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Four-legged mowers take care of thorny problem

Betty Azar and Larry Harris of Freeland watch the goats at work in their field filled with berry vines. “We just find them fascinating,” Harris said. - Roy Jacobson / The Record
Betty Azar and Larry Harris of Freeland watch the goats at work in their field filled with berry vines. “We just find them fascinating,” Harris said.
— image credit: Roy Jacobson / The Record

The pesky blackberry vines were getting their goats, so Betty Azar and Larry Harris retaliated.

They got their own goats. And a llama, too.

“They arrived Wednesday,” Harris said. “They’re making some inroads.”

Confronted by an acre of tangled blackberries they wanted gone but didn’t want to tackle, the couple opted for a multi-legged, multi-toothed, chemical-free solution.

The Freeland pair submitted a bid at a recent charity auction for Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley, and won short-term use of a browsing herd of 56 mowers-on-the-hoof.

The goats were delivered this week to the couple’s eight-acre property off Lancaster Road near Double Bluff, and have been chewing the scenery since. They’ll stay until the job’s done, perhaps five to seven days, Harris said.

“We just find them fascinating,” he said Thursday. “We can’t keep from walking down there and watching them.”

“I love the goats,” Azar said. “All my friends are tickled about the goats.”

The herd comes from Akyla Farms in La Conner, which rents it out for eco-friendly brush removal. The deal includes a large llama named Fiberfest, who keeps the goats together and protects them from dogs and coyotes.

“They told us the llama will track down a coyote and kill it,” Harris said.

Maisie, the couple’s young springer spaniel, got the message early.

“The llama never took its eyes off her,” Harris said.

Akyla Farms is operated by Kevin and Carol Osterman. They deliver the goats and the llama in a large trailer van, and retrieve them when the herd has chomped its way through its commission.

The Ostermans put up a portable fence around the target area, and equipped it with a mild electric charge powered by a little solar generator.

Maisie absorbed that message, too.

“She got her nose zapped a little,” Azar said. “She’s been keeping her distance.”

Harris said the goats eat the leaves off the blackberry vines, and the surrounding weeds, and trample the underbrush. When they’re finished, only the dying berry stalks remain.

“The vines are easy to clear out after they’re done,” Harris said. “And painless.”

There are about four varieties of goats in the herd, and they come in a number of sizes and several different markings. A few young ones were still suckling.

“C’mon, you guys, get to work,” Azar called good-naturedly.

The goats are supplied with bowls of alfalfa pellets and nutritional supplements as a side dish to the blackberry leaves. Someone from Akyla Farms comes daily to check on the herd.

Harris has owned the property for 14 years. Before that, he raised beef cattle in Whatcom County, where he was a county commissioner for awhile.

This is the first time he has rented a herd of goats.

“They’re so cute and easy to take care of,” Harris said, “compared to a herd of cows.”

Azar, who writes textbooks and sells them throughout the world, said that she has wanted to clear away the brush and put in native plant species for some time, “but acres and acres of blackberries can be pretty daunting.”

Harris is so impressed with the goats that he said he may hire them again in another year or so.

“Blackberries have a way of growing back,” he said.

“It’s a wonderful, natural way of clearing land,” Azar said. Then, glancing at a pile of recent garden clippings, she added: “I wonder if they eat rose hips?”

The Ostermans offer a wide range of grass-fed livestock, free-range chickens and eggs and other eco-friendly agricultural products at Akyla Farms. Their business card sums up their philosophy: “It’s not just what you eat, it’s what your food eats.”

For information about Akyla Farms, visit www.akylafarms.com, e-mail barnyard@akyafarms.com or call 360-466-2058.

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