, spices or barbecue sauce and enjoy it with other fixings: a roast pig, chicken, fish, vegetables or whatever she happens to have.

"You go ahead and eat, and they'll say, 'Wasn't that chicken good?' " Beall said. "And it wasn't chicken. It was goat meat.''

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