Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sheep are the new lawn mowers in some suburban and urban communities

Every summer, the pastures on my family's ranch in the Montezuma Hills of Solano County, California, are a mess of overgrown, dried, brown grass. Once the rain comes in the fall, though, the pastures turn a vibrant green. When the sheep move into the flat pastures in the fall and begin to graze, the pastures turn into perfectly mowed putting greens.

Residents of Oberlin, Ohio now have the option to have sheep-mowed lawns that resemble the pastures on my family's ranch, thanks to Heritage Lawn Mowing. According to a New York Times article here, Eddie Miller, founder of Heritage Lawn Mowing, decided to take things into his own hands when he failed to find grants or a job after graduating from Boston University in 2010. He founded his own company and now has a small flock of sheep that he rents out to those Oberlin residents who want their lawns cut the natural way.

Heritage Lawn Mowing rents out Jacob sheep for a steal- just $1 per sheep per day. The sheep graze on grass, weeds, and dandelions. They also produce natural fertilizer (manure) which keeps the grass coming back strong. What Miller charges is not enough for him to live on, despite the high demand for his services. To supplement his income he found part-time work at a local organic farm. Miller wants to keep his prices affordable so that everyone can benefit from his service.

The arrangement works well for those involved. Miller's sheep eat for free, and Oberlin homeowners do not have to mow their lawns, nor do they have to use carbon-emitting lawnmowers. In addition, for a few hours a week, Oberlin residents can pretend they live in remote areas of Ohio where sheep grazing is theoretically a part of everyday life.

Residents of Oberlin are not the only ones receiving benefits from using sheep as lawn mowers. Carlisle Area School District in Pennsylvania is using sheep to trim some of its grass and will be saving $15,000 in the process. The school district will not have to pay someone to maintain a lawn area around a collection of solar panels the district owns. According to Dan Ludwig, a grazing specialist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture who commented on the school district's plan, leasing sheep to graze on public and private land is becoming increasingly popular. I could not help thinking of how much money UC Davis could save with this practice, given the many swaths of green grass throughout the campus.

According to an article found here, using sheep to cut the lawn can have many benefits beyond the cost savings. If you use your own sheep, then you are making an investment in meat and wool. Your lawn also gets a natural, low-cost fertilizer from the sheep manure. Most lawn mowers emit 148 pounds of carbon into the air if their owners use them for an hour a week during the summer. Lawn mower emissions also contribute to smog. The practice of using sheep also helps contribute to natural carbon sequestration, which reduces greenhouse gases. Using sheep to mow the lawn is not only cost effective, it helps the environment.

Miller's company and others like it, such as Ewe-niversally Green in Atlanta, Georgia, are bringing the rural into the urban. Miller claims that his sheep "countrify a city" and give those who use his service "awareness about how people lived in the past." According to an article here featuring Ewe-niversally Green, many homeowners are sad to see the sheep leave once they finish their job. Perhaps the homeowners want to hold on to the feeling for a few hours that they, too, lived in the idyllic country. Using sheep as lawn mowers can serve to remind suburban and urban residents of the importance of rural communities and culture. Services like Miller's and Ewe-niversally Green's show what rural people and rural knowledge can contribute in a tough economy and time of heightened environmental awareness.

The question remains, how stable is the sheep as lawn mower movement and how much of the rural can and will move into and influence the urban during an economic downturn? According to Miller, “building a new America will require an understanding of farming.” If that is true, then services like Miller's and education that bring the rural into the urban are likely to continue and increase. The collapse of the old economy could allow a modified economy based in part on more local, sustainable, and rural practices to emerge.

Once the economy improves, though, it will be interesting to see if companies like Miller's will continue to be successful or if they will fail. Suburban and urban residents may go back to their old ways, and converts like Miller may find jobs that are more profitable. Maybe the global warming and local foods/products movements will help sustain businesses that bring rural practices and elements into suburban and urban environments. One can hope that this trend does not die and will continue to remind suburban and urban Americans of the importance of agriculture and rural communities in our society.

16 comments:

JT said...

That's a fascinating (and cute) concept. I'm surprised the amount saved is such a large sum ($15,000?). From the Ewe-niversally Green site, it seems like the herding dogs are the ones who direct the sheep in their grazing. I wonder if there's a particular reason why sheep are most effective? Maybe Davis could benefit from using the cows as grazing options, since we seem to have an ample supply of those. And what about horses? But beyond that, the concept is an admirable one: it is environmentally friendly, cost-effective, sustainable, and cute. Certainly a creative option.

Courtney Taylor said...

Farms in Winters frequently "employ" sheep to graze their land. They are seen as a better option to goats because they are more selective about what they eat. Goats will eat anything and can easily destroy an orchard, where sheep prefer eating the cover crops on the ground first. The best part is, through some coordination, it is often free! The sheep owners get sheep food and the farmers get trimmed and fertilized orchards.

I find bringing the sheep to urban areas to graze on people's lawns to be interestingly contradictory, especially coming from a company called "Ewe-niversally Green." Although avoiding use of lawnmower would reduce carbon emissions, lawns are extremely impractical and use large amounts of water. To solve the problem altogether, people should consider forgoing their traditional lawns for native plantings (which don't need mowing or much watering).

JLS said...

I have to admit that I am usually very skeptical of ideas like this one. It seems like a bright spot of environmentally friendly, money-saving entrepreneurship. But isn't is also pretty impractical? As far as I can gather, someone has to load up the sheep and bring them to your property, and build a temporary fence if you don't have one. Then do they sit there and watch? I doubt it. What if a sheep gets loose? How long does it take? What if you have pets that aren't use to having sheep around?

Maybe some things are best left to the rural areas? Or at least to the rural-like suburbs? Maybe we should focus our energy on more efficient lawn mowers. Or, like Courtney said, on creating more sustainable, natural yards.

oceguera said...

I wonder what effect this could take if instead of mowing individual homes to focus on large scale sites? Like you mentioned UC Davis, or urban parks! Still, I believe that a reassessment of the meaning behind the terms "sanitation" and "public health" needs happen in order to embrace more "natural" techniques to deal with every day realities (like cutting the grass or washing our clothes).

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Robert F. Crocker said...



Good introduction to a massive subject, I look forward to reading about more about your knowledge and expertise of lawn care.
George

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