Driving around the Skagit Valley, you’re immediately struck by the sheer number and diversity of crops grown. But for a more complete picture of Skagit agriculture, we must include a look at livestock. This issue of The Dirt is focused on one segment of livestock, the small ruminants—sheep, goats, and even alpacas—who dot our farmland.
If you tour through Skagit County, you’ll see many farms have incorporated these animals into their operation, some even as their primary business. They are particularly well-suited to relatively small farms and to farmers who can creatively capitalize on a wide variety of revenue streams. Raised for their meat, milk, fiber, and even labor, these small ruminants can provide all these benefits on a diet of grasses and hay, herbaceous weeds and only the occasional supplemental grains.
Achieving a profit, when raising these animals, is generally attributed to either niche or value-added marketing.
First, some basic and perhaps surprising facts: Goat meat is the most-widely consumed meat worldwide with 70% of the global population regularly partaking of it. While it is not a common offering here in the U.S., demand from ethnic communities for both kid and lamb, especially during certain seasons of the year, exceeds domestic supply. This type of niche market gives goat meat producers—and 80% of the goats raised in the U.S. are for meat production—access to a ready market that is not tied to a commodity-based business model. In fact, in the U.S., both sheep and goats raised primarily for their meat are overwhelmingly the product of small farms.
As pasture-raised livestock, sheep and goats have an appeal over other meat sources from conventional grain-based and feedlot operations. Consumers value the meat produced for its authenticity and dietary characteristics as both types are leaner than other red meats.
But, meat production is only part of what can be produced from sheep and goats. Here in the Skagit Valley are several successful dairy operations that use sheep or goat milk to produce fabulous cheeses right on the farm. Available for purchase on-site, at farmers markets, or local groceries, you’ll also find such products prominently featured on the menu of the area’s best eateries.
Besides the cheeses, there are many other uses for the milk of ewes or does. Both milks are remarkably nutritious and often prove a healthy alternative for those who have difficulty digesting cow milk. Yogurt, kefir, even ice cream and butter can be made from their milk. Skin care products such as soap, lotions, cleansers and lip balm based on sheep or goat milk are gentle and effective.
Beyond meat and dairy production, sheep and goats can be profitably raised as breeding stock, show stock, and even as hired labor for what’s known as “targeted grazing.” Sheep have some effectiveness in this natural form of weed suppression, but goats are the real stars. Goats forage a wider range of plants and eat them from the top down rather than ripping them out by the root. This makes them effective control for many undesirable plants and bushes without running the risk of over-grazing and promoting soil erosion.
Where do alpacas fit in?
Fiber, that’s where. Alpacas, sheep and fiber goats all produce wonderful natural fleece. Spinners and knitters enrich their crafts using locally-sourced, naturally-colored fibers ranging from fine wool, medium wool and long wool sheep to luxurious mohair and cashmere goats to the very light, but vastly warm fleece of alpacas. Local farms market their rovings (twisted and drawn-out fibers from which spinners create yarns), finished yarns and knitted garments and accessories via on-the-farm showrooms or at specialty fairs and online. Lucky is the person whose cozy sweater comes from an animal raised right here at home.
A valuable component in sustainable agriculture practices
Sheep, goats and alpacas are all desirable additions to a sustainable agriculture scheme. The inputs they require, chiefly adequate forage and fresh water, can be supplied from a number of land types—natural meadowland, woods, orchards, even marginal cropland as well as dedicated pastures. They, in turn, provide superb weed control, natural fertilizer, and a holistic approach to production from the land.
The next time you’re out and about, take a moment to see how many farms throughout Skagit County are home to these very special, very engaging animals. They are just another example of the tremendous diversity found here in Skagit agriculture.