For the past 10 years, Jo Ann and Wayne Myers have been trying to make Icelandic goats essentially from scratch on their Waldoboro farm. If they pull it off, Maine will be the only place in the world outside of Iceland where the goats can be found. But it’s turning out to be even harder than it sounds.
Icelandic goats descend from animals the Vikings brought to the subarctic island more than 1,000 years ago. Since then, the goats have evolved to be ideally suited to Iceland’s frigid weather, with fleece as thick as a down coat and short, sturdy bodies made for conserving heat. For centuries, any farm in Iceland would have had a few, but by the 1960s there were a mere 100 or so Icelandic goats left. They most likely would have vanished if not for Jóhanna Bergmann Porvaldsdóttir, a retired nurse who made it her mission to revive the breed. Largely thanks to her efforts, Icelandic goats now number 800 and have gained a bit of fame — a few from Porvaldsdóttir’s herd appeared in Game of Thrones. Yet the animals are isolated there. One pathogen could kill all of them.
That is where the Myerses come in. When the couple retired from long careers in rural health care, they left the hollers of eastern Kentucky and, in 1998, bought an old but tidy farm about 4 miles south of Route 1. They dubbed it Beau Chemin Preservation Farm and began raising nearly extinct livestock breeds: Soay sheep, for example, a diminutive and shy ruminant from offshore islands in Scotland, and Dutch hook bill ducks, small mallard-like birds that were down to just 15 animals worldwide. Today, they have 14 endangered breeds, including three types of sheep, and they sell rare fleece, roving, and yarn in a wool room in one of their two barns. The only non-heritage breeds on the farm are Jake the donkey and Teddy the standard poodle.
The Myerses’ mission is to help bring back heritage breeds that were developed for specific climates and, often, multiple purposes — as opposed to, say, Holstein cows, which are bred solely for high milk production on factory farms. They’re the kind of livestock that small farms need, Wayne says, because they’re more versatile. Icelandic goats, for example, can produce milk, fiber, and meat in even the meanest winter weather, which makes them perfect for Maine farms.
But there’s a catch to breeding them — a big one. Icelandic goats, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cannot be imported to the U.S. However, their semen can be. In 2011, the couple ordered 100 semen straws, or mini-tubes, from Porvaldsdóttir’s herd and began developing an Icelandic goat by inseminating five Oberhasli goats, a medium-size dairy breed with an easygoing disposition. In the spring of 2012, two of the Oberhaslis had single kids, which were half Oberhasli and half Icelandic. One was a doe, and after she was inseminated, she gave birth to a goat that was 75 percent Icelandic. With the next generation, the amount of Oberhasli was again decreased by half. The Myerses now have three goats that are 87.5 percent Icelandic, all of which have the breed’s pronounced beards and short, stocky builds.
It will take six more cycles to hit 99.99 percent, which would be considered an Icelandic goat. Unfortunately, none of the does have kidded in four years. Artificial insemination has a low success rate. Plus, the older goat semen is, the less effective it is, and the Myerses haven’t been able to get a fresh shipment of semen straws since 2016 due to a change in USDA importation rules. After much paperwork, they hope to again import semen this year.
They’ll need it. They used all they had left to inseminate five does in November. By late December, Jo Ann noticed they were vocalizing more and twitching their tails, signs they were in heat, which could mean none of them is pregnant. “This would be easier if we had a buck,” Jo Ann says. “A lot easier.” Instead, they wait and hope.
*Update: As of early March, two of the five inseminated goats were showing some signs of pregnancy, and the Meyerses were waiting for a veterinarian to conduct ultrasounds and blood tests. In addition, the couple had just returned from a visit to Jóhanna Bergmann Porvaldsdóttir’s farm in Iceland and hope to be able to import more semen later this year.
Beau Chemin Preservation Farm is open for tours and demonstrations by appointment. Roving, raw wool, and yarn from Soay, California Variegated/Romeldale, and Leicester longwool sheep are sold in the wool room. 1749 Finntown Rd., Waldoboro. 207-691-8164.