Cashmere Goats at St. Mary’s on-the-Hill
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High in the Alps of Switzerland, goat and cow herders call their animals by yodeling, a type of singing that involves repeated and rapid pitch changes deep in one’s chest. It’s also how they communicate with other nomadic herders across the hilltops and valleys. Certain sounds and notes are words — an ancient melodic language that continues to guide the animals back to the lowlands after a summer grazing season in Alpine pastures.
Someone else believes in unique ways of connecting with one’s animals — Sister Mary Elizabeth Garrett of St. Mary’s on-the-Hill, a convent and retreat center run by Anglican/Episcopalian Sisters of St. Mary in Greenwich, New York. As she walks from the barn out to the fields, she begins to sing, calling her Cashmere goats in her crystal-clear soprano voice.
“Singing to animals is a time-honored practice in sheep and goat herding,” she explains. “It’s because the singing voice projects further than the spoken word. No matter how far the goats roam in the pasture on our 100-acre farm, their ears perk up when hearing my chant. It’s a delight watching them instinctively turn and walk in my direction with their babies in tow.”
The Sisters of St. Mary live a simple and purposeful monastic life, grounded in the Benedictine principle of ora et labora — prayer and work. This principle balances prayer and study with manual labor.
Since moving to the rural community of Easton/Greenwich (northeast of Albany) in New York state, the sisters have embraced a purposeful calling in life as stewards of the earth in agriculture. They raise and share a good portion of the food grown in their garden, and the farm tends to their herd of North American Cashmere goats in a ministry that involves 4-H and other youth organizations.
Getting involved in goat husbandry began in 1998 when the religious order was serving the community of Peekskill, New York. They were approached by Reverend Jackson Biggers, a CSM Associate Bishop of the Diocese of Northern Malawi, Africa. His request was to help guide and teach farming to the new Sisters of St. Mary assigned to the convent in the village of Luwinga.
The CSM in Peekskill accepted the challenge with great enthusiasm, setting up a simple goat shed below St. Mary’s Chapel on the old St. Michael’s school site. They also sought hand-till, sustainable agriculture practices for themselves and their African novitate (novices in a religious order). It was a rigorous yet exciting endeavor.
They acquired a small herd of dairy goats from a nearby Carmelite monastery, beginning a busy milking schedule and a long list of chores from mending fences to delivering newborn kids. Rolling up their sleeves with great gusto, the sisters discovered many valuable lessons about embracing life with resilience and perseverance.
In 2004, the CSM received notification that it was time to move from their century-old Mother House in Peekskill for rural upstate New York. Their African sisters were also in transition — journeying back to Malawi to continue their ministry in education and helping orphans.
After great thought and consideration, the CSM decided that continuing in dairy goat husbandry wasn’t feasible. However, they still wanted to be involved with such captivating creatures, exploring more about fiber goats. This led them to acquire some Cashmere goats after extensive research and visits to farms and talking with breeders.
“We were very fortunate with a most generous gift of a start-up herd,” says Sister Mary Elizabeth, “from the Sisters of the Monastery of the Holy Myrrhbearers in Otego, New York, where they raise chickens, sheep, and goats, working the farm with a team of oxen. They make beautiful prayer ropes from the wool, inspiring us to learn more about the goats and fiber arts.”
Getting involved with Cashmere goats was a wise choice for Sister Mary Elizabeth and the other sisters on the farm, establishing a well-respected reputation for high-quality cashmere and outstanding grand champion does and bucks over the years. Today’s herd is an eclectic mix of white, silver, and salt-and-pepper goats that they raise and sell as breeding stock.
Besides tending to her animals, Sister Mary Elizabeth enjoys sharing information about the herd at county fairs, festivals, community events, and farm tours. She especially delights in explaining that there’s no such thing as a purebred Cashmere goat. They’re not a specific breed but instead a type of goat. Many are a hearty variety that roams the rugged terrain of Mongolia, Tibet, India (northern region of Kashmir), Iran, Afghanistan, and southwest China. Most goat breeds can produce cashmere, the soft and downy undercoat that makes up the lightweight and luxurious fiber for scarves, sweaters, socks, gloves, and more.
Cashmere fiber is collected during the spring molting season when the animals naturally shed their winter coat. It’s gathered by hand with a special coarse comb that pulls tufts of fiber from the goat. Once collected, it’s washed to remove any dirt, hay, or other impurities. Next, it’s carded by hand or at a wool mill, a process of untangling, smoothing, and straightening the fibers. Then it’s ready for spinning and weaving.
St. Mary’s on-the-Hill is involved with the Cashmere Goat Association and also participates in area fiber festivals, county fairs, and the annual Washington County Fiber Tour in April where local farms introduce the public to their fiber-producing animals — goats, alpacas, rabbits, llamas, and sheep.
A highlight of visiting St. Mary’s on-the-Hill is meeting the farm’s prized Cashmere goats and Great Pyrenees guardian dogs. It’s also enjoyable meandering through the gardens and meadows, with a stop by the barn for a bit of shopping for blended yarn and roving (long and narrow bundles of fiber), books, and baked goods.
A project that’s close to Sister Mary Elizabeth’s heart is the farm’s Cashmere Kid 4-H and Youth Outreach Club. Youngsters ages eight to 16 participate in many activities involving the goats where they learn about animal husbandry, agriculture, and fiber. One important aspect of the program is raising their goats at home, or if the family doesn’t have space, they can lease a goat at the farm. What a thrill watching each child proudly show their goat at the Washington County Fair, learning about responsibility and respect for all animals.
St. Mary’s on-the-Hill — a peaceful place where animals frolic, eagerly following their beloved goat herder with a song in her heart. Visit any time!
For more information:
St. Mary’s on-the-Hill
- Facebook: @St-Marys-on-the-Hill-Cashmere-148379545528679
Cashmere Goat Association
- Facebook: @CashmereGoatAssociation
Originally published in the November/December 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.