The pastures and barns of Great Rock Farm on Boston’s North Shore have long been home to horses, sheep, ewes and herding dogs. But in recent years, it’s the farm’s goats who have stepped into the limelight as part of an agricultural trend emerging across New England.
“In the early 2000s, we started going goat crazy,” said Michelle Aulson, who owns the farm in Georgetown with more than 200 animals. “Black brush and poison ivy control with all the goats.”
Eventually, she said, the farm’s goat enthusiasm evolved into a business, Goats To Go. Known as “goat scaping,” it’s a way of managing vegetation that dates back thousands of years. Particularly for areas in Massachusetts where the ecosystems are more fragile, using goats instead of chemicals lets property owners remove invasive vegetation without harming the environment. And for the people who run the farms, they say they can’t keep up with the interest in renting out their goats.
“There’s so many problems with pesticide usage and other things, and it’s a natural way of getting rid of vegetation,” Aulson said. “And it’s also fun to watch them do it.”
Aulson transports her goats to cemeteries, parks and schools to clear brush.
“Here in the Northeast, you've got urban settings. We've done a lot of dog parks. We've done ... a National Park service in Lowell. We've gone out there on their hillsides to maintain their vegetation.”
According to the USDA’s most recent census figures, Massachusetts is home to 670 goat and sheep farms with $2.3 million in yearly sales.
John Bennett, who bears the title of “chief goat officer” at Goats of Dover, started his business with three goats during the pandemic after he was laid off from his advertising job. He offers “cocktails with goats” and Zoom meetings with goats, too, but today, his company’s primary service is goat scaping.
“And goats, thankfully, love most of the invasive species out there: dense, woody material like poison ivy, bittersweet and buckthorn and things like that,” Bennett said. “One of the main reasons we started is concern over the environment — and the fact that this is what goats were basically born to do is eat stuff like this, right? So why not put their talent to use in a way that's good for the goat and good for the environment.”
Since 2015, Stacey Greaves has owned Goat Green Cape Cod, and she rents out her goats for landscape management. Given Cape Cod’s sensitive water aquifer, she says goat grazing is a smart way to approach landscape maintenance.
There’s a lot of demand for her services; last year, she was staring down a waiting list of more than 50 potential customers, she said. But she’s hit a hurdle in growing her business: hiring more workers. Greaves says it’s difficult to find employees who are willing to take on part-time, seasonal work.
“We need to start taking care of the land. And I just introduced the idea on the Cape,” Greaves said. “There's many, many goat scaping companies across the country, across the world. But it was new here to Cape Cod.”
Landscape designer Laura Kelley of Littlefield Landscapes in North Eastham is familiar with environmentally sensitive areas like Cape Cod.
“Goats are an incredible method and all-natural way to maintain our properties, and in a way that does not include any sort of toxic chemicals. And so, it's an absolute great way to have animals eat your problems away,” Kelley said.
At the Carroll School in Lincoln, Wayland and Waltham, the grounds sometimes battle invasive species, like poison ivy and Japanese knot wood. Danielle Pedreira, the school’s facilities and capital projects director, has hired Goats To Go for years because the Waltham campus abuts wetlands and the reservoir that holds Cambridge’s drinking water.
“And because we're in that buffer zone of the wetlands, we can't use any sort of chemicals or tools to try and remove the poison ivy or treat it,” Pedreira said.
The goats themselves are pretty low maintenance, their farmers say. Bennett, with Goats of Dover, said the first step on a new job is to assess the property. While the goats aren’t picky eaters, there are a few plants they cannot eat, like rhododendron and milkweed, both of which can cause the animals harm.
“We’ll do a site survey where we really walk every square foot of the land that the goats are going to be on to identify any harmful plants and to take measurements and things like that,” Bennett said. “Then we provide an estimate.”
"It's an absolute great way to have animals eat your problems away."Laura Kelley, landscape designer in North Eastham
The cost can vary, depending on the size of the area and how long it takes the goats to clear the land. Different farmers said it could cost as little as $1,200 for a small penned-in area, while another started at $2,200 for a quarter acre. It may be more costly than pesticides but, to some, it’s worth it to use a more sustainable practice.
After the assessment, the goat scaping company will erect a fence around the area where the goats will munch for a few days — up to a couple of weeks for a big job like a national park.
Although goat scaping isn't always a permanent fix, farmers like Aulson say the animals come pretty close to controlling regrowth of invasive species the natural way.
“They do fertilize,” said Aulson, who runs Great Rock Farm. “But the fertilization with a goat ... they don't re-germinate, which means their stomachs break down everything that's in there. And therefore when they poop out the other end, they're not re-seeding everything.”
She said the region’s goat farmers help one another, too. Her farm helps others get into the business of goat scaping by running workshops, too, to teach farmers about the vegetation to keep an eye out for and the equipment that they’ll need — even selling them goats.
“We are always trying to help other people get business,” she said. “We know the model.”
Goat scaping isn’t a practice that’s regulated at the state level, according to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. Bennett says the rules with goat scaping vary by community, but he says he doesn’t run into problems with his farming practices.
“Neighbors can’t complain about odor or noise as long as you’re doing things that you’re supposed to do,” Bennett said. “They love it. I mean, there's not a lot of things that are cuter than baby goats, believe me.”