Date April 30, 2009 at 10:00 PM
Categories Lodging & Travel
Right this minute, as many of her peers are panicking about a wonky job market and how they’re ever going to pay back that tower of student loans, 24-year-old Amanita Thorp is out wandering the vast high desert wilderness of the Galisteo Basin, atop her horse, a pair of hawks making lazy loops overhead in the endless blue sky. She’s got no worries, she’s blissfully content — and, surrounded by 164 goats, she’s also gainfully employed!
Amanita, who grew up nearby, is a goatherd. Her family owns SunStar Herb Farm; they’ve raised goats there ever since before she was born. “I started milking when I was nine. I’ve always loved goats — I was always in the pen with the kids,” she laughs, harkening back to when she was just a small kid herself.
Ever her own person, Amanita decided to take a break in the middle of 5th grade in order to stay home for the next two years, helping around the farm and learning to cook. Her parents, diehard proponents of the principle of sustainability for some 30 years, were all for their daughter’s decision; they’ve brought their four children up in a home where most of their food was either grown or raised right there, trading the excess for the few things they couldn’t produce themselves.
What’s it like being a twenty-first century goatherd, and who is this remarkably self-assured young woman who’s taken that job on? To find out, I visit Amanita at the Galisteo Dam where she’s parked her RV and staked out the goat pens. Before we could go out on the range, she has to catch all the kids — they’re too young for this four-hour expedition — and put them in the trailer, mollifying them with a flake of alfalfa. “This one was just born this morning. It’s still a little confused,” she tells me, pulling the tiniest goatlet out from under one of the dogs where it’s been trying to nurse. There are about 30 babies of widely varying sizes and types weaving around and under their elders.
As she plucks them up two and three at a time in her arms, the adults stand by watching, their eyes appearing a little alien what with the horizontal pupils, many resting their heads on a neighbor’s back. There are old bearded grandma goats, their bottom teeth protruding; goats with horns, some of the horns curly, some wavy, others curving straight back over their heads; burly, dense-coated goats, their fur matted with dreads; delicate-boned goats, their fur sleek, almost manicured-looking. Each goat face bears an eminently readable expression: amused, peaceful, skeptical, curious, cantankerous, bored. As Amanita rounds up the last of the kids, one of the adults somehow manages to jump backwards over the fence and the dogs busily herd it back inside the pen; all the rest of the goats hurry over en masse, gathering around like avid gossips to watch its unceremonious reentry. Amanita meanwhile counts the kids and then, satisfied, closes and locks the trailer door.
“OK,” she says to me and the dogs. “Let’s head out!” Goats stream in a steady flow out of the pen, dogs circling them and supervising, as Amanita climbs onto her horse and I get swept up in the swirl of goats exiting. It’s an oddly silent odyssey, comforting. The only sounds as we move out into the open, are their hoofbeats — like rainfall, and their steady munching.
How did she happen to fall into this work, I ask, and Amanita recalls for me how, after graduation from high school, she agreed to take over the herding as her family became more and more committed to gradually weaning their goats from being bottle- and grain-fed to becoming self-sufficient, free-range browsers, instead.
They’d eat everything within range of the farm — tumbleweeds, juniper, mistletoe, goatheads, sage, snake weed, elm saplings and yellow dock. And the family began noticing that as a result of the goats’ browsing habits over the years, their soil was becoming moister and richer, absorbing water better and allowing for increased vegetation.
A few years ago, the Thorps greatly expanded the goats’ range. At issue was the proliferance of tamarisk trees at the Galisteo Dam. The Army Corps of Engineers was getting rid of the non-native, invasive plants by poisoning them every spring, a costly procedure in both time and money. When neighbors began objecting to this non-green herbicide method, the Thorps offered to lease out their herd to eat the trees, instead. And that’s how Amanita went full-time, professional.
“The Galisteo Dam isn’t as much fun as the Galisteo River basin,” where the goats will spend the summer and into the fall, “but luckily, the goats are almost done with their dirty work here,” she chuckles. “At first I wanted to have a dairy, but that would’ve taken a lot of capital, and goats removing tamarisk and other non-desirable plants is local, it’s the right thing to do and it’s really taking off.” What she’d like to include is mobile milking so she can add goat milk and ice cream to their farmers’ market offerings. “I’d need the equipment to process the milk, so I’m planning on writing a grant.”
As we stand in the midst of the browsing and munching, Amanita tells goat stories with gusto. They’re really smart, she says; they’re also pretty social. Goats learn from each other, and the whole herd gets sweeter during kidding season. They know what to eat and, sometimes, they go places she doesn’t want them to. To get them to eat a monocrop like tamarisk trees, they have to be able to mix mouthfuls of six or seven other plants along with it. There are only so many times the goats will revisit an area before they’re just done with it. “Unlike cattle, goats only prune. And they just dimple the ground, not pulverize it.
“Goats know when they’ve been bad and they don’t care — they just want to see your reaction,” Amanita is saying when suddenly, we look around and notice that all 164 goats have sneaked noiselessly away. Amanita hurries off on horseback, me stumbling along behind.
It’s easy to track them; there’s a noticeable goat print trail leading to the next place the herd has settled. They act in what Amanita calls goat mind (“They’re like the borg”), a few in the herd leading the way, the rest following along behind. The dogs circle around the edges, keeping stragglers from getting lost. As the herd makes its way down along an arroyo, the dogs separate themselves off to explore down into the riverbed itself, examining scat. “It’s either coyote or mountain lion,” Amanita says. The dogs camp out beside it and Amanita tells me this is how they guard the goats from possible predator attacks, preventing any from straying in this direction, herding them back up the bank alongside the arroyo if they do.
“It’s getting too still,” Amanita observes. “Any moment, they’re about to go somewhere else,” and, sure enough, the herd is suddenly on the move again, going single file kind of like ants. Where are they going? I ask. “Over the hill and far away,” she answers, smiling. “They basically go the same places every day but today we veered off to the side, probably because of predator aversion. They’re capricious animals. Some mornings, if I get a really clear picture in my mind of where I want us to go ahead of time, that’s where they’ll go. But not always!”
And she’s off again, the horse going forward, Amanita typically turned around to watch behind her as she rides. A small black goat, bigger than the kids we left behind but still much smaller than the adults, hops along bleating loud complaints as she goes. This is only her second week of browsing with the herd. Clearly, she’s not entirely convinced this business is all it’s cracked up to be.
I’m wondering if sometimes Amanita doesn’t feel that way, herself. What about when it’s raining or snowing, or the winds are blowing everything sideways, including the goatherd? “Well, we’re out here year-round,” she admits. “When it rains, I just put on a lot of layers, and cover it with slickers. My horse and I still both come home soaking wet. The goats don’t like it so much, either, but they’ll go out when they get hungry enough. Before a big storm, the goats know it. They bulk up the night before so they can hunker down the next morning and wait it out. Remember that three-foot snowstorm we got a couple of years ago? They couldn’t find anything. All the plants were buried and the goats were so confused. I ended up feeding them grain for about a week, till it melted.” That’s as close as she comes to complaining.
Basically, she loves her goatherding life. “The horses, the dogs and I all have a common interest —goats! And I get a kick out of that,” she says. “And the goats —they have the interest of eating, staying alive, being goats. Our two Maremma dogs especially bond with the herd — they love them, lying together with the goats at night, especially in thunderstorms. Sometimes I can’t even tell them apart!”
The hours alone out in the countryside all week don’t bother her at all. “I’m very drawn to animals, I have a great love of beauty and I like being alone. As an artist and a writer, being out here is very satisfying.” Her father comes every other day or so, to help with the goats. Every Saturday, Amanita makes the farmers’ market scene, selling goat meat from the family’s booth. And friends visit from time to time.
“There’s a sense of accomplishment in taking 160 goats out and bringing them all back in again,” she concludes. And, with a palpable sense of autonomy, she adds, “I have something of a survivalist attitude. Whatever comes up, this gives me good background training!”