Pinole fire chief: Municipal goat herd worth exploring

Pinole fire chief: Municipal goat herd worth exploring

23 January 2009

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USA — Bucking the national trend of outsourcing and privatization, Pinole’s fire chief envisions a day when municipal herds of goats graze the East Bay hills as part of a green, regional approach to fire prevention.

These days, the goats grazing the area’s urban-wildland interface are on hire, mostly from Orinda-based Goats R Us.

“They’re very efficient, but pretty expensive,” Pinole Fire Chief Jim Parrott said, though that expense typically comes later in the year, closer to peak fire season.

Right now, the Goats R Us goats are grazing the Pinole Ridge at no cost to the city in exchange for offseason food, Parrott said. The grazing provides limited city benefit this time of year by eliminating some potential fuel for wildland fires; Pinole may need to pay for more grazing on the ridge later in the year, Parrott said.

Hercules, which shares parts of the ridge with Pinole, also allows the goats to feed on its side during the nonfire season, said Hercules City Manager Nelson Oliva; Hercules pays Goats R Us $25,000 a year to chew down 15 city-owned acres.

On Thursday, about 600 goats munched weeds inside an electrified fence powered by a car battery under the care of goatherd Ricardo Arriagada and two border collies, Titi and Mandinga. Once a section of the ridge is grazed, Arriagada moves the fence to a fresh spot while the dogs round up the goats. Arriagada lives in a trailer alongside the herd.

Goats R Us also grazes for the East Bay Regional Park District, East Bay Municipal Utility District, UC Berkeley and many other public agencies. Park district officials several years ago estimated it cost them two to four times as much to clear weeds mechanically as with goats, especially in rough terrain.

Pinole has more than 400 acres of open land along the ridge.

“When the city absorbed that land from developers, there was no mechanism for maintenance,” Parrott said.

Goats R Us representatives could not be reached Thursday. Six years ago, co-owner Terri Holleman told the Times the company had more than 3,000 goats.

In the East Bay, as agencies increasingly opt for green methods of weed abatement and grassland fire prevention, and with a limited supply of land for keeping more goats over the winter, Parrott said that studying the feasibility and effectiveness of creating a sort of joint powers agency to use the goats “in a more mobile manner” would be worthwhile.

On the other hand, he conceded, “It could turn out we couldn’t do it better than Goats R Us.”

Besides owners Holleman and her husband, Egon Oyarzun, and their 13-year-old son, Goats R Us employs a foreman, a herd health manager, a support staff of two and four goatherds, according to the company’s Web site. Goats R Us also uses a consultant.

The goatherds all are from the south of Chile. In the past, they’ve come to the United States as “nonimmigrant workers” sponsored by a broker of foreign agricultural labor.

Arriagada said he makes a $1,300 monthly salary, supplemented by about $400 in food and supplies.

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