Gavin Deming runs one of the fastest, most efficient landscaping outfits in Pittsburgh.
From now until November, his team will work non-stop to clear brush and weeds from vacant lots, private properties and public spaces. The diehard laborers don’t use tools; they use their teeth.
“They earn their keep by eating,” says Deming, the founder and executive director of Allegheny GoatScape, a non-profit organization that relies on the ravenous animals to reduce invasive and unwanted vegetation.
The two herds, or tribes, of goats are already booked solid through the end of 2018. They kicked off the feeding season at the Winnie Palmer Nature Preserve at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Penn., and the Great Allegheny Passage in Homestead, Penn. From there, the cloven-hooved weed wackers will munch their way around the county.
An eco-friendly alternative to herbicides and gas-powered machinery, the goats are undeterred by thorny brambles or steep hillsides and they produce their own fertilizer. Although some plants, such as the mountain laurel, are poisonous to them, one beast can consume up to eight pounds of vegetation each day. A goat’s lifespan is around 15 years.
When Deming moved to Pittsburgh from Michigan in 2005, he had no idea he’d end up being the caretaker of 17 goats and a miniature donkey (“Hobo” helps protect the herd as they work by warding off predators, such as coyotes).
As a community specialist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Deming hired Steel City Grazers, a for-profit business, to clean up overgrown areas along Bates Street in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.
“I was blown away about how efficient they were,” Deming says. “I started following [the company] on Facebook and helping them out. I got a permit from the city in case they needed help storing them for the winter.”
In 2016, when the owners of the herd decided to make a career change, Deming stepped in and transformed the group into a non-profit organization.
Once someone expresses an interest in putting the hungry nomads to work, Deming reviews the site for feasibility and, if approved, provides the property owner with and estimated cost and timeline. Volunteers help erect a solar-powered fence along the perimeter, as well as a makeshift shelter. The herd is trucked in and immediately starts chowing down. When they’ve finished the buffet, the soil is nutrient-rich and more manageable for restoration.
Bill Stevenson’s property, a steep hillside in Kennedy Township, was overgrown with poison ivy. It took the tribe a week to clear.
“Once the goats and the donkey got here, many of my neighbors, relatives and friends came to see them – some daily – to pet them and just watch them eat weeds,” Stevenson says. “Me, my wife and my two boys (21 and 27) would feed them carrots and apples and make sure they had water. We really enjoyed having them here. And Gavin was great to work with and when the goats left for their next job he returned and cut down whatever they did not eat.”
During the winter, Hobo & Co. reside in barn structures in Deming’s yard, where they eat a steady diet of hay and vitamins. The City of Pittsburgh’s urban agriculture zoning code allows residents to own honey bees, chickens, ducks, and goats.
The North Side resident has grown to love his “employees,” who have names and unique personalities.
Reuben, a large Nubian goat, is the leader, but his sidekick, Ozark, a Nigerian dwarf, is the smallest member of the herd. Wimpy the white Kaanan, is the biggest of the bunch, but Sally is the most opiniated, bleating her thoughts to anyone who will listen.
Everywhere they go, the goats attract a crowd.
People can help support the living lawnmowers by making a tax-deductible donation to Allegheny GoatScape. The organization is raising funds to purchase a new truck and another donkey to protect its second herd. Alpacas, llamas and shepherd dogs also are used as caprine bodyguards.
Deming encourages people to come out and see his “kids” in action. Volunteers are always welcome.
“It’s nice to have other sets of eyes to help out and make sure all the goats are looking healthy and happy,” he says.