These living lawn mowers clear land by the mouthful.
Living lawn mowers clear the land one mouthful at a time.
Nobody loves her kids more than Tammy Dunakin. But she doesn’t have any qualms about making them earn their keep.
“Goats are about the most eco-friendly way to rid property of unwanted vegetation,” says the founder, CEO and head goat wrangler of Rent-A-Ruminant (rentaruminant.com).
Tammy, who spent most of her life on farms, runs a new breed of landscaping business from her land on Vashon Island, Washington. She quit a high-stress job in a trauma center to focus on her goats. “One day, while gazing at my goat pen, I thought, You guys look bored,” she says. “I decided they really needed a job to make use of their talents.”
With four-chambered stomachs and a propensity to chew their cud, Tammy’s ruminants are eating up this unique job opportunity. “Goats are browsers, so they’ll chomp on brush, blackberries, thistles and most kinds of invasive plants,” she says. “Since they’re natural-born climbers, they can reach places that people and machines can’t go easily or safely.” In many cases they’re also cost-effective, Tammy says, “and you don’t have to worry about carbon emissions or engine noise.”
Her hungry herd has worked for universities, major corporations, city parks and private homeowners. The goats even won a government contract with the U.S. Navy. “Each job is priced based on the size of the area to be munched,” Tammy says. It takes 60 goats three to five days to clear a quarter-acre of moderately dense vegetation roughly 4 feet tall. For jobs larger than a half-acre, she engages around 120 goats.
Tammy has been in this business for more than 14 years. “When the industry first started,” she says, “it was pretty much used in California wildfire country for fire remediation.” And it can still serve that valuable purpose, quietly clearing fire-prone brush, alongside less predictable applications. “When I worked in the city of Seattle, police would request the goats for cleaning up high-crime areas that had low visibility due to all the vegetation. Even airport maintenance and old cemeteries—the historic ones that people rarely visit anymore but want to keep up—can be a good fit.”
Most of her jobs are in urban areas like Seattle and in the greater Puget Sound region, so Tammy loads her goats into a trailer and, when time
allows, takes them to job sites via the Washington State Ferry. She depends on herding and livestock guardian dogs to round up the goats and keep them from escaping, and the kids’ work area is surrounded by sturdy temporary fencing.
She refers to this lifestyle—of traveling with goats and blending with the communities in which they work—as that of an urban nomad. When jobs call for several days of grazing (as most do), Tammy camps alongside the goats in a travel trailer. While it wouldn’t be unheard-of to drop off the animals at a job site, Tammy stays there, along with her dogs, to keep watch over the herd. “I need to be able to hear them,” she says, “especially at night. Goats are usually very quiet unless they’re hungry or there is a problem.”
Wherever they go, the crew attracts the attention of curious onlookers. “People in nearby office buildings love watching them from their windows,” Tammy says, “and schools have brought classes out to see the goats in action.”
With the rising popularity of all things green, Tammy has expanded her business, first with an affiliate program and, since 2016, through franchising. Tammy offers novice goatherds training, hands-on mentoring, marketing support and use of the Rent-A-Ruminant name. She has franchisees as far away as Texas and Tennessee, and her goal is to go nationwide.
“We want to be in every state,” she says. Because of her online presence, Tammy gets inquiries from potential clients all over the country. “We desperately need people in California, Oregon and Washington—we have more work here than we can handle.”
As awareness of her work has grown, Tammy has gotten more interest from the southeastern
U.S. (where the invasive kudzu vine presents a growing problem) and the Midwest. “Hopefully we can spread along the coasts and eventually into every corner of the country,” she says.
It generally takes a minimum of 30 goats to start a franchise, and herds range in size—up to 120 or so. But once the business gets going, Tammy says, about 75 percent of jobs come from repeat customers.
“This business can be a great fit for modest farms, to bring this in as an alternative for making money,” she says. “Some dairy farmers are interested in branching out and getting another source of income. It can provide a cash infusion, provided there are tax-deductible costs associated with caring for the animals.”
Tammy notes that, as an income source, vegetation management may be the most effective way to earn money from owning goats. “You’d have to sell a lot of goat milk to match what we make on a job.”
While starting a franchise may be easier for farms that already own much of the necessary equipment, Tammy cautions, “It takes the right person. You have to have a lot of heart for these animals.”
Tammy prides herself on the fact that many of her workforce of varying breeds, sizes and colors are rescue animals. “Certain breeds are hardier than others,” she says, “but they all do the job well.” She encourages franchisees to employ rescue goats, as she does, but how they build their herd is largely up to them. One thing she doesn’t compromise on, though, is the retirement program.
“Our mission is to give goats, particularly unwanted goats, a purpose and a really good life— for their whole life.” To that end, Tammy retires her working goats to pasture on her property when their professional chewing days are over. They live out their days at what she calls the Old Goats Home.
Rent-A-Ruminant requires that franchisees also retire their goats rather than slaughter them. While the ages of the animals at retirement
can vary because of health issues or the hardiness of their breed, Tammy says, “They all get pampered.” Her own farm is an idyllic setting on Puget Sound, stocked with toys and playpens, plus boulders and hills for climbing. She’s currently aiming to achieve nonprofit status for the Old Goats Home.
The rewards of the work are far more than monetary. “You won’t find a lawn mower, leaf blower or bulldozer that’s as much fun to work with as goats are,” she says. “Also, we’re doing something positive for the planet.” One bite at a time.