Cashmere goats have special place on northern Nevada ranch

FALLON -- When Eileen Cornwell walks into a pen on her 6-acre farm, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi and Catherine the Great rush to greet her.

"Hi, sweetheart," Cornwell coos as she pets the head of Indira Gandhi. "Hello, gorgeous."

These famous ladies, sporting long white beards and impressive horns, eagerly munch the apple treats Cornwell holds in her hand.

They are among the 200 cashmere goats that Cornwell and her husband, Byron Higgins, raise on their Royal Cashmere Goats farm west of Fallon.

Only a handful of cashmere goat farms are in Nevada and just 12,000 cashmere goats in the United States.

Indira, Golda and Catherine were part of the first group of cashmere goats shipped to the United States from Australia in 1988. Cornwell, 43, purchased seven of those goats for $2,000 each in 1991 when she quit her job as a naval intelligence officer.

After working in a windowless room with little more than an inbox at the Pentagon during the Persian Gulf War, she decided it was time to switch careers.

These "old ladies" -- some goats live more than 15 years -- and Cleopatra, who prefers hanging with younger goats in another pen, receive extra portions of hay and special treatment from Cornwell.

"Cleopatra is a regal old beast," Cornwell said. "She is one of my absolute favorites."

Cornwell has named every goat, and she recognizes them as they approach.

Unlike some cashmere growers, she doesn't slaughter an animal for its meat. She also does not milk her goats. Lactating goats do not produce as much wool, she said. Besides, their babies need the milk.

"They don't look anything alike," Cornwell said of her herd. "This is Gina. I named her after Byron's little sister. Behind her is Galahad. I liken them to cats. They are so friendly."

The couple hope to build a playground for the goats this summer when they move to a 50-acre farm they purchased near Dayton. Goats like to climb on things and push each other off.

Males and females have horns. Bucks weigh about 40 pounds more than does. They spend much of the day fighting. Missing horns, which do not grow back, are a sure sign of battle.

Cashmere may be the fiber of royalty, but it has not been a lucrative business for Cornwell. She admits she has to rely partly on the income from Higgins, an American Airlines pilot, to supplement cashmere sales.

The couple met in the Navy and made their home in Fallon when they were based at the Naval Air Station there.

"I got into this business because I loved cashmere," Cornwell said. "I have stayed in it because of the animals. They are so much fun. We haven't made a living from them yet, but we are getting close."

Enthusiasts contend the goat, not the dog, was the first domesticated animal. But anthropologists say the goat was domesticated about 10,000 years ago and dogs became man's best friend much earlier.

Cornwell can tell when a guest to her farm is wearing a cashmere sweater from Costco. She says the cashmere comes from goats in Mongolia and is not top quality.

"Cashmere is seven times warmer than other wool," she said. "Cashmere should feel like melted butter. There is something luxurious about it. It drapes beautifully. It is kind of slinky. It feels wonderful against the skin. You should start wearing it against the skin with nothing else."

Martin Owens, statistician for the Nevada Agricultural Statistics Service, said there has been an increase in unusual animals being raised during the past decade. Llamas, ostriches, camels and lobsters are bred on Nevada farms.

He attributes the popularity of the animals to women who leave the traditional work force in search of more fulfilling careers.

In his last animal census in 1997, Owens counted 1,828 goats in Nevada, placing the state 46th in the nation. Nationally, there are about 2 million goats, including 1.3 million in Texas.

Owens expects to complete another goat count in coming months.

"Here in Nevada we are seeing, or at least hearing about, increasing numbers of goats," he said. "Consistent with our fast-growing population is a rapidly rising demand for goats."

Cornwell and Owens said women are more likely than men to raise unusual animals.

"Cashmere started with displaced professional women," Cornwell said. "A whole bunch of us were leaving our careers. We were the people who spend hundreds of dollars on cashmere sweaters."

Her cashmere goats produce about 2Y pounds of fleece. Separating coarse guard hairs from wispy cashmere yields about 5 ounces of cashmere fiber.

Some people shear their goats, but Cornwell prefers to comb their wool off each spring.

One reason why American cashmere growers do not make money is the lack of readily available mills to clean and dehair the wool.

A Rhode Island mill used by Cornwell and other members of a national cashmere cooperative closed about two years ago and moved to China, where most cashmere goats are raised.

In a move to cash in on high cashmere prices, Mongolian and Chinese herdsmen in recent years have increased the number of goats in their flocks dramatically.

Now, Cornwell and Higgins ship their wool to a mill in Prince Edward Island, Canada. They have visited the facility and are debating whether to spend $100,000 to purchase mill equipment of their own.

Through her business, Cornwell sells a variety of cashmere products, including socks, soap and 50-gram spools of yarn. With 50 grams, or 1.75 ounces, a knitter can make a nice shawl.

"A little goes a long way," she said. "It is an expensive fiber. The goats don't produce a lot. But there is always a demand, and cashmere never goes out of style."


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