RIVERDALE, Calif. — Fernando Alves is in the rental business.
He rents geese.
Every spring, farmers pay Alves $4.25 per goose to chomp away at weeds in cotton fields, vineyards and other crops. The Chinese white geese, or weeder geese, have a voracious appetite for weeds.
When the geese have done their job, farmers return the birds to Alves at his weeder geese hatchery in this hamlet in southern Fresno County.
Farmers receive a refund of 50 cents per goose.
Alves, 33, runs the last of the weeder geese hatcheries in California.
"There are only a handful of weeder geese operations left in America," Alves said. "It's a dying business.
"Since ancient times, farmers always used geese to keep weeds out of their crops. But in recent years chemicals have become popular for controlling weeds, replacing most of the geese."
Alves rents 20,000 weeder geese a year to farmers throughout California. He ships weeder geese chicks to other states.
"Farmers find it easier, although more costly, to spray crops with chemicals to control weeds than to have to worry about geese in the fields," Alves explained.
He said it costs $12 to $15 an acre to have geese weed a field, $40 to $50 an acre for chemicals.
Geese need an ample water supply, should be fenced in and require protection from dogs and coyotes. Alves rents as few as 60 geese to some farmers, as many as 4,500 to others.
When the geese are returned he fattens them up for a couple of months on a grain diet more nourishing than weeds. Then he has the geese butchered and dressed and sells them to restaurants in San Francisco's Chinatown.
The geese weigh seven to eight pounds and Alves receives $5.50 for each one he sells.
Alves said he often eats chicken "but never geese. That would be like eating my employees," he said.