Want to Remove Poison Ivy Patch? Hire Some Goats

Jim Cormier and two of his co-workers. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News photos)

Jim Cormier and two of his co-workers. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News photos)

The Goatscaping Co. employees furry weed eaters to cut down overgrown brush

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PLYMPTON, Mass. — It didn’t take long for the new landscaping crew to butt heads. Soon after their boss dropped them off at the worksite, a tussle began. The alarmed homeowner called Jim Cormier to tell him his crew has been fighting for 45 minutes and blood has been drawn.

A relaxed Cormier told his concerned client, “Don’t worry. They’ll work things out.”

The company’s vice president was even less concerned when another client called to tell him a member of his crew was giving birth. By the time Cormier arrived — and he admitted he didn’t exactly rush to the scene — the newborn “had been licked clean and was standing on its own.”

Two years ago the Kingston resident was unemployed and looking for work. He never imagined his job search would lead to him managing 48 goats.

In 2012, Cormier and his business partner, Elaine Philbrick, met at Colchester Neighborhood Farm on Brook Street; both were members of the farm’s community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. They began talking — Philbrick mentioned she owned four goats — and soon the idea of The Goatscaping Co. was born.

Before the new business partners knew it, they were buying equipment and getting more goats — naturally and from a local breeder.

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The Goatscaping Co. grew out a chance meeting between its two co-founders at Colchester Neighborhood Farm.Using goats as an eco-friendly way to control invasive species has been gaining in popularity. In western Massachusetts, the Amherst-based The Goat Girls offers brush-clearing services, and nationwide homeowners, businesses — the Google campus in California, for example — and parks, such as the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., are incorporating conservation grazing as a way to bypass fossil fuel-powered machinery and/or toxic herbicides to curb unwanted plant growth.

The Goatscaping Co. rents goats by the week, to homeowners and businesses looking to eliminate poison ivy and control brush growth. A crew of four adult goats will clear a quarter to a third of an acre in a week.

Goats will eat just about anything they can reach, such as Asiatic bittersweet, buckthorn and Japanese knotweed. Goats don’t like to eat grass, and milkweed and rhododendrons are poisonous to them, but they do consider poison ivy, poison sumac, blackberries and wild grape leaves tasty treats.

“If there’s a big tangle of thorns, they will chew right through it,” Cormier said. “Thorns aren’t a problem for them. They aren’t finicky eaters. They will chew right down to the roots.”

Before Cormier unleashes his crew of four-legged weed-whackers on an overgrown patch of land, he checks the site for milkweed and rhododendrons, and makes sure there are no pits or rebar hidden in the greenery.

After the goats have finished chowing down, the low ground cover they have fertilized and left behind, such as grass, clover and moss, will take over and help keep poison ivy and brush growth from returning, according to Philbrick. In fact, when they are done devouring a targeted area, the only trace of stocky vegetation left are woody stalks that are a quarter-inch or thicker, she said.

The cost to rent a crew of 4-6 goats is about $600 a week, according to Philbrick, the company’s president. Once on site, Cormier sets up a 4-foot-high electric net fence powered by a solar battery. The 300- to 400-square-foot fence can be set up in any configuration, and on virtually any type of ground. The fence keeps the goats in and coyotes and stray dogs out. Cormier also sets up a plastic shelter within the fence to protect his hardy crew from the elements.

The only maintenance Cormier and Philbrick ask of their clients is to provide their hungry grew with fresh water daily, and feed the goats some of the grain and minerals they leave in a locker beside the fence. Clients can put the supplements in the goats’ food dish or have some fun and feed the crew by hand.

While the goats will tussle with each other to establish dominance, especially a crew that is new to each other, Philbrick said they are extremely friendly to people and won’t bite, kick or headbutt anyone with two legs. Two ecoRI News staffers who recently visited company headquarters, at a 263-year-old farm, can vouch for their friendliness, and nosiness. They also were quite talkative during the hourlong visit. And, not surprisingly, the most handsome one was named Frank.

Goats aren’t finicky eaters, just don’t let them eat rhododendrons or milkweed.

Goats aren’t finicky eaters, just don’t let them eat rhododendrons or milkweed.

This year, The Goatscaping Co. used eight crews and was booked throughout much the season, which is basically May 1 through Oct. 31, depending on the weather. Next season, the partners hope to have enough business to keep 13 crews busy. In 2013, the company employed five crews. The company hopes to be profitable by 2015.

The Goatscaping Co.‘s customers are evenly split between homeowners and businesses, such as the Cohasset Golf Club, Black Rock Country Club in Hingham, Planet Subaru in Hanover and the Xfinity Center in Mansfield.

Colchester Neighborhood Farm — owned and operated by New England Village, which helps adults living with intellectual disabilities to experience dignified, enriching lives through participation in various programs — allows Goatscaping to use some of its pastures and has permitted Cormier build a temporary barn on the property. The organization’s clients enjoy visiting with the goats and helping Cormier care for them.

The company’s goats — they all have names, from Skylark and Juno to Denny and Dalia — range in size, age and attitude. The oldest is 8-year-old Twilight — goats typically live in the range of 8-15 years — and Diamond and Hemi are most certainly crew bosses.

Nearly half of the 48 goats are Alpine, while the La Mancha, Kaghani and Saanen breeds also are represented.

With their offseason fast approaching, the company’s goats will soon be paid to appear at birthday parties and live nativity scenes. You may also bump into Kahotso at a Plymouth South High School football game. Don’t fear, he won’t be dining on the playing field. He’s the Goatscaping Co.’s prime public-relations goat.