Scattered across the California landscape, hundreds of goats represent a unique and natural strategy for wildfire prevention. The ruminant animals are employed to munch on potentially hazardous vegetation — grass, shrubs, and weeds that could fuel dangerous wildfires. Jason Poupolo, parks superintendent for the city of West Sacramento, affirms,
“It’s a huge fuel source. If it was left untamed, it can grow very high. And then when the summer dries everything out, it’s perfect fuel for a fire.”https://apnews.com/article/california-wildfires-goats-overtime-labor-farmworkers-3a547a83a0d94bd2db0a52cf2831daf5
These goats have become invaluable partners in wildfire prevention due to their ability to graze in hard-to-reach, steep terrains and consume a wide variety of vegetation. This process, known as ‘targeted grazing,’ is being hailed as an eco-friendly alternative to chemical herbicides and noisy, polluting weed-whacking machines.
However, recent changes in state labor regulations are posing a threat to this innovative wildfire prevention strategy. These new rules, which raise the monthly salary of herders from about $3,730 to a daunting $14,000, according to the California Farm Bureau, have put the future of the goat-grazing industry in jeopardy.
Tim Arrowsmith, owner of Western Grazers, provides a grim prediction of what the new regulations could mean for his business:
“Without a fix to the new regulations, we will be forced to sell these goats to slaughter and to the auction yards, and we’ll be forced out of business and probably file for bankruptcy.”https://apnews.com/article/california-wildfires-goats-overtime-labor-farmworkers-3a547a83a0d94bd2db0a52cf2831daf5
His company, which manages around 4,000 goats, provides crucial grazing services to government agencies and private landowners across Northern California, demonstrating the considerable scale of this looming crisis.
One of the contentious issues is that goatherding jobs necessitate round-the-clock availability, leading to herders being paid a monthly minimum salary rather than an hourly wage. However, legislation signed in 2016 extended overtime pay rights to these herders, increasing the minimum monthly pay and further escalating the operational costs for herding companies.
From January, these labor costs are slated to rise again sharply, as a state agency has decreed that goatherders should no longer follow a separate set of labor rules, but rather be subject to the same labor laws as other farmworkers. This would elevate goatherders’ pay even higher, possibly reaching up to $14,000 a month. These changes, according to goatherding companies, would make providing goat-grazing services untenable, leading to a potential collapse of this sector.
Arrowsmith notes the dire implications of this regulatory overhaul, stating,
“I can’t pay $14,000 a month to an employee starting Jan. 1. There’s just not enough money. The cities can’t absorb that kind of cost. What’s at stake for the public is your house could burn up because we can’t fire-mitigate.”https://apnews.com/article/california-wildfires-goats-overtime-labor-farmworkers-3a547a83a0d94bd2db0a52cf2831daf5
As California invests heavily in wildfire prevention, having witnessed the destructive impact of wildfires over the past years, the impending challenge to the goat-grazing industry could undermine these efforts significantly.