Geese help us with one of the hardest jobs at Hoch Orchard and Gardens. They happily pull the weeds in the strawberry beds. Nobody else on the farm likes weeding strawberries; I don’t think anybody likes weeding strawberries. That’s why so many herbicides are applied to conventionally grown strawberries. Strawberries regularly fall into the ‘dirty dozen’ of high pesticide conventional crops.
Certified organic strawberries are a tough crop to grow. While the plants thrive in our region and produce some of the best tasting berries in the world, there are very few grown here. Pests and diseases can be a problem, but the weed control is the real killer of the organic berry bed. Untold hours are spent pulling annual weeds and perennial grasses out of the thick mat of berry plants.
Fortunately geese love to eat grasses and don’t like broadleaf plants like strawberry plants. Geese work from sun up to sun down and don’t require much pay. Sounds easy right? Not exactly. We have to confine the geese into the area we want weeded with energized poultry netting. Other wise the geese go where ever they want, and they usually want to go where we don’t want them, in the garden for example.
I have watched a goose eat a ten inch blade of grass right to the ground. He nibbled it from the tip down right through the strawberry plants without touching a strawberry leaf. This is what we want them to do. The problem is the timing. If the geese are left in one spot too long they will eat all the grasses and then start nibbling on the berry plants. They have to be watched closely and sometimes moved more than once per day. They also need some grain. If they don’t have some grain they look for more nutritious food than grasses and will spend more time trying to get out of the fence than weeding. If we feed them too much grain the will get all their nutrition from the grain and eat fewer weeds. Then they spend too much time in one spot and trample the berry plants and damage the crowns.
There are great advantages in using weeder geese. They help with some pests and reduce hand weeding by 60% to 90%. Their droppings add nutrients to the soil and enhance the biodiversity of soil life. But the time and attention is costly. Unlike conventional agriculture where the farmer can spray a herbicide in the spring and forget about weeds; apply fertilizer in the summer and fall and ignore the soil; and spray insecticides and fungicides on the developing fruit and forget about pests; we have to continually monitor the berry beds and the geese. This requires many hours of labor by individuals with knowledge and experience with animal production. Not a job you learn with a couple hours of on-the-job training.
Organic strawberry production is very difficult in our region. We would produce far fewer strawberries if we did not have the weeder geese. The primary purpose of the geese is to weed the berries, but they will also be rotated in the orchards and other areas of the farm. We do not put the geese in the strawberry beds when the fruit is growing. The time for the geese is after harvest from June until about September when weed growth is at its peak.
Our geese get most of their nutrition from weeds and pasture. Their diet is supplemented with organic grain from Cashton Farm Supply. The birds are certified organic and live happy lives outside. They get a diverse diet, fresh air, and plenty of exercise. The meat is of exceptional quality. If you like to serve goose for special occasions try one of our organic feathered farm workers. They had a happy productive life on the farm and they have fantastic tasting healthy meat.
We butcher geese in the fall at a USDA certified local processor. Our meats are legal for both wholesale and restaurant sales. We have only one goose processing date per year. Individuals can order geese in advance and pick them up at the farm during one of designated sales days.