Ridgefield farm uses 30 hungry, grazing goats to munch on invasive plants

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox

RIDEGFIELD — A local farm is getting assistance from a herd of goats as part of an initiative to kill its invasive plants.  

About 30 goats are grazing at McKeon Farm as part of a test pilot to encourage native plant growth on the farm. The goats, from Fat and Sassy Goats in Bedford, are spending their days eating the invasive plants on the farm, such as burning bush, Asiatic bittersweet, multiflora rose and European privet.

The goal, which will take longer than one grazing period, is once the invasives have been eaten, the native plants can then regrow and help the ecosystem return to a healthier state. 

Leading up the pilot is Roberta Barbieri, a member of Ridgefield's Conservation Commission. McKeon Farm is one of the open spaces under the purview of the commission, which leases the farm for $1 a year to Henny Penny Farm on Ridgebury Road. Henny Penny Farm uses McKeon Farm to graze sheep and llama.  

Invasive species 

Barbieri said the "tremendous invasive species plant problem" is not confined to Ridgefield but expands across the entire eastern coast of the United States. 

"The entire eastern seaboard actually has things like burning bush and Japanese barberry and multiflora rose and privet — really aggressive invasive species that outcompete our native plants," she said.  

She added invasive plants have taken over vast tracts of land at the farm. She said while the issue has been going on for decades, over the past 10 to 20 years, people have started to realize their severity and the impact they're having on native insects and bird species.

"Insects and the birds that eat them evolved to make use of our native plants. They can't make use of the invasive species," she said. "So, where there's a lot of invasive species, there's no food for insects and if there's no insects, there's no birds."

She added if all the invasives were to die, then the natives would have a chance to regrow since there is a seed bank of natives in the soil.

"Given the right amount of water and sunlight, which they haven't been able to receive because the invasives have been hogging it all  — they will sprout again," she said. "That's the idea — to remove the invasives and give the natives a chance to come back. Once the natives come back, the ecosystem can be restored in totality."

The alternative to the use of goats has been chemicals — specifically, herbicides. 

"The herbicides are harsh chemicals that can kill other things in addition to the invasives," Barbieri said. "This is a natural biological way to avoid the use of chemicals and get rid of these plants."

The goats will remain on the McKeon Farm property until Friday, covering approximately 25,000-square-feet of land, or like just over half an acre. 

The Ridgefield Conservation Commission is paying for the services of  Fat and Sassy Goats, owned by Donald Arrant and Jen Balch.

"It is a small budget that the town provides to us every year,"  Barbieri said, declining to provide the cost of the service. 

Next steps

The invasive plants at the farm will take longer to go away permanently than one goat trip, Barbieri said.

"The invasives will definitely grow back in the spring. One session of being eaten will not kill them. Thus, this is not a one-off," she said. "The next steps here will be either to get in and dig the invasives out by their roots, now that the goats have cleared the way or send the goats back two to three more times over the course of next year to eat the same plants once they’ve leafed out in the spring."

She added, "If we don’t do one of those two things, the plants will just come back in the spring and it will have been wasted effort."