Farmer makes the most of her goat herd

By Sue Henninger

This is the latest in a series of articles about local farms and agriculture.

Lisa Ferguson, owner of Laughing Goat Fiber Farm in the Town of Ithaca, socializes with her goats in the pasture.
Lisa Ferguson, owner of Laughing Goat Fiber Farm in the Town of Ithaca, socializes with her goats in the pasture.
Lisa Ferguson calls herself an “advanced beginner” when it comes to farming, although she’s been working with various crops and animals for years. “I grew up in the Boston suburbs,” she says. “I couldn’t have jumped right into cows and horses. Goats are just the right size.”

Most misconceptions people have about goats are untrue, Ferguson says. For one, goats don’t eat garbage or tin cans. Browsers, rather than grazers, they’re actually quite picky. They consume hay and a grain mix (for the protein), along with the weeds, brush and bushes they nibble on. Goats also have delicate constitutions and are prone to intestinal parasites.

Another myth she debunks is that goats are ornery. These social herd animals are amusing, responsive and affectionate, with personality to spare, Ferguson says.

The Laughing Goat Fiber Farm herd started out with three Angora goats. Over the years it has grown to include 90 goats (Cashmere and Angora), some alpacas and one standoffish sheep. While the goats wear numbered tags, Ferguson easily identifies them by name as they dash across the pasture to greet her.

Laughing Goat is a dual-purpose farm. Ferguson breeds and sells goats, along with using their fleece. Spring, when the kids arrive, is her busiest season because it’s crucial that the young goats get a good nutritional start their first months of life. This year Ferguson kept records of the babies’ daily weight gains, which she says made a huge difference in their development.

Ferguson uses the animals’ fleece for the various clothing items she produces. Many people don’t realize that the cashmere scarves they wear come from the soft, downy inner coat of the Cashmere goat, or that the mohair products they love come from the curly outer coat of the Angora goat. Another interesting fact is the huge discrepancy between the amounts of fiber she gets each year from the two types of goats.

The Cashmere, which she combs in the spring, each generate eight to 10 ounces a year. The Angoras, which are shorn twice a year, can yield up to 10 pounds of fiber at each shearing.

There are always challenges for those who are self-employed, and Ferguson is no exception. She has a long list of tasks that she tries to prioritize each day, but issues always seem to crop up, such as a sick animal or the need to ship an order. “I say ‘Today I’ll do X, Y and Z’, but then it all gets turned upside down. It’s like being a parent!” she says. Cash flow is another issue she’s had to grapple with, along with adjusting the lead and turnaround times for her products.

Laughing Goat has production partners, mostly small family-owned businesses like hers. Though not everything she sells is made right on her farm, each one-of-a-kind, hand-dyed item she sells is made in the U.S. This has been an issue for certain clients on occasion. Ferguson believes this is because people have an image of “traditional” agriculture in their minds that may not be historically correct. “They forget that farmers have always been part of a community,” she observes. “One person can’t do it all by themselves. And there’s no other industry where that’s required.”

In this spirit of collaboration, Ferguson offers an eight- to 10-week apprenticeship each year. Currently she’s working with three women, from Rutgers University, Cornell University and SUNY Cobleskill. She gives her apprentices hands-on experience in all aspects of farming, including animal care, working with fiber and marketing and selling.

“We need them.” she responds when asked why she’s committed to making time in her busy schedule to teach others about farming. “I can’t say enough about this generation…We’re in good hands!”

Ferguson describes promoting her business as “a lot of trial and error”. Her daughters, who she says are more media-savvy than she is, have been a great help with the technology end. Laughing Goat’s website is engaging and informative and has been a great educational tool. Facebook helps her connect the public to her farm and what’s happening there. She also sells her comfortable and colorful mittens and socks on Etsy.com.

What are some of Ferguson’s long-term and short-term goals? She’s already obtained an agricultural easement for her land on Mecklenburg Road by selling the development rights to the Town of Ithaca. This means that the farmland can’t ever be used for other purposes, regardless of who owns it. “I’d like to have a few employees,” she adds. “Or a young family or partner working for me who would be interested in eventually taking over the farm.”

Other goals include being able to offer overnight stays at the farm and having a retail space on the property. “And one more tractor to keep my pasture under control,” she concludes.

To Ferguson, the farm’s name epitomizes how she feels about living off the land. “Farming is fun. It’s a lot of work, so you have to like it or you won’t do it. I love being outside with the animals every day.” She shares this passion with others at local and regional events and shows year round, and by offering farm visits and private farm tours.

Learn more at www.laughinggoatfiber.com.