This article is about the evolution of Hames and Axle Farm and the various projects that we developed over the years to add value to our small holder farmstead in Ashburnham, MA. Our main enterprise is a small herd of Nigerian miniature dairy goats.
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When we first started raising Nigerian dwarf goats at Hames and Axle Farm it was not with the intention to actually be farmers. I love agriculture, but I have an attention problem – if it doesn’t move, my mind wanders. I am not meant to be a grower. My goal was to “raise awareness.” I wanted to bring agriculture to school children, and bring the incredible connection between humans and their food to their families. I had a dairy unit in the educational programming that I developed– hence the Nigerian dwarf goats (ND’s). I had chickens for poultry, and some sheep and Angora rabbits for fiber. These were just three of the units that I offered. Great idea, poor timing. That was the year that brought standard testing to Massachusetts schools – agriculture is something to be introduced in kindergarten, and never talked about again. So what should I do?
Never one to give up on a good idea with bad timing, I decided to keep the animals, and keep trying, but to also look for other ways to bring in money. Since public schools were were no longer an option, I focused on private schools and preschools. The preschools were very successful, but I really couldn’t explore the more intricate connections of agriculture with toddlers and pre-k’s. I am much more suited to working with older students, so I started looking more at really farming as a career option. At some point choices have to be made, even if you don’t like the options. There are some great organizations working in different aspects of the divide between farms and schools in Massachusetts. The MA branch of the National Farm To School program focuses on redirecting institutional buying towards local farms, as does the MA Farm To School program. Farm Aid has a great guide for establishing farm to school relationships. There are also some organizations that are working on the child education side of this connection. The Farm-Based Education Association offers a curriculum guide and local network of farm-based education. Mass Ag in the Classroom is a fantastic organization dedicated to bringing agriculture education into classrooms in the state.
Gardens are not my forte, but I had been experimenting with making goat milk soap. With time, patience and a lot of stubbornness, that has proven to be a profitable product for us. Like most people I dreamed of making goat cheese, but quickly discovered that I was not going to be able to fund such an endeavor, especially on a small scale with the miniature Nigerian breed that I love. Though the quality of the Nigerian milk is exquisite, the volume needed for a commercial endeavor was more work than I could take on alone. My husband works off-farm and my son is not a farmer at heart, though he’s a great worker when we need him.
I looked into making goat milk fudge, but, after doing some business research, discovered that the profit margin wasn’t worth it, even though MA does allow residential kitchens to be inspected and licensed for confections and baked goods. When looking into commercial kitchen options, we talked to our local Ashburnham Agricultural Commission, a great place to turn for advise on navigating local regulations. Too much time, not enough product, even though it made buyers giddy with joy. I started looking at providing raw milk in Massachusetts, and decided that it was a legal avenue I did not want to travel. I needed another avenue.
We got the goats not as pets, nor as show animals, but as milk sources. We eventually went on the Dairy Herd Improvement Association milk testing program, which requires daily milking, monthly tests and results in a report of milk quality, quantity and over all herd management recommendations. That financial and time commitment has proven to be very beneficial for us. It not only helped us market the herd, but also helped us clarify our goals for our breeding program – “To maintain and produce healthy productive, friendly animals that can provide above average production with mid-grade rations.” We could not afford alfalfa or expensive grain, so our animals had to be able to pay for themselves on the rations that we could afford to give them. That meant easy birthing, good mothering skills, personable and conformationally correct. Though it has served as well as a breeding goal, it did not pay the bills immediately. We needed a way to do that.
The farmers you purchase your original stock from can be great mentors as you develop your business. Though my original source of goats has become a great friend, at that time we lived far from each other and had some different management goals. I had learned much of the goat keeping that I knew from trial and error, in combination with knowledge of other animal systems. Along with NOFA/MA I offered a “Small Scale Dairy” workshop, and welcomed more than 20 people to my little farm. Some attendees had an interest in cows, others in goats, some were just curious about farming. Hosting a CRAFT (Collaborate Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) workshop was a great way to meet other farmers in my area and share information, I definitely would love to continue to participate in CRAFT in the future! We also became involved with North Country Sustainability Center (NCSC), a nonprofit based in Ahsburnham, MA that offers small holders advice and assistant. NCSC also has business plan templates, a calendar of events, and a grain buying club.
I enjoyed teaching others about our small scale dairy program so much that I began offering a Goat Class on my own. I offered the class in the spring, hoping to have 6-10 interested folks, and wound up with 15 students. Each paid $40 for the class. Not enough to live on, but certainly worth a day’s work. I then added a second class, offered in the late winter, “Kidding and Selling,” brought another 8 visitors to the farm. Several class attendees of these classes bought breeding stock from me to start their own small dairy ventures, so it was definitely worth the effort. But I still needed a steadier stream of income.
Raising Nigerian dwarf goats for top prices means showing and campaigning the herd, something that I don’t relish. The disease exposure and stress on the herd, and the ethics I was experiencing, made me want to find another way to market my animals other than show. Living in New England, we compete against the best goats in the nation, which usually means finishing out of the ribbons. Those other breeders “in the know” see the value of our goats, but to the novice or potential buyer, our goats don’t win and therefore the assumption is that they must not be good. So my next venture in small holding agriculture was to write a book.
“Personal Milkers: A Primer to Nigerian Dwarf Goat Keeping,” was published after a quick six weeks of cramming. Though I tried to get it conventionally published, I wound self-publishing through Lulu.com. The lead time on a conventionally published book was too long. The need for a guide like this was there at the time. There were no books at the time about small scale goat keeping, and the interest in the breed was growing. For those of us with background in agriculture it’s fairly easy to adjust measurements and rations for smaller animals, but Nigerians attract a lot of newcomers who don’t have that flexibility. They were asking for a book to help them through those early learning years. It was not my intention to write a “do all,” book, but to introduce people to other resources, to the breed and to connections that they would need to be successful in breeding Nigerian dwarf goats, or the other up and coming miniature dairy goat breeds.
Continuing this combination of goat breeding, mentoring, educational programs and goat milk soap sales has brought us to a profitable farm for most of the last 15 years. Our soap business has expanded through online farmer’s market sales at Pick A Pepper and Mass Local Food, our own web site, and in person appearances at regular farmers markets. The book still sells steadily, even among the flurry of other goat books that have come out. We now own a magazine about the breed called Ruminations, though I would not say it is a profit making endeavor. It allows us to serve the breed we love, promote our and other people’s work, and support newcomers who are seeking practical information about keeping goats on their property.
It has taken us 15 years to find a successful combination of revenue streams, but we made it through the early years. We have learned a lot along the way, what we promote, what we campaign against, and tried to stay true to our beliefs and ethics, while paying the bills. To me that is success enough.
My advise would be to try out ideas, but don't be afraid to give them up if they do not work for you. Keep an open mind and ask lots of questions- keep learning along the way and you’ll eventually formulate that plan that works for you. Don't be afraid to change your focus. Our path, and where we are today, includes many small projects that fit together to create a small scale diversified farm business. That is not the road for everyone. Some farms and farmers excel with more focus and fewer projects competing for time and attention. Don't be afraid to ask yourself, "how do I work best?" When we started, our goals were sound but idealistic. Now I think we manage to keep our idealism as a "big picture" goal and blend it with pragmatism. This helps us find a way to make it through each season and into the next. A new season with playful goat kids is all I can ask for. Good luck!
Patricia Stewart began Hames & Axle Farm in 1996. Located in Ashburnham, MA, Hames and Axle is a small holding focused on self sufficiency and education.