The city is drowning in weeds this summer, the result of a very wet spring. The overgrowth is testing the endurance of both city crews, who have hired multiple temporary workers to keep up with the explosion of unwanted green, and the equipment—already, seven out of 15 city weed-whackers have broken down, as The New Mexican reported earlier in June.
Santa Fe has a policy against using herbicides in public spaces, a choice that means considerably more work for humans this season.
But narrowly limiting one's options to humans or chemicals excludes a third option for holistic management of land, weed control and soil regeneration. Enter the weed-chompin', nutrient-poopin' goat squad.
Amanita Thorp has kept goats for most of her life, and she currently runs Horned Locust Remediation, a business that brings a herd of nearly 80 animals to properties in need of a little extra TLC.
The goats eat the weeds, their cloven hooves break up and aerate the soil, and their manure fertilizes the ground. This process sequesters carbon in the soil and helps the land absorb water, further reducing runoff and topsoil degeneration, which in turn makes the land more resilient to invasive species in future years. It also eliminates the need to haul off the plant waste to the dump, says Thorp.
And while it's mostly been private property owners who have experimented with using goats as a weed management strategy, at least one public open space, Santa Fe's Railyard Park, is taking a lead in showing the city that it can be done.
On Earth Day in April, Thorp brought her goats to the Railyard Park for the first of Graze Days, a pilot program initiated by the Railyard Park Conservancy in consultation with the Quivira Coalition to bring in goats a few times a year.
Conservancy Executive Director Christy Lee Downs tells SFR the goats not only help control weeds, but will hopefully also help restore the soil and native grasslands in areas of the park where the land has become "degraded and compacted over time." Over the course of the next three years, park managers will monitor the return of wildflowers and perform soil testing to measure the success of the program.
"A lot of our topsoil around Santa Fe is just gone or is real fragile," says Thorp, explaining that many native grasses and perennials depend on microbes deposited in the soil through animal waste. The rapid sprawl of the city and decrease in agricultural use of the land over the last half century has disrupted this symbiotic relationship. Today there are far fewer wild and domesticated beasts roaming about, and "when you don't have the microbes that feed the grasses, you starve out a lot of native species and make the land much more vulnerable to invasive species, and this is exactly what we've seen happen."
Thorp says that some of her most successful projects have been at solar arrays, such as at the San Marcos Café on Highway 14, and the solar array at the Buckman Direct Diversion, a project that pumps water from the Rio Grande to a regional water treatment plant and then to taps in Santa Fe. Thorp says solar systems are hard to maintain because of the weed-throwing capabilities of weed-whackers and lawnmowers, and goats provide a cheaper option than hiring crews to work by hand.
But are goats something that the city could use at more public spaces drowning in weeds this summer? Thorp says that over the years she has presented the city with multiple proposals for places such as Frenchy's Field and strips of open space along Siler Road. But so far, she has not gotten a bite on any of the plans.
SFR reached out to the city's Parks and Recreation Department and the city's director of communications to ask about the cost of weed work and the potential for using goats more, but did not receive a response before publication.
Downs says that even at the Railyard, some had reservations about the Graze Days project, mostly due to the potential liability of having so many animals in a public space. As for costs, she says insurance ate up a large chunk of the expense of getting Graze Days off the ground.
The issue is also about accepting a different idea of how public spaces should look. Without the use of pesticides, the public may have to accept a less manicured, "cookie-cutter" experience, says Downs. "Really, it's about changing concepts of aesthetics to be in better alignment with local climates and natural management systems."