Excerpts from Steve’s letter to our nephew, Brennan, describing the farm and this type of agriculture:
Thank you so much for asking about the farm. Yes, we bought land. People who know farms would call it a small farm, but people who know lots would call it a really big lot. Thirty-eight acres. Ten acres is a pond, which looks like a small lake. There are 13 acres for growing things, not counting the existing forest and wetland, which have their own potential if we can conform them to a long list of partly-arbitrary rules detailed in what is called a conservancy document that came attached to the land.
People who know farms look at our acreage and call it a hobby farm, which is a lot like saying, “Oh! What a darling puppy.” They don’t mean it in a derogatory way, but our somewhat lofty intent is to make it full-fledged income-producing farm. No, it won’t provide the kind of income that doctoring does, but it has potential to do as much, if not more good than doctoring does.
People who know farms, know it is impossible to make a living on so little land, but there is a farm in Los Angeles, a cow’s moo from the freeway, on a tenth of an acre. It produces 6000 pounds of food per year--enough to feed four adults with enough left over to sell to restaurants. So, I ask: If we can’t make it on 13 acres, just how bad would we be at farming? What I like best about the concept is that it is part of a small but obvious movement to revive the small family-owned farm, which was nearing extinction.
It will take a non-traditional approach to make a real farm on 13-plus acres. Fortunately I am a non-traditional uncle--the one who grew 500 pounds of squash on our third-of-an-acre suburban lot. I could have easily doubled that, but a family our size can only eat and give away so much squash, and technically a garden of that scope is not allowed in our suburban neighborhood. Imagine, a rule limiting the size of gardens! Maybe we should have rules against grandmas or walking or hugging. At some point in our culture, we came up with this notion that inedible plants were aesthetically pleasing and food plants were the landscaping equivalent of the female nipple--fine as long as nobody else sees them.
The type of farming we have adopted has many names. Restoration Agriculture was the first one I heard, and that’s what I call it. When you visit I will explain it to you, but here are the principles in a nutshell, so to speak. Except for the annual vegetable plants we will continue to grow in our personal and CSA gardens, we will grow perennial crops. No need to plant every spring. That means trees, trees and more trees, berry-producing shrubs and once the soil has recovered enough to support growth of vegetables, perennials like asparagus and rhubarb. We planted 3400 trees and shrubs this spring. We have walnut, oak, chestnut, hazelnut, pear, persimmon, paw paw, mulberry, cherry, raspberry, elderberry, Juneberry, currant, blueberry. Next year: apples and who knows what else? Some call a farm like this a food forest.
I have been asked what we will do with our harvest. Answer: We don’t know. Yet. This is OK, because one of the recurring themes of a start-up venture is what I call JUFFIO. Just figure it out. I will let you figure out what the extra F stands for. This year we JUFFIO’d how to buy and drive a tractor, how to attach stuff (mower, seed planter) to the tractor, how to use a chainsaw, how to buy a used pick-up truck, how to get an outbuilding (tractor garage) built, how to DIY-build a walk-in refrigerator in our garage (to store trees before planting), how to work a tree planter. Planting so many trees was a huge job. We had lots of help, including the help of experts--people who are already farming like this. I have not been this dumb or learned so much since early medical school.
Most of the tree rows have at least three different species. Planting many different crops in the same area is called a polyculture. Mother Nature holds the patent on that. Restoration agriculture uses a savanna biome as its template. It’s not the purist’s savanna restoration, but a farm using savanna principles. Bet you saw savannas in Africa. Tall trees, short trees, shrubs, transitioning to grazing land.
Over the next couple of years we will most likely begin to raise livestock. Chickens, maybe sheep or pigs or both, will graze in the alleys. They will eat the native grasses and flowering plants--mowing and fertilizing along the way. We will move the animals to new pasture before the forage plants get too short. With rotational grazing the partly eaten plants grow back faster than they would without animals in the model. Watch Allan Savory's TED talk to learn more about that.
There will be no poisons or synthetic fertilizers on our farm. It won’t be easy because our farm has just about every invasive species known to man, but we are not trying for easy. We feel strongly about organic principles because it seems shortsighted to spray poison on or near food (even if the poison is invisible). Synthetic fertilizers are not necessary because an essential part of restoration agriculture is to naturally restore fertility to the soil depleted by many years of growing vast expanses of the same plant in conventional ways.
An advisor at the USDA showed me a soil loss map of our “tillable” acreage. The best area showed 1.5 tons of soil lost per acre per year. He said that loss rate was “really good”. I just nodded, but didn’t understand what might be good about losing that much soil. In this model we will actually be adding topsoil--slowly, but surely--one leaf, one root, one seed at a time.
We named our land One Seed Farm. It is just 6 miles (8.5 by bike) south of the downtown hospital where I work. I will continue to work there to support the farm start-up and because doctoring is still very satisfying. I help people, albeit on the back-end of the health timeline, and I have many caring capable professionals to work alongside. Many of my co-workers have become fans of the farm. Even small farms aren’t cheap and we have a long way to go before it makes its first dollar. I now joke that the first step to becoming a farmer is to go to medical school. Maybe I am not joking that much. It’s hard to believe that in-the-country could be so close to the city. It takes less than 15 minutes to drive there from our existing house, but living on the farm (next spring) will vastly improve our efficiency because there is so much to do.
There is much more to tell and someday I will tell it, hopefully when you come stay in our guest room, just up the stairs and to the right.