USDA Census: More Goat Dairies, More Women Farming

The survey shows big increases in the number of goat dairies and women farmers; other data reveal the popularity of goat products such as cheese and soap.

by Jodi Helmer
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other sources show that as American appetites for goat’s milk as well as cheese and soap made from it has expanded, so has the number of goat dairies.

The latest USDA Census of Agriculture, which conducts nationwide inventories of U.S. farms every five years, shows that during the past decade dairy goat herds grew faster than any other livestock group, increasing 61 percent between 2007 and 2017.

Meanwhile, the Cheese Market News reports that the volume of cheeses made from goat’s milk are more popular than ever: Sales have increased every year since 2011, from fresh Chèvre on charcuterie boards to feta sprinkled on salads.

The USDA reported that the number of dairy goats increased in all 48 states where data was collected, but certain states experienced explosive growth: The number of dairy goats grew by 47,000 in Wisconsin; 20,000 in Texas; and 18,000 in Iowa.

Data from the census has been used to track American agriculture since 1840; it helps guide decisions about stewardship of private lands, programs to support farmers and ranchers, and ways to strengthen rural communities.

The Census of Agriculture also showed some other interesting trends: Across the U.S., there are 273,000 small farms with fewer than 10 acres in production, and the number of women farming increased 27 percent. (The USDA changed how it collected data, allowing farms to list more than one operator, so there is a strong likelihood that most of these women were farming all along but not being counted.)

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More than 68,000 women were listed as producers on sheep and goat farms (the census did not separate out the number of female producers on goat dairies) compared with just more than 20,000 female producers on cattle dairies.

Nothing this trend Washington Post article reported, “another phenomenon that rapidly becomes clear to anyone dipping their toe into the dairy goat world: It is dominated by women.”

Not only are dairy goats docile and easy to manage, the ruminants require less land (and are less expensive to raise) than dairy cattle. Given that women tend to operate smaller farms and earn less income from farming, establishing a milking herd of goats is more feasible than raising dairy cattle.

Raising dairy goats also provides more opportunities for hobby farmers to generate income. Goat milk is not just a staple in gourmet cheeses. The rich-tasting milk can also be used to make yogurt and kiefer, and the sugar from goat milk has been used to make beer.

Goat milk soap is also popular—a quick search on Etsy pulls up more than 22,000 results. Hobby farmers can sell the value-added product at farmers markets or online. The same would be nearly impossible with a quart of goat milk or a pound of feta. Teaching soap-making classes (and letting students meet the herd) offers another option to generate on-farm profits.

The data in the Census of Agriculture might be making headlines but it points to something hobby farmers already know: Dairy goats are a great addition to a small farm.

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