"He was a bottle-raised goat, and now he's real tame -- he's just a big friend. Whenever we send him out, he seems to be the favorite," says owner Ron Searcy. With his wife Cheryl, who grew up on Wells Farm, Searcy rents out members of their herd, which numbers about 200 goats -- mostly nannies, plus a few wethered (i.e. castrated) billies like Marvin.
Breeding is carefully monitored, and thus the few bucks stay home, says Searcy. When homeowners, business owners and state-land stewards come to Searcy looking for a sustainable, environmentally sound solution to controlling invasive vegetation, mating shenanigans are definitely not what they're looking for.
But at 10 goats per acre -- contained by electric fencing that Searcy installs -- the four-legged weed eaters can swiftly and thoroughly clear away brush and briars, poison ivy and its ilk (which reportedly doesn't faze them at all) and even kudzu, aka "the vine that ate the South." The goats stay on the job for anywhere from a handful of days to a couple of months, he explains.
"They take it down to the bare ground," boasts Searcy.
That's because goats, despite their outward resemblance to such grass-grazers as sheep and cows, are really more like their fellow browsers: deer. Goats' dental and digestive systems are designed for ingesting leaves and shrubs.
Searcy's goats work all around the region, from mid-May to mid-November. And keeping all those gnarly areas tidy also keeps the goats in good health, he notes: "If you move them around, you get away from parasite problems."
Some years back, Ron Huff of Cullowhee was considering his own offspring's health when he began keeping goats. With his wife, Polly, he says, "We raised our two children on goat's milk -- the closest thing we have to mama's milk," says Huff. (Goat's milk is easier for humans to digest than cow's milk.)
Lately, though, Huff's job as a land surveyor has him pondering expanding the herd for a different reason. "Here and there, I get calls from people wanting goats to clear brush and stuff like that," he reports. "I once joked to my wife that I should start Ron's Rent-a-Goat. Then, just last weekend, I went over to Tennessee and saw this ol' boy over there who was doing it. And now I hear about [Searcy].
"I thought, 'Boy, I'm gonna act on that.'"
Huff's personal white whale is the multiflora rose, a pretty but pesky invasive species that chokes Western North Carolina hillsides in late spring. It's particularly prevalent in Jackson and Haywood counties, where he works. "That stuff is evil," says Huff. But it's no problem for goats, he declares, lavishing praise on the creatures.
"They're great; definitely more eco-friendly than keeping a lot of other farm animals. They don't require [commercial] feed, and they don't hang out all the time in one place, leaving their mess. It's a wonderful thing" -- as long as they're kept within bounds, that is. "They're perfect for clearing a big old field," Huff explains. But folks hiring them for home use must understand that goats don't discriminate. "You wouldn't want one eating a prize JFK yellow rose or anything," Huff notes, laughing. "That wouldn't be too awesome for the lady of the house."
Most goat keepers seem to acquire a sense of humor along the way, coupled with much affection for the goats. Searcy speaks fondly of a sweet nanny called Amber -- another customer favorite. And Huff recalls a pair of brothers born on Feb. 14: "My wife named them Val and Tino." The latter billy, still with the family, is spoken about as more a pet than an asset.
"Goats," says Huff, "are way smarter than dogs. And don't let anyone ever tell you any different."
To hire goats from Wells Farm, call 877-5109. For more information, visit www.wellsfarmgoats.com.
[Melanie McGee Bianchi is a stay-at-home mom and freelance journalist.]