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Goats are basis of startup landscaping business

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — In a shaded corner just past the entrance to Brechtel Park, 10 goats are hard at work. They have spent the last three months chewing their way through invasive vines and weeds that threaten to swallow the park's tree canopy.

So far, the herd has cleared 5,000 square feet of underbrush, freeing up room for landscapers with the city's Department of Parks and Parkways to clean up invasive vines left hanging from the tree tops.

Morgana King, the goats' owner and the founder of Y'Herd Me? Landscaping Co., pointed to the cleared area where her goats roamed.

"A week ago this was all a wall of green," King said, pushing down a small tree branch so one of the goats could reach vines that had looped around it.

This is King's first paying contract since she launched her business last year. It's also the first time the city of New Orleans has tested goat-powered landscaping on public property.

The concept is hardly a novelty. In Los Angeles, herds of 200 goats have been used to clear out brush destroyed by wildfires. The city of Detroit has contracted goat landscaping companies to manage overgrown lots around the city. A herd of 25 goats was brought in last year to clear an acre of poison ivy at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Elaine Philbrick, co-owner of Goatscaping Co., in Plymouth, Massachusetts, currently has a 125-person waiting list to hire one of her eight herds. The company started out working on golf courses and expanded to residential properties. As more people have embraced the concept, she found her clients liked having a small herd of friendly goats around in addition to manicured lawns.

Ann MacDonald, director of Parks and Parkways, said she began thinking about ways to introduce goat landscaping at New Orleans parks about two years ago. The department awarded a six-month, $5,000 landscaping contract to Y'Herd Me? in the spring. She said she is pleased with the results, and the department is looking at its budget for 2015 to see if it can to expand the program.

"This one park alone is so vast we feel that the best model for us would be to work with a herder to get a larger inventory of goats," MacDonald said. "It's a great concept especially for natural parks like Brechtel and could also be expanded to help the city deal with blighted properties as well."

King originally envisioned working with the city to bring herds to care for blighted and overgrown lots. She has been a goat owner for 10 years and in that time benefited from her pets handling all of her lawn-care needs. Her herd has slowly grown from one to 10 animals.

Caring for a goat herd requires a considerable upfront cost, however. King said her initial investment in the business was about $5,000 for the goats, fencing, a trailer to house the animals at night and transportation costs.

About a year ago, King started solidifying her business idea and got help developing her business plan through Propeller's PitchNOLA program. She started out by raising $3,000 through the crowdfunding platform FundDat and $2,000 from private investors.

As to whether her goat-delivered services are more cost-effective than regular landscaping, she said it is difficult to determine.

"The goats are an eco-friendly solution," King said. "To clear cut an area by hand, I'd estimate it would take a team of men a week to do the same job that goats do in a month, but at a cost of maybe four times as much as the goats."

The men would also have to collect and dispose of all the trashed plant material.

"Once I get more goats, it will be faster and cheaper per goat job," she said.

King hopes to expand the program with other city agencies, such as the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, to fulfill her original plan of clearing out overgrown lots in the city. She could eventually expand to residential clients, depending on the size of her herd and the money available to support its medical care, shelter and transportation.

"This is still a very new idea in the city," King said. "I think once people see the outcome of the work in this one park, I might be able to continue growing the business."

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Information from: New Orleans CityBusiness, http://www.neworleanscitybusiness.com

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