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Farmed out: Animals become part of businesses’ ‘green’ plans

By Tara Ramsey

Sometimes it takes a goat to do a man’s job. At least that’s what agricultural entrepreneur Ron Searcy is hoping.

Searcy and his wife, Cheryl, care for 300 goats at Wells Farms in Horse Shoe, N.C., about 15 miles from Asheville. After clearing out overgrowth and brush on 25 acres of his property, as well as land for two friends, Searcy realized there was an untapped business opportunity by harnessing the goats’ appetite for brush.

He began his weed-abatement venture in August 2007. Now his goats are featured in YouTube videos and he is scheduling jobs into 2011.

Searcy’s goats have also been put to work in the Charlotte area.

David Bowles, who owns Environmental Services of Charlotte, and EMCI, an electrical company, used the goats in May to clear the land outside a former IBM and First Union building at 1000 Louis Rose Place in University Research Park. The building is being refitted with environmentally friendly technology as part of a plan to make it the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design platinum-certified building in the University City area. Platinum is the highest level of LEED certification, the same level attained this year by Duke Energy Center in Uptown Charlotte.

Bowles said he wanted to use the opportunity of rehabbing his company’s new headquarters to show how “green” techniques could be cost-effective.

While incorporating LEED criteria into new construction is relatively easy, updating a building to meet the high standards is more difficult and not as common, he said.

Beth Machen of Charlotte-based Machen Advisory Group, which handles property management and LEED consulting, assisted with the upgrades to the building. Machen and Bowles have worked together for 25 years and took LEED classes together.

“It was so much cheaper than I thought it would be,” Machen said of bringing in the goats from Wells Farms. “It was about a third of what we would have paid to have the big gas-guzzling weed whackers out there, plus the manpower and the emissions that would have hit the air. The goats clean everything. They reach as high as their necks will stretch. We just wish their necks would be a little longer.”

Bowles and Machen said they would prune the trees before they have the goats return next year so that they can nibble away at that debris as well.

Cheaper but slower

Not only are goats a more environmentally friendly way to clear land, they’re also cheaper than using traditional construction equipment.

The cost to use the goats is $400 to $1,000 an acre, depending on the terrain and how remote an area is to reach, Searcy said.

John Gouveia, owner of Carolina Grading and Gravel in Charlotte, said the going rate for clearing an acre of land using equipment is approximately $2,500 an acre. It can be more expensive in mountainous terrain.

Goats can be used on rocky, steep terrain or be let loose in an areas that are unreachable or covered by kudzu or vines.

The staff from Wells Farms first uses fencing to cordon off the area that needs to be cleared. The fencing is used more to keep predators from entering than to keep the goats in, Searcy said.

“If we can get a fence around it, we’ll clean it up,” he said. “The goats have a vicious appetite. The rougher the brush, the better.”

After the fences are up, the goats are then put to work and the staff returns weekly to check on their status. The property owner is responsible for providing water for the goats.

About a week before a job is complete, grass seed is spread to help with erosion. While the goats are eating away at the brush, their hoofs are working the seeds into the ground.

Although cheaper than construction equipment, goats are slower than their mechanical counterparts.

For Bowles, the goats cleaned up the 5-acre area around the former IBM building in 2 1/2 weeks. Searcy said it takes 10 goats on average about three weeks to clear a 1-acre area.

Gouveia, whose company clears land and grades house pads and new driveways, said it takes about 1 1/2 hours to clear an acre of land using equipment.

He said he has heard of goats being used for clearing brush and grass.

“I think it’s a pretty good idea,” he said, adding that he is not worried about goats hurting his business. “It’s got to be cost-effective and greener than using a 100,000-pound machine.”

The goats have been used in the Carolinas, Virginia and New York. The farthest they have traveled is 20 miles outside New York City — a 750-mile trip. The town of Tryon, N.C., used the goats to clear away kudzu. The N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission also used them for kudzu control. Currently, the goats are being used to clear about 36 acres for an electric company in Virginia.

Searcy said that while there are some other smaller operations in the area using goats to clear land, his is the only large-scale operation on the East Coast.

Goats can also be used in wetlands and have been used in bogs to help restore the natural habitats of the endangered bog turtles, Searcy said.

He said female goats, also known as nannies, are generally used in the land-clearing operations.

Males, or billy goats, can be aggressive, he said. “Plus they smell bad. The girls don’t smell bad.”

Chickens and beetles

Goats are not the only animals that North Carolina companies are using as a way to be more environmentally friendly.

Chickens and guinea fowl are being used in the first organic vineyard and winery in North Carolina.

Clyde and Pat Colwell of Elkin-based Carolina Heritage Winery purchased their vineyard, which is 75 miles north of Charlotte, in 2005. Pat Colwell said the vineyard has not had a Japanese beetle problem since 10 guinea fowl were bought two years ago. The free-range chickens  dig up grubs in the ground, which are another problem for the organic vineyard. The chickens and guinea fowl also eat weeds.

“They became a major insecticide and herbicide,” she said. “We basically studied on them. When you are organic you have to think like nature, and we literally were losing every leaf on our vines in a section of the vineyard.”

Nature has a way of dealing with pesky bugs, and it was just a matter of determining what their natural predator was, she said.

Another benefit of having the chickens and guinea fowl roaming throughout the vineyard: the natural fertilizer.

Being environmentally conscious is important to Colwell, who eats the chickens’ eggs and gives the animals scraps from the kitchen to avoid waste.

Colwell said she sees an increase in awareness of the damage caused to the environment by chemicals and pesticides.

“People drive up our driveway every week and ask, ‘How do you grow grapes organically?’” she said.

Hotel honey

Charlotte’s Ritz-Carlton, a luxury hotel in Uptown, uses insects as part of its efforts to be environmentally focused, said hotel spokeswoman Bonnie Crail.

There are 80,000 bees in two beehives atop the 18-story hotel, which has a LEED gold certification. Not only do they provide honey to the hotel, they also pollinate the chef garden that is also on the roof.

Last week, the hotel harvested 30 pounds of honey from the beehives, Crail said.

The bees, which were brought to the hotel in April, can create up to 70 pounds of raw honey annually in each hive. The honey is used multiple dishes at the hotel, including its popular honey pecan ice cream, she said.

The bees also pollinate the 18,000 flowering plants atop the “green roof,” which helps insulate the building because of the vegetation.

Crail, who is based in San Diego, said the Charlotte Ritz-Carlton is one of her favorite hotels because of its progressive approach to being environmentally conscious.

“It’s an amazing hotel,” she said. “They absolutely walk the walk when it comes to being environmentally mindful.”

Tara Ramsey can be reached at [email protected].

Goats for hire

Wells Farms in Horse Shoe, N.C., has 300 goats that can be used to clear land of brush. At least one Charlotte-area developer, David Bowles, has used Wells Farms’ goats to clear land.

Cost: Between $400 and $1,000 per acre. Cost depends on terrain and the remoteness of an area.

Popular applications: Steep or rocky terrain, wetlands, bogs and remote areas

Plants the goats eat: Bittersweet vine, kudzu, poison oak/ivy, honeysuckle, English ivy, privet, Japanese silk grass, bamboo, multiflora rose bush, small tree saplings, tall weeds and grasses

Benefits: Cost-effective, natural, less noise than traditional methods, free fertilizer and tilling

Drawbacks: Slower than using machinery. It can take three weeks for 10 goats to clear one acre.

Source: Mecklenburg Times staff research

One comment

  1. I have seen this done in California. Glad to see it catching on here in the Queen city.

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