Local Businesses Bringing the Barnyard to the Backyard
Apr 30, 2018 05:00PM
By Vanessa Orr
Imagine having your yardwork helped along by a herd of goats, or enjoying fresh eggs laid by backyard chickens every morning. Even if you don’t live on a farm, you can still have access to these animals—all you have to do is rent them.
Gavin Deming is the executive director of Allegheny GoatScape, a nonprofit charitable organization that originally began as Steel City Grazers (SCG). While working for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, he got the chance to see how well goats can clear a landscape firsthand and help homeowners and businesses reclaim overgrown property.
“We hired SCG to clean up a site we were working on because we needed help removing invasive species so that we could plant trees along Bates Street in Oakland,” Deming explained. “I was blown away by how efficient—and enjoyable—they were.”
When Deming bought his own Pittsburgh property, he offered to help house the goats, but instead ended up running the business. In December 2016, Allegheny GoatScape was born, and the herd has since cleared everything from a backyard in Squirrel Hill to multiacre projects.
“They are able to do larger areas, but the more concentrated the area, the better they work,” explained Deming, adding that an acre is an ideal size for grazing. “They are very social and tend to stick together working through an area; in a smaller space, they don’t meander.”
According to Deming, the goats eat a lot of different plants, though there are some, like rhododendron, mountain laurel and snakeroot that they tend to avoid. “Sometimes it’s the taste, and sometimes they recognize that it’s not good for them,” said Deming, adding that he first surveys each property to make sure that there is nothing toxic to the animals.
Unlike homeowners who hate hard-to-mow hills, goats are more than happy to dine on plants in these difficult-to-reach areas.
“A lot of times, we’re hired to remove unwanted vegetation because it costs more to hire humans to do the work,” said Deming. “Last year we worked at a church that couldn’t get anyone to cut a steep hillside. The terrain doesn’t matter to goats—it’s what they’re suited for.” Deming adds that using goats also enables landowners to avoid using toxic chemicals to kill weeds.
Not only are goats good at clearing abandoned spaces full of dense vegetation, but their work also paves the way for the re-use of the cleared land. According to Deming, after the goats spent a week clearing out a couple of lots in the North Side, community leaders began envisioning a playground in the area no longer covered in knotweed and vines. “It was exciting to hear them vocalize the new possibilities for the landscape,” he said.
Though the goats are already booked for the 2018 season, interested parties should fill out an intake form at www.AlleghenyGoatscape.org to be placed on the waiting list for any available openings or to be scheduled for 2019. The goats work from April to November.
Rent The Chicken, owned by Homestead Jenn and Homestead Phil Tompkins, enables people to experience owning chickens without the commitment of keeping them if it isn’t what they imagined. A second business, Hatch The Chicken, lets individuals enjoy hatchlings without having to keep them until they are grown.
The couple started the business in 2013, after Jenn’s telecommuting job came to an end. “I wasn’t anxious to do the 9-to-5 cubicle gig, so we started brainstorming about what we could do,” Tompkins explained. “We looked at a small business website, and there were chicken rentals, and Phil asked me if I wanted to rent some chickens. We had chickens, and I knew how to build coops, so why not?”
The business rapidly caught on, with the couple now working with 45 farmers across the nation and in Canada to provide rental chickens.
“A lot of people rent because they want to try getting fresh eggs from backyard hens, and they don’t know where to start,” explained Tompkins. “Other people are just commitmentphobes—they don’t want to be tied into anything, including cell phone contracts, cable contracts, or owning a house. This approach is perfect for them!”
Rent The Chicken is a turnkey business—the Tompkins provide portable chicken coops, feed for the five to six months of rental, two to four hens, a full tutorial, and a phone number to call for support. “If it’s not a good fit, we tell them they can chicken out,” Tompkins laughed. “If it’s a good fit and they fall in love with the hens, they can adopt them at the end of the rental period.”
While renters do not need to live in rural areas, they do need to have at least 150 square feet of green space to provide access to fresh grass and bugs. Renters are asked to move the portable coops once a day, to provide food and water in the morning, and to collect the eggs each day. “Once a week, they need to clean the cage—and that can go right into the compost pile,” said Tompkins.
The Hatch The Chicken program lasts for five weeks, and renters have included school classes and senior living facilities, among others. “It’s amazing to have these seniors who may not remember what they had for lunch tell you the name of the chicken that their grandmother had when they were 10,” said Tompkins. “Taking care of the chicks really triggers memories.”
The chicks are also used to teach responsibility and have provided a level of connection to other audiences, including children with special needs, servicemen with brain injuries or PTSD, and even people undergoing drug or alcohol rehab.
A Rent The Chicken package starts at $400 for six months, and the Hatch The Chicken package costs $175. To learn more, visit www.RentTheChicken.com or call 724-305-0782.