Spring has officially sprung but the snow is still two feet deep at Laughing Dog Farm in Gill, MA. Danny Botkin owns the nine-acre farm with his wife Divya Shinn, a registered nurse. Danny started keeping goats in 1998 and up until a year ago, had a herd of 22. He started with a Nubian that birthed twins the first winter, bred them to different bucks over a decade, then back to Nubians in the last three years, resulting in a versatile, mixed-breed, jokingly called “Albopien”: Nubians, for richest milk; Boers, stockiest meat animal, Alpines, super hardy; Saanen, champion milk producer, stocky enough to “make good meat if we chose to butcher.” Each of the 130 goats born at the farm is beloved, receiving unique names from Hindu derivation to Disney characters.
Like Rapunzel spinning gold out of her hair, they consider the goats’ milk and cheese they make from it to be as valuable as gold. “It’s highly medicinal, uniquely tolerated by people who don’t do lactose. The milk fat molecule is smaller and easier to digest,” said Botkin. Hippocrates praised goat’s milk very highly, he added. “I can’t tell you the number of times that people come to our farm, say they can’t drink goat’s milk, it’s too ‘goaty’, and then try ours and say ‘it’s so mild, it’s so sweet’,” comparing it to Holstein’s milk. He stresses that you must drink it fresh, within three days, when it’s really clean and pure, and you can’t let it sit out at room temperature. He thinks there is a tremendous amount of prejudice regarding goats, “the most commonly consumed animal in the world,” likening its taste as a cross between venison and lamb. They cannot legally sell the meat, cheese or milk they produce, but they can sell live goats and barter extensively. “We use goats for home consumption, education, entertainment and manure,” Danny said. He considers their manure to be the real “hidden gold.” It is pelleted, not greasy or messy, and easier to manage. High in carbon, it’s closer to being “finished,” it’s quicker to compost and doesn’t burn the crop. “Some people think you can spread it raw on living crops, but that’s not true. That’s bad practice.”
Danny uses the spent bedding that is gathered, after it’s allowed to further compost, to spread thinly over his fallow fields, then that is covered with rotting hay, lying like a permanent quilt. “My mantra is, you should never see the barren earth; exposed earth takes a terrible toll from rain and sun. I keep our soil protected like a baby under a blanket.” As the hidden gold decomposes, worms and microbes reduce it, rendering its nutrients available, suppressing weeds, and maintaining water. Come spring, parting the mulch reveals a porous, fluffy loam, ready to receive seeds or transplants. “It creates a phenomenal environment that requires no tillage; the tillage is done by worms. I spent years wrecking my shoulders digging. Today, I don’t till, don’t have a tractor. I do have a wheelbarrow.” Five of their acres are under cultivation, all by hand, as tilling churns up the precious biology, “setting it back to square one.”
“It’s all part of a hopeful secret that could be part of the solution,” with manure considered valuable. It’s also part of running Laughing Dog Farm as a “permaculture-inspired” homestead, looking at land differently, leaving it in better condition than when you started, stressing the sharing of resources for multiple functions, not just as marketable products. “In a permaculture system, we stress closed loops.” Goat waste causes no trouble, nor costs money being hauled away; instead it is recycled. His goats even remediate waste food from a local market, digesting it, too, into hidden gold. “A goat is not just a goat; a tree is not just for pears. They also serve other functions like building soil health and creating habitats.” Likewise, the inter-planting of annuals and perennials together encourages healthy microbes, worms and mycelium that work together symbiotically to increase nutrient availability and uptake by plants.
The couple is starting up their CSA food orders produced in one 65-foot long hoop-house, 10 low tunnels, and in their fields. Last year they took a break after 10 years of providing CSA orders for 6-18 families, donating the food to Stone Soup Cafe, Greenfield’s soup kitchen. They also sell rabbits, bred small enough to be friendly and big enough to butcher for meat. Botkin teaches Four Season Farming at nearby Greenfield Community College, mentors seasonal interns, plus offers garden consulting/design for backyarders and micro-farmers.
For more information, access www.laughingdogfarm.com.