WEST SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Hundreds of goats munch on long blades of yellow grass on a hillside next to a sprawling townhouse complex. They were hired to clear vegetation that could fuel wildfires as temperatures rise this summer.
These voracious herbivores are in high demand to devour weeds and shrubs that have proliferated across California after a drought-busting winter of heavy rain and snow.
"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," said Jason Poupolo, parks superintendent for the city of West Sacramento, where goats grazed on a recent afternoon.
Targeted grazing is part of California's strategy to reduce wildfire risk because goats can eat a wide variety of vegetation and graze in steep, rocky terrain that's hard to access. Backers say they're an eco-friendly alternative to chemical herbicides or weed-whacking machines that are make noise and pollution.
But new state labor regulations are making it more expensive to provide goat-grazing services, and herding companies say the rules threaten to put them out of business. The changes could raise the monthly salary of herders from about $3,730 to $14,000, according to the California Farm Bureau.
Companies typically put about one herder in charge of 400 goats. Many of the herders in California are from Peru and live in employer-provided trailers near grazing sites. Labor advocates say the state should investigate the working and living conditions of goatherders before making changes to the law, especially since the state is funding goat-grazing to reduce wildfire risk.
California is investing heavily in wildfire prevention after the state was ravaged by several years of destructive flames that scorched millions of acres, destroyed thousands of homes and killed dozens of people. Goats have been used to clear fuels around Lake Oroville, along Highway 101, and near the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
"My phone rings off the hook this time of year," said Tim Arrowsmith, owner of Western Grazers, which is providing grazing services to West Sacramento. "The demand has grown year after year after year."
His company, based in the Northern California city of Red Bluff, has about 4,000 goats for hire to clear vegetation for government agencies and private landowners across Northern California. 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," Arrowsmith said.
Companies have historically been allowed to pay goat and sheepherders a monthly minimum salary rather than an hourly minimum wage, because their jobs require them to be on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But legislation signed in 2016 also entitles them to overtime pay. It effectively boosted the herders' minimum monthly pay from $1,955 in 2019 to $3,730 this year. It's set to hit $4,381 in 2025, according to the California Department of Industrial Relations.
So far the herding companies, which have sued over the law, have passed along most of the increased labor costs to their customers.
But in January, those labor costs are set to jump sharply again. Goatherders and sheepherders have always followed the same set of labor rules last year. But a state agency has ruled that's no longer allowed, meaning goatherders would be subject to the same labor laws as other farmworkers.
That would mean goatherders would be entitled to ever higher pay — up to $14,000 a month. Last year a budget trailer bill delayed that pay requirement for one year, but it's set to take affect on Jan. 1 if nothing is done to change the law.
Goatherding companies say they can't afford to pay herders that much. They would have to drastically raise their rates, which would make it unaffordable to provide goat grazing services.
"We fully support increasing wages for herders, but $14,000 a month is not realistic. So we need to address that in order to allow these goat-grazing operations to exist," said Brian Shobe, deputy policy director for the California Climate and Agriculture Network.
The goat-grazing industry is pushing the Legislature to approve legislation that would treat goatherders the same as sheepherders. A bill to do so hasn't yet received a public hearing.
Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, who heads the California Labor Federation, said goatherders are among the "most vulnerable workers in America" because they are on temporary work visas and can be fired and sent back to their home country anytime. Most of them work in isolation, speak minimal English and don't have the same rights as Americans or green-card holders.
"We have a responsibility as a public to ensure that every worker who's working in California is treated with dignity and respect, and that includes these goatherders," said Gonzalez Fletcher, who sponsored the farmworker overtime bill when she was a state Assemblywoman representing San Diego.
Arrowsmith employs seven goatherders from Peru under the H-2A visa program for temporary farmworkers. He said the herders are paid about $4,000 a month and don't have to pay for food, housing or phones.
"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," Arrowsmith said. "What's at stake for the public is your house could burn up because we can't fire-mitigate."