9th Ward goat farmer's gripe: butting heads with powers that be

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Cockeyed contest rules? Here’s lookin’ at you, kid. Photo by KKirugi, Flickr (Creative Commons)

Since this article was first posted, the third paragraph from the last has been updated to reflect a connection between Goats of Progress and a fund backing Propeller. 

Bless my sweet wife for being so unlike me. I would have raised hell. They changed the rules at the last minute, and she was robbed. And now we won’t be Lower 9th Ward goat farmers.

At least someone will. A group known as Goats of Progress won second place in the recent Lots of Progress competition run by a business-incubation organization called Propeller, backed by Tulane, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority and other civic worthies.

It’s great that not one but two urban goat-farming ventures were considered by judges, and I relish this editorial space to tout the concept of siccing nature’s perfect lawnmowers on hundreds of untended 9th Ward lots. Still, I’m disappointed, feeling like the old “fix-is-in” New Orleans way crept into this otherwise progressive effort. And because of that, in my opinion, Propeller went against its stated ambition to “achieve long-term, systemic change in our community.”

With $10,000 being divided by three winners, the stakes weren’t eye-popping, but the money is enough to make a difference.

The contest worked like this: Dozens of startups pitched novel ideas for redeveloping property in the Lower 9th Ward. The field was whittled down to a handful of finalists, who made in-person pitches to a panel of judges. The three winners walked away with a few grand each and land on which to work.

David Young took first place, and $5,000, with his Fruity About Trees idea, which will transform two vacant lots into a citrus, banana and fig orchard. The $2,000 third prize went to Cat Kochanski’s program called Develop Abundance, which will use hydroponic, aquaponic, and aeroponic technologies to grow fish and produce for folks in need.

Goats of Progress won $3,000 to raise goats and make them available as an eco-friendly lot-maintenance service. Goats of Progress could mean entry-level farming jobs in the Lower 9th Ward, collaborations with schools and non-profits, and goat milk products for local markets.

The proposal from my wife, Morgana King, was called Y’Herd Me Property Maintenance, and it was similar, with the addition of a petting zoo for local kids (the human kind) and the fertilizer sideline a goat farm produces.

My disappointment in the contest is not so much at my wife’s loss, but that Goats of Progress – an entry that didn’t make the initial cut – was first unsuccessfully foisted on my wife as an unwanted partner, and then allowed to slide into contention at the last minute.

The skinny on goat farming

But first let me give you the interesting stuff.

Urban goat farming has proven successful in many cities. We got our first goat in late 2004, a big whether (meaning fixed) male named Chauncey Gardner, bought for $75 from a West Bank farm. The big 9th Ward house we’ve lived in for almost 10 years has a huge backyard, which Chauncey keeps immaculate. African pygmy goats such as Chauncey do very well in New Orleans.  He loves the heat, and in October he grows a double coat against the cold.

Though goats are known for their devilish natures, stubbornness and tin-can munching, pygmies have far better manners than people expect. As we evacuated New Orleans ahead of Katrina, Chauncey sat quietly in the back seat for hours. His Marigny neighbor and goat buddy, Evangeline, sleeps in her owner’s bed.

Chauncey is much quieter and calmer than a dog, and easier to care for than a goldfish. Bigger goats may have questionable appetites, but our knee-high pygmy favors wild greens, plus his daily cup of sweet goat chow (and the occasional paper trash he finds on the ground).

For lawn-maintenance purposes, goats are perfect. Cows are “grazers” and rip plants out by their roots, while goats are “browsers,” discerningly pruning to ensure regrowth. Goats gobble up brush-fire risks in Texas and clear out hard-to-reach areas in California. Where houses once stood in the Lower 9th Ward, now lies a vast goat buffet.

Preparing the pitch

When not raising goats, my wife is the director at her Arts Council job and a local art gallery, so her proposal was financially strong and detailed. She priced out fencing, a barn, zoning permits, insurance, vet bills, building a website and more. She found a goat mentor. She quizzed City Hall officials.  Because financial planning would count for 50 percent of a contestant’s final score, she pinpointed eight different revenue streams for the farm, including collecting a fee of $200 for each cleared lot. She figured it would cost $5,000 a year to run.

At first, the laws regarding animal farms in the city appeared unfavorable, but my wife was buoyed when she learned that city officials had recently waived some land-size requirements to allow one in the Lower 9th Ward

She even talked the Make It Right Foundation into donating a trailer built specifically for goats – called the Slow Mow – that had sat unused since it was built in 2010. The idea is that obvious.

When 10 equals 11

Out of more than 40 entries, hers became one of 10 semi-finalists selected to pitch in person to celebrity chef John Besh, New Orleans Redevelopment Authority honcho Jeff Hebert, and  Maurice Cox from Tulane’s City Center.

The rules said that “a maximum of 10 semi-finalists” would be chosen. But an initial screening board also selected three alternates, in case any semi-finalists dropped out. Goats of Progress was one of the alternates.

The week before the big pitch to judges, Propeller asked my wife to team up with Goats of Progress. My wife declined. She was already planning to partner with whoever turned out to be neighbors of the lot she hoped to win.

Then, just before the final pitch, Propeller added Goats of Progress to the group of semi-finalists, bringing the group to 11.

All the semi-finalists should have been outraged.

Sensing doom (and political favoritism) my wife asked Propeller by email why the group was allowed to make a pitch.

Executive director Andrea Chen wrote to explain that Goats of Progress was the only alternate left after the two others dropped out. Coupled with a schedule change that gave the judges more time, the organization decided to let an 11th group make its pitch to the judges.

“We felt it was in the best interest of the competition,” she wrote.

Both goat pitches brought goats to the final showdown: our 80-pound brown beer keg, Chauncey, and their cute little gray kid. My wife later lamented that we’d brought an old goat to a baby goat party.  Besh and the other judges praised my wife’s idea and her presentation. They had only a few budget questions, which she addressed.

Wanting their side of the story, I have written twice to both Goats of Progress and Propeller, inquiring about possible relationships between the two organizations. According to his Facebook page, David Behmer, of Goats of Progress, once worked for the Tulane Fund, which is a backer of Propeller.* I’ve received no answer to my inquiries, but anyone who has lived here for any amount of time will think they recognize good ol’ New Orleans logic at play: “They’re our rules, we’re allowed to change ’em.”

The real point, of course, is creating jobs and clearing blighted, weed-choked land in the Lower 9th Ward. And it sounds like Propeller will have helped accomplish that.

But “systemic change in our community”?

Not so much.

*Correction: The original version of this story erroneously stated that Behmer works for the Tulane Fund, but he last worked there in the summer of 2012. The error has been corrected.

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