Invasive vegetation, the goat’s on you

Saxonburg farmer brings 30 goats to do a job on unwelcome brush, vines in Polish Hill




Commuters on Brereton Street in Polish Hill got a surprise Tuesday morning: 30 goats foraging along the hillside below West Penn Park. A bicyclist even stopped to take pictures.

Erik Schwalm transported the goats from his Goodness Grows Farm in Saxonburg to undertake the delicious task of ridding the site, about one-tenth of an acre, of invasive brush and vines. It was Mr. Schwalm’s first foray into the eco-grazing business, a business for which no market rate has been set locally. As a pioneer, he was paid $50 per head.

The Alcoa Foundation contributed $12,000 toward remediation of the Polish Hill site. Danielle Crumrine, Tree Pittsburgh executive director, said it is a good model site, being a well-traveled neighborhood gateway. The control and reclamation project will take 18 months, with the goats “the first line of defense,” she said.

Goats help Tree Pittsburgh clear hillside

Tree Pittsburgh is helping the Polish Hill Civic Association clear a hillside of noxious and nuisance plants by importing a team of goats to munch it away. (Video by Nate Guidry; 7/8/2014)

After the goats finished off the vegetation, volunteers were to move in to continue with the next phase of work. That will include clearing out what the goats didn’‍t want, assessing trees that are there, culling those that don’t fit into the reclamation plan and planting new ones.

Tuesday’‍s daylong event also was a Tree Pittsburgh workshop for prospective entrepreneurs in the goat-grazing business.

“Our hope is to catalyze a business venture locally,” Ms. Crumrine said.

Six years ago, Brian Knox established a sideline to his forestry consultation business in Maryland after one of his clients inherited 50 goats. They established Eco-Goats and had almost no competition in the eastern United States. Goat grazing to control vegetation had been practiced for some time out West, he said.

Now, a handful of eco-grazing businesses in eastern states indicate there could be many more. Goats don’t like to travel far, and distance jobs aren’‍t as profitable.

“I turn away much more work than I take,” said Mr. Knox, who contracted with Tree Pittsburgh as goat tender and consultant. “From May to October, I’m on the road seven days a week, and I have cut back. The other businesses are so spread out that we are always referring each other.”

Mr. Knox said goats can eat 20 percent of their body weight in vegetation each day. He said the going rate depends on factors including degree of difficulty, job size and travel time. He works for a base rate of $400 per herd but also has set-up fees. He works mostly for municipalities and other clients in Maryland, Delaware and Northern Virginia.

After Mr. Knox inspected the electric fencing that was erected in a loop on the hillside above Brereton Street to keep the animals from escaping, the goats piled out of their trailer and quickly seized on a mass of grapevine and porcelain weed. Some babies stuttered about and bawled before catching on. Then a group took off down the hillside and dispersed through the woods.

The beauty of using goats is that they have to eat anyway and can get to areas that are too labor intensive and sometimes not accessible to people. Steep, rocky and overly dense hillsides are their playgrounds.

They feast on poison ivy and particularly like thorns, Mr. Knox said. They don’t disturb the soil because they step lightly, but they fertilize it and push the fertilizer in with their hooves, aerating the soil.

Mr. Knox said goats are becoming attractive agents of weed control as more municipalities reject using herbicides.

Ms. Crumrine said the use of goats could increase if the city establishes a policy and processes for people to operate grazing businesses. Although the city was “totally on board with this” workshop, providing fencing and helping install it, “there is no process for making this happen. Maybe we can all learn together,” she said.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.

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