On Goats and Farming, Practicality and Pastoralism

I have spent enough time with animals to know that there is nothing rosy and romantic about farming. The perfectly clean farm girl, in her lacy frock, leading lambs out to pasture? She does not exist. Her frock would be dirty, one of the lambs she leads would be eaten by a coyote, and later, when those lambs go to slaughter, she would weep bitterly.

Brad Kessler suggests, over and over again, in his book Goat Song, that farming and milking goats is somehow spiritual, that it is a way to connect to the people we humans once were, thousands of years ago. He romanticizes every bit of goat farming, from the haying that produces the goats’ food to the breedings that produce the goat kids themselves.

In reality, farming is just a lot of hard work. Farming is waking up before the sun, in the freezing cold, to break ice on your animals’ water and knowing that you’ll have to do it again twice before bed. Farming is trying two days and two sleepless nights to save a sick animal and then watching him die and brushing yourself off and saying “better luck next time, eh?” There is beauty in farming. There is nobility and grace in a person who makes his living with his own hands, in a person strong enough to take all of the failures that come with farming and keep on keeping on.

However, Brad Kessler doesn’t describe this nobility. Quite honestly, I don’t think he would know it if it stared him in the face. He is a novelist, not a farmer. That is perfectly OK–there is a place for everyone in the world, and for some, that place is as a novelist. However, once he made some money as a novelist, he decided to live out in the middle-of-no-where-Vermont and raise and milk goats and then write a book about it.

Now, key parts of farming are practicality and pragmatism. For thousands of years, living with and feeding from animals were necessary to survival. When you are trying to survive, you have got to make difficult, practical decisions. Brad Kessler and his wife, Dona, aren’t trying to live off of what their animals produce. They are already well-off financially and are doing a fun project. Perhaps one could call they goat-hobbyists. This is most evident in their treatment of their animals. Each goat has a name and is loved as a companion animal and an individual. Brad and Dona’s relationships with their goats are much more similar to the relationships that humans generally share with dogs than those that humans generally share with the animals that produce their food.

I am proud of the (small amount of) farm work I have done. More than that, I am proud of those I love who farm: my two closest, dearest cousins and their respective husbands farm for a living. My best friend also is currently studying agriculture and working at a farm and intends to farm when she finishes college. One of the things that I love about all of these people is their practicality and pragmatism, their ability to say: “oh well, better luck next time” after a catastrophic failure. Kessler doesn’t even begin to discuss the failures and the tragedies always present in farming. He doesn’t tell about being bone tired, itchy, and beat up and still having to work 7 days a week.

I also take issue with the accuracy of some of Kessler’s assertions. For example, he implies that a male goat would be intensely interested in a menstruating woman. Even if human pheromones worked on goats (which I do not believe that they do–pheromones are generally species-specific), male goats would be intensely interested in human females during ovulation, which generally takes place about two weeks prior to menstruation. Although this is but a small inaccuracy, it draws many of his other assertions into question–if this guy doesn’t understand female cyclicity, is there also other stuff that doesn’t understand, that I might not catch?

Kessler quotes Jim Corbett, a Quaker, saying that a herder perceives food as a gift that  regenerates itself. Forgive me if I am mistaken, but I believe that herding animals, when done on a scale large enough to feel oneself completely, is a tremendous amount of work and that really, nothing is a gift. The animals must be fed properly, which means that if adequate food is not available, it must be procured–grown or found elsewhere. Cows, does, and ewes must be bred, calves, kids, and lambs delivered. Adequate water must be found. Fences must be build and then maintained. Milk, meat, and eggs are only a gift if they are a gift in trade for all of that work.

I recognize that the work of raising and keeping animals is a very different kind of work than the work of growing plants and grains. However, it is still difficult work, and not the paradise that Kessler depicts. Keeping goats as pets, in order to write a book about them, is very different than keeping animals to make a living–and it doesn’t matter if we are talking about farmers in today’s world or about people who lived 1000s of years ago.

There were valuable aspects of Goat Song. I really enjoyed the descriptions of cheese making. In addition, Kessler does a decent job of making his experiences accessible to post-domestic society (to return to an idea that we discussed early in the semester). His research on and discussion of pastoral people was interesting and thorough, if not quite as academic in tone as I would have liked.

I do not mean to bash Goat Song. However, I really did not find it to be partucularly useful to me. I think that, in general, Kessler’s experiences (and, more importantly, the way that he tells of them) simply propagate incorrect ideas present in post-domestic society and do nothing to create an awareness of what animal agriculture was (1000s of years ago) or what it has become.

3 thoughts on “On Goats and Farming, Practicality and Pastoralism

  1. Camilla,

    There was definitely an over-idealization of the farming process that got under my skin as well, though I am not as well versed as you are in the real-life aspects of it and could not articulate myself well enough to say what you said here in my own post. I found his tone to be inappropriately aloof; he wrote about goats the way other authors would write about religious experiences — at a certain point I had to step back and think objectively about what was really happening and how he was trying to frame it.

    And yes, these people’s lives are probably much harder than he makes them out to be. One thing that I did not see (Or perhaps glossed over) was any mention of the amount of money these people make doing what they do. Because this takes place in the USA, and I assume not on an Indian Reservation, I think they must pay some kind of tax in addition to the cost of providing for the animals they keep. Indeed, he focused on the goats instead, separating himself from the people.The overall impression I got was that Kessler was fascinated by, but did not necessarily understand, the very type of life he intended to catalog.


  2. I wonder if Kessler’s intent was perhaps a bit different that what you are assuming it was? I do see the romanticism you are cringing over, but I’m not sure it’s the main flavor of the book, which I see as a rich and nuanced rumination about the connections between growing one’s food and living closely with the creatures that provide some of that food via some really intelligent insights about the deep, but unacknowledged resonances of pastoralism (not farming) with our most fundamental forms of communication and seeing ourselves in the world.

  3. I’ve spent the last few minutes since reading your post thinking about the practicality of the small hobby-like keeping of goats presented. If practicality is being likely to succeed or being effective in real circumstances then I think the couple would consider themselves successful.

    I’m not from a big modern farm nor do I have a technical agriculture knowledge background. Perhaps this is why It matters little if it is “practical” according to the dominate agricultural paradigm. Whether or not the person raising animals has an additional or past income of significance, the decision to do so and their different experiences tell us interesting things about our historical relationships that could (do I say this too often for a history course?) help us decide the most appropriate course for the future.

    My grandmom is 93 years old. Born in 1919 she grew up as the youngest of ten siblings on 3 acres a few hours outside Philadelphia. When I was in 6th grade I conduced a video-interview about the great depression for my history class. I asked what her experience was like she explained it was really not that bad. Sure, her father lost his good work in city industry with a decent position and wage. But the family had a milk cow, a few chickens and a large garden. They took care of the animals together. They did it for good food to eat and when times were good (like Kessler’s story like or many people living today) keeping a few animals meant securing continuous products to trade or sell for extra wealth. It was their relationship with their animals and their land that fueled why they could be a happy family. I’m not saying conventional agriculture families are not happy too, I do not know. Maybe we must ask WHY do we practice animal husbandry? Is it to make a profit? Is it to feed ourselves? Is it tradition and heritage?

    My point is that feasibility is only part of the picture. The relevant consideration is based in the assumption that attitudes are subjective to individual control for any circumstance. That feasibility is relative according to your goals, wants, and ideas of your individual culture.

    The book’s goat heard may be more like a hobby than is conventional farming but that’s because it’s not profitable.It’s not profitable simply because of our socio-political legal institutions who sets agriculture policy. Fresh, slow, and small milk and cheese from goat heard does not have monetary value today in the United States but it perhaps has more value for the integrity of the biotic community and human health (But really, does raw milk somehow cure allergies?).

    (okay, I’ll softly admit) I agree that present-day culture makes keeping goats like this largely impractical.

    I think what I’m trying to say is that your right, Kessler does not say much about the conventionality of raising livestock because he is preoccupied experiencing a different cultural idea. His writing reflects how a past paradigm might fit into the current one of Vermont.

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