Beyond chickens and bees: Urban farmers try goats

SEATTLE (AP) — Snowflake the goat has cornered me, nuzzling my hand as she nibbles on my jacket's zipper.

"They're very affectionate," says urban goat pioneer Jennie Grant, who owns the 99-pound, white miniature LaMancha.

Distracted by Snowflake, I hardly notice a smaller black goat closing in on me until she takes a bite out of my notebook. Behind the roughhewn milking platform, the view stretches out past pavement, streetlights and cars. This is the city, and these are city goats.

Urban goat farming is part of a nationwide movement to eat food produced locally — sometimes as locally as our backyards. Successful efforts to legalize chickens in cities such as Chicago and New York paved the way, with ducks and bees gaining ground in many places too.

But goats? It's been two hooves forward, one hoof back as the idea has spread to more cities. For every pro-goat Portland, Ore., or Oakland, Calif., there's been a Kansas City, Mo., or Minneapolis shutting the barn door on backyard ruminants.

Grant, a mother, student and writer in Seattle, didn't set out to be an urban goat farmer.

"I always thought it would be fun to have a mini cow when I was growing up," Grant says. "Then I visited my cousin and his girlfriend in California, and my son and I got to milk her goat. I didn't want to taste it but when I did, I loved it. And I thought, 'here's my mini cow.'"

Besides gathering up to a gallon a day of fresh milk per goat, Grant uses their manure to fertilize her vegetable garden.

Keeping goats in the backyard does, however, mean a fair amount of work and expense, warns Laura Covert of Charlottesville, Va., who has two dairy goats.

While she loves their social nature and says "goats are like dogs, but even better," Covert reminds prospective owners that goats need routine veterinary care, including booster shots, worming and hoof maintenance. Their hay can be costly in the winter, and isn't something you can just grab at the supermarket. And they need daily milking; vacations for the responsible goat owner are rare.

Covert also makes the case for good fencing: She made the mistake of building her fence with the crossbars on the inside. The goats used it like a ladder and jumped right out.

"You can't leave hardware around or they'll eat it," she said. "They're like toddlers — they like to try everything."

No stranger to urban farming, Grant already had chickens, bees and a large vegetable garden before she added goats to her lineup. After doing some research, she cleared a 20-by-20-foot patch of her yard, fenced it in, and added a shed, feeding stations and the goat equivalent of a jungle gym. Then she drove to a farm in a suburb of Seattle and loaded the back of her station wagon with her two new charges.

"I had to get two," she explains, "because they're highly social animals."

Most of her neighbors were delighted, she says, or at least amused, by the new kids on the block.

But not everyone. The Seattle Department of Planning and Development paid Grant a visit and ordered her to get rid of her goats. A neighbor four blocks away had complained.

Grant and some friends created the Goat Justice League and appealed to the Seattle City Council to help her keep her goats. After a year of gathering signatures, poring over old city livestock laws, researching what's involved in goat ownership, and even hustling a baby Nigerian goat into the courthouse, she won her fight. The right to own three small animals per household, including dogs, cats, rabbits and now miniature goats, was adopted by Seattle in 2007.

The League was flooded with requests for help from around the country.

Meghan Keith-Hynes, a real estate developer in Charlottesville, Va., was one of those who contacted Grant. Not a goat owner herself, Keith-Hynes took on the project because she "felt it was a natural step forward for the city to take to promote sustainability." In late 2010, Keith-Hynes pushed through legislation based on Seattle's law.

Covert took advantage of Charlottesville's new law, bringing home her two 3-week-old dairy goats this March after attending a workshop for potential goat owners.

"I'm head over heels for them," she says. "Everyone loves them. We're the go-to spot for all the children in the neighborhood." Covert also keeps bees and egg-laying Indian runner ducks, and tends an extensive garden.

"I hardly ever have to buy groceries anymore," she says.

Donna Marykwas is working on a pro-goat campaign in Long Beach, Calif. The director of Long Beach Grows, a group dedicated to promoting urban agriculture, Marykwas says, "My neighbors complained about my two Nigerian dwarf goats and we were fined. Now they're in foster care — backyard hopping until the laws are changed."

Marykwas wants to lift a zoning rule limiting goat ownership to small portions of the city, and to only one animal. She would raise the limit to up to four goats per household anywhere in Long Beach. She also hopes to ease set-back restrictions for goats and chickens, among other issues.

Some people worry that goats are too noisy for a city neighborhood. "I just want to make sure we maintain our quality of life," Long Beach City Councilman Patrick O'Donnell said at a recent meeting.

Marykwas has gathered 1,500 pro-goat petition signatures, and has the endorsements of the local chapters of the Sierra Club and Green Party.

"It's not going to be a nuisance and we're not looking to turn the city into a farm," she says. "Owning goats is a lot of responsibility and it's expensive. But if people want to get back to the basics and know where their food comes from, this is a great option."

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