Networking the American Dream

By seeking out information and supplies online, an enterprising man achieves his aspiration of becoming a goat farmer.

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by Stephanie Nguyen

“See my new kid?” That was a text I received from my dad a few years ago. The unexpected text displayed a photo of a kooky-eyed goat standing innocently in the back of our family van, and the message marked my father’s transition to goat farmer. My father, Chay Nguyen, is a scrappy, do-it-yourself immigrant who, after three decades of working at a grocery store, was able to retire and start a goat farm using his grit and business skills.

America has always been a beacon of hope and freedom for my father. Every 4 a.m. commute brought a fresh whiff of future opportunity. Every grocery store can clunked onto a metal shelf was a beat of a metronome, counting down the moments of a hard day’s work toward his earnings. But the end of his 30 working years brought even more hope by echoing his childhood in the Mekong Delta countryside in Vietnam. Those fruit-farming, DIY roots stuck with him all these years. With his grocery store earnings, he bought a plot of land in rural Strasburg, Virginia, and became a full-time farmer, ultimately breeding goats for hobbyists and farmers. This is his American dream.

Of course, he didn’t do it on his own. In addition to my mother, he had a quiet and reliable business partner that helped him plunge into entrepreneurship and the small rural farm scene. His business partner — graying, stubborn, and generally averse to new-age trends — connected my dad with other homespun farmers nearby, free of charge. And that business partner was Craigslist. In stark contrast to slick, modern digital marketplace economies, such as Airbnb and Etsy, Craigslist is a basic-HTML website reminiscent of the 1990s. In the growing digital space of beautiful user experiences, Craigslist proves the saying: If it works, it works, no matter how ugly. And that’s its charm. My dad can always find that wheelbarrow he’s looking for by clicking through the text-flooded homepage, without ever being forced to relearn the site’s features. No frills, no gimmicks, no high-resolution images. Craigslist has exactly what he needs for goat farming and no more. In fact, he scrappily researched and reached out to dozens of farmers through Craigslist. He gained the technical skills to raise and tend to his goats through this creative way of making connections.

One day, we found a post offering a few plastic grain-feed barrels and drove half an hour to Berryville to purchase them. The farmer supplied us with the barrels, as well as invaluable knowledge about goat fencing, socializing, and clinical signs of disease. Soon after, my dad learned to bellow, “HEY, GOAT!” into the distance while shaking a bucket of feed wildly in the air. Without missing a beat, his herd of goats would sprint toward him with reckless abandon. With tips, tricks, and trial and error, he gained a goat farmer’s intuition.

Beyond skills, he built personal relationships with all the farmers he met through Craigslist. Each conversation with a farmer in real life validated their unique experiences and strengthened their friendships. Several farmers could relate to the neighbors’ unavoidable midnight call, “Your goats escaped the fence and are eating our crops again!” This crowdsourced wisdom and storytelling granted my father some crafty ways to goat-proof his fence. His newfound knowledge and homegrown farm curriculum bolstered his confidence as a goat farmer.

The opportunities on Craigslist are endless. You can find the most useful and random items at prices you can afford. If you look up “goat” on Craigslist in Virginia, you’ll find postings of a “Nigerian Dwarf buck with blue eyes” for $125. You can buy a goat cart and hay, and you can scavenge the “free” section for a stack of leftover plywood for all your goat fencing needs.

My dad’s relentless risk-taking and savvy business acumen was fueled by his insatiable desire to make his American dream come true. Craigslist became his trusty sidekick, expediting his education and connecting him with a community of other farmers. These past few years have been quite the ride. He’s learned how to farm through lived experience. He’s failed plenty. He’s devised eccentric solutions to quirky goat problems. Despite the dozens of abandoned newborn goat kids, wild goat chases, and predator foxes in the chicken coop, there’s a silver lining to it all. I can confidently say the American dream is very much alive. It’s just sometimes made possible by an old-fashioned online sidekick.

Stephanie Nguyen is a first-generation Vietnamese-American from Falls Church, Virginia. She’s a junior goat herder in training who’s currently studying at Harvard Kennedy School.