Reflecting on Backyard Goats

My experiences with livestock have been mostly limited in my life thus far. I have spent most of my twenty-nine years living in some of America’s most cosmopolitan cities- San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York. There have been two notable interludes when this was not the case- as a college student I worked in rural Iowa on President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, in the heart of white working class country that (although Obama would do well in the area in 2012) would later break hard for Donald Trump in 2016 and even again in 2020.

The second time was once again on a political campaign, this time working to try and elect Tia Walbridge, a sheep farmer by trade, to the Virginia House of Delegates representing a rural corner of the state’s northern half. Tia’s roots in the local land and history of the Commonwealth (she descended from Robert E. Lee, though her progressive politics were very far removed from her ancestor’s, to say the least) stood her in good stead in this traditionally conservative district, although in the end she fell short of unseating the incumbent Republican she was challenging.

These experiences to this day expanded and grounded my perspective on the world in ways that never would have been possible had they not been interruptions in my primarily urban life. However, as it turns out, I will soon be having a sight normally seen in the countryside visit my decidedly urban San Francisco residence; my backyard will be home to several goats, courtesy of San Francisco’s City Goats program.

The reason for this visit is that my backyard has been practically reclaimed by nature itself- a mess of shrubs, plants and branches taking up nearly all of what would normally be open space. This overgrowth has reached such an out of control state that one has to look closely to even see that space for a backyard exists under all of it. This is where the goats come in.

What San Francisco’s City Goats program does is have goats come to a certain area (in this case our backyard) and essentially act as organic replacements for lawnmowers. Over the next several days, they will literally eat away at the excess growth until the space in our backyard is once again somewhere that human beings can make their way through without requiring the aid of a machete, as they would currently. Little in the way of active assistance will be required from myself and my roommates, merely that we refill the tubs of water that City Goats will place in the backyard so that our temporary backyard denizens will have enough to drink. All told, the goats should accomplish their work in roughly a week’s time.

What relevance does this have beyond the narrow confines of my own life and that of my roommates? I had noticed City Goats in other locations around the city once or twice in the past year or two, but had paid them little mind. Now, however I anticipate highly appreciating the service they provide. I am refreshed by the alternative approach to clearing land that they provide, as opposed to, say, bringing in an array of loud and polluting machinery to do the job.

Furthermore, services like City Goats provide a window to the benefits of livestock to people who otherwise would never be exposed to such animals in their lives. Farm animals have in recent years become increasingly demonized as “killing the planet” due to the contributions that methane emissions provide to global climate change, with prominent environmental activists such as Greta Thunberg promoting veganism as a way of “saving the planet.”

But the science on this issue does not necessarily support that viewpoint, and overlooks ways in which ruminant animals such as goats and cows can in fact have a much more positive impact on their environment than they are given credit for. Furthermore, popular meat alternatives such as Beyond Burger and The Impossible Burger, whose status as allegedly being “better for the planet” than meat producs has been a key part of their marketing, have come under increasing criticism for not being the green cure-all they claim to be.

When allowed to graze in open fields and spaces as they are naturally intended to do, ruminant animals have a positive reciprocal relationship with the soil that they graze on. This alternative approach to using, rather than shunning, ruminant animals as an ally in the fight for the environment rather than as an adversary, has been promoted by regenerative agriculture advocates such as Allan Savory, who for many years has been campaigning to raise awareness as to the positive effects that animal agriculture, when done in the right, natural way (as opposed to industrial factory farming) can have on ecosystems.

Programs like City Goats can help to promote these viewpoints by showing denizens of major urban areas, generally disconnected from any kind of pastoral existence, firsthand the positive impact that ruminant animals can have in their lives. San Franciscans are more fortunate than many other urbanites in that they have access to programs like City Goats, as well as green spaces such as Golden Gate Park (and the ruminant bison who live there). If anything, these programs deserve greater visibility and accessibility than they currently enjoy, both in San Francisco itself and elsewhere around the country.

Ultimately, we will be more neighbors of these goats than anything, barely qualifying as caretakers only in that we will be refilling their water periodically. Nonetheless, I welcome the chance to experience even a fascimile of having a more pastoral backdrop to my daily routine and seeing my backyard turn into a temporary grazing ground. Nonetheless, having the goats in the backyard will serve as a strong reminder of how nature can be properly applied to heal itself, even in an enclosed urban setting, and as an example of how unconventional solutions to problems are often the best ones.