I first met Dutch goat farmer Lydia van Maurik from Bokkenbunker at The Hague Food Festival in Huijgenspark in July. She joined us from her farm at Schalkwijk near Haarlem with three of her male billy goats for children to pet and walk, and she quickly turned into the sensation of the festival with these inquisitive and intelligent animals.
Goat meat isn’t a popular choice in the Netherlands, in fact until I ate some of Lydia’s produce on the menu at Restaurant Basaal this summer, I hadn’t seen it anywhere outside of ethnic food stores.
“Dutch people are very hard to convince of new things”, says Lydia, “especially food wise and that won’t change overnight”.
Today, we might find it hard to believe that the animals that you owned in the past conferred status in the way that the latest BMW model or Jimmy Choo shoes do today, but Lydia believes that was very much the case and one of the reasons why goats fell out of favour in the West.
“I think goat meat has a bad reputation because in the past goats were seen as animals for the poor. If you were cool or wealthy then you could own a cow. Goats could survive on almost nothing so poor people had goats. If you could only afford a goat, you were a loser. Besides that I think the older generation only knew goat meat as the meat of mature and very chewy goats: less tender and a very goat-y, strong taste compared to the kid meat”.
In terms of sheer volume of global meat consumption, pork comes out on top closely followed by poultry and beef. However, in terms of the number of people actually eating a meat-type then around the World, goat and sheep are probably the most popular red meats as they are by far more commonly kept domestic animals in developing countries.
Goats are eminently practical to keep, hence their popularity around the world. Offering meat, milk, hair and skin they can be used for many purposes whilst not really needing a huge amount of husbandry, as long as you keep an eye on their general health and they are fed, watered and kept dry. The first time I met Lydia’s goats, it became apparent they didn’t like the rain and made their discomfort loudly known.
“Goats are smart, playful and loving”, says Lydia. “But they can be cruel as well, just like people. If they are happy and are given a lot of room to play, then they are lovely and sweet animals. If they are bored or unhappy, they destroy everything”.
“They’re real Houdini’s too – you have to be thorough about absolutely everything to ensure they don’t escape their enclosures”.
Lydia explains the essentials of keeping the animals:
“Good fences, small groups, keep everything clean and add a lot of variety with their food. Never be in a hurry and make sure you intervene right away if a goat seems a little ‘off’ as they can get sick and die very quickly. But if you are quick to react, then they heal just as quickly”.
Of course, goat cheese and milk are common day products on our supermarket shelves. What we don’t tend to see is that, like the beef industry in the past before veal became ethically acceptable again, the dairy industry has no use for new-born male goats as they don’t produce milk. Hence they are usually slaughtered at birth; a huge waste of resource and one that passionately concerns Lydia.
“I want to make sure the dairy industry’s male goats stop ending up in the garbage”, she says. “I want to show the industry that the male animals ought to be included in the food chain instead of excluded, both practically and financially. I want industry and consumers to take responsibility for the whole picture. The Bokkenbunker tries to set an example by giving the goats a very good life – even if that means losing a little money – and shows the consumer the whole process from birth to the slaughter house”.
As a meat, goat is in many ways superior to other domesticated animal breeds. Like any red meat, it’s obviously high in protein and iron, but also remarkably low in fat. With a taste somewhere between lamb and venison, it’s certainly tasty.
“It’s important not to include too much grain in their diet”, says Lydia. “They need to grow at their own pace”.
I wonder if Lydia gets attached to the goats?
“You don’t. You deal with it. It’s a good thing that it hurts sometimes when you take them to the slaughter house: that’s how it’s supposed to be”.
When I ask Lydia if she thinks that keeping goats as opposed to other livestock is better for the environment, it’s evident that she has a very holistic, big picture view of not only her farming practices but also of wider commercial food production.
“It depends: goats are less heavy than other breeds so they don’t trample the ground. And they produce a lot more milk than cows, if you consider the relative difference in size, so in that way yes they are, but then again sheep will yield more meat than a goat”.
“I believe you need to combine the different animals and start farming like we used to do in the past in order to create a good balance. Start off with the goats, then let the cows eat what’s left, then let the sheep and horses eat what’s left, then let the chickens clean the worms out and then let the pigs plow the field. Every landscape and climate in the world needs a different kind of grazing animal”.
“In the farms of the past all animals had their role and place: the process was super efficient and good for the land. It’s a shame all that wisdom has left the farming industry. Inspiring people like Joe Salatin are reintroducing those old practices once again into modern farming”.
Lydia’s background is actually youth work and teaching, something she is combining with her new career.
“I always wanted to combine my professional work with being outside on a farm,” she says. “I went on an organic farming course and fell in love with goats”.
“Since launching Bokkenbunker, we’ve done a lot of networking and social media plus visits to outdoor events to present the goats – both the live animals and the meat – to the public. We also have fun activities on the farm itself including goat walks and goat yoga”.
“And soon I hope to start inviting troubled kids onto the farm to make my vision complete”.
It’s clear that Lydia is the kind of farmer that cares not only for the bottom-line financially but also the big picture of animal welfare, the environment and social inclusion. Keep an eye out on menus and store shelves for goat meat and see what you’ve been missing.
To find out more about Bokkenbunker, including visits to the farm and how to order goat meat direct, visit bokkenbunker.nl.