Against Powerhouse Australia, Small Minnesota Goat Farmers Vie for Growing Halal Market

The pasture-raised goats of Bearded Acres

The pasture-raised goats of Bearded Acres

Lowell Litzau and his son Mitch finish up their run at the Anchor Bar in northeast with a basket of fish and chips and a Kilkenny. They started the day before sunrise in a truck loaded with fresh goat meat, slowly working their way through the Twin Cities making deliveries. Litzau and his son can expect but a meager profit these days, often just breaking even.

See also: Minnesota's Camel Milk Black Market

It's better than it used to be. Five years ago Litzau, who runs Minnesota Specialty Meats, raised goats and lambs along with pigs at the family farm, but the hassle and expense of the goat business drove him out. Now he buys up goats from small farms around the state and sells them to Mexican and Somali grocery stores and restaurants like Marla's Caribbean and the Coalition.

"The meat business is a hard business," he said. "Most goat farmers out here are hobby farmers with smaller acreages. This means they have to buy their hay and grains for feed. Then they're slaves to market prices which can vary a lot from year to year. The adult nanny usually has two kids. The sale of one kid goes to pay for feed for the nanny, the sale of the other kid is the meager profit."

Raising goats is hard work. Goats are prone to disease and can die without notice. Kids are born in winter, and for Minnesota farmers this means waking up at 3 a.m. to crack up frozen water in the barn, add hay for heat, check on the little ones, and then be up with the sun to do it all over again.

That's not taking into account the cost of the truck, the slaughterhouse, and the licenses you need to raise, transport, slaughter, and sell goats. For halal meat, an imam must bless each animal before it is slaughtered, an additional step to the process and an additional cost. Anyone in the meat business will also lose some money to what is called "bone weight" -- the difference between the carcass weight before and after the bones are removed. Clients aren't paying for bones.

Bryan Rippey bottle-feeds the first of his kids at his farm, Bearded Acres, in Braham, Minnesota.

Bryan Rippey bottle-feeds the first of his kids at his farm, Bearded Acres, in Braham, Minnesota.

After calculating all of the costs, a typical Minnesota farmer might bring the meat in at around $5/lb. Imported Australian and New Zealand goat meat comes in frozen, already cubed, with stickers certifying the meat halal for those who need it at around 3.80/lb.

"I think Lowell is doing it now for the love," said Eli Wollenzien, owner and chef at the Coalition Restaurant. "He just loves going around to these small farms and connecting them with buyers like me, being the middleman for people who he feels are putting out good products."

The potential for the goat meat market in Minnesota has been on peoples' minds for at least a decade. The business has been very hard for local farmers to break into, however, due to cost and regulatory hurdles and no solid connections between producers and consumers.

"Everybody knows the market for goat meat is big here," said Abdirahman Ahmed, part-owner of the Safari restaurants in Minneapolis. "But nobody here has figured it out yet. The Australians deal in the millions, they export to all of the Muslim countries. Here, all of the farms are very small."

The Safari goes through 60 to 80 goats a week on average, a number that could double during the winter. Ahmed buys mostly imported meat, because his customers are price conscious.

"I would love to buy local. Give me meat for a bit above what the Australian and New Zealand meat sells for, I'll buy it," he said. "But I can't buy for prices that are $5 or $6 dollars per pound. A typical meal at my place costs $9.50, if I buy local and suddenly change the price to $10.50, they will ask what's going on."

The market is still growing and despite the hassle of raising goats for minimal profit, hobby farmers are still entering the fray.

Bearded Acres, a small farm run by Brian Rippey and Kyla Nelson in Braham, just welcomed their first crop of kids: two bucks for the meat market and two does -- breeding nannies for the next generation.

"We like that we know how the livestock is raised, we know what a healthy product we are putting out there into the market," Rippey said. "Our goal is not just to service the immigrant community with healthy goat meat, but also educate the community at large about what a great source of protein goat meat is."

"We want to get the word out about this good product and at the end of the day if we can make a few bucks, then that's even better."

Send your story tips to Hot Dish.