Pine Cobble provides food for all
What do an early-childhood school, a hardworking farmer, a few college students and a very creative chef have in common?
The surprising answer is “goats”! The more detailed answer is love for what they are doing, passion for food and its sources, concern about our environment and enthusiasm for innovative education.
On April 25 I attended an event described as “Goats in the Woods—Collaboration Connects Sustainable Farming Practices with Unique and Exciting Cuisine. Goats in the Woods, a community celebration sponsored by Williams College Sustainable Food & Agriculture Program. Pine Cobble School in Williamston, Wild Oats Market in Williamstown and Black Queen Angus Farm in Berlin, NY.”
The 20-acre campus looked like such a cool place that for a moment I wished to be a child again. Said Sue Wells, the head of school, “It is a place where children can be children and thrive in variety of ways”.
Part of the schoolyard is a two and a half acre woods. A woodland needs care, and although the philosophy of Pine Cobble is hands-on, weeding is too big a task for most of their students; the school starts at prekindergarten. Hiring a grounds manager was not in the budget. Morgan Hartman, co-owner and operator of the family farm Black Queen Angus, was the visionary, according to Wells: “His family has been involved with our school for three generations and he has three children at the school. He suggested we use his goats as a weeding tool.”
On March 21, Hartman brought his herd of nine Kiko goats and two dogs to the yard that he had carefully fenced. Kiko goats are descended from New Zealand feral goats and considered to be a sturdy breed. The goats have been in the yard ever since, watched over by two Maremmas* guard dogs, as they nibble away the underbrush.
The event was supposed to start with Hartman leading a walk in the woods to see the goats at work. But as often happens when one deals with kids (twolegged and four-legged alike) a goat was wounded by his guard as he ate the dogs’ food and Hartman had to rush it to the vet. “The dogs will protect the goats, as long as the goats don’t touch their food,” he explained. (The goat was safely back with the herd that evening.)
In Morgan’s absence, Peter Smallidge, PhD, New York State extension forester and the director of the Cornell University Arnot Teaching and Research Forest, took the lead. Hartman and Smallidge had met at Cornell when Hartman, as an undergraduate, had worked under Smallidge’s supervision on a research project that used goats to clear away underwood.
As Smallidge explained, forest management is for the long run: The area beneath the trees in the school woods is covered with invasive species, like Japanese barberry, honeysuckle, apple and European buckthorn trees. The invasives crowd out native species and reduce native biodiversity. This affects local herbivores—from insects to mammals, which are adapted to eat and propagate only on local species.
In time, the underwood will become the next-generation forest. As we don’t want our future woods to be comprised of invasive species, we need to act now. Hartman is a skillful farmer who grassfeeds his beef and treats his animals with respect. On his farm, instead of mowing with a fossil-fuel-burning tractor, he lets sheep and goats trim the brush. Goats can derive nourishment from woody material like maple or ash twigs and leave no impact on the ground. Of course, goats also eat the native species but, balancing the pros and cons. chemical-free goat-powered plant-removal for the schoolyard sounds like a good idea.
Besides, Wells noted, “Watching the goats and how Morgan takes care of them can teach more than any classroom lesson about the integrated approach and sustainability, how to take care of plants and animals, where our food comes from and how to treat our environment.”
The project integrated itself into the school curriculum. First graders watched the goats and wrote their observations as part of learning to write proper sentences.
When goats eat branches, thus preventing foliage growth, roots will gradually expire. But clearing cannot be done only once. Hartman will take the goats off the grounds at the end of the school year, when he will no longer be coming daily to the school. By then, the area will be clean, as his goats have been very efficient eaters. He will bring them back with his children when school year resumes and the woods have regenerated, for another round of clearing and learning.
Currently there are 16 goats, including many adorable kid-goats that have earned a school diploma at the end of the project. For Hartman this is part of his holistic approach for farming: “You treat the animals to high-quality life, and the animals support you. The goats eat the brush and eventually will feed humans, keeping the natural cycle going and preventing any waste.”
Goats are relatively new to US markets. Goat milk and cheese have gradually become desirable commodities. However, goat meat is still an exotic product with demand coming mostly from ethnic groups and gourmet restaurants.
For an average American, meat is beef, pork or chicken. In other parts of the world, such as the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, goat meat is a popular choice. In spite of the fact that goat meat—not chicken—is the leanest meat that one can eat, with the possible exception of fish, in our markets it is still a hard sell.
This challenges farmers who raise goats; the peak demand for goat meat is spring—a season when many goats are still too young to be sold. Farmers then have to maintain the goats until fall—when they will have gained size and meat on their bones. Therefore, projects like clearing woods help the farmers to sustain the goats, to the benefit of the community and the environment. As Hartman explained, “Handling goats for woods management can even be a profitable small business.”
Wells and Hartman were excited about the success of the event: To their delight, more than 50 enthusiasts came to learn about the potential of clearing their woods with goats, and to enjoy a delicious goat meal that was offered after the walk by Greg Roach, executive chef at Wild Oats Market. At the same time the children (about 20 of them came with their parents) were enjoying hands-on pizza making, under the guidance of Williams College Sustainable Food & Agriculture Program students.
Wells attributed the success to the collaboration among all the organizations that had contributed to the event and helped to spread the word about it. Smallidge ended the evening with a detailed presentation, teaching how to maintain woods in general and with goats in particular. Wells and Hartman hope to continue as their effort to bond our community with its food sources through “food and lecture” events.
Guests were offered a treat of Nigerian goat and ground nut stew served with brown rice and Ethiopian-style greens; Moroccan curried goat served with couscous and a carrot-fennel tagine, accompanied by green salad Massachusetts style, with dried cranberries and goat cheese, and ending with apple–goat cheese and honey tart. (I asked Chef Roach to provide the recipe for the Goat Cheese Tart that he served. He explained that it is simply an apple pie recipe with a thin layer of chevre (goat cheese) spread on the crust before the filling and crumble topping are added. This technique of adding a layer of goat cheese can be adapted to almost any pie or strudel recipe.)
One of Morgan’s Maremma guard dogs. To learn more about these remarkable
dogs, check out the digital edition of our Fall 2013 issue at EdibleBerkshires.com:
“I’m a Working Dog: The Maremmas of Stonehedge Farm.”
I asked Chef Roach how he got involved in the Goat in the Woods project. He explained that he has had a long professional relationship with Black Queen Angus and Pine Cobble School: “When Morgan mentioned the project I made sure he knew I would help in any way that I could. Small, local agriculture is something I feel very strongly about, especially projects that are right in my neighborhood.”
And indeed, additional collaboration between the school and the Wild Oats Market is on its way, as a school lunch program is expected to start in the fall, if the school can gather the funds to update its kitchen. A trial of wholeweek lunches supplied by Wild Oats ended successfully with 80 partakers, out of 125 students.
Head of School Wells sighed and said it is hard to teach students about good food habits without a lunch program. Now, with Wild Oats supplying nourishing local food, there is a hope for a change. After the dinner I congratulated Roach about his yummilicious feast, and to my surprise he told me that he didn’t have much experience with cooking goat.
“Cooking goat is not something I get to do very often, so I jumped at the chance to participate in the Goats in the Woods dinner. The fact that I would be working with Morgan assured me that I would be working with a high-quality product. My culinary experience with goats is rather limited. Over the years I’ve eaten goat, but usually it was the Jamaican curry variety and it was tough and gamey.
I asked him to offer tips for cooking goat. “When you are cooking the leg, try to remove the thin membrane called the fell. It will reduce the gamey flavor dramatically. Also, if you see the small glands in between the muscles, cut those out as well.”
The guests seemed to enjoy both the North African and sub-Saharan dishes. Chef Roach had expected people to prefer one over the other, but in reality they ate both equally. A few guests who had spent time in Africa were quite complimentary about how close he came to the authentic flavors, given that he was limited to ingredients he could find in the Berkshires.
Israeli-born food coach Yael Dolev wishes to convince everyone to enjoy wellness via delicious food. Yael teaches Mediterranean ways of eating and cooking. She develops easy-to-make recipes and her passion is to coach people with food allergies to enjoy yummy food. Yael worked as a consultant and a cook in kitchens including Bennington MOW, and she is an active member of Bennington Farm to Plate Council.