I cued this post months ago, but forgot to publish it. It's old, kind of like history, but I thought I would put it up alongside a more recent update. The transition might be interesting. Besides I like the picture of the lonely tree. I noticed it in a massive Iowa cornfield surrounded by other massive Iowa cornfields. I still can't figure out how they missed it when they were cutting all the other ones down.
Circa December 2014:
If you are one of the dozens who have asked about our up and coming farm, thank you for your patience with my elaborate answer to what you thought was a simple question.
Here is an update on our progress: 1) Bought some land. 2) After two attempts, found a perfect place for the septic drain field. 3) Signed a contract for 900 square foot metal farm building that will house farm stuff like the tractor I don’t even own yet. 4) Our innovative house design, which includes plans for a greenhouse, is almost done. 5) Planted the first of a thousand trees (first tree, not first thousand), a single shrub, three asparagus plants, four rhubarb plants and a handful of garlic. 6) Visited three farms, attended a four-day farmscale permaculture conference, read a book and listened to podcasts.
I have mined the minds of some really smart people, a few of whom qualify for the sosbros.com Hall of Genius, but have not yet been inducted because I am busy.
I have to remind myself to that we only have to do the next thing. Focus and prioritization are key; it is easy to become paralyzed by the glare of the task list. For the foreseeable future, I am keeping my day-sometimes-night job. Experts say that a reliable off-farm income is a good predictor of a successful farm startup.
And what is this new-age farming you hear me talk about, as if I am some expert? It is described by many names: farmscale permaculture, regenerative agriculture, restoration agriculture, savanna-based agriculture, perennial polyculture, regrarianism, agroforestry and silvopasture, food forest, holistic orchard. I like restoration agriculture, which is the title of a book written by Mark Shepard, one of the pioneers of this type of farming. It was a timely newspaper clipping about Mark, given to us by a friend, that got us here. For the record, I am not expert. Maybe someday.
The premises are simpler than some of the names suggest: 1) make the soil better than it was before, 2) keep the soil from washing away, 3) keep the rain in the soil, 4) avoid poisons, 5) avoid synthetic fertilizers, 6) raise healthy animals, 7) grow many different things, 8) view nature as an ally, not adversary, 9) plant once, harvest for many seasons.
This type of farming is everything that modern agriculture is not, and by modern, I mean traditional. Proponents of restoration agriculture believe that traditional agriculture is outdated.
Here is a tale about tradition: Once upon a time there was a corn and soybean field on a small farm in the Midwest. Every year the farmer planted, sprayed and harvested. He used genetically modified seeds, whose genes were altered so the corn would not be killed by glyphosate, a broad-spectrum herbicide you know as Roundup. Roundup will kill competing weeds, at least the ones that have not yet evolved their own resistance to glyphosate, but the GMO crops survive.
The science of GMO crops is nothing short of brilliant, right up until you realize that plants impervious to poison are likely to be sprayed with poison, some of which, according to studies, stays in the plant. Not a big deal unless you intend to eat the plants. Or breathe the air. Or drink the water from the aquifers below. We don’t know for sure that residual poisons in food or the environment are significantly toxic to people any more than we know for sure that GMO crops actually increase yield, but history tells us in no uncertain terms that chemicals toxic to one species are often toxic to other species, or as Stan’s farmer grandpa once said, “Anything that kills the little bugs will kill the big ones too. Just takes longer.” By “big bugs” he meant people. Moreover, it is widely known that plants can be grown and animals raised well and on large scale without the use of poisons. Does it make sense to use something you don’t need if for no other reason than cost?
The farmer who farmed the fields in the story used synthetic fertilizer. He had to because the soil has lost much of its own fertility. That fertility has been gradually removed with each successive harvest and by wind and erosion to which traditional farm fields are susceptible. Some of the fertility--in the form of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and minerals in the plants--has been relocated to biofuel production centers or concentrated animal feeding operations or processed food factories at prices so low that many farmers rely on government subsidies (in the city it would be called welfare) and off-farm income to survive, and at prices so low that many have not survived.
A guy at the USDA office showed me a map of the soil loss rates on our farm. The best areas showed losses of 1.5 tons per acre per year. “That’s excellent,” he said. I keep wondering what about that is excellent.
There will be no more corn on our land, save for a few rows of heirloom sweet corn and enough popcorn to satisfy Kelly and Connor. No more soybeans. No more vast fields--monocultures--of the exact same crop that must be defended against nature by the most potent chemicals allowable by the best laws money can buy. No more poisons. No more synthetic fertilizer. No more annual planting, except in our personal vegetable garden. Our spring planting will happen in 2015, and maybe a bit more in the two or three years that follow, but after that it’s all about the harvest. Oversimplified, but that’s the gist of it.
Are there really plants that need only be planted once? Of course. The most common ones are called trees. Apples, pears, peaches, plums, cherries, oaks, hazelnuts, walnuts, chestnuts, persimmons, paw paws. All yield marketable or potentially marketable crops. There are perennial shrubs and vines like blackberries, currants, honeyberries, grapes, raspberries, seaberries and boysenberries. There are perennial vegetables like rhubarb, asparagus and some you have not heard of. The possibilities are greater than I could ever have imagined.
In time we will have animals, not because we know how yet, but because it just makes sense. Egg-laying chickens at first. As the trees mature and the plants in the alleys between establish and as our knowledge grows, we will graze livestock in the alleys between the trees. That is our vision anyway.
I should point out that we don’t blame anyone, or at least we don’t blame the people who plant and harvest using traditional methods. Farmers are good people. I grew up around farms. I know many farmers. I can’t think of one I don’t like. Farmers, no matter how they farm, are the hardest workers you will ever meet. They are humble, kind, generous, slow to complain and quick to lend a hand. If you end up in the ditch, hope that a farmer finds you. He or she will be quick to fire up the tractor to pull your car out. You can offer him or her 20 bucks for the trouble, but it will most likely be met with a no thank you and a shake of the head.
Conventional farmers are not driving the current system of agriculture. Conventional consumers do. We, the people who buy stuff, are the ones who make it lucrative for the middlemen. We buy the Cheetos, Coke Zero, gasoline with ethanol, eggs from factorized chickens and steaks and chops from grain-fed animals trudging through their own poop and pee. I suppose it is a reminder that we are all, in some way, products of convention. It is human nature to do things like others do, even if the results are marginal or hazardous. It is human nature to ignore threats that cannot be easily or immediately seen. It is human nature to label methods that achieve short-term benefit as innovations. It is also human nature to question, discover, create and improve.
I can’t yet prove that restoration agriculture is the magic potion for the ills of the environment, the economy and our nation’s health crisis. But I know there are compelling reasons to try it. I know that there are farmers--champions of sensible long-term innovation--not far from here who are engaged in a new modern agriculture. These farmers, as we will do someday, are teaching others.
It might seem that the mission of restoration agrarians is to challenge the tenets of conventional farming. That is one way to think of it, but it can more state more simply: We want to change convention.
Stay tuned for more.