For those who frequent the farmers’ market in Michigan, one becomes aware of the seasonality of produce: rhubarb, morels, and asparagus in Spring; cherries, squash, and tomatoes in Summer; apples, pumpkins, and parsnips in Autumn. What we may not realize is that there’s also a seasonality to meat. This is the first in a series of posts which will focus on the meat seasons. There’s a reason why the turkey is associated with Thanksgiving and the goose with Christmas. This week’s focus is goat, best harvested in the first part of Autumn.

Goat is at one and the same time the world’s most popular meat and arguably the most under-consumed meat in the United States (okay, maybe the most under-consumed meat is kangaroo which I’ve heard is very good from a friend of a friend who lived among the Aussies). Goat meat, bearing a close resemblance in flavor to that of lamb, has a highly desirable taste. And the reason why it begs to be eaten in the Fall has everything to do with the animal’s natural breeding cycle and milk production. Goats mate in the Fall, give birth in the Spring, and by the next Fall the male goats—which will not be used in milk production—are ripe for the harvest. Otherwise their flesh gets too tough and (some consider) too “gamey” as they age.

If you enjoy the taste of lamb and are looking to expand your horizons, I’d encourage you to just “Goat for It!”. One place to start is by contacting Hickory Knoll Farms out in Onondaga, MI. They have a presence at Grand Rapids’ Fulton Street Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings where they sell goat cheese. From time to time they’re able to provide call-ahead customers with goat meat. And while at the market picking up goat meat, don’t forget your parsnips and pumpkins.

 

Editor’s Note: The author of this piece, Mr. Ralph Loglisci, published the following for the Slow Foods USA blog on 18 August 2014. It appears here as a companion piece to last week’s blog post “An American Treasury of Taste.” The re-publication is used with permission of the author and Slow Foods USA.

The list of names of the more than 100 Slow Meat delegates reads like a Who’s Who of the sustainable food animal world. Many are farmers, ranchers and veterinarians who are working to preserve endangered breeds of livestock and poultry.

During one of the several break out sessions delegates discussed the benefits and difficulties of raising heritage breed animals. Not surprisingly, farmers raising heritage breeds that best suited the land they were raised on experienced little difficulty. In fact, most animals rarely required medical treatment or medicine, unlike their conventionally bred cousins that make up the majority of the 9 Billion food animals produced in the USA each year. Most of the difficulties discussed were not about raising animals but finding markets that will cover their costs.

Jeannette Beranger, Research & Technical Programs Manager for The Livestock Conservancy, pointed out that the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) declared biodiversity is key to maintain a sustainable and fair food system for future generations.

In 2006, the FAO reported that of the 7,600 breeds in their Global Databank for Farm Animal Genetic Resources, 190 became extinct with a 15 year span and 1,500 were considered “at risk” of extinction. Just among breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry, within 5 years, 60 breeds were lost. That’s an average of one breed a month. By now almost 100 additional breeds are most likely extinct.

According to The Livestock Conservancy, “A mere 14 species provide 90 percent of the human food supply from animals.” Additionally the Conservancy found that in the USA, 91 percent of the nation’s dairy stock are Holstein cows; 90 percent of the nation’s turkeys come from seven strains of large white turkeys. Out of the 60 breeds of chicken that were raised before World War II, only 5 industrial breeds supply the majority of our chicken meat and brown eggs; and white eggs are almost exclusively from a single breed of industrial white leghorns.

FAO leaders say that maintaining genetic biodiversity in plants and animals will ensure future generations will have available to them new breeds of animals better able to cope with unforeseen risks, such as disease or extreme climate changes.

Slow Food International’s Dr. Sergio Capaldo, a veterinarian by training, is working in Italy to find ways to support farmers who are working to preserve genetic biodiversity in food animals. In 1996, Dr. Capaldo told Slow Meat delegates, as Coordinator for Slow Food International’s National Livestock and Breeding projects he reached out to slaughter houses, distributors, restaurants and marketers to ensure heritage breed farmers and ranchers would be paid a fair price.

In an effort to preserve biodiversity, Slow Food international created an online catalog, known as the Ark of Taste, which lists small-scale produced foods at risk of disappearing across the globe. To help support small artisan producers sell their goods at a fair price the Presidia program was created. The goals of the Presidia are to guarantee a viable future for traditional foods by stabilizing production techniques, establishing stringent production standards, and promoting local consumption.

Many delegates who were butchers, slaughterhouse owners, suppliers and distributors were eager to discuss and share with other delegates their successes and failures. For many, demand for their services is so great that the biggest problem is having to turn away customers.

Three years ago, my wife and I honeymooned in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, spending the better part of the day hiking past waterfalls, through woodlands, then down to the white sands of the Superior shore. A year or two prior, there was a week’s worth of backpacking Isle Royal, the nation’s least-visited National Park which, with moss hanging from trees and populated by wolf and moose, is best described as primordial forest.

Having spent some time in the Badlands in his younger years and struck by its rugged, untamed wildness, Theodore Roosevelt returned later in life–stunned by the degradation of the land and the wildlife it supported. This experience no doubt galvanized Roosevelt who became the “Conservation president”, setting aside designated lands as veritable national treasures which would eventually include the beloved Pictured Rocks and Isle Royal.

One of my favorite ways to understand heritage meats is as a “National Parks System for Meat.” In 1977 The Livestock Conservancy, like Roosevelt before it, recognized the need to ensure that endangered resources would not disappear from the face of the earth. Having lost far too many breeds to industrial agriculture, no breed put on the Conservancy’s watch list has yet undergone extinction. And, what’s more, the very reasons for heritage livestock breeds’ undesirability in the conventional model make them the most enjoyable to eat, namely slow growth rates and performance on pasture.

Through the Conservancy’s efforts (and those who eat heritage meats), flavors nearly lost to history are being discovered as an American treasury of taste. Instead of the Red Wood Forest, Red Wattle pork. Instead of the Grand Tetons, Galloway beef. Instead of Shenandoah, Southdown lamb.

For the past few years, I confess a near-complete ignorance of conventional beef prices to the point where, until this Monday, I didn’t have a clue as to what a pound of ground beef runs ($5.79). As late as the Spring of this year, I began to hear rumblings about the prices of conventional beef rising, and people have been asking me about the cause of the price hike (and whether the prices we were paying for beef were also going up).

To address the first question, what I’ve heard is causing the rise of conventional beef prices are two main factors. First, there was a blizzard this winter that wiped out tens of thousands of beef cattle in the plains. Second, there’s a scarcity of grain brought on by, presumably, drought. A scarcity in the of supply of both cattle and feed would certainly lead to higher prices.

To address the second question, no, we haven’t seen the prices we’re paying for cattle rise. Our farms, to my knowledge, did not experience a loss of cattle this winter, even when actual temperatures hovering around -20 F. One wonders whether this has to do with the heartiness of the animals themselves which, in some cases, have had the benefit of a thousand years of natural selection in some very unforgiving climates (like the Highlands of Scotland). In addition, our cattle primarily–if not exclusively–feed on grass, instead of the conventional feed effected by the drought. This is not to say that a drought wouldn’t have a detrimental effect on pasture (it would).

As my family heads north this weekend for a wedding on the shores of Lake Superior, we’ll be swinging by a Highland farm for a visit. While there, I intend to test what has been put forth in this post against a man who has an insider’s connection with the industry. Depending on how the conversation goes, there may be some updates and/or revisions to this post, so stay tuned!