A disabled veteran and farmer could lose his top therapy tool if he is unable to come up with funding to make his farming operation legal.
Robert Ragels, 47, a 100 percent-disabled Army veteran who served in the Gulf War and Bosnia, has a menagerie of therapy animals, which support their own upkeep on his small Texas farm via eggs sales and goat cheese made from grade-B goat milk.
Despite a 2011 state law change that required him to produce goat cheese with only grade-A milk, he has continued to operate illegally rather than make the $250,000 investment to bring his farm into compliance. But now regulators are cracking down, he said, and his only option is to pay for the improvements or be shut down.
Chief among his therapy animals are his 40 goats; his favorite is named "Bee" because she greets him and interacts with him every time he enters the pen, he said.
His family of four also has nine dogs, including a certified therapy Pug; about 30 ducks; one mini- horse; seven cats; 100 chickens; and a guard llama, Ragels said.
By making cheese from goat milk under a food manufacturer license and selling duck and chicken eggs, Ragels is able to turn about a $400 weekly profit, he said.
Ragels received a 100 percent disability rating for post-traumatic stress disorder after he left the Army in 1999. He first realized the therapy power of his goats and other animals while receiving therapy from a Department of Veterans Affairs doctor in Arizona, he said.
"Anything dealing with the animals, I'm totally at ease, whether it's going to Home Depot for fencing supplies, or to the feed store, or to the farmers market to sell cheese," he said. "They're pretty much just a mirror. Whatever you give them, they give back. There's no façade, there's nothing you have to hide.... I have no doubt that if I didn't have animals, I would be a lot worse off than I am today."
But to keep the animals, he needs to bring his cheese production operation up to code, and that means producing grade-A instead of grade-B goat milk for the cheese, he said. To do so, he needs to make a variety of upgrades to his farm, including building a new facility that meets state standards and purchasing a commercial pasteurizer, with a price tag starting at $15,000.
Ragels said he has tried applying for grants from government agencies such as the Small Business Administration, but thanks to budget cuts there aren't many available, and anyone who had been taking applications is done for the year.
And while he is in the process of refinancing his home and has set up a GoFundMe account to come up with some of the money, unless he finds another way to pay for the changes, he won't be able to keep selling products or keep his animals.
"I cannot afford the goats unless they pay for themselves, I just can't," he said. "I hate to beg for money. For me, it's almost not honorable to put your hat out and beg. I work every single day, I'm not a lazy guy -- but I simply can't do this."
Ragels said he plans to finish construction by early next year, assuming he can find the funding. Although he knows talking about his illegal farm operation publicly will bring heightened attention from regulators, he is willing to take the risk if it means telling people about his struggle.
"I honestly can't even think about not having animals around," he said. "It would be like you walking downtown naked. It's not something you could ever picture doing. It's something that you would be forced to do against your own will. I can't even comprehend not having animals."
-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.