NEW HOLLAND, Pa. -- The livestock auction here was winding down and Bob Herr was knee-deep in his purchases, a colorful, lively herd of 50 nibbling, bleating goats.
"This is a nice set," said Herr, standing among the animals in a holding pen behind the Lancaster County auction ring. "They're clean, muscled and have good thickness."
The goats he praised that Monday likely would be served for dinner on Friday, perhaps at the home of a Jamaican family in Newark or at a Middle Eastern restaurant in Manhattan.
These days, much of the goat meat in the ethnic markets and restaurants of East Coast cities comes from animals sold at the New Holland Sales Stable auction. Although it is still better known for its horse and cattle sales, the auction attracts greater numbers of goat sellers and buyers.
Sales up 47 percent
In the last three years, the number of meat goats sold at the sale has jumped nearly 47 percent, from 100,973 in 1996 to 148,373 last year. By contrast, the number of cattle sold in a year averages about 62,400, said Roger Floyd, the auction's office manager.
"The meat-goat business is becoming big," said Albert Seabrite, a meat buyer from Denver, Pa. "This is the hub of it."
"At Christmastime, we sold 2,400 goats in a single day," said Ken Smoker, manager of sheep and goat sales for the auction outfit.
"I've been in the business roughly 25 years and had never seen that many goats at one time. But then at Easter, we sold 2,600," Smoker said.
At a recent Monday sale, 2,000 goats trucked in from the South and Midwest quickly were sold to buyers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts.
They bought feisty billy goats, nanny goats whose udders were heavy with milk, castrated male goats called wethers, and kids -- youngsters barely weaned from their mothers.
A dollar a pound
The sale prices, which are posted on a pair of tote boards above the auctioneers' stand, average about a dollar a pound, said the experts.
Seller Phil Hockett walked away with a check for $2,174 -- $600 of it profit -- for the 39 goats he had brought from North Carolina.
It was a good day, he said.
"A couple of weeks ago, we came up with 200 head and lost $1,300," Hockett said. "It's a gamble, of course, but we do fairly well."
He and his wife, Rachel, arrive a couple of days before the sale to give the goats a chance to relax and recover from the long trip.
"We like to give them a chance to rest up," Hockett said. "If you don't take care of the animals, they aren't going to take care of you."
Seabrite said he bought between 200 and 250 goats a week at the New Holland sale. Some of them are butchered and sold in his retail store, but others are destined for his company's supermarkets, A&J Seabra Supermarkets in North Jersey. There, prices range from $1.49 to nearly $7 a pound, depending on the age and cut of the meat.
The stores, he said, cater to the Brazilian and Portuguese communities.
At the Beira Mar restaurant in the Ironbound section of Newark, owner Joe Pacheco offers a couple of goat dishes on his menu.
"We have roast goat [tenderloin] with roast potatoes and broccoli, and goat stew in red wine," he said. Both go for $17.95. And they are popular specials, Pacheco said.
`I shop for quality'
Like Herr, who buys for a slaughterhouse in the Poconos, Seabrite said he looks for goats that are not too tough and not too fatty, and for animals that could pass the rigors of an inspection from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"I shop for quality," Seabrite said. "I can't use any garbage."
Some goat buyers, such as Carl Geyer, cater to religious communities, especially members of the fast-growing Muslim population.
According to Islamic law, when animals are killed, prayers to Allah must be offered and a very sharp knife must be used to cut the main artery.
"The animal must be slaughtered with the name of God mentioned," said a spokesman for the Islamic Center of America in Illinois. "And it must be done swiftly but gently so that the animal does not suffer any pain."
Geyer operates a small farm and butcher shop in Barto, a village south of Allentown in eastern Berks County. Mindful of the rules of the Islamic ritual, he draws his clientele from a wide area.
"You wouldn't believe how far they come," Geyer said. After 30 years in the business, he draws Muslim customers from Maryland, Delaware, Washington, New York and New Jersey.
Supply and demand
The growing popularity of the New Holland sale in the meat-goat marketplace is a classic case of supply and demand, said Ron Miller, chief of the livestock and fairs division of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
"The goats bring more money there because there are more buyers," Miller said. "There is more of a supply, so they can pick out the animals they need."
The state Agriculture Department, always on the lookout for another source of income for Pennsylvania's farmers, has noted the growing goat-meat industry. Miller said he planned to offer the state's first seminar on raising meat goats this fall.
"We get more and more inquiries all the time about goats," Miller said. "People are interested in how they go about getting into the industry, their veterinary care, how to raise them, how to market them, and the type of goat that the meat industry wants."
But the bottom line for the animals' soaring popularity, some say, is simply that goat is a tasty, healthy meat that is both low in cholesterol and amenable to the richness and variety of the world's cuisines -- even that old American favorite, barbecue.
"If you ate one barbecued goat, you would want the second one," said Smoker, the auction manager. "We've done that, and the goat gets cleaned up every time."