Food Service & Agriculture, Higher Education, and Sustainability

Aquinas may turn to goats to curb invasive species on campus

But first, city must relax rules on farm animals allowed in urban settings.

April 19, 2019
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Goats
Goats’ digestive systems break down buckthorns, the invasive species at Aquinas College. Courtesy Munchers on Hooves

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Aquinas College soon may have goats on campus.

Jessica Bowen, director of the Center for Sustainability at Aquinas, is working with the Urban Agriculture Committee and Coldwater-based Munchers on Hooves, a goat rental company, to get a herd of goats on Aquinas’ campus to clear overgrown brush and weeds and kill invasive species such as buckthorns.

“Right now, we are hoping to do a pilot program where we can bring them on campus for a week or two and focus on at least one area of our campus that is overgrown, and if it works well for our environment, then our goal is to bring them on campus again,” she said.

Bowen said there are several locations on the college campus with buckthorn. According to the state’s invasive species list, it is a small tree or shrub that has oval dark green leaves and inner orange bark. It grows small, purple-to-black fruit that ripens during the fall.

Buckthorn spreads quickly through seeds distributed by birds and other wildlife, and it crowds out native shrubs and understory plants, per the state. The birds eat the fruit that looks similar to berries, which Bowen describes as a laxative for birds and, as a result, they excrete their waste quickly, replanting the seeds. Because it is so hard to remove spreads so quickly, Bowen said at times Aquinas is forced to use pesticides to kill them.

“Pesticides are not in line with our sustainability mission, so we try to minimize the use as much as we can, but buckthorn spreads like wildfire,” she said. “It basically has no nutritional value for animals that eat it, and it causes all sorts of environmental problems and it is really hard to kill. Funny enough, goats love buckthorns. They will go in an area and eat it down to the point where it will die. They eat the fruit and the seed and (their digestive system) kills the seed so when they (eliminate their waste) they don’t replant the seeds. So, we want to bring the goats in … because it is cheaper and (environmentally friendly) rather than using pesticides.”

Bowen’s quest to bring goats on campus is running into some roadblocks, however. Grand Rapids ordinances prohibit some animals in urban areas.

According to the city’s 1102 Farm Animal Ordinance, no farm animal shall be kept or allowed to be kept within any dwelling or dwelling unit or within 100 feet of any dwelling, dwelling unit, well, spring, stream, drainage ditch or drain. Farm animals shall mean any horse, swine, cattle, sheep, goat, llama, chicken, goose, duck or turkey. Farm animals also mean any other animals raised for commercial profit, slaughter or more than two breeder rabbits.

Bowen is working with the city’s Urban Agriculture Committee to change the ordinance. Levi Gardner, committee chair, said the panel has been looking at city ordinances involving everything from bees to chickens to compost, as well as engaging the community in discussions for more than a year. The group is close to sending recommendations to the planning and city commissions regarding proposed changes to the ordinances.

“Overall, (we) want to (establish) ordinances that are supportive of urban agriculture and less restrictive but also doing it in line with a number of other considerations from the city so that we are not creating things that will be a nuisance or a hassle but something that will support emerging urban growers, people like Jessica who would like to have goats, in a reasonable way,” Gardner said.

If and when the city ordinance changes to allow for goats on campus, Bowen said Aquinas plans on working with Munchers on Hooves to rent goats for a few days to kill invasive species like buckthorns and clear overgrown weeds and brush.

Garrett Fickle, who owns Munchers on Hooves along with his wife Gina, said they have about 100 goats that are either retired from 4-H programs or have been donated by families. He said they rent anywhere from 10 to 20 goats to homeowners, businesses and colleges during the summer.

Bowen said the idea of getting goats on campus was partially spurred by Western Michigan University’s successful efforts to get goats on its campus.

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