Coterie of creatures imparts lessons in regenerative agriculture at O.C. fairgrounds

Italian Maremma Sheepdog Sonja with goats Apple and Donkey Tuesday near the O.C. fairgrounds' Pacific Amphitheatre.
Italian Maremma Sheepdog Sonja with goats Apple and Donkey Tuesday at a berm near the O.C. fairgrounds’ Pacific Amphitheatre.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

On a grassy berm overlooking the Orange County fairgrounds’ Pacific Amphitheatre, a coterie of four-legged creatures serves as a de facto landscaping team, assembled to restore soil resiliency and keep hillside weeds at bay.

Guard llama Knitty stands poised, her neck like a periscope constantly searching the horizon, while Italian Maremma sheepdog Sonja keeps a keen eye out for predators. Miniature cow Pongo and Herb, a mini donkey born at the site’s Centennial Farm in 2021, are less watchful but faithfully tromp across the berm’s 2-acres.

The unusual menagerie is there to support the real stars of the show — Angora goats who nimbly traverse steep inclines and spend their days nibbling at alfalfa, chicory, sweet clover and bristly oxtongue.

Donkey Herb is one of several companions for a herd of goats who graze a 2-acre berm at the O.C. fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.
Donkey Herb is one of several animal companions for a herd of goats who graze a 2-acre berm at the O.C. fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Since their arrival to the fairgrounds in 2020, the goats have replaced a complicated assortment of human landscapers, who noisily whacked weeds while hanging from support lines and charged thousands of dollars per visit but did nothing to improve soil quality.

By comparison, the nearly silent goat team is not only keeping the berm clear of invasive plants but revitalizing the grounds by aerating the soil with their hooves and fertilizing it with nutrient-rich droppings.

The first caprine landscaping crew was brought to the O.C. fairgrounds through a contract with Northern California goat farmer Allen Mesick, who ran Eureka Mohair Farm in unincorporated Fresno County before being hired on in January as Centennial Farm supervisor.

“During the pandemic, small farmers were struggling to find funding sources. So, for me, it was a great opportunity,” Mesick said Tuesday of the original agreement. “I got to get the goats off my property, they got to graze the berm, then come back to me all fat and healthy and ready for a haircut.”

Centennial Farm supervisor Allen Mesick stands Tuesday outside the Pacific Amphitheatre berm with Knitty the llama.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Mesick, 40, has been around farm animals all his life. At age 5, growing up in Connecticut, he raised ducks and showed them in the local county fair before moving on to rabbits, a pursuit that would take him all over the world as a judge for the American Rabbit Breeders Assn.

He began showing goats at the Orange County Fair and formed relationships with the staff there before purchasing the 10-acre Fresno farm three years later. He sees fairs as venues where animals and people intersect and where valuable lessons about agriculture, stewardship and sustainability may be imparted to city dwellers.

“We offer free education every day to students,” Mesick said Tuesday. “Those kids are like sponges — if they hear good stories, see the humane treatment of animals and watch vegetables being produced, they leave with that story, and they remember that.”

A crew of 18 angora goats, two mini-donkeys and a llama may seem a motley crew — but one O.C. fairgrounds employee says the animal landscapers can restore soil resiliency on a berm that’s been a burden.

Dec. 28, 2020

Having already earned a degree in animal science from Fresno State, Mesick is working toward a master’s degree in sustainable apparel and textiles from Cal Poly Pomona. The fashion industry is one more realm Angora goats and their soft and colorful mohair coats may one day revolutionize.

“I think this could be a test kitchen, or sort of a laboratory, for that farm-to-fashion movement,” he said. “My vision here is to help make the O.C. fairgrounds an institute of urban agriculture.”

So far, the goats-as-landscapers plan seems to be working well — a little too well, given the first 20 animals dedicated to the project cleared the entire berm, down to the nubbins, in a two-month period.

Sheepdog Sonja guards livestock at the O.C. fairgrounds that have been brought to a 2-acre berm to do landscaping.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Now, staff members are working to refine the number of goats and rotate the grazing between different segments of the 2-acre berm, so that the hillside is aesthetically pleasing and still grown left to prevent soil erosion during rainy periods.

Evy Young, the fairgrounds’ director of agricultural programs, said the initial phase of the berm project could take from four to six years, as the goats eliminate invasive plants and new native species are planted into replenished soil.

“We’re just going to let it all happen organically,” she said, adding visitors are already asking questions about the goats. “When people see the animals on the berm, it just piques their interest. That’s where the education starts.”

Mesick has high hopes for reaching a wider audience with new messages about regenerative farming and its many applications.

“Maybe this is the next chapter,” he said Tuesday. “If we’re going to positively influence agriculture in the state and in the country, we’ve got to start showing it in a better light.”

Newly hired Centennial Farm Supervisor and lifelong animal handler Allen Mesick outside Pacific Amphitheatre on Tuesday.
Newly hired Centennial Farm Supervisor and lifelong animal handler Allen Mesick used to run a goat farm near Fresno. Now, he hopes to educate an urban audience about regenerative agriculture.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

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