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Goat gypsies pack up after hard trail work

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By Justin Patrick
Special to The Sopris Sun

The end of September and the close of summer brought with it the departure of some of Carbondale’s most honored guests: the 220 goats that munched their way along several miles of the Rio Grande Trail destroying weeds and rehabilitating soil in year two of three in a standing contract with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA). After about 36 days of being corralled in temporary enclosures along the iconic trail, the goats were loaded into trailers and moved to their next job reducing potential wildfire fuel near the location of the infamous Storm King fire. Moving with them were co-owner Donny Benz, full-time employees Harmony Davies and Russ McKenna, and a couple of sturdy sheep dogs.

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Such is the life of these unique, modern-day shepherds that move nomadically as work and weather demand. Benz founded the company, Goat Green LLC, with his mother, Loni Malmberg in 1996. They now have over 1,000 goats working several contracts simultaneously in any of seventeen western states. The business can be touch and go and requires a high level of discipline and organization.

“We live under our hats,” said Benz. “We’re gypsies. We go where the work is and where people will pay us.” He described an instance in which a truck was full to capacity with goats, but due to a client’s last-minute change of heart, there was no destination for them. Benz told the driver to “head east, I’ll figure something out.”

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The goats must be able to graze in a variety of circumstances. They may be stationed along relatively quiet bike paths, but they must also be able to operate safely in bustling city centers, around loud noises, next to highways — anywhere that a paying customer wants large swaths of weeds removed and soil health improved.

At least one staff member must be on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ready to deal with any calamity that might arise. Harmony Davies and Russ McKenna both signed up earlier this year. Davies was attempting to run a similar business on the front range, but said she did not have enough goats to make an impact. She became familiar with Goat Green last winter, and spent the snowy season herding several hundred goats on their property in Fort Collins. Despite the hard and isolated work, she immediately fell in love with the job and contacted McKenna to urge him to join her.

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“Dude,” she recalled telling him. “I think you’ll really love this gypsy goat life.”

Davies described their role as challenging yet fulfilling. “It’s hard because you’re away from your friends and family, but at the same time you get to create your own new start in every city. You get to live in the back alleys and on the trails, but be a part of it, and heal the land in the process. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

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McKenna agreed. After years of working in a “cube farm” in the IT world, and despite receiving two to three times the pay, he was “looking for something meaningful to do with the rest of my career.” While the work is physically exhausting and the hours long, he vowed to continue doing it until physically unable. “You will break your back some days. You wake up with the sun and you go to bed after the sun sets. But it’s a chance to spend the rest of my life putting things back into the earth that was all taken out.”

Both employees spoke fondly about the stream of positive feedback from Rio Grande trail users this summer. “The community reception has been shockingly positive,” said Davies.

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The consistent praise is one reason RFTA Trails and Corridor Manager Brett Meredith is confident the goat grazing operation is here to stay. Meredith is their most enthusiastic advocate within the organization. When he took the trails manager position several years ago he was shown a cabinet full of pesticides and told to spray liberally to combat noxious weeds along the heavily used former rail bed.

He said he felt terrible doing it, and that “everyone runs away from you when you’re wearing a white suit and blue backpack.” After researching the causes of weeds and long-term solutions for inhibiting their proliferation, Meredith discovered a town in Idaho that had successfully used goats to mitigate weeds and improve soil health. He contacted Goat Green LLC and entered into a three-year contract to work the Rio Grande Trail. This year, RFTA paid about $50,000 for the task order.

Meredith is convinced this is money well spent. “Spraying is a one-time deal. You’re not investing in the soil, you’re just killing.” He indicated that a trail manager might have to revisit the same location several times per season to spray. The weeds pop right back, and trail users are thoroughly wary of possible negative health effects caused by spraying chemicals. The goats, on the other hand, are part of an all-natural, comprehensive plan to manage vegetation, promote education and outreach, and improve soil health. “People love it,” Meredith said of the furry, energetic creatures that regularly attract the attention of trail users and their kids. “They can see it and it makes sense.”

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