Well-Employed in Pandemic Times: Landscaping Goats

Candace Thompson, manager of Stuyvesant Cove Park in Lower Manhattan, put on a giant bindweed one day when a woman who was having lunch nearby offered advice.

“She said, ‘You need goats,” recalls Ms. Thompson.

The park manager was intrigued. She ordered 20 of the animals, which arrived in a trailer from Rhinebeck, NY, in early September. Two and a half days later, most of the weeds were gone.

Goat farming, as this trick is called, has grown in popularity in recent years as an environmentally friendly method of clearing overgrown land. Covid-19 has boosted demand. Goats can be on duty during the lockdown. Ms. Thompson turned to goats after New York spring restrictions forced the park’s usual group of volunteers to stay home, leaving them full of weeds.

Goats arriving at Stuyvesant Cove Park in New York City.

In the goat mobile.

Go straight to work.


Photo:

Konrad Putzier / The Wall Street Journal (3)

Goats at work also provide instant entertainment for children stuck at home during distance learning. When Lansing Davis of Mill Valley, California housed three goats on his two-acre property from September to early December, his 4, 7, and 9-year-old daughters enjoyed them and met their different personalities while the children were out the neighborhood they fed through the fence.

“We were looking for positive distractions,” said Mr Davis.

Not that you have to be a kid. Sarah Baird rented some goats to control the weeds at the rural house near Buffalo, NY, where she and her husband were bunkered in September, and soon found she was enjoying their company. “We actually had family talks about getting our own goats,” she said.

Hiring goats and sheep as landscapers goes back a way. The White House had a flock of sheep to keep the weeds at bay during World War I. Competition from gas-powered lawnmowers and weed killers eventually got most of the animals out of work.

In 1919 sheep grazed on the White House lawn.


Photo:

Library of Congress

In the past few decades, a generation of environmentally conscious, animal-loving Americans has rediscovered goats. Goat farming businesses are now particularly common in California, where mild winters allow grazing all year round.

Renting five goats costs about $ 500 a week. Goat factories provide a fence and water buckets and a shepherd if necessary.

The goats usually arrive by trailer, do a quick scan of the area, and then get to work. It doesn’t take long before little vegetation remains.

Keep Sarah Baird’s property tidy.


Photo:

Sarah Baird

“It’s like mowing your lawn, but with four-legged weed killers,” said Larry Cihanek, who has 180 goats in Rhinebeck that he rents out for landscaping in several states.

Goat landscape has its challenges. According to Mr. Cihanek, the goats form relationships with one another and can become unhappy if separated. He said he kept goats like that together on assignments.

The job isn’t particularly dangerous, but injuries can occur. One of Mr. Cihanek’s goats grazed in a cemetery broke its leg when it got stuck between two tombstones. He created a cast and reinstalled the worker after recovering.

While weeding the fields, some goats tried to take a break. “A goat is going to clear a six-foot fence off a bus stop,” said Genevieve Church, who runs a San Francisco nonprofit called City Grazing.

Years ago some of their goats ran away. They broke into a neighboring garden and destroyed a collection of roses. Mrs. Church had to pay for the damage.

The neighbor wasn’t annoyed for long. “He thought it was the funniest,” she said.

City goats often need to be watched over night. Those at Stuyvesant Cove Park in New York were held in the park by a fence that the goat supplier built, but Ms. Thompson felt compelled to sleep in a van in the park to keep an eye on them.

The first morning they awoke to voices. “I look out of my van window and there is a guy feeding you chips,” she said. “I said, ‘Sir, can’t you do this, please?’ ”

Landscaping is a second career for many goats after working in the dairy trade. Some owners have taken an analogous course and given up deskbound jobs for the goat business.

Mr. Cihanek spent decades in the Manhattan advertising business before moving upstairs and buying a farm. Jennifer Zeitler, who runs Let’s Goat Buffalo, the company Ms. Baird booked, worked in employee benefits before deciding to get closer to nature.

With 15 goats, Let’s Goat Buffalo is one of the newer and smaller companies in the goat production sector. One of the largest is Living Systems Land Management in Coalinga, California, with around 9,000 goats and sheep. Recently 1,200 goats were sent to clear weeds from a levee along the Sacramento River to make it easier for engineers to spot holes, said Mike Canaday, one of the owners.

Let’s goat buffalo by order in Concordia Cemetery in Buffalo, NY


Photo:

Jennifer Zeitler

Every spring, hundreds of his goats arrive in Agoura Hills, northwest of Los Angeles. Guarded by shepherds and dogs, they spend six to eight weeks on 80 acres of open land around houses, clearing up anything that could spark wildfire.

At $ 50,000, the goats cost about half the cost of hiring weed killers over the course of a year, said Jan Gerstel, president of a local homeowners association.

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And they don’t leave cut grass behind. He credits her appetite for saving his neighborhood from a 2018 fire known as the Woolsey Fire, which destroyed more than 1,500 buildings in 97,000 acres and claimed several lives. Mr Gerstel said the flames had reached the edge of the area where the goats had been grazing and then stopped.

“You literally eat up to the dirt,” he said, “and there’s nothing left to burn.”

Corrections & reinforcements
In a previous version of this article, bindweed was misspelled as blindweed. Jan Gerstel’s last name was also misspelled in a reference as Gersel. (December 15, 2020)

Write to Konrad Putzier at [email protected]

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