Festival Brings Out Goat Whisperers

by Sarah Reith, May 4, 2016

On Saturday, April 23, the Anderson Valley Unity Club shared the Mendocino County Fairgrounds with the second annual Anderson Valley goat festival. The sign outside the event featured a picture of a goat devouring wildflowers; but on the grounds, the two events were strictly separated.

Inside the hall, wildflowers were arranged in dark brown bottles of various shapes and sizes. They were accompanied by labels bearing Latin names and common ones, as well as information about which butterfly species rely on which plants at various life stages. The Dutchman’s Pipe, essential to the swallowtail butterfly, had a significant presence this year, as did the Stubblefield rose, a hardy pioneer which is propagated and sold by the Unity Club.

Just before noon, the atmosphere outside was mildly chaotic. Goats and their owners were preparing for the best-dressed goat parade. Two enormous Alpine crosses with packs on their backs devoured an unguarded bale of alfalfa. A petite Nubian mix stood nibbling the same as her skirt received its final touches. A small kid refused to walk and had to be carried, munching its cud.

In due time, the competitors gathered at Alicia’s Taco Wagon to begin the procession. Announcer Steve Sparks, who also presides over bingo games, Thursday night pub quizzes, and Humane Society events, informed competitors that they would be judged by “experts in their field;” and that “spring frivolity” was a key requirement. Several entries consisted of family groups, all wearing costumes on a particular theme. After a few clowns, the Alpine packers, and one invisible goat, the “Raging Nannies” were declared the winners. Licorice and her two daughters, Daphne and Anise, wore floppy flowered hats and pink tutus around their necks. They belong to Ginny Reynolds, a member of the Raging Grannies, a group of mature female vocalists who perform political and comic songs.

The day was not over yet for Licorice. The next event was the celebrity goat milking, where three pillars of the community vied for the title of best milker. Donna Pierson-Pugh, the former principal of Anderson Valley Elementary School, was first up. Licorice stomped in the milking bowl a few times, but settled down for Captain Rainbow, a local events presenter who has been promoting self-sufficiency efforts for decades. Fire Chief Andres Avila sat down last and got a rhythm going, extracting enough milk to win a $50 gift certificate to the Buckhorn Boonville, a local “Grub Pub” established in 1873.

Sparks hit his stride during the goat calling, which featured “a very receptive goat who is only half deaf,” he promised. Competitors approached a pen that actually contained three young animals who appeared to be very interested in maintaining the lawn. Any call was acceptable, but most entrants made noises approximating those the goats themselves produce. Judges, Sparks announced, were “looking for responses from the goats as if they are very happy to see you…We’ve got to take this seriously,” he admonished a toddler who distracted a floppy-eared goat with an edible twig. “It’s not just for fun.”

As one earnest caller implored the animals to acknowledge her efforts, Sparks informed the crowd that “I personally am honored to be commenting for the goat calling contest. This is the pinnacle of any commentator’s career.”

Only one of the three goats responded to any call, trotting up to a child named Garnet just as his time was running out. “This young man looks like he knows how to talk to goats,” Sparks remarked.

The festival was presented by the Anderson Valley Foodshed, which has traditionally held monthly potlucks with educational themes regarding some kind of sustainable food production.

According to organizer Jim Devine, dubbed the “the goat king” by Sparks, the goat festival is “only secondarily about goats.” The goats, he explained, are “the theme that we wrap this thing around.” The mission of the AVFS is to promote a healthy, year-round local food system, which calls for a wide range of food production and animal husbandry skills. Devine, along with Michelle Hutchins, Cindy Wilder, and Barbara Goodell, all of the AVFS, was responsible for the event this year.

In addition to the contests in the middle of the day, the festival included workshops on goat- related skills that included yogurt and kiefer making, backpacking with goats, and caring for the animals. It concluded with a goat stew cook-off. “It’s better to all-in on a couple of big events,”

Devine remarked, and added that “Everybody’s telling me they want to see it again.”

(Courtesy, the Ukiah Daily Journal)

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