Have Goat, Will Travel
Vanguard Ranch Limited, Gordonsville, Virginia
As a military kid Renard Turner moved around a lot—not the kind of life that’s conducive to witnessing the rhythms of farming, nor one that affords much of a chance to be involved in it. Nevertheless, in California, where his family settled for a few years, Renard got a chance to join his high school’s Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter, and he excelled in the agricultural science classes the school provided. He went on to work a couple of decades in the medical field but still held the dream of farming in the back of his mind.After a time living in Washington, D.C., he and his wife decided to move to the country and found the verdant, rolling hills of central Virginia calling them. Gordonsville is ideally located within a two-hour drive of several large population centers—great for anybody trying to make a living direct-market farming, but far enough away not to just be an overpriced bedroom community full of unaffordable “ranchettes.” The Turners started out as homesteaders, trying to be as self-sufficient as possible and even building their own house from scratch.
Back then, just as today, credit was tight for purchasing farmland, so they initially financed the farm purchase through owner financing. Both Renard and Chinette worked full time off the farm as they were getting things started. Chinette worked during the day, and Renard worked at night so he could spend his daylight hours getting the house and farm built. Chinette still works off the farm in the legal field, but the couple’s plans to scale up the farm business a bit should afford her the opportunity to quit her day job. Renard is fully and happily devoted to the farming business now. And boy, what a business it is. The Turners embody the notion of “agri-preneur.”
Photo courtesy of Natasha Bowens
They first dabbled in sheep and even ostriches but settled on meat goats about eight years ago. The forage base was not right for grass-loving sheep, and the ostriches were mean and simply not enjoyable to raise. Their land was a mixture of pasture and forest with quite a bit of browse and weeds—perfect for goats.
Right from the beginning, Renard knew that he had to direct-market his goat meat and get the highest value for it. He simply wasn’t going to survive selling goats at auction or to a wholesaler. He stumbled upon the idea of a mobile concession trailer after a long conversation he had at the Virginia State Fair with a lemonade concessionaire. Renard learned that this lemonade man and his family spent half the year traveling to fairs and festivals and the other half of the year fishing in Florida—not a bad life. Renard figured the concept might work for him, too—spending part of the year traveling to fairs on the weekends and the other half of the year focusing on farm projects and production.
First, he got his goat production down to a science. He manages his pastures through rotational grazing, allowing the vegetation time to recover from the goat browsing and also for the parasites to die off in the soil. He does not follow the “university recommended” goat stocking density, finding that a lower stocking density allows his vegetation better recovery time, lowers the parasite load, and reduces animal stress. As a result of rotational grazing and some selective planting of specific forage crops, Renard has to purchase very little hay for just a few winter months each year, and that amount is shrinking every year as his management improves. He is working with Virginia State University on an exciting new research project aimed at eliminating the need for purchased forages altogether.
Likewise, he does not grain-feed his goats at all. His antiparasital drugs just sit collecting dust in a medicine cabinet; through grazing management and breeding, Renard can virtually eliminate any parasite problems. In addition, a combination of electric fencing and livestock guard dogs (Akbash) prevents predators from bothering with his goats and also gives him peace of mind while he travels on weekends selling goat meat.
The Turners’ goat breeding is now focused largely on Kiko and Valero maternal base (does) with Myotonic bucks. This combination is hardy, meaty, and muscular and produces great-tasting goat meat. The Turners raise around 160 kids a year for meat, slaughtering them at the fairly young age of six or seven months. Since they are not producing animals for maximum size to sell to wholesale meat markets, they focus more on taste and tenderness when they slaughter their animals. Feed efficiency and growth also starts to decline after goats are six months old anyway, and their land can only support so many animals without negatively impacting their forage base. They keep around 100 does and a few bucks for breeding.
Americans are a bit slow to pick up eating goat meat, even though it’s consumed by the majority of people in the rest of the world. Still, Renard has no trouble selling it; once people try a bite of one of the samples he often sets out, they inevitably end up buying a whole plate. Renard has perfected some delicious goat recipes that appeal to a broad swath of people, including goat burgers, goat kebabs, and curried goat. He travels to county and state fairs, food festivals, music festivals, and other events with his concession trailer. His wife often comes along and helps him cook, in addition to a couple of part-time employees who do most of the selling and money collection. Most meat producers’ jaws are going to drop when I tell you this next tidbit. When I asked Renard what an average pound of his goat meat sells for after he transforms it into these value-added meals, he remarked, “Around $36 to $38 a pound, on the conservative side.”
Buying and outfitting a food concession trailer, however, is neither cheap nor easy. Renard had to take food-handling classes, get his trailer licensed and inspected, and perfect his goat recipes so his meals would sell. Now the Turners are quite proficient at running the trailer, and the lines of eager customers form easily. Future ideas include organizing a solar-powered summer concert series at his farm to bring the customers to him instead of his having to travel so much. He also likes the idea of connecting more people to where their food is grown while entertaining them with good music from around the world. Each concert could have a different ethnic theme with goat recipes to match. He also dreams of adding an on-farm restaurant someday but knows that he can’t do it all or he would risk spreading himself too thin.
Renard is emphatic that to be a good farmer these days you have to reinvent how you do business. A small or mid-scale producer can’t compete on volume and prices typically, but you can compete on quality. If you don’t love marketing, you can’t do what he does. The Turners’ innovations have been recognized through numerous awards, including “Innovative Farmer of the Year” at the 2010 National Goat Conference at Florida A & M University and 2011 Farmers of the Year from Minority Landowner magazine.
Renard and Chinette are also serious about sustainability; they built a passive solar geothermal home, grow organic gardens, and chose an animal enterprise with a small carbon footprint and one that suited their land the best. With support from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service cost-share program, the Turners recently installed a large hoophouse to grow organic vegetables year-round both for home consumption and for the ready-to-eat meals they sell out of their concession trailer. They also sell some of their excess vegetables to three food distribution hubs and a local grocery store. They have specialized in more obscure varieties and vegetables, utilizing locally adapted seed from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The Turners are crafting a life and a business that supports their love for the earth while feeding people healthy, delicious food.
Renard and Chinette’s advice for new farmers?
• You have to have an entrepreneurial spirit; you have to control your marketing.
• Research and read as much as you can about the enterprises you have interest in. Then figure out a way to market those things. Part B (selling and marketing) is equally as important as Part A (growing and raising things).
• You have to be a master of many things—you have to be much more sophisticated these days to be a successful farmer.
• You have to become an expert at legal issues as well.
• Farming is not for the faint of heart—you have to be committed, self-motivated, and focused.
Thank you Turner family for sharing your story!