PHOENIX — Inside the show barn at the Arizona State Fair, there’s a bit of a traffic jam. Trucks pulling trailers containing goats, many of which are pregnant, line up to claim the corral their animals will sleep in for the next few nights.
It’s 9 p.m. on a Wednesday. Sandy Van Echo, 72, rips open a bag of pine shavings and dumps it across the concrete slab inside one of the green-gated holding pens and fluffs it over any bare areas. One by one, she walks each of her 12 miniature-horse-sized goats by the collar bearing its name, out of the trailer and into their freshly bedded pen.
After a little brush and water bucket top off, the goats are settled in for the night. Tomorrow is the first round of one of the last dairy goat competitions of the year, and everything has to be just right.
Women run the world of desert dairy goats, according to past president of the American Dairy Goat Association (ADGA) Mark Baden, who said nearly 95 percent of small dairy goat breeders in the U.S. are women, compared to countries like Mexico where it is the exact opposite.
But this niche activity isn’t as popular as it used to be. Many of Van Echo’s colleagues and the strongest competitors for the best goat are approaching, or have surpassed, 80 years of age. Significantly increasing feed and water prices, driven to some degree by the increasingly arid climate is making the job that much more difficult.
“It’s not just a hobby, it’s a lifestyle,” Van Echo said as she tightened the screws on the goat-milking stand she set up against the wall of the large show barn, ready to use for the next day.
Van Echo’s love for goats started when she was working as a nurse for a woman who had Alpine dairy goats in the mid-‘90s. Having not been raised on a farm, she was enthralled by the caretaking and stewardship.
“I found it very satisfying,” she said. Nurturing was in her nature, but she was also drawn to the science. What really hooked her was the idea that strategic breeding could improve the goats’ genetics, and consequently, their health.
After much research, Van Echo bought her first few goats, all Swiss dairy breeds called Oberhasli, and began on her journey with the goals known for their improved bone structure and longevity, she said. Her farm, based in the Tucson Mountains in southern Arizona, officially got its name, Sir Echo Farms, in 1997.
The Van Echo name is popular in the dairy realm because of her involvement over the years in ADGA, as president of the southern branch and a long-time committee member who put on shows and fundraisers for their youth events. But some know her more for her mold-breaking but controversial contribution to the Oberhasli breed.
Oberhasli were imported to the U.S. from Switzerland in the 1930s, but weren’t recognized until the ‘80s, when they had a breed standard written for them. Though Van Echo fell in love with the breed, she knew something was off.
“Most Oberhasli were only living to be seven or eight years old; that was considered a full lifespan,” she said. In addition, the C-section rates were incredibly high. “So this type of standard in 1980 was really a reflection of 50 years of inbreeding.”
Determined to find a better model, Van Echo traveled to the homeland of Oberhasli in Switzerland. She noticed they were larger and longer, their coats more defined and rich. Eventually, she made the decision to import sperm from a Swiss buck, a male goat, and see what results she’d get for the next generation.
This was not received well at first, Van Echo said. Some people felt like she was disrespecting the work that had been done with the breed before her time.
Despite backlash, she held on to what one of her early mentors had told her: “Build a strong garage, then you’ll be able to put the fancy cars in it.” Correct the structure and bones of the animal, her advisor told her, and then the aesthetics will fall into place, even if that means not breeding for whatever look is trending or winning shows.
Now, her goats live to be 12 or 13 years old, and the labor and delivery process goes much more smoothly, Van Echo said. Depending on the season, Van Echo will have between 20 and 40 goats at the farm. She chooses the best of the best from her herd to compete in the hundreds of shows she’s been a part of in the last three decades.
But each year that goes by, and each increase in feed and water prices, reminds her that downsizing her herd is inevitable.
The Senior Doe Show
“This is probably the smallest group I’ve seen in the last ten years,” Van Echo said, looking around at the competition inside the Arizona State Fair show barn.
Usually, there is more competition, but she was the only Oberhasli owner in their breed’s category.
“People just can’t afford to do it anymore,” she said.
It’s Friday, the senior doe show. Van Echo walks her winning goat, Subi, to the stage and lines her up between the other six winners from their breed classes. It’s time to pick the overall champion.
Baden is judging today’s show. He’s known some of these women, including Van Echo, for more than 20 years, and understands that some serious competition is happening on stage.
As the goats are walked in a circle around him, he examines their stature, mammaries and agility. He stops them all next to each other and slowly walks past them, carefully feeling the line of their spines and squareness of their shoulders. After one last good look at all of them, the winner has been decided.
Judges have a prescribed way of phrasing, specific to dairy goat shows, meant to educate the public and promote raising them. It’s not “folksy and colloquial” like at pig shows, he said, or vague and quiet like horse shows. It’s clear but strategic, with hopes that it inspires a younger someone in the crowd to pick up their own goat project and keep the culture alive.
“The winner today is Betty’s beautiful Saanen,” Baden said.
Eighty-year-old Elizabeth Henning strolled to the front of the stage, pure white goat by her side, while the crowd clapped from the bleachers. Baden gave her a hug and she collected her grand champion ribbon.
Henning, another iconic name in the goat world, said her herd is a huge source of joy for her. “And it keeps me out of trouble!” she said.
Many women in the goat world are retired, and on fixed incomes, so the scarcity of water in Arizona driving up prices makes funding a project like this increasingly financially unfeasible. Van Echo will even travel to other states like Colorado to get a better deal on feed.
“When I first started, my hay was eight dollars a bale for a 100-pound bale of alfalfa,” she said. “I’ve been paying $23… from $8.”
Even though her goal is to only use one bale a day for feeding, she estimates spending more than $7,500 a year on hay, not including the grains she also gives them daily.
A major reason for the spike in alfalfa prices traces back to the 30-year drought in Arizona and the struggles of finding new water sources. Alfalfa requires a lot of water, and if it becomes more expensive, so does the crop.
For most Arizona households, water bills will increase in the summer when volume charge is highest. Water usage on a farm of 20-something goats—not to mention two horses, a cow, six chickens, two dogs and one human—is quite significant.
“It’s always kind of a heartbreaking adventure because you’re just aware, I mean, you’re acutely aware of the cost of water in Tucson,” Van Echo said.
The city even voted to make additional cutbacks to their allotment of Colorado River water at the beginning of the year as an effort to conserve more for the future. While city dwellers may not notice the change, those in rural communities might, whether it be because of their higher demand or limited access to drinking water.
The increasing costs, combined with the intense summers in the Southwest that are only getting hotter—are at a point of pushing her out of the area. Tucson had an above-average heat wave this year, with 89 days over 100 degrees. Van Echo says that at her age, it becomes almost unbearable.
Because of this, she has been building a farm in Flagstaff, Arizona, in the pines and snow where her family and farm animals can rely on rainwater collection and naturally growing grasses to cut down on some of the costs of living in a desert.
While the focus has always been on genetic improvement, Van Echo has had to consider downsizing her herd in order to accommodate for her age and the outrageous prices of necessities. But it’s difficult to make an impact when you have fewer animals, she said, because the gene pool gets smaller.
“If I’m a little bit proud, I can say I had an impact on the breed,” she said, “That was my goal. So as I go forward here, I’m going to just keep that in my back pocket.”
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As the final show came to a close that afternoon, Van Echo walked one of her champion goats over to the milk stand she had set up a couple nights before in the corner of the barn. The goat show was over, but the fair crowd was just starting to roll in. She chained the goat to the stand and filled her bowl with some sweet grain before placing the milk bucket under the udders. It wasn’t long before a small crowd had formed around her as she milked the goat. It was clear that many of them had never seen such a process.
“Does it hurt?” some would ask. “Can I feed her?” kids wondered. Henning believes in order to continue improving the lives of dairy goats, there must be a shift in the American culture that has lost value for these types of efforts.
“It’s a function of the diminishing farming population,” she said, “But on the other hand, people want more ethically sourced meat and milk.”
You can’t have both, Baden agrees. With prices continuing to increase, some are concerned that this way of life is slowly dying out.
“It’s a sobering reality check,” he said.
The women rarely make a profit with the competition winnings, he added. It’s all a passion project, something done out of love. Henning and Van Echo agree that if the job was easy, they would have gotten bored long ago—but instead it keeps them going.
Van Echo anticipates moving to Flagstaff will relieve some financial burdens due to water and feed usage. As for the genetic progress she’s made over the decades, she hopes it will trickle down through other people’s herds that buy her goats, so that even after her project is over, the impact carries on.