Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Grad students’ goat research seeks healthier solutions for farmers

What’s the most nutritious, low-cost feed farmers should use on today’s goat farms? Graduate student Victoria Fitchett, 27, has spent summer 2019 working on the answer. And in the most humid South Georgia conditions at Fort Valley State University’s (FVSU) Georgia Small Ruminant Research and Extension Center.

“Through my research, I’m trying to get a better understanding of how nutrition and animals’ bodies work,” said the animal science major, sweating from her cornrows down to her navy blue coverall. “I want to help farmers make the best decisions for their animals and agricultural businesses.”

Fitchett is on the last stretch of her graduate program at Fort Valley — one of only two land-grant institutions in the state (the other being the University of Georgia) — before earning a master’s degree. Right now, her educational mission is to ensure black farmers of the South’s Black Belt Region are equipped with the knowledge to sustain their goat farms through proper nutrition.

The Delaware native dedicates weekdays to feeding anywhere between 20 to 25 goats living on the center’s 21 acres. She then conducts lactation trials to study how different foods affect the quality of the goats’ milk.

“I got into this field for two reasons: Agriculture connects to everything we do in life — from the foods we eat to the clothes we wear,” she said. “Plus, I love goats. They’re so versatile, sturdy, smart, rude and inquisitive.” She’s able to dig deep in her research at the center because of the professional support behind her. The center is the largest of its kind east of the Mississippi River and is recognized as a national leader in goat research. It includes both meat and dairy technology centers focused on goats as well. The production of goat jerky, sausage and patties take place at the Meat Technology Center.

The Dairy Technology Center is manned year-round by facilities manager Carlton Green, 57, and service maintenance worker Ronnie Buckner, 58. The two make sure Fitchett has the necessary tools and accommodations to perform her fieldwork.

“Our students aren’t just looking up information to pass tests,” said Green, a FVSU ’95 alumnus. “They’re often engaged in hard labor to get research results. I work with graduate students on this type of work, and we really get our hands dirty.”

Green also is responsible for the university’s production of goat milk products like daily cheese, ice cream and soap, which are sold to the public. “Goat milk is an alternative a lot of people need,” Green said. “Students learn of its importance and the process to create and market these products.” On the operations side, Buckner cares for the goats as if they’re family. In fact, he’s been campus guardian to thousands of goats during his nearly 27 years at FVSU.

He milks, feeds, hoof trims and monitors goats daily while Fitchett documents her findings. “I’ve always liked working outdoors,” Buckner said. “You get attached to farming and working with these animals when you’re here all the time. Young farmers need to get into this industry because it’s not as hard as they think to maintain a goat farm. You can make decent money, too. They’re not expensive to care for since you quickly learn as you go.”

FVSU is known as Georgia’s top producer of African-American students who earn bachelor’s degrees in agriculture, agriculture operations and related sciences.  It’s also ranked No. 25 nationally in the production of African-American agriculturalists and is the lead institution for an international research group dedicated to finding natural methods of controlling disease in animals.

“We know that farming is a predominately white industry,” said senior animal scientist Darrell Sparks, who has been working alongside Fitchett during the summer months as well. “We need more of us in this field learning how to self-sustain and become more independent.” He too feeds the goats, washes their pens and repairs fences around the center.

Senior animal scientist Darrell Sparks feeds billies at Fort Valley State University’s Georgia Small Ruminant Research and Extension Center.

The 26-year-old undergraduate student left his small Georgia town of Talbotton to become a veterinarian. The more he studied goats and how to grow fruits and veggies, he wanted to become Southern farmer instead. Fitchett and Sparks are part of the university’s College of Agriculture, Family Sciences and Technology. The college affords undergrad and graduate students opportunities to conduct research in five areas on campus: specialty plant biotechnology; bioenergy and climate change; food safety; small ruminants; and agricultural economics.

Collaborating with FVSU experts, students participate in scientific investigations to help advance small-scale agriculture and aid the rural disadvantaged. Grants through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture assist students with meeting their research requirements each academic year. Both young rural researchers will walk across Fort Valley’s graduation stage December 2019. Strongly rooted in agriculture. More determined to change young folks’ often negative outlooks about farming.

“There are so many agricultural opportunities for us out here,” said Sparks. “We just don’t know it, but that’s something I know we can help change the more we show others what we’ve learned here at FVSU.”

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