Learn about the Cotton Patch goose, a landrace breed developed in the U.S. deep South, medium breed that flies to escape predators.
Domesticated geese first arrived in America with European settlers. Over the course of many years, several breeds were developed including the Pilgrim, the American Buff, and what is perhaps the oldest American breed, the Cotton Patch goose of the deep South. The Cotton Patch is a unique part of our agricultural past that was integral to cotton production in the region before herbicides were developed for agriculture. They were geese with an occupation and were expected to forage in the fields for a majority of their food in the growing season. They are a small to medium bird and have the capability to fly unlike many of the heavier bodied breeds of geese. This trait often enabled the birds to escape wild predators and local stray dogs who were their main threat on the farm.
A Landrace Breed
The Cotton Patch is considered a landrace breed that can vary in color and type depending on the owner’s preferences for color but all are auto-sexing (males look different than females.) In all the bloodlines, the males are found to be all or mostly white with a small amount of dove-grey. Inversely the females are mostly dove-gray to brownish in color with variable amounts of white in their feathers. Their beaks and feet vary in color from orange to a pinkish hue.
Remembering Back in the Day
Until recently few knew of the Cotton Patch and even fewer remember the days when they were widespread on southern farms. I wanted to learn more of the early days so I took the opportunity to chat with Mississippi farmer, Justin Pitts. Justin’s family goes back many generations in the region and he still recalls the days when they kept geese on the farm.
One of my first questions was “Where do you think they came from. England? Spain? France?” He responded that it was so far back that fact may be lost in time. He mentions their similarity to some of the autosexing breeds found in the UK and France. On occasion he would hear people refer to them as “the French geese” but most of the time they were called the “old goose” or the “cotton patch.” Local tribes who farmed cotton also kept them as well and in some places, the birds were called “Choctaw” or “Indian” geese.
Historic Keepers of the Geese
Justin recalled that in earlier times, farms were much more diversified than they are today and folks kept a wide variety of stock. Most of the farms in the region all had a small patch of cotton (five to ten acres) and just about everyone had a small flock of geese working in it. However, Justin’s great grandfather, Frank “Papa” James, and his son-in-law, Earl Beesley, each kept breeding flocks of 300-400 Cotton Patch geese for their large cotton fields. The birds were penned up at night in a corner of the field to protect them from stray dogs and then later coyotes who began showing up east of the Mississippi River during the early twentieth century. In the morning the birds were released and put to work. In the winter they may get some shelled corn to supplement their diet since the foraging would be poor that time of year. The birds were expected to nest and raise their own goslings each year in early spring usually around Valentine’s Day. Ganders could be particularly protective of their girls. It wasn’t rare if some unlucky individual on the farm unexpectedly face the wrath of those birds that would be hell bent on giving you the whoopin’ of a lifetime with their wings! The males were also aggressive between each other and brought much commotion to the farm in the spring. Young geese were retained no matter their color and if they had no visual defects such as deformities or angel wings. They had to be able to hold their own in the cotton fields with little interference from their owners making for a very hardy breed. Above all else they needed the ability to fly which kept the breed small and athletic.
Frank and Earl farmed with geese this traditional way up until the 1960’s when cotton production in Mississippi began to fade away. The geese were not used much for weeding other crops as far as Justin remembered so unfortunately as cotton faded, so did the goose. By the late 20th century there were a scant few left that were held on to by families out of long-time tradition. Frank and Earl shifted towards increasing production with their traditional Pinewoods cattle on the farm which are the cattle Justin still keeps today.
Cotton Patch Cuisine
I was surprised when I asked the question of how people cooked the geese. Justin never knew any of his family members to ever eat the geese but they sure did eat the eggs. A good goose could lay up to 90 large eggs a year and he remembered his grandmother would cook with them just as she did with chicken eggs. She had many mouths to feed and the eggs were a welcome addition to the kitchen that produced mountains of cornbread thanks to the geese.
Justin pointed out to there were those outside the family that did relish the opportunity to eat the geese. In particular he remembered a businessman from Hattiesburg, Mr. Fine of Fine Brothers Department Store, who would send a worker to the farm with a large truck and a blank check every year for Papa Frank in order to get geese for his family for Hanukah. He shipped the birds far and wide to family all the way up as far as Chicago.
Pickin’ the Geese
Besides the eggs, the family used to gather to do their annual goose pickin’ when they would harvest down feathers for pillows and sometimes bed ticking. The geese did not take kindly to being held so a sock was put over their head and feather were gently rubbed and eased from the body without pulling hard or plucking. They came off pretty easily and were ready to be stuffing shortly thereafter. The geese were then released back to their flocks no worse for wear.
For Justin’s family, geese played a central role for many years. Today Justin still keeps the geese on his own farm and is always on the lookout for finding lost flocks of them throughout the south. He also works to uphold the legacy of those who have worked so hard to preserve what was left of the breed. Many have passed and he feels it’s important to remember how much they did for these birds. He mentioned with a little sadness Tom Walker of Texas who passed in 2019. He was a character few will forget and was a tremendous loss for the breed. He spent many years tracking down birds and was one of the breed’s staunchest supporters.
Stamp of Approval
In 2020 the United States Postal Service announced a new set of Forever Stamps dedicated to celebrating Heritage breeds of livestock and poultry. The breeds included the Mulefoot hog, Wyandotte chicken, Milking Devon cow, Narragansett turkey, Mammoth Jackstock donkey, Barbados Blackbelly sheep, Cayuga duck, San Clemente Island goat and yes, you guessed it, the Cotton Patch goose! The breed had the honor of being immortalized on a stamp and recognized as a national treasure for agriculture.
The Livestock Conservancy worked with the USPS and George Washington’s Mount Vernon to have an official launch of the stamps in May of 2021. To make the occasion extra special, live animals were brought to the event to represent their breeds that were on the stamps. Kimberly and Mark Dominesey of Frog Hollow Schoolmaster’s Homestead were kind enough to bring some of their geese and goslings to the event. It was a rare treat for attendees to see these critically endangered iconic geese. The family values the birds for the hardiness and takes great pleasure in building their flock on their farm in nearby Maryland.
Cotton Patch into the Future
The breed is enjoying a swift uptick in popularity but still remains a critically endangered breed. Flocks are typically very small and spread throughout the country. Finding flocks that may offer diversity for the population is a priority as time is getting short for discovering the last of the lost flocks in the South.
Jeannette Beranger is the Senior Program Manager for The Livestock Conservancy. She came to the organization with 25 years’ experience working as an animal professional including veterinary and zoological institutions with a focus on Heritage breeds. She has been with The Conservancy since 2005 and uses her knowledge to plan and implement conservation programs, conduct field research, and advise farmers in their endeavors with rare breeds. She is co-author of the best-selling book “An Introduction to Heritage Breeds.” At home she maintains a Heritage breeds farm with a focus on rare breed chickens & horses. In 2015 she was honored as one of the top “45 Amazing Country Women in America” by Country Woman magazine for her long standing dedication to endangered breed conservation.