Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

In Grant County, more than 280 grazing goats provide sustainable solution to buckthorn

Dozens of goats in a green field
Lakeside Prairie Farm in Grant County has more than 280 goats that are used for a goat grazing service.
Chris Farrell | MPR News

In a recent visit to Morris, MPR senior economics contributor Chris Farrell visited several small businesses in the area. One of those businesses is Lakeside Prairie Farm in nearby Barrett, about half an hour north of Morris.

Lakeside Prairie is owned by Bryan and Jessie Simons. Their farm business? A goat grazing service. And it’s become very successful.

Farrell joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about their niche business.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: We, of course, are going to talk about animals right now, from not bobcats but goats. Specifically, there was a recent visit to Morris, Minnesota, that our Senior Economics Contributor Chris Farrell did. He visited several small businesses in that area, one of them Lakeside Prairie Farm in nearby Barrett, which is about a half an hour north of Morris. Lakeside Prairie is owned by Bryan and Jessie Simmons. Their farm business, it's a goat grazing service. And it has become very successful. Chris is here to talk about it.



CATHY WURZER: I hope you took pictures.

CHRIS FARRELL: I did. I took a lot of pictures.

CATHY WURZER: Good. Well, I love goats. Tell us about this goat farm.

CHRIS FARRELL: OK. So, Cathy, the farm is beautiful. It's almost idyllic, a red house sitting on more than 200 acres and some two miles of lake shoreline. And they have two children, one dog, about 140 goats, and around the same number of goat kids. And they also custom graze some cows for other farmers. So the day I visited the farm, it was raining hard, really hard. And we walked out to the field where the goats were grazing. And, Cathy, I learned that my shoes, which I thought were water resistant, or at least maybe waterproof, they weren't. So Bryan called the goats so that they would come closer.

BRYAN SIMMONS: Come on, goats!



BRYAN SIMMONS: Come on, goats!


JESSIE SIMMONS: We had our first set of quintuplets goat kids this year. So that was pretty fun.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, my goodness. Yes, it is fun. OK, so did they have a background in farming before they got into this?

CHRIS FARRELL: OK, so Bryan's grandparents had a farm near Morris, and he grew up wanting to be a farmer. And he attended the University of Minnesota Morris and got his undergraduate degree in biology and earned his master's degree in ecology from South Dakota State. Jessie did not grow up on a farm.

JESSIE SIMMONS: I would say Bryan drew me to the prairie. When I met him, I was more of a Northwoods kind of gal.

CHRIS FARRELL: So she's an elementary school teacher. And Bryan and Jessie, they searched for farmland for several years. And they got their property after meeting a farming couple who wanted to both help out beginning farmers and change the way our food is produced. So they started out as renters and then eventually bought the farm from there. And the original idea was to offer customers an ambitious CSA program, Communities Supported Agriculture. Community supported agriculture farms, they offer subscribers a weekly box of, what, seasonal produce, meat, other products from the farm. Their CSA included grass-fed beef.

BRYAN SIMMONS: We almost had an idea of doing a whole farm CSA. So our whole diet CSA. And that's producing everything, meats and vegetables and grains and everything. And when we first got started, we were getting in on the good food movement. We got inspired by authors like Michael Pollan and got caught up in thinking that people were going to start paying for the true cost of food and recognizing quality and thought we could compete in the marketplace. Come to find out that that was a little more challenging than we thought.

CATHY WURZER: Hmm. I bet it was. So how do they move then from a CSA model to the goat grazing business?

CHRIS FARRELL: OK, so picture this, Cathy. We're sitting at their kitchen table, and I joked I had this image of them sitting there and suddenly being inspired to invest in goats. Well, it turns out that's pretty close to what happened.

CATHY WURZER: Of course. But what was the route they took?

CHRIS FARRELL: Well, so key to their story is buckthorn. It's an invasive species. It's a noxious weed harmful to local ecosystems. And buckthorn is hard to deal with. And the weed ran alongside the lake that I could see. It's a beautiful lake out their kitchen window. Buckthorn blocked that view several years ago.

BRYAN SIMMONS: From where we're sitting, you couldn't see the lake. And so I set out to get rid of all that buckthorn. And I did most of that work by hand, chainsawing and piling it. It was a lot of work. And then less than a year later, it's back. It's even worse of a problem because then instead of one stem, you've got 40 stems where you just cut it. And figured that goats were the answer to keep it, to maintain it and keep it cleared, all that hard work I put in. So, yeah, sitting here at the kitchen table, I decided, yeah, goats are going to be the answer to our buckthorn problem.

CATHY WURZER: Well, parts of the state of Minnesota are lousy with buckthorn. I mean, this is actually a pretty good idea.

CHRIS FARRELL: I love it. And it's an environmentally friendly solution. So among their customers are nearby city parks, private individuals who would like their buckthorn gone and their lake view back. And the season lasts from about the beginning of June to sometime in November.

BRYAN SIMMONS: When people want to get rid of their buckthorn, they could hire a landscaping crew, big, heavy equipment or lots of chemicals to get rid of it. And it's a really intensive process, pretty costly. So you could hire them. Or you could hire a goat grazing service provider to do that. So there's not much competition. And there's not many grazing service providers out there. It's kind of a niche that we found that there's not much competition.

CHRIS FARRELL: And, Cathy, I'm sure you've had this experience. Whenever you interview a small business owner, they always say, I had this initial idea or vision, that's what animated me to launch this small enterprise. But it isn't quite the business that they started out with.

JESSIE SIMMONS: I think with any small business, you have to be nimble. And that's been a learning process throughout the decade that we've been here trying all the different things. And that's been a big lesson for us is being able to be nimble. We certainly never thought we'd be doing goats when we started out. But it seems to be our niche.

CATHY WURZER: Now, Jessie used to teach school, right, which is kind of a tough job. But is she working on the farm as well?

CHRIS FARRELL: So Jessie is a school teacher, an elementary school teacher. But she has a second job as farmer. She calls herself "the second farmer." And the kids, by the way, they're old enough to take on chores at the farm. And Jessie says she has come to love the life.

JESSIE SIMMONS: Definitely, having lived here for over a decade, have come to love it. I feel like what I've noticed so much is the resiliency of the prairie, especially in the last couple of years where we've had drought in much of the state. And our pastures are still thriving and doing well because of that resiliency and the interplay between all the species.

CATHY WURZER: Mm-hm. I hear that from my other farmer friends, too. I mean, they get into it, and there's a larger reason that they're farming. There's a real focus on sustainable practices. That seems to be part of what Lakeside Prairie farm is all about.

CHRIS FARRELL: Yeah, the health of the ecosystem, maintaining biodiversity. And they've gotten rid of several invasive species on the property. And the motto of their enterprise, I guess, really captures the ethos-- healthy land, healthy food, healthy people. So here's how Bryan describes at least some of what they've done over the years.

BRYAN SIMMONS: This right here is actually an alfalfa grass mixed field. So I use this for hay. But a little over the hill, we've got about 120 species of native plant mixed planting. That's our pasture. What makes us unique is that we've done those plantings, highly diverse native prairie plantings. And then we use that for a pasture. And then we've also restored wetlands.

We've taken out drain tile and removed trees so we can try to restore the ecosystem. So on our prairie, but also our oak savanna. So we've gotten rid of the buckthorn and then thinned out some of the non-native trees and restored the oak savanna to more of what it used to be.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, good for them. Say, did they talk about how they might be worried about the impact of climate change on their system?

CHRIS FARRELL: Yeah, Cathy. As you can imagine, that was a big topic. And what they're doing is creating a perennial agricultural system, which is different from mainstream agriculture because it has this focus on resiliency, sustainability. And to your point, Bryan says the risks of climate change drives much of their work.

BRYAN SIMMONS: For climate change reasons, we're trying to be prepared by farming in a perennial system. We're a little more resilient to drought and flood. Our soils are better equipped to store water and to be prepared for what's coming, figuring out a way to, when it rains too much and not enough, how to how to handle that.

CATHY WURZER: I'm thinking, too, that restoring the prairie should keep those goats pretty happy.

CHRIS FARRELL: So, yes, it does. So, Cathy, you have the Music Minute every show, which I love. It's great. So how about we end with, well, a very brief nature moment-- the sound of the wind, the rain, and goats.


CATHY WURZER: I love that so much. Ha! Chris Farrell is MPR's Senior Economics Contributor.

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