Photo by Larry Cihanek
When Larry Cihanek decided to retire from his 42-year career at a New York City advertising firm, he had a pastoral vision for retirement: He and his wife, Ann, would buy a rural property north of the city, purchase a few dairy goats, and settle into their new life as goat’s milk cheesemakers. They found the land and got the goats, but before their dream could be fully realized, a former military fort on New York’s Staten Island issued a call for ruminant grazing services that put Larry and Ann on a chèvre-less course that continues to this day.
Fort Wadsworth is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, and, prior to its closure in 1994, was the longest-garrisoned military installation in the country. “In 2007, they sent 400 emails out to every goat owner within 100 miles to ask if someone, anyone, would bring in goats to clear an overgrown Civil War gun battery,” Larry says. Only eight goatherds responded, and seven said it couldn’t be done — but Larry and Ann were up for a challenge. They added five more goats to their existing herd of two (affectionately named Curry and Stew) and launched a business called Green Goats, which fulfilled the contract and has returned to the fort every year since.
Why Clear Land with Goats?
Grazing goats serve several niche markets nationwide, including the clearing of land that’s sensitive to disturbance or difficult to reach with machinery. Following the goats’ success clearing Fort Wadsworth, Larry and Ann contracted with the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery, which is one of the oldest cemeteries in the United States and the resting place for thousands of Revolutionary War and Civil War soldiers. “The ground is unlevel; some gravestones are up, some are down,” Larry says. But, unlike machines, goats expertly handle varied topography and delicate historic sites. Larry explains that in addition, cemeteries offering natural burials are growing in popularity and often stipulate that no motorized maintenance equipment can be used. For years, this meant hand-picking vegetation around gravestones — now, it means deploying grazing goats.
In other cases, goats can reach areas that are dangerous for people. At the Walkway Over the Hudson, a historic railroad trestle that’s now the world’s longest elevated pedestrian bridge, poison ivy and thorny bushes proliferate in the fenced-off areas where trestle extensions hit the ground. Before Green Goats took the job, human workers attempting to clear the unwanted plants were routinely sent to the hospital with severe poison ivy rashes. “The goats go in and love the ivy,” Larry says. “And they aren’t held back by unions.”
In addition to ivy, goats are adept at removing wild roses, invasive Phragmites reeds, Japanese knotweed, porcelain berry, kudzu, autumn olive, oriental bittersweet, tree of heaven, and just about every other unwanted or invasive plant. Compared with land cleared by mechanical mowing equipment, property cleared by Green Goats’ services gains a boost to biodiversity. One university client documented three species of plants before grazing one test location. The goats swept through, removing the dominant plant, and 10 species grew back. Fossil-fueled machinery tends to scare away wildlife, and Larry has noticed many birds nesting on properties that switch from mowing to grazing.
Goats with Jobs
During the past 11 years, Green Goats has grown to 180 animals. New additions are often donated or rescued. Many come from dairy farms whose owners have few choices in retiring unproductive milkers beyond sending the animals to market for their meat. “But now, there’s a choice with us,” Larry says. “Our goats are just retired from their former jobs and taking up a new trade,” much like athletes who retire from play while young.
Larry and Ann receive several calls a week from families who’ve purchased young goats without realizing the full extent of care they require. Or, people will covertly offload animals at the Cihaneks’ barn. Green Goats has one stipulation for donation: The animal needs to be socialized enough that someone can approach it to fit a collar. This criterion is very important, because the animals will interact with park visitors at many of their job sites, including Fort Wadsworth.
“We don’t accept papers with our goats, even though some are pedigreed. That’s not how our business model is structured,” Ann says. Their model has resulted in a herd diverse in age and breed, including 11- and 12-year-old animals with arthritis that can’t go to work. These truly retired goats stay at home the remainder of their natural lives, a fate Ann admits may not be practical for people with space or resource limitations, but which is calculated into their business model. “We don’t eat them, and we don’t sell them for meat,” Ann says. “That’s the deal we make with people who donate: The goats will spend their entire lives on the farm.”
Organic Growth for Green Goats
Green Goats’ animals are friends and pets, but employees first. When they see educational value, Ann and Larry will provide a few goats to children’s programs, farm animal meet-and-greets, and talks on livestock husbandry. However, they don’t take their goats to petting zoos or lend them out to weddings — a potentially successful side gig for working goats. “I almost can’t answer the phone in spring, because so many teenagers are calling to rent a goat to ask a girlfriend to prom,” Ann says.
Green Goats’ services are for any site with unwanted vegetation, with the caveat that Green Goats can’t economically graze an area under 2 acres. Although the goats are self-fueling on-site, the client must pay to transport the animals to their work site at the beginning of grazing season, cover the cost of tending to them each workday, and transport them home to the barn at season’s end. The goats are working only when plants are growing — in New York, this means from April to the end of October — and Green Goats provides two goats per acre. The goats rarely move to multiple sites during one season.
During the off-season, the Cihaneks are responsible for providing their 180-goat herd with a balanced food supply — including twenty-five 50-pound bales of hay each day — and dry shelter (goats have a high tolerance for cold, but a low tolerance for wind and rain). The Cihaneks use a deep-bedding method in the barn, which builds up to 18 inches deep over the year, and the heat released as the bedding composts in place helps keep the livestock warm. Green Goats opened with one truck and the capacity to provide seven goats on 3 acres. “You don’t start out with all this infrastructure,” Larry says, referring to the two trucks, 75-horsepower tractor, goat barn, two livestock trailers, utility trailer for hauling hay and manure, and miles and miles of fencing now on the Green Goats property — an estimated $300,000 worth of equipment.
Business boomed, and the Cihanek herd boasted 100 goats in February 2015, when they lost everything.
A fire in their barn destroyed every piece of equipment and all of the animals, including 20 kids Ann had bottle-fed from birth. But the disaster revealed something. “After the fire cleared, we could see that our community was far and wide,” Ann says. The day after the fire, their daughter set up an account on GoFundMe, an online crowdfunding platform that allows people to raise money for life events, including accidents and illnesses.
“We received donations of money, help, and equipment. The barn was built by mostly strangers,” Ann says. Volunteers rebuilt a 35-by-80-foot barn — adequate for 180 goats — in three weekends, and animals and equipment arrived from as far away as Texas. This generosity meant that just three months after the fire, Green Goats was able to fulfill its contracts and send goats back out to work.
Before You Get Your Goats
Larry is direct with would-be goatherds. “This is a full-time job! I don’t think someone could do this weekends and evenings and make it feasible,” he says. “Think, ‘Do I want to do this Christmas Day? Do I want to do this in minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit? Do I want to do this in a hailstorm?’ ” He and Ann advise beginner goat grazers to start small — with seven animals or fewer — and to only take jobs within half an hour’s travel time from home, to easily field clients’ concerns.
“One time, we had a concerned client in Philadelphia, about four hours away,” Ann says. She hopped in the car and drove there, only to find that the goat was in heat, but fine. “If you aren’t prepared to do that, you shouldn’t get in the business.” Thanks to video apps, such as Skype and FaceTime, goat grazers can now monitor their goats in real time.
Larry and Ann admit that the learning curve can be steep, and that a goat grazer needs to be equal parts agronomist, equipment mechanic, business executive, and bush veterinarian. But for those who can commit to these demands, theirs can be a rewarding livelihood. “In my former career, all I did was convince people to use one product over another. It didn’t make any difference except to the manager of that product,” Larry says. “Now, we change the world an acre at a time.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the Cihaneks’ goat-grazing business, you can connect with Larry and Ann at at Green Goats.
Kale Roberts is a former editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS and a current program officer with ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, where he supports cities working on resilience and climate-action planning across the United States.