Billy goat Bob reaches up to eat leaves on a lilac branch held by 16-year-old Maretta Van Beck July 22 on the goat farm of her parents, Noah and Sara, northwest of Freeport. Other billy goats in the fenced-in area stretch their necks to nibble at the branch. Watching the goat antics are Maretta’s parents and siblings – Spencer, 21, Quentin, 18, Thatcher, 13, and Jena, 10 – all wearing red Van Beck Ranch T-shirts. 

It is all hands on deck when caring for more than 800 goats on this century farm in the Wilwerding family since 1886, also home to chickens, sheep, cows, dairy steers, rabbits and a horse. 

Sara and Noah smile when asked why they chose to raise a menagerie of animals in a county known for dairy.

“A deep trust in God, our children’s willingness to be involved and our love for continuing a legacy of agriculture and land that our parents instilled in us,” Sara said.

They figure it was because of their farm’s uniqueness that they were chosen by the University of Minnesota as the 2020 Stearns County Farm Family of the Year. 

“It’s humbling, and every hard-working farmer during these challenging times is equally deserving of it,” Sara said. 

Normally farms of the year are recognized during FarmFest, but because of COVID-19, the recognition will be done virtually at 1 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 6, at

Four generation farming 

Trees planted from seedlings Sara’s great-grandfather Anton Wilwerding brought from Germany in 1902 still flourish on the Van Beck property.

“He started a fruit farm nursery,” Sara said of Kings Lake Fruit Farm.

Her grandfather, John Wilwerding, who was allergic to bees, converted the nursery into a dairy. After the barn burned down, Gold’n Plump chicken breeder barns were built in 1953.

“I helped picked eggs and was afraid of the rooster,” said Sara, who grew up on a farm across the country road. 

Sara’s parents, Glen and Betty Wilwerding, crop farmed the original farm site from 1973 to 2000. The next year, the farm was purchased by Noah and Sara, transitioning it into a meat goat business. Both have deep dairy farm roots. Noah, the son of Ralph and Linda Van Beck, grew up on a dairy farm west of Greenwald. 

“I have a passion for teaching kids about agriculture, no matter what it is, as long as it’s taking care of the land and farms,” said Sara, a past Princess Kay finalist butterhead.

With their children involved in FFA and 4-H, the Van Becks started in the goat industry in 2010, with 10 4-H goats and 50 commercial goats. 

“They’re a docile animal and an easy species for our kids to work with,” Sara said. “Goats are fascinating, and we wanted to be innovative.”

As meat goat producers they learned about production and markets in Minnesota and surrounding states. 

Red and white barns with fenced-in areas house their Boer and Spanish goats. Noah, who owns his own construction company, built the goat buildings, converting a chicken barn into a goat nursery, and Sara did the designing. They built a new house, with an addition for Sara’s dad to live in. Recently they converted it into a short-term lodging area, welcoming guests to participate in their farming experience.

Kidding season 

In 2018 the Van Becks expanded from 50 to around 800 goats. Today, they have close to 700 nannies (mothers) and 40 billies (fathers).

Kidding season is exciting. Thatcher said, when walking in the barn, there is a newborn smell – and it can be loud with all the kids bleating.  

“It’s like 500 children yelling for mom,” Sara said.  

The Van Becks spend hours in the barn during kidding season, even taking turns going to church to ensure someone stays home on goat watching duty.

“The kids are delicate when born,” said Sara, with Jena adding, “They are like glass.”

The girls bring heated blankets to the barn for babies to be wrapped in.

The mortality rate can be high, especially during winter months, Noah said. During his barn walkthroughs, he observes the goats to make sure they are acting normal and not looking sick.

The challenge is to prevent pneumonia, especially during wet springs.

“When we lose kids, it tough on our kids to watch,” Sara said. 

They breed the nannies to give birth in non-frigid temperatures. The gestation period is five months.

“The goal is for them to have kids every eight months,” Noah said.

Twins are common, and on rare occasions triplets are born. The Van Becks have experienced the birth of quads (4 kids) twice.

“The most goats we’ve had born in one day was 28,” Noah said. 

Kids are around 5 pounds when born. Each is tagged with a chip in it and vaccinated. 

Nannies are kept in the main barn, in fenced-off areas according to when they were bred and remain there until just before giving birth when they are placed in the nursery. After eight weeks, the kids are placed in the weaning area, until they weigh 60 to 70 pounds and are taken to market. Adult goat meat, called chevon, is dark and sweet tasting.

To ensure proper growth, goats are fed a mixture of silage and hay twice a day.

“I call it a giant cereal bowl,” Sara said. 

Life on the Van Beck Ranch is busy, but with no fair this year, not quite as busy. Jena has a fluffy white Silkie chicken she hoped to show.

Their gusto for goats is ever present.

“The babies are cute,” said Maretta, proud of her “Goat Mama” nickname, because she is the first one in the barn after a baby is born. 

“One minute they’re not in this world, and the next minute they are,” said Maretta, who wants to be a nurse one day.

They have a few pet goats, like spoiled Gertrude; Crazy Bob, the billy goat; and Sophie. 

“They get their names because of their character,” Sara said. 

The Van Becks look forward to August and the birth of around 80 kids.

“They are part of our family,” Sara said.

And part of an agriculture legacy that continues on their four-generation family farm.