ELKHART, Ill. — No kidding: Gillette Ransom is on her way to becoming America's first goat baroness.
All right, it's still early days out on a small corner of her family's ancestral lands, blessed with the fecund soil the glaciers left behind in Elkhart. Ransom and her farm business partner, Brett Conrady, only have 25 head of goats after a year of diligent ranching, but that's because they've already sold some, and they do have seven nannies (female goats) expecting more kids.
Ransom isn't sure how big her cloven-footed empire may grow, but there's no denying that feudal animal hegemony is interwoven within her genetic heritage. Her great-great-grandfather John Dean Gillett was a real live 19th-century cattle baron who once controlled 20,000 acres and shipped 1,500 head of cattle and 2,000 hogs a year from Elkhart to Chicago.
"He is accredited with having perfected the shorthorn cattle breed," adds Ransom, 66. It even turns out that one perfect specimen of her great-great-granddaddy's handiwork was used as the model for the steer's head sculpture decorating the grand gates of the Union Stockyards in the Windy City. The yards have long since gone the way of all flesh, but the grand entrance with its sculpture remains, as persistent as the Gillett ancestral desire to maximize profits from the land.
"I was looking for a way we could increase our level of farm income," says Ransom, who also raises cattle. "Goats actually eat slightly different things than cattle and can co-graze the same pasture with cattle or follow them. But what neither of us realized, and I think Brett will admit this, too, is just how cute these goats are."
It all got decidedly cuter Feb. 29, when a goat named Bernadette did something rather unusual for goats and gave rapid-fire birth to Leap Year triplets: Hop, Skip and Jump, so named by Ransom in the order of their arrival.
She's feeding the fawn-colored Jump with a bottle as she explains all this and discusses a marketplace for her goats that values them as pets, as milk sources and as rather delicious low-fat steaks.
Despite her cattle baron lineage, Ransom smiles bravely and admits she's struggled a bit with the idea of her cute goats "landing on a dinner plate," but ultimately knows that sentiment is not a crop ideally suited to farm conditions.
Conrady, who lives with his family in nearby Broadwell and has diverse agricultural interests, says the first rule is don't name anything with the potential to be an entree.
"I learned that a long time ago," says the 31-year-old, who grew up farming. "As a boy, I could have farm pets, but they all served a purpose, they all moved on at some point."
There are, however, a lot of morality tales down on the farm, and some of them come with moral lessons you don't expect.
For example, Ransom and Conrady recently sold a chocolate brown baby billy goat named Hershey. While there's always the distinct possibility Hershey will get a one-way ticket to lunch, Ransom's crossing her fingers and wishing his strikingly obvious physical prowess might be enough to save him.
"I tell you, he was very well endowed," explains Ransom as Jump feeds on in blissful ignorance. "So somebody may have thought, 'Ah, a breeding buck,' and decided to keep him for that. I have hopes."