When Kim and I first decided to head into the world of regenerative agriculture, there were a lot of decisions to make: what would we grow? Raise? Start a market garden? An orchard? Chickens for meat or eggs (or both)?
My interest was squarely focused on intensive grazing practices utilizing ruminants and birds to improve soil and pasture quality, ideally in a silvopasture environment, allowing for the growth of intentionally spaced trees. Stated more simply, the complex stuff I had zero experience in. It boggled my mind to see videos that showed the process of intensive grazing. The ground in the small paddocks was often so beat up after being densely stocked for a day or two that you’d think it was permanently damaged. But fast forward thirty or so days, and the grass was back higher, thicker, and ready to be grazed again.
I don't know... Maybe my prior military experience generated empathy for organisms that grow stronger after being thoroughly stomped and pooped on… but I digress.
There was only one absolute, unbreakable rule for our new farming enterprise; a non-negotiable unilateral decision made by yours truly over objections from other concerned parties; a go/no-go criterion for our entire experiment in agriculture:
In 2011, I deployed to Afghanistan for the first time and took part in a new strategy focused on building support for the Afghan government “one village at a time.” In practice, small teams were pushed out to remote areas in attempts to gain the trust of the local populace, then recruit, train, and arm militias intended to support the government of Afghanistan and oppose the Taliban.
The strategy briefed well, and probably had some nice accompanying PowerPoint slides depicting maps and graphs. I’ll let the historians determine the strategy’s efficacy, but those of us on the ground were… skeptical… the initiative had a snowball’s chance in hell at accomplishing anything sustainable.
Regardless, I found myself living in an Afghan compound in the middle of a small village in a southern province. Surprisingly, it was very comfortable. Constructed almost entirely of mud, the buildings did an excellent job of keeping the interiors cool during the summer, and the high, thick walls around the exterior provided respectable security. The grape hut was turned into an operations center, and the eastern-most wall adjoined shops in the town’s bazaar, which put us in close proximity to the local power brokers. It was a great spot for the mission we were tasked with.
However, for some reason, this structure came to my team partially occupied. Not only did we have a mamma pup with a litter of five puppies, but we somehow found ourselves with a full-grown goat named Billy. There are strict rules about having pets in deployed environments; almost every DFAC (dining facility) I had the pleasure of patronizing had posters near the trays and silverware reminding soldiers not to drink booze, “have relations”, or adopt (rabies infested) native animals. However, since it also turns out they were handing out harmful drugs like candy next to that very same silverware, I have no regrets that we ignored at least one of their suggestions and kept the animals.
To this day, I have no idea no idea how Billy the Goat survived his time with us without being shot. For starters, he had a serious nicotine problem. Almost everyone smokes in Afghanistan, including the vast majority of American servicemembers, and any time you’d walk into the courtyard of our compound at least a couple folks would be shooting the breeze over smokes. Occasionally you’d run across a local interpreter, or Afghan soldier, who had clearly enjoyed something other than nicotine. Two fun facts for all the horticulture enthusiasts out there: 1) you can companion plant marijuana and poppy; 2) “weed” is actually a weed in some places.
Hearing a match strike was like a dinner bell for Billy. When he’d catch the scent of a cig, he’d come trotting out of wherever he’d happened to be malingering, excited for the opportunity to get his fix. Every cigarette butt would be hoovered up off the ground-- and God help you if you didn’t finish what was in your hand quick enough for Billy’s liking. That cigarette still lit, embers glowing, dangling between your fingers? Billy didn’t care. He’d climb up you with his front legs, lips stretched, eyes wild with desperation.
For me, this became high-quality entertainment. I didn’t smoke, so instead just enjoyed the times when Billy entered stealth-mode and would approach one of the guys from behind, sniping the cigarette out of their lowered hand before anyone could react. This inevitably resulted in a shocked yell, followed by laughter, followed by Billy easily evading an angry soldier.
Less entertaining was Billy’s tendency to explore the living areas of the compound. One of the unfortunate features of the Afghan compound was a lack of doors. At every entryway there was simply a cloth hanging down that you’d push aside and enter. On at least three occasions, I walked into my room to find Billy the Goat standing on my bed, mouthful of whatever paper/food/nicotine product he’d happened to find, chewing away.
“Billy! Get the hell out of here!” I’d unwisely yell.
Naturally, this would scare the goat, who’d poop and/or piss in response, then jump off the bed and try to dodge past me. The military working dog—who, along with his handler, shared the room with me—would lose his mind in response to the chaos. Billy would panic, forget where the door was, and begin to scramble over beds, shelves, pelican cases... whatever. A cacophony of bleats, barks, and yells would ensue until I managed to get the terrified animal back outside.
A similar scene would play itself out at least two or three times a week with whoever happened to leave something out Billy found enticing. You’d be chilling out, reading a book or watching a show after a patrol, and hear a voice yell “Billy! What the f*ck!”, followed closely by the sound of hooves running across the courtyard, usually accompanied by a laugh-like “Baaaa!” as he retreated.
While Billy never encountered the business end of a rifle, it did finally get to a point where something had to be done. Around the time my Army team was preparing to handover their duties to an incoming formation and head home, the outgoing team leader, Travis, sold Billy to a local Afghan goat herder. After a few last pets and friendly statements of “good riddance”, Billy happily joined a herd and pranced off into the countryside.
The next day, Travis took the new team leader, Adam, to the bazaar right outside our compound to make introductions to a few village elders over tea. This was both (Afghan) safe and typical, so it didn’t necessitate the addition of any other guys, who’d rather hang back and find something more entertaining to do. Fast forward an hour, and the pair come walking back into the courtyard where the rest of us are having lunch.
In Adam’s arms is a small, admittedly cute, black-and-white goat kid.
As more and more of the guys notice the new addition, conversation quickly stops, and all attention turns to Adam and Travis. While Adam is beaming like a proud, new father, Travis looks annoyed and slightly defeated. This was clearly not a joint decision.
Annoyed Team Guy 1: “Why the f*ck do you have that thing?”
Adam: “One of the elders gave it to me; I couldn’t turn down his gift.”
Annoyed Team Guy 1: “The f*ck you couldn’t. We just got rid of Billy. Now you walk in with another goat?”
Adam’s smile falters a bit, as he’s trying to decide how to address the situation. He’s an officer, and technically in charge, but team dynamics are often… flexible.
Annoyed Team Guy 2: “I don’t know sir… that thing looks pretty young. What are we supposed to feed it? Not sure it’s going to like MREs (meals-ready-to-eat).”
Adam’s grin slowly fades, as that thought had not occurred to him.
In hindsight, this goat couldn’t have been much more than one month old, which means it was nowhere near being weaned, and really shouldn’t have been away from its mother. I’ve also concluded the goat kid wasn’t a gift; it was a prank. As soon as Adam walked out of the meeting with all those old Afghan’s, beaming like a new dad, I guarantee the elders were rolling in laughter at another “stupid American” they’d managed to gag-gift a goat. Not a great start for the guy who’s supposed to help demonstrate the competency of the Afghan government.
Honestly, most of the guys—myself included—enjoyed passing the little guy around and taking pics. But there weren’t a lot of volunteers for kid raising. Most of us had other things to do, and the novelty wore of quickly. As the crowd slowly faded, Travis was reluctantly pulled into conversation with Adam about what to do with the animal.
Earlier in the deployment, Travis had purchased a mongoose and pet-carrier from the bazaar, thinking to have his own Rikki-Tiki-Tavi. It didn’t go well: that mongoose is the most vicious creature I’ve ever been around, and he was eventually released after it became abundantly clear there was zero chance at domestication. Since the carrier was no longer being utilized, Travis offered it to Adam, who put the goat kid inside the first night to stay warm and have some relief from the puppies that had chased the poor thing around the entire afternoon. Adam placed the carrier in a safe spot in the courtyard, and likely thought he’d figure out the next step of goat-kid care in the morning.
The goat bleated the entire night. For a while, everyone tried to ignore it, thinking the goat would eventually settle down and go to sleep. It didn’t. Sometime after midnight, our big team sergeant finally yelled out:
“SOMEONE SHUT THAT THING UP, OR I SWEAR TO GOD I WILL!”
At that point, Adam shuffled out to the courtyard and moved the carrier into his room, where I can only assume he spooned the little guy the rest of the evening, as it finally stopped crying. I’m not exactly sure how many nights this arrangement continued: two? Three? It was clear Adam wasn’t getting great sleep trying to snuggle this goat kid, and eventually he must have given up. A few changes became immediatly apparent:
First, the goat was no longer placed in the carrier at night, which means he’d find a random spot in the courtyard and bed down for the evening. Apparently, he was okay being alone—he just didn’t like to be in the pet-carrier.
Second, around 0400 every morning, the fives puppies we had on camp would find the goat and begin to chase him around the compound, causing a ruckus in the courtyard.
Third—and I state this with no exaggeration—every damn morning between 0415 and 0500 the puppies would chase the goat into my room, and under my bed, where various wrestling matches full of baas and barks would ensue, waking everyone in the room. Literally every morning. Every. Single. Morning.
I’d end up on my hands and knees, half awake, trying to yank all those guys back out from underneath my bed and direct the chaos back outside to the courtyard. And every morning after breakfast, I’d have to clean up the various pee and poo spots from excited puppies and a scared goat kid.
To this day, I have no idea why it was always my bed. The animals never ended up in another room, or under another bed, while the goat stayed on camp with us. The guys in the other rooms thought it was hilarious, me being the Air Force guy and all, but never woke to puppies and goat kids. And my roommates—who initially thought I was bringing the animals in intentionally, or leaving food out—started scratching their heads, as well, when it became clear that wasn’t the case.
You’d figure, statistically, they’d end up in one of the other six rooms in the compound at least a few times… or at least decide that underneath one of my roommates beds was better a particular morning… but it never failed. A scuffle of paws and hooves across the floor, bumps and thuds and barks under the bed, and a sigh from me as I climbed out to handle the nonsense once again.
Eventually, the team decided we needed an intervention with Adam. His goat needed to go, as we didn’t have the knowledge or inclination to take care of it, and had plenty of other things to worry about actually pertaining to our mission. Besides, we’d already experienced what a full-sized model was capable of, and we didn’t want another Billy. After a quick discussion, the team sergeant ensured us that he’d handle it at the next team meeting, in a professional and diplomatic manner. In fact, it only took one question, politely delivered at the conclusion of the meeting, when all other business had been conducted:
“Hey sir, we need to talk about the goat. Do you remember the scene in The Godfather with the horse and the bed”?
Adam did. And the goat was back with his mother the very next day.
Look, I have no idea if any of this justifies my desire to keep goats off the farm. It could be completely irrational given that my home has working doors, and we don’t let our animals roam freely. But there are so many other options for ruminants—both typical and exotic—that I just didn’t want to deal with the mischievous escape artists again. Other "interested parties" were just going to have to accept my decision, and move on.
It’s been said that marriage is all about compromise. That’s bullshit. In my experience, it’s about slowly being manipulated by your beautiful, loving wife until she gets her way. While I’m charging forward on some initiative, she’s subtly pulling a lever or twisting a dial in the background that gradually diverts me to wherever she wanted to go in the first place. Sometimes, she even convinces me that where we ended up was where I intended to go all along.
This whole farming thing? Not my idea. I had other plans until my wife started sliding books in front of me, or sharing videos depicting beautiful farm operations. Abingdon, VA? Not me, either—it was Kim who initially discovered the area, then planned a weekend getaway for us to see a show at the Barter Theatre and enjoy a hike or two. The home we finally purchased? Again, Kim located and directed.
Which brings us back to goats.
Care to guess the one animal my wife really wanted on the farm? The only ruminant she’d saved cute pictures of, and texted to me randomly over the course of a decade? The exact type of animal she insisted we take wedding pictures with at our farm ceremony back in 2014? The creature I’m holding in the only wedding picture she had framed and hung in our bedroom?
And finally, care to guess the first two animals we purchased for our farm?
Well done, Kim. Well done, indeed.