GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (GRBJ) - 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.

For the whole story, pick up a copy of the Grand Rapids Business Journal, or find the story on their website. 

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