Kidding Around No Kidding
BY KATY KELLEHER / ART R.C. AZCUETA
In 2007, a message arrived in Larry Cihanek’s in-box with the subject line “Seeking New York City goat herder.” “I was born and raised in New York City, and I’m a goat herder, so I guess this is for me,” he recalls saying to himself before clicking. Inside, he found a request from the National Park Service. They were looking for some goats to clear brush from a historic site on Staten Island. Fort Wadsworth is one of the oldest military installations in the country, and while it could be cleared by conventional means, there were some plants—including poison ivy and Japanese knotweed—that were proving difficult to eradicate. To solve the problem, one park official sent an email out to some 400 goat owners, hoping to find one willing and able to transport their herd.
“I don’t know why he sent the other 399 messages,” Cihanek says. “It was just the job for me. And it worked—it worked well. It was a hoot. From there, I started picking up other parks jobs, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Cihanek (a former advertising executive from Manhattan) was an early adapter of a rising trend in American culture. You can now search Amazon for goatscaping services. Or you can find out about goatscaping the way I did—through Facebook.
Last year, a friend posted pictures of sweet-faced Nubian goats chewing on brambles in her suburban yard in Acton, Massachusetts. I had been to her house before, and I knew the lot wasn’t large enough to handle a full-time herd of goats, particularly not in her central location near the High School and downtown areas. Turns out, they weren’t her goats; she had rented them for a two week visit through Go Green Goats out of Plympton, Massachusetts. “We wanted to get rid of the poison ivy in our yard, and it’s important to us that we limit the amount of chemicals we put on our property,” explained homeowner Beth Schrager. As a reiki practitioner, bodily wellbeing is extremely important to Schrager, as is the health of her land. “They did a tremendous amount of work in a very short time,” she says. “And once I put it on Facebook, everybody was coming to visit me, bringing along their grandchildren and kids.”
Goats aren’t just gnawing their way through New York City parks and suburban lawns. They’re also being used to clear brush on college campuses (Cihanek counts Vassar, Bard, Marist, and the University of Pennsylvania among his clients), golf courses, and on commercial properties, including office parks in the greater Boston area. While Cihanek only works on commercial jobs, companies like Go Green Goats have been popping up all around New England, from Maine to Rhode Island.
Of course, this isn’t a new practice. Goats have been used to clear land for centuries, and farmers have been loaning out their goats to neighbors for just as long. But the idea of using goats solely as landscapers? That’s a novel idea, one that’s catching on fast.
To understand why goats make such excellent landscapers, it’s useful to have experience wrestling with knotweed or tangling with brambles. Knotweed has long been an enemy of mine—ever since I planted my first garden in a small plot in Somerville, Massachusetts. The area was overcome with knotweed, and it took many hours of work to dig up each hard rhizome of the self-seeding invasive species. Lawn owners who have donned dish gloves just to grasp poison ivy vines know, too, how difficult it can be to rid a property of these pervasive, pernicious plants. But goats are happy to chew on knotweed’s ruby red stalks. Thorns don’t bother them one whit, nor do the stinging hairs on nettles. They can even make short work of poison ivy’s sleek, oily leaves. Urushiol, the allergen produced by poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, the Japanese Lacquer Tree, and surprisingly enough, mango trees, doesn’t affect goats. Were a human to ingest a handful of urushiol-coated leaves, they would likely experience severe throat swelling, difficulty breathing, even death. Goats just get full bellies. “Goats will eat briars, brambles, thorny bushes, rose bushes, and the like, and it doesn’t bother them one bit. They’ll eat anything that’s green,” says Sue Schortmann, who works as the herd manager for Go Green Goats. Go Green Goats was founded by entrepreneur Elaine Philbrick in 2012 after she read an article in the Patriot Ledger about a golf course owner who used goats to keep his property tidy. “Many golf courses didn’t used to be environmentally friendly,” Schortmann says. “It used to be that if you didn’t like a weed, you would just spray it and move on. But that’s not true anymore.” People who spend a lot of time outdoors, Schortmann argues, tend to be aware of their natural environment. Slowly, many golf courses have come around to greener practices, including hiring goats for ground control.
But Heather Lombard, founder of Scapegoats in West Kennebunk, Maine, warns her clients not to expect “a perfectly manicured property.” Like teenage humans, goats eat in rather ad hoc ways—nibbling here, munching there. “I don’t want to give people the perception that goats can take care of everything,” Lombard says. “Goats won't eat woody stems. They will trample it down ad strip it, which may kill the plant, but it won't always eradicate it entirely.” Goats are just a step in the cleaning process. Most goatscapers offer their goat rentals on a weekly basis, and the prices can range from $500 per week to $850, depending on location. (Transporting the goats is expensive, and setup is time-consuming, so some goatscapers offer discounts on multi-week jobs.) While experts from the Permaculture Research Institute suggest bringing in pigs to finish the job—they’re more likely to pull out knotweed roots and other underground systems—Lombard suggests homeowners try laying down landscape fabric over the area. This cuts off light to the roots, making it difficult for new growth to form.
But while goats have mighty strong stomachs, they aren’t invincible. The leaves of cherry trees are toxic to goats, as are some kinds of flowering laurel shrubs and rhododendrons. “I had a bad experience with laurel last year,” Lombard recalls. Although she visits each site before bringing her goats (both to prep the owners and to make sure her herd will be safe working on site) she didn’t spot this particular cluster of Sheep Laurel. “It can grow really close to the ground,” she remembers. Fortunately, the goat recovered from her brush with death and was back at work within a week.
When a goatscaper visits a property, poisonous plants are just one of the factors they consider. “A big part of the job is that you have to be clever enough to figure out how to put fences where fences can’t exist,” explains Cihanek. “Every goat owner knows that goats are hard to fence. They’re browsers.” While some goatscapers put up temporary fences, others use electric fences to keep the goats in place. Lombard, who uses electric netting, says that clearing an area for the fence can often require a full day of work. And even when they are properly set up, electric fences aren’t goat-proof.
Last year, when Lombard was on a job in a suburban community in midcoast Maine, one of her goats escaped. “The house was having power surges,” she says. “Carlito, who is a genius, could tell when it happened, and he leapt through one of the squares. He ended up knocking down a section of fencing, and he broke out two other goats.”
“But the thing is,” she adds, “with goats, once they’re out, they just calm down, stay in place, and start eating the nearest tree.” The jailbreak ended calmly when Lombard showed up to the house, walked her goats back into their designated grazing space, and reinstalled the electric fence. “It’s the only escape I’ve ever had, and it turned out okay,” she says.
Over a year after I first heard about goatscaping, I drove down to Kennebunk to meet Lombard’s motley herd. Down a long driveway, inside a fenced enclosure, I found twelve playful goats that range in size from small dog to skinny cow. A white earless goat (breed: American Lamancha) licked my fingers. Behind her, a small black goat jumped off the “jungle gym” Lombard built for her livestock, landing on a pile of hay.
Goats have a strange, undeniable charm. Even the ugly ones are cute are made attractive (like many of us are) by their jubilant personalities, their frisky high spirits. “I joke that they have to do their morning parkour,” Lombard says. As she talks, her goat Raye licks her hand, nuzzling her like a dog. For her, these animals are more than a business venture. They’re her companions. “Each one has a very distinct personality,” she says. “You can bond with them. They know their names, and they love getting affection.” Lombard, a former mental health professional who switched careers in her late 30s, says working with the goats has been good for her wellbeing. “They give me a sense of purpose, which is something I was searching for before,” she explains. “And I have a maternal attachment to them. It’s a lot of work, and even when I do it begrudgingly—like on a cold day when I don’t want to go outside and feed them—I’m always so glad I did.”
Every goat farmer I spoke with reported similar feelings of affection toward their herd. (This isn’t something I’ve heard from dairy farmers before, though I do know some pig farmers who feel the same way about their curly-haired livestock.) “Goats can really bring a neighborhood together,” says Schortmann. Recently, her company had a job in Wrentham, Massachusetts, and when they arrived, she asked the client where they should set up. He pointed to the front yard.
“I told him there wasn’t much to clear there,” she recalls. “But he told me that wasn’t really what he wanted.” It turns out that the man and his wife had just moved to Wrentham, and they thought the goats could be a good conversation starter with their neighbors. It worked like a charm, according to Schortmann.
She told me another heartwarming story about the power of goats. On Mother’s Day, a teenage boy from Boston rented a baby goat from Go Green Goats. “He raised money to buy a day with a baby goat named Penelope,” Schortmann says. The lucky mom had always loved goats, and so her son arranged for her to spend Mother’s Day bottle-feeding a five-day old kid. He paid for the service by raising money at his high school. “His mom was so appreciative, she cried,” Schortmann reports. This is her favorite part of working at Go Green Goats: “Lots of people are using goats not just to eat things, but to share joy. I love that part of the job.”