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At this Virginia farm, the goats have GPS

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Agriculture is one of the biggest sources of pollution flowing into the nation's waterways. Looking for solutions, a goat farm in Virginia is using a new technology to help improve water and soil. Jacob Fenston of member station WAMU reports.

MOLLY KROIZ: Hi, girlies.

SAM KROIZ: Let's go.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOAT BLEATING)

M KROIZ: Come on everybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOAT BLEATING)

M KROIZ: Come on.

My name is Molly Kroiz.

S KROIZ: I'm Sam Kroiz. My wife Molly.

M KROIZ: We are a seasonal farmstead goat dairy. So we make cheeses, gelato, caramel.

JACOB FENSTON, BYLINE: Molly and Sam Kroiz run George’s Mill Farm on about 90 acres in Northern Virginia. The land has been in Sam's family since the 1750s. As they lead the goats out of the barn for the day, the goats seem to know exactly where to go, even though there are no fences to be seen on the property. The Kroiz's farm is part of a pilot program. Each goat is wearing a collar with what looks like a big cowbell. But it's not a bell, it's a solar-powered GPS unit. Previously, the technology was only available in Europe.

M KROIZ: I just kept sending them emails, being like, when are you coming to the U.S.? When are you going - like once a year, I'd be like, how about now? How about now?

FENSTON: Livestock can be terrible for the environment. Manure pollutes waterways. But livestock can also be great for the environment, enriching soil, encouraging plant growth and even making the water cleaner. It all depends on how the animals are managed. The Kroizes say the GPS collars help them farm in a way that's environmentally responsible, a practice called rotational grazing - moving the goats from place to place on the farm.

S KROIZ: We love the environment, but to be honest, a lot of the things we do that are environmentally friendly on the farm we do because we're also very cheap, and it's cost effective. So...

M KROIZ: It's cost effective, and it's better for the animals and therefore better for our products as well.

FENSTON: The callers are from a company called Nofence. They can be used in place of a traditional electric fence. The GPS collars communicate with satellites, and the Kroizes can set the boundaries with a smartphone app. It's similar to the technology you might use for pets. If a goat approaches the boundary, it gets an audible warning from its collar.

M KROIZ: (Imitating collar sounding). And then it'll stay there for a minute. And if they keep - if they don't move, they get a shock.

FENSTON: She demonstrates, coaxing a few goats toward the invisible boundary.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLLAR SOUNDING)

FENSTON: Rotational grazing is good for the environment because it helps keep nutrients on the land. In a more traditional dairy operation, animals would be crowded together, all pooping in the same spot. Matt Kowalski, with the environmental group the Chesapeake Bay Foundation explains.

MATT KOWALSKI: Say, if you had a two-acre paddock right around the barn right around where you were milking, you'd get way too many nutrients there.

FENSTON: Any rain will quickly carry those excess nutrients off the land into the water, feeding algae blooms. The algae then use up oxygen in the water, creating dead zones. This entire process starts with too much poop in the wrong place. But on the Kroiz's farm, the animals are like roving fertilizer machines, helping cycle nutrients from forage plants back into the soil.

KOWALSKI: Once that forage has passed through the digestive system of a warm-blooded animal, when they poop it out, the bacteria and the microbes that then add to the underworld ecology - there's magic that happens.

FENSTON: The Kroizes have been farming like this for about a decade, but until recently they were using actual physical fences to rotate the goats. Using solar-powered collars saves hours of labor each day.

M KROIZ: We are no longer moving fence every day. Sam can update the fence line while he's drinking his coffee in the morning. It's pretty great, and that frees up him to do a lot of other things that need doing around here.

FENSTON: That's why farmers and environmentalists are excited about the new virtual fence technology, and it can even make food taste better. Kroiz says their animals' varied diet gives the goat cheese more interesting and complex flavors.

For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jacob Fenston
Jacob Fenston is WAMU’s environment reporter. In prior roles at WAMU, he was the founding producer of The Big Listen, interim managing producer of Metro Connection, and a news editor. His work has appeared on many national programs and has been recognized by regional and national awards. More importantly, his reporting has taken him and his microphone deep into muddy banks of the Anacostia River, into an enormous sewage tunnel, and hunting rats in infested alleys. His best story ever (as determined by himself) did not win any awards, even though it required recording audio while riding a bicycle the wrong way down the busy streets of Oakland, Calif.