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Politics

The Coming Extinction of Greek Goats – and How We Can Help

The summer that my father turned six years old he would sit on the steps of his grandfather’s house, every day, waiting for the goat man. Long before the goat man could be seen my father would stand and then sit again as kept looking down the winding cobblestones. Eventually, at the very end of the lane, an old man carrying a three legged stool and holding the tether of a nannie would appear. Seeing the old man and his doe was, according to my father, far worse than simply waiting for him to arrive. For the old man would stop, at first one house and then another, milking his goat along the way. As the old man milked the goat he would talk with one neighbor after another and the nannie would breakfast on the greens growing alongside the road. As the old man approached, my grandmother or one of my father’s aunts would appear at the door with a clay pitcher to purchase their daily milk. For my father, nothing ever tasted as creamy or simultaneously tart and sweet as this goat milk did. While I had heard this story many times, it was not until some eighty years later, that my father wanted me to raise goats on his property in suburban Illinois.

For the past five years I have owned and cared for six hens. The taste and sheer amount of eggs from this small flock brought back my father’s memories of Greece. Still, caring for goats is a complicated and tasking job. I first explained the legal problems involved as well as what I had read (but never attempted) about tending goats. Anyone who thinks goatherds or farmers have a simple life has never cared for live animals.

The keeping of small animals such as chickens, ducks, pigs, and yes even goats has increased quite remarkably in the United States over the last couple of decades. While gardening has long been statistically the most practiced hobby in the United States, the recent increase in small animal husbandry is an entirely new phenomenon. It is not restricted to rural areas but is being practiced in heavily populated cities and the most exclusive of suburbs. Laws have long prohibited the keeping of animals in such areas but for social reasons, yet to be fully understood, small animals are being kept at an increasing rate and in the most unlikely of locations.

When my father first raised the issue of keeping goats, I made some attempt to read about how one raised and cared for these animals. It never occurred to me until I had looked at several of these books that goats indigenous to the Greek countryside were never mentioned. At first I simply attributed this to environmental issues since all domesticated animals in Greece by definition have been acclimated to local conditions. But as I thought on the manner I soon realized that Greek goats and sheep had never been kept simply in a Mediterranean climate zone. Given the annual traditional round of Greek shepherds these animals were also grazed and pastured every year in extreme mountainous areas. So why didn’t goats, traditional to Greece, appear in any of the books I was reading?

In 1849, Dr. James B. Davis of Columbia, South Carolina imported nine goats (7 does and 2 bucks) from Asia Minor which he called “Cashmeres.” In one of the news reports about Dr. Davis’ venture it is mentioned, in passing only, that a Greek shepherd was brought along to care for this small flock. While we hear no more about this unnamed shepherd a surprising number of detailed newspaper stories and even government reports follow the introduction of these animals into the agricultural realms of North America. The raising of sheep and goats by Greek immigrants and even the introduction in the 1930s of Greek yogurt by Greek immigrants is a complicated series of stories. It has often been claimed that Greek immigrants did not bring traditional skills or crafts to the United States as did other ethnic groups. This assertion does stand up to even passing review. Trades long practiced by Greeks such as fishing, fur workers, boat building, candy-making, and the tending and manufacture of products from sheep and goats were all brought to the United States to great and enduring success.

Peeling apart the historical circumstances related to any of these fields is complicated in the extreme. But what I find most distressing is that entire breeds of domesticated animals all across what is today the nation state of Greece are very near extinction. In searching for information about traditional Greek goats I found report after report (in English, by the way) about the plight of these animals (www.save-foundation.net and http://monitoring.eu.com).

As I was reading and thinking about this issue a story my maternal grandfather told me came to mind. When he was a boy in the Kalavryta his family used water buffaloes as draft animals in the fields. He told me many stories of the family’s two prized and paired buffaloes. In one such recollection he told me of the cheese made from the milk of the female water buffalo. When I visited his home village I asked about these water buffaloes. My relatives were taken by surprise, to say the least, and said that every buffalo in the region had been killed (and/or eaten) by the end of World War II. Again, as I was searching for some basic information on traditional Greek goats I found that reports exist of some 1400 buffaloes in nine breeding groups are still to be found in Greece (www.agrobiodiversity.net/greece/conclus_heavy.htm).

This story of the water buffaloes is not unrelated to goats since as every American shopper now knows Greek yogurt is currently all the rage and can be found in any food market in the nation. But here we enter the realm of taste versus simply correctly following a recipe, no matter how traditional. It is the ingredients that give any food its own distinct flavor. If water buffalo milk made a distinct tasting cheese then the milk from goats traditional to the Greek countryside will provide a unique taste in yogurt. Any Greeks who have tasted Chobani’s yogurt (or any of the other new yogurts marketed as Greek) knows they are not eating their yiayia’s homemade yogurt. Is it the recipe or just the milk?

The sheep and goat industry in North America is in the decline. Various studies convincingly argue that small farm production is what will save this industry rather than further centralization. The history of Greek goat herding and yogurt manufacture in Ameriki is far more complex than is now known. For a glimpse of this history, the Pathe news reel “Greek Farmer Sends Gift of Rare Goat to Thank USA (1950),” when President Truman was sent a goat, is available on the Internet.

The growing backyard barnyard movement in the United States could be a medium to save a wide variety of traditional Greek farm animals. Oh, a number of you might be laughing, especially those raised in villages. But isn’t it better to have those who love farming and the care of animals the chance to save endangered species rather than simply laugh as traditional Greek animals go extinct?

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