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Goading Goats

As tobacco farming wanes, a new livestock trend is breathing life into Virginia farms.



Goats will eat anything — grass, barbed wire and underwear spring to mind. In the wake of the new state smoking ban in restaurants, now they're eating up some of tobacco's old market share, too.

Joe Tritschler, an agent with Virginia Cooperative Extension, says that landowners looking for a good cash crop used to be able to rely on tobacco. Now cut flowers, Christmas trees, aquaculture and, yes, goats are on the rise as the latest cash crops.

According to the most recent farm census released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this month, the number of Virginia goats raised for meat grew 57 percent in the last five years, from 35,710 in 2002 to 56,214 in 2007.

If the decline in tobacco sales is providing a push, a hungry goat-eating market seems to be providing the pull. “As the ethnic clientele within the U.S. changes, what people eat changes,” Tritschler says. “Certainly the Muslim, Hispanic and Caribbean groups build much more market for it.”

JosAc Mulas was a retirement farmer, enjoying his post-cabinet making career on Villa Chica, a small Chesterfield County farm he and his wife, Jackie, named after a village near where he grew up in Spain.

Then one day about 10 years back, he got a call from military officials at Fort Lee near Petersburg. They were hosting a group of Saudi Arabian military officers for a training exercise and needed to buy some goat meat since pork is prohibited under Islamic law. Up until that point Mulas had sold his goats only sporadically. “Before I used to sell one here, one there, for the Greeks or the Italians,” he says. Fort Lee became a big customer for a while, but now Hispanic clients make up the bulk of his business.

David Mueller, deputy director for the Virginia field office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, says that the value of Virginia's tobacco crop has dropped dramatically over the last five years, from $112.5 million in 2002 to $68 million in 2007.

“Between 2002 and 2007 there was a federal program that supported the raising of tobacco and that was phased out,” he says. “So a lot of small operators stopped growing tobacco and the tobacco that was left was concentrated in larger farms.”

He's not so sure that goats are such a popular plan B for former tobacco farmers — goat farming is still small beans compared to the state's 851,971 beef cattle in 2007 —  but Martha Mewbourne, co-founder of the Scott County Hair Sheep Association in Southwest Virginia, says small livestock can offer a soft landing for farmers transitioning their land.

In her case, it's sheep. In 2004, her organization rounded up a group of former tobacco farmers and put them in touch with Food City, a local grocery store chain with about 100 stores in southwest Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. They received fixed-price contracts to produce lamb year round. 

Business started off strong, but 2008 was a banner year, eclipsing $1 million in sheep sales, she says.

By making sure all the suppliers are raising the same breed of sheep, farms of different sizes can participate and the stores receive a consistent product.

“The beauty of it is you can sell one sheep or you can sell 100 sheep,” she says. S

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