The thermometer in the car reads 12 degrees and the sun barely illuminates the iced tops of the barren tulip trees, but Jacob Phillips is outside, clearing out the bed of his blue Ford truck.
The tractor is frozen, so the day’s work will have to be done on foot.
Phillips’ children shuffle out the door in neon pink and blue snow pants. Rather than watch Scooby-Doo cartoons on television or sleep in, they’re up, helping their dad move their herd of 20 Boer and Spanish goats from the pasture across the road to the one next to their house.
Three years ago, Phillips and his wife decided they wanted to leave California, so they went online and purchased eight acres in rural Bloomington.
Phillips didn’t grow up on a farm. He is a 36-year-old, former Los Angeles police officer who lived in the suburbs. But after too many injuries, he was forced into early retirement, transitioning from cop beats to corn reports, clipped hedges to clumps of hay.
Now, Phillips is a contractor at Crane naval base. He’s also a Marine Corps reservist. But on Saturday mornings, he’s a goat farmer.
For Phillips, farming is a chance to live off the land, something that wasn’t part of his mindset when he lived in LA. What started with five chickens that he purchased on Craigslist has morphed into a small family-run farm, Liberty Pastures. After researching the health benefits and marketability of various meats, Phillips decided to raise the most widely consumed meat in the world: goat.
When Phillips went to the Profitable Meat Goats Conference in Indianapolis in 2010, he had been raising goats for two months. He was the only farmer there who was raising 100 percent pastured goats, which means that the goats consume only what they can graze off the land. Phillips said raising the goats this way is more economical, sustainable and ethical.
He isn’t harvesting goats to run up a profit and his life goal isn’t to be a commercial goat farmer. While he sells goat meat to individual customers, his primary reason for raising the goats is to help teach his children about responsibility at a level he never knew existed when he was their age.
The farm is their classroom.
Along with being home-schooled, the work on the farm provides the children with hands-on learning opportunities. When they build things with measuring tape, they learn about fractions. When they log farm-work hours on an Excel spreadsheet, it helps teach finances.
Lessons on leadership are learned during goat rotations. Because goats are grazing animals, they naturally move to new patches of land in search of brush to feed on. To mimic this process, Phillips and his children rotate the goats among their various pastures. It’s muddy; it’s slippery; it means waking up on cold mornings to walk around in the snow. But the rotations help keep the pastures from being over-eaten, allowing the goats to find new food, in a new place where they might never have thought to look.
A day in the life
At 8:07 a.m., Phillips peels back the wire fence in front of the goat shelters. The silent, pink sunrise is interrupted by the crunching of fresh snow under rubber boots.
Phillips tosses his green coffee thermos on the ground.
“Where are the goats?”
Sticking his head into one of the black plastic shelters, his son, Justin, shouts, “They’re inside!”
Huddled beneath the shelters, the goats are lying together, forming a patchwork of red, cream and chocolate-colored fur.
Faith, one of their oldest goats, rolls off her knees and shakes her head. Justin, age 12, and Julia, age 10, rub Faith’s back.
Justin does most of the work on the farm by himself. Besides brushing his teeth, his morning routine includes driving the tractor over to the goats’ paddock to give them water.
But Justin can’t do the goat rotations alone. It takes a family effort.
Phillips nods at Justin and begins walking away from the shelters. After a few paces, Phillips turns around and lets out a call that sounds like a rooster, “Doodle, doodle, doodle, dooo!”
The goats have heard Phillips’ call before. They immediately spring into a trot, their small hooves flinging up flecks of white powdered snow. Their bleating cries wash out the sounds of Justin and Julia’s clapping.
The children follow at the rear of the herd, pushing the goats that run off to the side. One goat bolts from the group, veering away from the paddock gate. Justin lunges. As he falls to his knees, his gloves brush the goat’s rear, snow spraying as they hit the ground. He misses. Jumping back to his feet, he looks from side to side, then runs to catch the goat and brings it back to the group.
Phillips, marching ahead, sloshes through a small creek. The goats are stopped at the water’s edge.
Goats hate water.
“Doodle, doodle, doodle, dooo!” Phillips calls.
The goats stare. A few bend their necks to nibble on a patch of grass.
Phillips crosses back over the creek. He reaches down and grabs Faith, her four stubby legs squeezed together in the folds of his thick jacket. With her white fur smooshed against his mouth, he walks through the water and sets her on the other side.
Phillips says it helps to get a few of the herd over, to help inspire the others to cross.
Like her dad, Julia picks up one of the smaller goats, trying to keep a tight grip by squeezing it between her arms. The little goat squirms, writhing its body against her chest. After a few steps, the goat breaks Julia’s hold and lands on the ground.
“Nice try, honey,” Phillips says as he returns for another goat, this one named Millie. He carries her across the creek and comes back for a third.
Faith jostles from foot to foot. She looks along the edge of the snow-covered creek, finds the narrowest part and jumps back over to join the rest of the group.
Millie stands alone in the snow, bleating.
Phillips folds his arms and shakes his head. Justin and Julia come to his side. The creek presents them with a spontaneous lesson on problem solving.
“What about using plywood as a bridge?” Justin suggests. “The goats could walk across that.”
Phillips bits his lip and glances around the perimeter. “Good idea, but the wood is back up at the house.”
“Maybe the goats need to be carried over one-by-one,” Julia says, shrugging her shoulders.
Phillips shakes his head. No, he knows the goats can do it on their own.
Breaking into a jog, Phillips runs up with side of the creek toward a more narrow section, urging the goats to follow. Justin and Julia begin clapping, pushing them behind their dad until the whole herd is standing along the bank.
One of the goats paws at the edge of the creek. Her head twitches. Her knees bend. She arches her body over the two feet of creek bed, which once seemed like a mile-long roadblock.
The group erupts into a mass of springing across the creek. The runt of the herd wades through the cold water. But Faith, once the alpha female of the group, still refuses to cross. Phillips heaves her into his arms and carries her, again.
“We’re finally getting there,” Phillips says, wiping his forehead with the back of his glove.
Gaining the goats’ trust
A fine layer of snow rests on the tin roof of the 100-year-old wooden barn that will serve as the goats’ new shelter.
Phillips opens the metal gate and hollers one final call, “Doodle, doodle, doodle, dooo!”
In a single-file line, the goats rush across the asphalt road between their old pasture and their new one, their hooves clinking on the road, sounding like a woman walking in heels on a cobblestone street.
They nudge the dark tufts of grass with their noses, exposing a tasty reward that survived the storm. This will be their new home — at least for the next few months.
Phillips tilts back his hat and stares across the road they just crossed, past the bowing fence posts that line the frosted grass, to the iced shelters where they started the rotation. While it didn’t go quite as planned, they had worked together to solve the creek-crossing problem.
Justin kneels in the snow, ignoring the spots of mud that dotted his pants. He looks up at his dad.
“We must have looked a bit ridiculous carrying those goats,” Phillips says.
Justin and Julia pull at their jackets and get on their feet. As Phillips drives back up to the house to get more supplies for the morning’s work, his children wave. From the rear-view mirror, he looks back at them, the lines around his lips deepening into soft creases.
Although the thermometer in the car still reads 12 degrees, there is more farm-work to be done — and his children to do it with.