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  • Writer's pictureWorld Half Full

Using goats as lawnmowers


Drucella Miranda was frustrated urging others to “do better by the Earth” without doing the same herself. So she quit her job as an educator who used to design youth programs, and set her sights on starting a landscaping business in Sacramento, California — using goats. She’s already received interest in goat-grazing services from friends and a family in nearby Citrus Heights.

Though some cities still have policies hostile to grazing businesses, others — including Citrus Heights, Elk Grove and West Sacramento — have contracted goat herds in recent years to graze down overgrowth in parks, schools and other open spaces. City officials cite lower costs, less noise and fewer toxic chemicals compared to other landscaping solutions, and even residents’ enjoyment of having goats around as reasons for the switch.

And business is booming. One operator in San Francisco says they frequently have to turn down requests outside their service area, while Iowa company Goats on the Go says it’s received so many inquiries it’s started a national affiliate network of small operators, including two in California.

Judy-B., the resident manager for the San Francisco apartment complex she lives in, first brought in goats to clear out vegetation from a yard on the property in 2019. While traditional landscaping services would have cost more than US$2,000 for a 2,000 square metre yard, San Francisco-based nonprofit City Grazing only charged around US$1,250 to have goats graze down the blackberry brambles and other overgrowth, she says. For the less dense vegetation this year, that cost was down to US$950.

“It’s environmentally friendly and it is cheaper than hiring a landscaper, so it was actually an easy sell [to the property management company],” she notes.

Similarly, the US$22,000 the city of Citrus Heights spent on goats to graze around a middle school and in open spaces was “half of what it would cost for contractors to do the same work,” according to city spokesperson Marisa Brown.

In areas with steep slopes or restrictions on chemical runoff, goat grazing can be the only practical way to clear vegetation, says Aaron Steele, co-founder of Goats on the Go. The city of Elk Grove, for example, is “restricted from using any chemical or mechanical methods in the creek beds,” spokesperson Kristyn Laurence says. “Therefore using livestock allows us to clear those areas.”

Laurence also noted the city chose grazing for its positive environmental impact. Instead of having to haul away clippings after a job, goats turn unwanted vegetation into “immediately bioavailable nutrients for the soil in the form of goat poop”, benefiting trees and native plants in the area, says Genevieve Church, executive director of City Grazing. The nutrients strengthen the root systems of grasses and plants that remain, helping them store more carbon in the soil, produce more oxygen and improve the air quality in the area, she adds.

Compared to using “big disruptive mechanical equipment” for landscaping, grazing also minimises erosion and the use of herbicides, Steele says. “I can’t make huge claims . . . about how using goats for vegetation control is dramatically cutting the use of fossil fuels and carbon emissions,” he says. “[But] if we want to maintain a native landscape and all the benefits that go with that . . . we have a natural solution to these problems, why aren’t we using it more?”

Finally, the educational value of having goats around contributes to their popularity as a grazing solution, operators report. “A lot of our public clients love having the goats come in because it’s an opportunity for the surrounding community to get together and have a free, safe, fun outdoor activity,” Church says.

City Grazing recently started working with the San Francisco School District, where part of the sell was providing “kids with some access to seeing sustainable land management in action”.

“We’ve put up educational materials, teaching them a little bit about why goat grazing is such a great choice, but they’re also getting the fun and excitement of getting to have goats right next to their schoolyard and getting to watch them there for a week or two at a time,” Church says.

Not everything goes smoothly for grazing businesses, though. Sacramento has a city ordinance that “generally prohibits the keeping, harbouring, or maintaining of livestock on property within the City,” says city spokesperson Tim Swanson. When asked whether the ordinance prohibits bringing goats to a city property as part of a grazing business, Swanson said that “the determination would be made on a case-by-case basis.”

Dealing with city regulations is a problem that experienced operators have also run into. “Every city kind of interprets their regulations differently,” Steele says. “They all have virtually identical wording, and yet you can go from one city and they’re all in [on targeted grazing], and then you go to another city and they look at the same regulations and say, nope, not allowed at all.”

The solution is to engage with local residents and educate city leadership about grazing, Steele says. Goats on the Go highlights the success of Salem, Oregon, and Dubuque, Iowa, where community members or affiliate operators worked with the cities to apply grazing-friendly policies.

“I think generally the tide is turning and no city wants to be left behind and viewed as the city who is stuck in their ways and not innovative enough to embrace this really great practice,” Steele adds.

In the Sacramento area, the cities of Citrus Heights and Elk Grove have both directly contracted goats for grazing, while a spokesperson for Rancho Cordova affirmed that “our municipal code allows grazing animals to be used for weed abatement and property maintenance”.

Both founders of City Grazing and Goats on the Go say there’s demand for more small-scale operators in currently underserved areas.

Steele had been receiving so many requests for advice on how to start similar businesses, he set up a “brand network” in 2016. Today, Goats on the Go has more than 60 affiliate operators across the country, most of which have between 20 and 50 goats and focus on projects under four hectares. Like Steele, many of the affiliates are “aspiring farmers or homesteaders” who see this as a way to contribute to their local communities by providing a valuable service with an environmental benefit, he says.

City Grazing started in 2008 as an effort by a waste management company to graze down grasses along company railways, Church says. They started “with 10 goats that were headed to auction” and today they have a herd of more than 100 goats.

“Our inquiries definitely increase every year,” Church says. But much of the demand is still unfulfilled: the majority of City Grazing’s inquiries come from areas outside their service area. “Most of the larger grazing companies in California don’t want to do projects that are under five to 10 acres [2-4 ha],” so “there’s a gap in the grazing industry for properties that are between two and five acres [1-2 ha] in those surrounding communities . . . that’s where I’m seeing a huge influx,” Church says.

Miranda hopes to be one more local force for change, filling the gap. Even if “we’re gonna fail often”, Miranda is hopeful that she can “fail well and learn from it”. The goat grazing project is ultimately about finding “experimental ways of trying to live in better relationships with the Earth and one another . . . localising communities and restructuring how we’re functioning,” she says. “That’s what I would like to do.”

TOP Goats grazing on a lawn

PHOTO Luboslav Ivanko

ABOVE More than 400 goats cross Jefferson Boulevard in West Sacramento in 2022. Firefighters credit the goats with helping with an area fire. “If goats had not been there previously the fire could have been more dangerous,” says Paul Hosley, a public information officer for the City of West Sacramento.

PHOTO Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee

I can’t make huge claims about how using goats for vegetation control is dramatically cutting the use of fossil fuels and carbon emissions. But if we want to maintain a native landscape and all the benefits that go with that, we have a natural solution to these problems, why aren’t we using it more?

Aaron Steele


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