year of the goat

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March 27, 2004 | Milking Lesson in the Matrix
Inside the Matrix Compound
Al Livingston, an artist who grew up with angora goats on the Navajo reservation, snuggles with one of the La Mancha kids that he raises with his partner Bill Hanks at the Matrix Compound in Gallup, New Mexico | more photos from inside the Matrix Compound
One of our missions in the Southwest was to find Navajo women who'd received goats and sheep as their dowry. Though the custom is not widely practiced today, just a couple of generations ago, it was common among young Navajo to start their lives together with a small herd of goats. We had read an article in the Arizona Republic about elderly Navajo women who continued to tend their animals, but after a week and a half in the region, we had yet to meet any of these women in person. We had spoken with several people who were herding goats along the side of the road, but most were looking after them as a favor to friends, and none of them seemed to have a strong bond with the animals.
We had nearly given up our quest to find any Navajo —women or men— with a deep love of goats when we pulled into the Matrix Compound, in Gallup, New Mexico. Just miles from the Arizona border, the ranch is a small patch of desert owned by Bill Hanks and his partner Al Livingston. A seasoned goat breeder, Bill has been raising and showing La Mancha goats for decades, but had sold his herd a few years ago try life without their demands and responsibilities. He found that he missed their companionship, and started to think about rebuilding his herd. It was around this time that he met Al; one of their first outings was to a goat show.

Al, an exquisite landscape painter who by day works with Bill at the Navajo Housing Authority, grew up on a Navajo reservation and was raised with goats, but the world of show goats was entirely new to him. It's one that he's taken to, and his affection for the La Manchas is clear. Unlike the angoras that are generally raised among Native Americans for their meat and hair, La Manchas are prized for their milk and their sweet, docile temperament. Their feed is carefully regulated and their grooming schedule is strict. Their milk production is monitored, and though in the Matrix herd they're milked only once a day, their volume of production is high.

Since we were visiting during evening chores, Karl and I got a chance to experience the milking first hand. Though we'd visited many dairy breeders, Bill and Al were the first to offer us a milking lesson. Explaining how to squeeze the teat, and how the udder would soften as though it were deflating, they chose their mellowest animals and let us take turns at the milking stand. The men and their does were very patient with us, even as the milk missed the bucket, climbed up our wrists, and once showered Al's nephew, Cory, with a foamy white mist. Suffice to say, we weren't naturals.

We were enthusiastic, though, and the experience was phenomenal. Though we were total amateurs and both times needed Bill to take over and finish the job (milking is much harder work, and uses much stranger muscles, than we'd imagined), it felt very rewarding to squeeze even one drop of milk into the bucket. Touching the animals felt surprisingly intimate, and I understood in a different way the connection dairy breeders have to their does. The experience was humbling because it totally changed our perspective on dairy goats and reminded us, yet again, how much we have left to learn. —MMH

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Our Book is Here!

The Year of the Goat

The Year of the Goat: 40,000 Miles and the Quest for the Perfect Cheese
The Lyons Press, Aug 2007
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Public Radio!

In 2004 we made 4 appearances on the now sadly off the air, but then nationally syndicated PRI show, The Next Big Thing
Fortunately you can hear the shows in their archives:
1st show | 2nd show | 3rd show | 4th show

Miles Traveled: 41409
Next Stop: A farm of our own