EASTON, Pa. -- The man in charge of Easton's day-to-day government got a call last week about hiring some furloughed federal workers. Not accountants or astronauts, but the kind that bray and bleat, and eat a lot of weeds.
The caller wanted to know if the trio of goats who summered among copses across Easton's Hugh Moore Park while dining on a varied menu of noxious undergrowth needed extra help in cleaning up the area.
"I have about 65 goats," explained Larry Cihanek, a retired New York City ad man turned goat farmer. "Just three are working."
Those three -- dubbed Monet, Picasso and Van Goat -- are the lucky ones because they already have a city job with Easton. The rest of the herd is furloughed because of the shutdown of the federal government.
Mr. Cihanek, who runs a small farm in Rhinebeck, N.Y., rents his herd as a cost-effective alternative to chemicals or back-breaking labor to keep weeds under control.
Last week, he picked up his goats at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island and Fort Hancock in New Jersey, and other National Park Service properties because of the budget impasse in Washington. No parks, no goats.
So, Mr. Cihanek called Easton City Administrator Glenn Steckman and offered him the furloughed goats for Hugh Moore Park. Mr. Steckman declined due to the city's tight budget, although he praised his three goats and their voracious appetites.
Park manager Chris Szarko said Monet, Picasso and Van Goat have become part of the team. On Tuesday the goats felt the same, braying at every Easton public works vehicle, be it dump truck, pickup, or ATV that passed by their fenced enclosure.
"They are constantly on the job," Mr. Szarko said.
The shutdown was inconvenient for Mr. Cihanek and his goats, but not a big financial blow, he said. He stumbled into goat farming several years ago after retiring from a Manhattan ad agency. He said he is one of a handful of people leasing goats on the East Coast for weed and shrub control.
Mr. Steckman said the city decided to try out the goats while transforming Hugh Moore Park back into family-friendly green space. The city took back maintenance of the park last year from the Hugh Moore Park and Museum organization and has focused on clearing trails, fixing parking lots, reclaiming open space and just making the park more aesthetically pleasing.
Mr. Szarko said Van Goat and his buddies are now in their fourth area of the park. Their fenced-in refuge is about half the size of a football field and includes a copse of trees along the bank of the Lehigh River. Compared with similar areas up and down the riverside, the goats have knocked down almost all of the noxious undergrowth.
The trio munched this week on Japanese knotweed, an invasive plant, and scoured the copse for other weeds and leaves. Turns out knotweed is like Swedish Fish for goats.
"Sheep eat grass," Mr. Cihanek said. "Goats eat brush and weeds. They happen to like all of the worst things that grow in the bushes. Poison ivy and anything with thorns.
"Japanese knotweed, that is like goat candy."
Mr. Cihanek said goats are effective at weed control because they eat the leaves off a plant, stripping it of the ability to store energy for a return in the spring. He said in other parks where his goats have been grazing for a few seasons, weeds are beaten back from 30 to 90 percent.
Van Goat, a big, black-bodied buck with gray ears, and his mates, Monet and Picasso, have just a few weeks left in Easton. The season is ending, and there won't be much left to eat until next year. The trio will likely return to the park, according to Mr. Steckman.
"Them and maybe a few more," Mr. Steckman said.
The goats have cost $1,200 for three months in residence.
Mr. Cihanek said the goat business has boomed for him, and what was once just a goofy hobby for his retirement has become a real job. He said most goat leasing in America is done out West, where huge herds are aimed at the dried-out brush that fuels the region's wildfires.
"My goats live the American dream," Mr. Cihanek said, "they eat for a living."
Mr. Cihanek laughed about the federal shutdown that sent his herds home a few weeks earlier than usual. He said they were some of the most efficient government workers in the rank and file -- all they need each day is some clean water. He said his neighbors in Dutchess County who own horses have bigger problems, thanks to the shutdown -- the sawdust they use in stalls is stuck at the Canadian border because customs officials have been furloughed.
"There's [manure] piling up in horse stalls all across Dutchess County," Mr. Cihanek said.
First Published October 11, 2013 8:00 PM