Several weeks ago, the story of a young girl and her goat named Cedar made the rounds across a range of media outlets. The Los Angeles Times was the first publication to give the sad tale fresh life after The Sacramento Bee initially reported on it last fall. The rough chronology is this: the Long family of Shasta County, California, bought their daughter a goat, a castrated male (referred to as a wether in the parlance of livestock terminology) in April of 2022. They then enrolled their daughter in a local 4-H club and subsequently signed her up for the market goat project. Next, journalistic accounts of the Cedar saga skip from April to June 2022, the month Cedar was exhibited at the Shasta District Fair and then consigned and sold in the Junior Livestock Auction. Cedar was purchased in the auction by a local politician, selling for just over $900, far above “market rate” for a small market goat. But, after the auction, the girl had second thoughts and Jessica Long, the girl’s mother couldn’t bear to send Cedar to his terminal fate. So, she left the fair with her daughter and the goat in tow, setting in motion a whole series of controversial events.

Fair officials were outraged that Long took the goat, demanded that Cedar be returned, and when Ms. Long refused to disclose the location of the animal, the Shasta County Sheriff dispatched two deputies who then drove over 500 miles round trip to Sonoma County. There they found Cedar, the deputies turned him over to a third party, and the animal was slaughtered. Jessica Long claimed that her young daughter was traumatized, that Cedar was wrongfully seized by the police, and that the girl’s civil rights were violated. This high profile faceoff between fair officials, police, and the family is now playing out in federal court with the Long Family represented by Advancing Law for Animals, a nonprofit law firm that specializes in animal welfare cases.

For a public largely removed from agriculture, the whole affair is reminiscent of the classic children’s book Charlotte’s Web, although poor Cedar did not have a dedicated, hardworking spider advocating for him and ultimately wound up on a dinner plate. What Cedar leaves behind however is a court case and whole lot of ink and outrage that seeks to cast blame – and there is a lot to go around.

Who’s Responsible?

It’s a bad look for the fair officials and the police who, at the county’s expense drove over 500 miles to retrieve a goat. Given the situation of the family and the clearly distraught girl, the inflexibility of the fair’s livestock manager and fair executives seems harsh and unwarranted. And clearly the resources of law enforcement would have been better utilized elsewhere.

However, several elements to this viral story have not been thoroughly interrogated and addressed – the question of parental responsibility specific to this case, and the broader concept of agricultural literacy that is sorely lacking in the many media accounts of this story.

Between April when the Long Family purchased the goat, and June when they exhibited the goat, they would have been responsible for feeding it and caring for it, with the goal of teaching their daughter a thing or two about consistent responsibility, hard work, and animal husbandry. Because I am a former 4-H-er myself, and since I just enrolled my own daughter in her first year of 4-H this past winter, I also know that going into this project, the family would have been presented with any number of forms, documents, and mandatory workshops that made clear just what a “market goat project” entails, along with clarifying what the expectations were for exhibiting in the designated “market” class.

As someone who raises dairy goats, I know that there are many other options available to young people to raise livestock that are not destined for the dinner table. Dairy goats, dairy cows, and horses are just a small sampling of projects that do not end in a “terminal” fashion. They require more care and responsibility, but if worked with on a regular basis, dairy animals are just as personable as Cedar appeared to be. And yet market animals do hold an appeal to novice ag families – families that choose “terminal” projects precisely because they are short-term commitments. These types of projects allow children to have a range of interests as they grow up – this year’s goat enthusiast can try out for the soccer team next year or become a cheerleader in high school, and so farm work becomes only a childhood memory.

The Media Misunderstands Rural (Again)

Taking a broader view of the virality of this story, the Cedar saga reveals a significant gap in agricultural literacy among mainstream, mass circulation media outlets. Phrases deployed by the journalists reporting on this story consistently referred to the goat as a “pet” or “baby.” The Long Family’s perspective is prioritized to the detriment of other voices that might have spoken to the fact that goats are classified as livestock animals by the USDA and that consumer demand for goat meat has grown significantly in the past two decades. The characterization of Cedar as a “beloved family pet” by a law firm, and then subsequently by these stories, isn’t necessarily surprising. Goats have undergone a pop culture transformation in the past 50 years. Once stereotyped as tin can-eating symbols of backwoods ignorance, goats are everywhere now – in yoga studios, in Superbowl ads, and even on occasion as emotional support animals. They’ve come to occupy a kind of “liminal space,” blurring the boundary between pet and livestock.

But people also eat goats. A lot of people, and especially so in places like California where goat meat is quite popular and culturally accepted in diverse communities. Indeed, meat and dairy goat products have been touted by the likes of Andrew Zimmern and other foodie personalities for a wide range of reasons, from taste to environmental sustainability.

In the slew of articles published about this case, one piece in Vox stands out by charging that 4-H and FFA (the youth organization Future Farmers of America) push a meat-centric ideology that works to systematically indoctrinate children so they grow up to support the agenda of Big Ag. While I don’t dispute the organization’s somewhat problematic history linked to rural uplift in early 20th century, 4-H today has evolved far beyond its farming and home economics roots. It promotes civic engagement at a time when voting has become more important than ever, myriad youth leadership opportunities (as a teenager, I served my county as a 4-H youth ambassador), and diverse project areas that range from personal finance to videography.

The viral nature of Cedar the goat’s fate demonstrates, yet again, the penchant for urban-focused media outlets to portray rurality as backwards and morally bankrupt. Yes, Shasta County, 4-H officials, fair officials and the police all contributed to a less-than-ideal outcome for Cedar and the Longs, but claiming that teaching animal husbandry brainwashes children by normalizing “cognitive dissonance” implicates an entire (almost entirely rural) sector of agriculture in depravity. Plenty of farmers raise and slaughter meat in humane ways, and still manage to be upstanding, compassionate, moral people.

Perhaps some Americans will reexamine their relationship to meat in the wake of reading about one little goat’s demise, and that’s a good thing. More people need to think about where their food comes from and what processes get it from the farm to the table.

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