Califonia Bountiful

Nirvana on the farm

January/February 2019 California Bountiful magazine

Goat yoga helps dairy expand and connect

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A goat perches atop the back of participant Kate Allen during a recent goat yoga class at Lavenderwood Farm in Thousand Oaks. Photo: © 2019 Tony Pinto

It's a typical Saturday morning at Lavenderwood Farm, a small-scale goat dairy in Thousand Oaks, 40 miles from downtown Los Angeles. The sun is shining, baby goats are prancing in pajamas and a group of blissed-out visitors is doing downward-facing dog.

This Ventura County farm is a hot spot for goat yoga, the trendy, highly Instagrammable practice that is just what it sounds like: yoga, but with goats. A small-farm owner in Oregon is credited with starting the practice in summer 2016, which went viral and spurred a full-fledged movement. Farms and yoga instructors around the country have launched goat yoga programs and discovered no shortage of participants eager for a chance to mingle with the curious animals while doing some mindful stretching.

"In the beginning we had to convince people it was a thing, but people really love goats," Lavenderwood Farm owner Danette McReynolds said. "People who weren't sure about coming look at us and say, 'This was amazing. I had no idea.' And it's really that goats are just so engaging."

Farm owner Danette McReynolds feeds her Nigerian Dwarf goats. Proceeds from goat yoga classes have helped her expand her award-winning breeding program. Photo: © 2019 Tony Pinto

'They kept coming'

McReynolds never set out to have a goat yoga business, or a dairy goat farm, for that matter—her professional background is in real estate and marketing. It all started in 2005, when her elder daughter Shaleene suggested they get some goats. Despite the urban setting of their neighborhood, their home was located on about 2 acres of land that was zoned for livestock. In 2010, McReynolds began volunteering as a 4-H project leader, helping youth learn how to care for dairy goats, breed them, milk them, make yogurt and cheese from their milk, and make and sell lavender-scented goat milk soap at farmers markets to help pay for feed. Lavenderwood Farm was born.

In May 2017, McReynolds' younger daughter Fiona and her friends wanted to take the goats they were raising to the American Dairy Goat Association National Show in Wisconsin. The trip wasn't a 4-H-sponsored activity; the travel costs would have to come out of their own pockets, to the tune of about $4,000.

"I said, 'I'm not going to be able to do this selling soap. Why don't we try goat yoga?'" McReynolds recalled.

But goat yoga was just beginning to catch on—she estimates her farm was the first to offer it in the LA area. It was a struggle initially to find a yoga instructor willing to participate.

"People just looked at me like I was crazy," she said. "It wasn't well received."

Eventually, she connected with yoga instructor Meridith Lana Schwartz, who was open to the idea. Schwartz designed a class that incorporated the goats as they ambled freely about, and they invited people to sign up for sessions held on the farm. The response exceeded expectations.

"We didn't think we'd go past the summer of 2017," McReynolds said. "Then we didn't think we'd go into the fall, and people kept coming. And then we didn't think we'd make it through the winter, and they kept coming."

What began as a one-time fundraiser has morphed into a business, with weekend classes held continuously for the past year and a half. The proceeds from goat yoga have helped McReynolds expand her herd and pay for the expenses of her breeding program.

Yoga instructor Meridith Lana Schwartz says adding goats to yoga brings participants joy. Photo: © 2019 Tony Pinto

Baby goat karma

Yoga instructor Schwartz said she's discovered goats and yoga are more of a natural fit than one might expect. The animals' carefree antics during class help people live in the moment and embrace a non-judgmental outlook, even toward themselves, she said.

"Goats are the epitome of authenticity," Schwartz said. "When you see those goats, you're so happy. You're not really thinking about: Am I going to have the proper form? Do I have the latest pants on?"

Adding wandering goats to a yoga class doesn't always create a meditative atmosphere, Schwartz acknowledged. They've been known to clamber onto people's backs, jump about and engage in playful bouts of head-butting. But it's all part of the draw of spending time with the animals in their space, she said. The goats, for their part, are eager participants as well, according to McReynolds.

"They run to the pen," she said. "They know what's happening and that people are in there and they're going to pet them. They just want to hang with you."

McReynolds has added special events as her business has grown, such as the Baby Goat Yoga Pajama Party every Saturday morning or baby goats in costumes for Halloween.

"We just try to make it fun," McReynolds said. "People are coming for the photo op, so we try to give them ways to post fun photos."

While participants expect a light-hearted experience, they often leave with something deeper. McReynolds recalled meeting a married couple who approached her after a class. The wife had just finished a round of chemotherapy. They'd had a hard year, they said, and wanted to do something fun. The class lifted their spirits.

Even some of the occupational hazards of working around livestock can become a teachable moment.

"If a goat happens to poop on your mat, you laugh," Schwartz said. "And that's what I ask people to take with them. Because if somebody comes in your space in life, instead of getting so upset, look at them as that baby goat. And then take a breath and smile, because you never know what somebody else is going through."

Ilene Schwartz, center, interacts with a goat during a recent goat yoga class at Lavenderwood Farm. The classes offer the farm an opportunity to help urban residents reconnect with agriculture. Photo: © 2019 Tony Pinto

Connecting to agriculture

Ilene Schwartz, a recent first-time goat yoga participant at Lavenderwood Farm (no relation to the yoga instructor), said she found the experience highly enjoyable. Like many, she came for a chance to hang out with the goats.

"It was like a perfect combination of nature and relaxation," she said. "Any opportunity to mingle with farm animals is totally up my alley."

McReynolds welcomes the opportunity that hosting goat yoga has provided for her to open a dialogue about agriculture with urban residents.

"We're surrounded by farmland in Ventura County, so our roots go back and are still sustained in the county in agriculture," McReynolds said. "But we're so far removed from the farm that when people come and they spend time with the goats, so many people start asking questions: What's your care and keeping like? And we get to talk about it."

McReynolds raises Nigerian Dwarf goats, a dairy breed that isn't much larger than a golden retriever. They're easy to handle, docile and social, making them a natural fit for her small space, youth agriculture program and goat yoga. Despite their small size, the animals are still robust producers of milk. The sweet, rich taste of the milk, which boasts the highest butterfat content of any goat breed and is ideal for cheesemaking, is what drew McReynolds to the breed initially, she said.

Nigerian Dwarf goats are generally milked twice a day, but as an award-winning breeder, McReynolds' emphasis is more on raising champion stock than producing milk. She milks once a day and lets the nursing animals handle the rest, she said. She makes and sells goat milk soap from what she collects to help support her farm.

McReynolds is thankful goat yoga has provided another source of revenue to help her cover expenses and expand her small herd, she said. But her focus is on caring for the goats themselves, and the future of her farm.

"Goat yoga is going to come to an end, because like all good things in the LA area, fads come and go," she said. "When goat yoga is no longer a thing, the goats of Lavenderwood Farm will still be here."

Shannon Springmeyer

Photo: © 2019 Tony Pinto

Goat power

There's more significance behind the goats of Lavenderwood Farm than a social media post can capture. Danette McReynolds and her goats are active in serving the community.

Last fall's deadly Woolsey Fire forced McReynolds and her neighbors to evacuate (her family, farm and goats made it through unscathed), only a day after a mass shooting at a local nightclub. McReynolds decided to host a free Farm Day to provide a healing space to a community recovering from crisis and loss.

"We are trying to do what we can, where we can, with what we have to give," she said.

Her goats have also provided animal therapy opportunities for special-needs children and children at a local homeless shelter in the past. McReynolds also likes to educate people about the global importance of goats.

"A goat makes a difference in the lives of people around the world," she said, noting they're an important source of food for millions.

"I'd love for people to consider giving the gift of a goat to those around the world in need," she said, pointing out that several charitable organizations offer the option of donating a goat to a family in developing countries.

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