BALTIMORE (AP) - Brian Knox's goats are a bit of a novelty in Maryland, munching invasive species that have proven too tough for mowers, weed whackers and herbicides.
On the West Coast, his business model is already so trite it has inspired a tongue-in-cheek Canadian auto insurance commercial saluting "Goat Renter Guy."
Back East, Knox isn't overly worried about others stealing the idea, which involves first fencing off overgrown areas to keep the goats from munching elsewhere.
"One of the things that keeps the competition down is people don't like ticks, they don't like thorns and they don't like to sweat," Knox said. "And if you're running goats, you've got all of that, that and poison ivy. I've always got poison ivy, the goats don't get it, but I'm covered all the time."
Knox, a forester by training who runs Sustainable Resource Management, Inc., an Easton-based consulting firm, said his Eco-Goats subsidiary is becoming a bigger part of his operation.
The idea is fairly simple: put an electrified fence around whatever you want to get rid of and let in the goats. They might chew on some cans, but not the fence meant to keep neighborhood dogs out. Installing the fence is usually the hard part, he said.
"We're called in usually where people have thrown up their hands and say 'I can't deal with this,' because it's too intense, it's too thick, it's too thorny," Knox said. "Where they can't go, is where the goats do a great job."
That was the case in Prince George's County, where chocolate vine on an acre of county land for tree planting to offset losses at road construction sites resisted chemicals and cutting. The county is hoping Knox' goats will clear out the site in May.
"We're excited actually," said county spokeswoman Susan Hubbard, adding that the county is considering using the service in the future for areas close to waterways where chemicals can't be applied.
Hubbard said the $5,700 the county is paying is more expensive than applying herbicide or mowing, but not more expensive than constant cutting and spraying.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the use of goats and other livestock for managing invasive plants is common in the western United States and is becoming more common in the East as an environmentally friendly control method .
In Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, Clay and Linda Trainum have a similar business with the added twist that they sell some of their herd for meat, using only South African Boer Bok goats that are sought by local chefs.
"It does make for a leaner product. Our goats are not going to carry the fat that grain-fed ones do," Linda Trainum said.
They have also found a place on the farm, helping keep pastures clear of weeds that crowd out grass that cows feed on. However, goats are not always the heroes in the war against invasive species. On the Galapagos Islands, millions were spent to eliminate goats thought to have been first brought to the remote Pacific chain by whalers as a food source. They prospered and became a threat to native plants and competing animal species.
But for areas too hard reach by mower or too thick to handle by hand or machine, they can be the answer.
Knox, a forester by training, said his herd is owned by a former client who became his partner four years ago.
"I met him coming out of the feed store one day and he said, 'I'm going to get a couple of goats,' and I said 'Great, a couple goats is perfect, you can kind of clean up such and such,'" Knox said. "Next thing I knew he had 50 goats. I said, 'What in the world were you thinking?' And he said, 'Well, we thought we'd sell meat but we got to know the goats.'"
Since then, they have cleared sites including housing developments in Frederick County, a Baltimore park, and the Gaithersburg campus of the Isaac Walton League.
The goats work for a daily rate of $350, and jobs tend to run between $1,600 and $2,000 an acre, with some tough plants like kudzu requiring several grazings. The goats can reach as high as seven or eight feet and down to within four inches of the ground, but they have to be kept away from valuable plants, Knox said.
Knox said he tells potential clients it helps "if you think of goats as herbicides with legs."
"They'll eat your native oaks and cherry right along with your honeysuckle and kudzu, so you do have to be careful," Knox said.