Farmers, island restaurants partner for goat-centric meals
By TYLER H. JONES
Jun. 18, 2017
BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — The young boy straddled his grandmother's shoulders as she unchained a creaky wooden gate and walked into the pasture.
He was shirtless and fussy, perhaps because of the occasional gnat kamikaze-ing his dark-brown eyes. Gray clouds over Sapelo Farms that day obscured the sun, giving respite from the punishing Georgia heat.
The 1-year-old pined for his mother, who walked nearby wearing a white sleeveless shirt and blue denim overalls, her dark hair, with its tinges of red, pulled back into a pony tail.
"Alright, alright," the boy's mother, Gabe Marr, said as she motioned for the grandmother to hand the squirming boy over. "Is that what you wanted?"
Her son, Harrison, wiped his eyes as he quieted down, now satisfyingly in his mother's arms. The grandmother, Betty Anne Lewis — "BA" for short— following not far behind as the group walked a gravel beside a wire fence.
As if on command, a herd of dozens of goats scampered toward the family. Bleating and baaing, the herd swarmed, expecting to be fed. The social animals milled about, sometimes stopping to gnaw on the lush green grass.
For more than two decades, family-run Sapelo Farms, sandwiched between Canal Road and the constant hum of Interstate 95 in Brunswick, has raised goats as livestock. Each of them is named and raised from infancy on the farm, but for most of them — the males in particular— the ultimate destination is the supper table.
"You know, about 70 percent of the world eats goat," Lewis said as she surveyed her drove. "A lot of people say, 'Eww, goat,' but a lot of farmers in the United States are raising more goats. And it's sustainable farming."
On their 180-acre farm, Marr, Lewis and her husband, David, can raise more goats in the same amount of space it would take to raise cows. The economics are simple, Lewis said.
"I can get about three or four goats in the same amount of space it would take to raise a cow and a calf," Lewis said.
"We can get two more times the number of goats on half the land, so it's more sustainable," Marr said in agreement as she bounced her son on her arm.
Over the years, Sapelo Farms has employed what Marr affectionally calls "planned parenthood." By controlling when the nanny goats become pregnant, the farmers know when the kids will be born.
That's important, because knowing when the kids will be born enables better planning for when they'll be taken to the butcher, Marr said.
Sapelo Farm's "planned parenthood" method also allows for selective breeding, Lewis said. Three types of goats are part of the farm's stock: Spanish goats, known for their heartiness, Boer and South African goats, known for their meat and Toggenburg goats, used to provide milk to newborn kids.
"By cross breeding, we get better goats," Lewis said.
And there are plenty of customers waiting. Just last week, the farm sent 25 goats to W.J. Wainwright & Son, a federally certified butcher shop in Nahunta.
"I'll tell you, the goat market is blowing up," said Lewis, her short, salt-and-pepper hair kept back with a rolled bandana. "We had 18 customers this round."
Those buyers range from private customers to commercial kitchens, like Southern Soul BBQ and Ember, as well as other restaurants on St. Simons Island. Eateries from as far away as Savannah come to Sapelo Farms for its goat meat.
Most of the goats Sapelo Farms sends to slaughter are males— largely because they don't birth new kids. Asked how to tell the male and female goats apart, Lewis' wry, country wit shines.
"You'll have to ask your mother about that one," she said with a laugh.
The males, though, are slightly bigger. They weigh about 60 to 70 pounds and their heads reach the height of the average person's waist. About 60 percent of the meat will be the final "hang weight" at the butcher shop after processing. The meat returns in cuts not that different from beef or pork: chops, ribs, hams, ground meat.
Sapelo Farms sold the meat for $5.85 per pound, meaning a 70-pound goat yielding 60 percent meat is a gross return of about $200. And people are willing to pay it.
Griffin Bufkin, co-owner of Southern Soul BBQ, isn't perturbed by the idea of a goat-centric meal. He buys the meat from Sapelo Farms and offers it periodically as a special at his restaurant on Demere Road.
"It's the world's greatest sustainable meat," he said. "It's sustainable, it's local and we know where it came from and it's clean."
He offers jerk goat chops with two sides, traditional meat pies and, on days like today, bowls of curried goat, as specials.
"Usually in the spring and the summer, BA (Lewis) will let all the local chefs know (about the goats)," Bufkin said. "She'll call us and we'll usually take some once or twice a year. It's something different to offer."
And it seems to sell well. The strict, grass-fed diet of the goats gives the meat a "good, clean flavor," Bufkin said. "It's not gamey, it's milder than lamb. If I were to make you a goat burger, you'd think it was beef. You'd never know the difference."
Indeed, Southern Soul BBQ's goat chops look like tiny pork chops with a texture and taste to match. With less fat than chicken and more protein than beef, goat is a healthy meat to eat, but it's also healthy for the local economy, Bufkin added.
"One of the things I like about it is that it keeps the money in the community," he said. "There's less processing, and it supports local farmers. It doesn't come from across the country."
Back at the farm, Lewis agreed.
"It's a healthy, sustainable meat source," she said. "But I don't want people to think it's easy. It's not — especially in the Southeast."
The area's sandy soil means the goats toes have to be trimmed, and birthing the kids isn't easy either. Marr remembers one year when several of the kids were born on Christmas Eve.
"We had family in town, and they're not exactly the farm type," she said with a sly smile. "It was a little messy, you could say that."
For all the work, Marr said it's worth it.
"People should really try it," she said. "It's low in cholesterol and saturated fat. It's high in iron and potassium. And people are getting more adventurous in what they're eating."