A passion for kids
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
Jim Sparks talks about his kids with such affection he’s almost embarrassed.
These kids aren’t from the family tree, though. His five kids – adult nannies now – are the gentle goats he admits are a bit spoiled and even pampered.
And on July 31 a newborn joined the family, earning the name Happy Birthday in honor of Sparks’ own birthday earlier that month.
“They’re a lot of fun,” said the 75-year-old gentleman farmer. “I thoroughly enjoy them.”
Sparks – widely known as Sparky – never intended to become a goat keeper in his retirement. After a long career at the local Safeway, he was content running his antiques and collectibles business, Sparky’s Conversational Antiques.
An elderly friend with a 3-acre farm east of town felt badly he could no longer care for animals that had long been a part of his life. His grazing fields and 40-year-old barn were empty, leaving the now 89-year-old friend with his own emptiness.
The kindhearted Sparks agreed to care for a few goats at his friend’s farm – but never imagined the joy they would bring.
Four years later, Sparks is passionate about breeding and milking goats and crafting artisan feta cheese from their milk.
Even more rewarding, he’s able to share the wonder of newborn kids with animal lovers in his hometown.
Through word-of-mouth and mentions in the local newspaper, he invites the public to visit the farm whenever kids are born. With another expectant goat due any moment, Sparks anticipates plenty of guests.
“Probably the greatest joy is getting to share them. I’ve had young people and old people come out here and share stories, hang loose and just sit out here,” Sparks said.
“How do you put a price tag on something like that?”
Last year some 200 people stopped by the country property where the large barn is part animal lodge, part antiques warehouse and part gathering place.
A string of rusty old bells – several cowbells among them – serves as a pulley doorbell across the barn door. Inside, overstuffed sofas, chairs and end tables rest atop area rugs, creating a comfortable meeting place for Baptist church fellowship gatherings hosted by Sparks.
Spider webs lend a charm; an Italian crystal chandelier hardly seems out of place in the Bohemian-like setting.
Sparks dubbed the place the 3-H Club Goat Farm in tribute to the original three goats he purchased at auction, each one given an “H” name. Today the herd includes Hilda, Honey, Hatty, Hazel and Hope, along with 10-day-old Happy (Birthday is her middle name).
Sparks says each goat has her own personality. The Nubian and Saanen crosses are all curious but Hilda is especially demure.
“She’s the one that smiles for you, if a goat smiles,” Sparks said. “They’ll all sit and purr for you like a cat. They love to be loved.”
Sparks says there’s one guaranteed way to raise a friendly goat – pampering.
“The more time you spend with them, the gentler they become,” he said.
He’s been taken by surprise at just how much he cares about the animals.
Sparks always allows mothers and kids to spend two months together rather than the standard one. He’s especially attentive to the mothers who have been separated from their kids.
“It’s hard enough separating them. I feel sorry for them,” Sparks said. “When one’s crying more than the other I go out and pamper her a little more. They miss their babies but that’s the way life is.”
He experienced his own sadness when one of the original nannies developed an illness with the potential to contaminate the entire herd. A veterinarian recommended euthanizing the goat.
“I loved that goat so much. She was such a good mother,” Sparks recalled. “I never dreamed I’d be so attached to a goat.”
He has little hesitation when he sells female kids, knowing they are going to enjoy productive lives. With young bucks, he asks no questions.
“I jokingly say I don’t discuss what people are going to do with them,” he said.
His own lactating nannies provide Sparks with enough milk to share with friends and to painstakingly craft into cheese. He milks twice each day, with the milking season extending for nearly a year.
Few people can taste the difference between cow’s milk and fresh goat’s milk, he says.
“It’s good. Personally I like it. My (50-year-old) son is a convert. He just goes through it,” Sparks said.
When Sparks realized he had an abundance of milk, he turned to the Internet for a tutorial on making goat’s milk cheese. He reduced the salt content and adjusted his methods – sharing excess whey with a neighboring pig farmer – until he was satisfied with the outcome.
“It’s not really hard to make, it’s just time consuming,” Sparks said. “I have people come from all over to get it. I take that as sort of a compliment.”
The retiree is passionate about his latest incarnation as a goat keeper, grateful that his wife is understanding and thankful for the hired hand that helps out with the farm.
Sparks is planning to mate two more nannies with billies Alvin and Elvis from area farms, assuring the fun continues at 3-H Club Goat Farm.
To visit the farm, call Jim Sparks at 477-6603. Dogs frighten the goats and should be left at home.