Under a hot southern sun it can grow a foot a day, covering everything in its path, and will weigh trees down until they snap.
It is kudzu, and Reuben the goat, along with 54 of his kin, are going to eat acres of it here in Winston-Salem before the end of October.
On this hot Tuesday in September, the goats are being loaded into a trailer bound for the other side of Salem Creek where they will eat another few acres of the invasive vine. Except Reuben doesn’t want to get into the truck.
“He’s just a big pet,” says Jake Dorner, who’s technically in charge — Reuben would beg to differ — while chasing him with the “rattle paddle.”
Reuben wears a blue ribbon around his neck, has long curly horns and wants absolutely nothing to do with the trailer. He lets out a “baa,” presumably in protest.
That’s too bad, he’s got a job to do.
“He knows he gets to be the first one off if he’s the last one on,” Dorner says while pulling him up into the trailer with the rest of the herd.
Dorner is the manager and soon-to-be owner of Wells Farm in Etowah, North Carolina and makes the trip down from the mountains about once a week to move the goats to a new section of kudzu along the Salem Creek Greenway. He’s not sure how much kudzu they eat a day, only that it’s a lot.
While unusual to see downtown in any city, over the next three years this herd of goats from Wells Farm will eat the kudzu down to the root, letting workers come in to spray and kill it so it never comes back, Dorner said
“It’ll stress the plant out so much that it’s manageable in three years,” he said.
It’s an ecologically sustainable solution to clear the invasive vine from an area of creekbank not suitable for mowing, Dorner said. It’s also safer than sending people in the kudzu where they can’t see the ground and what they’re stepping on, he said.
Dorner said Wells Farm has about 300 goats in total, and have goats eating kudzu and other vegetation as far away as Ohio.
Although contained in an electric fence, Dorner said the goats probably wouldn’t hurt anybody that didn’t provoke them. The fence is more of a deterrent for people, rather than the goats.
“It’ll throw an arc about half-an-inch,” Dorner said about the strength of the fence’s current.
The goats will be here — off and on — for three years as part of a contract with the city of Winston-Salem.
The goats will leave before the end of October, headed back to the farm for the winter. In May, they’ll come back until the middle of June, Dorner said, and then they’ll make another return trip sometime in August.
As for the goats themselves, most of them are sold off every 10 years, either to other farms or to the meat market.
But not Reuben, he is a rescue goat from a humane society after he was improperly castrated, Dorner said. After all, he’s just a big pet.