animals, water, soil

501The independent farmstead is a relationship between many parts:  grass, sunlight, and rainfall; ruminants, poultry, hogs, pest and predator control animals; nutrient generation, conversion, and storage; fertility return cycles (see pages below).  Although it may be necessary sometimes to treat them separately, they are all intrinsic parts of an irreducible whole.

Why keep animals?

When we came here, we unconsciously pictured farming through the modern lens of the factory – you know, build a pen, put an animal in it, feed it commercial feed from a bag, eat it when it gets fat.  Under this system, the purpose of keeping farm animals is to convert cheap (because overproduced and subsidized) commodity crops (corn, soy) into meat, either for our own tables or to sell.  This method of animal keeping turns out fat animals, fast, but it also has several other outcomes (overlooking for the moment the problems inherent in the production of those commodity crops), not all of which are desired by the animal keeper:

  • It costs money. More than we think it will.
  • It requires that we clean up the animals’ manure – rake out stalls, scrape out coops, shovel out sties – and find something to do with it. Also, if the animal spends much time outside, to deal seasonally with lots of mud.
  • Health issues. Animals kept under these conditions tend to have health problems, like parasites, that become our problems; which generally, under the factory paradigm, means medications and biocides.
  • And one hidden but significant problem is that the meat of animals raised on concentrated foods to a fast, fat maturity is not as nutrient-dense as that of the same animals in an active setting on natural foods. Is this why we’re farming, to eat stuff just like the factory model?

We were sure we were missing something.  Paying for bagged feed, shoveling manure, and dealing with mud and parasites all have limited appeal, and we never stopped asking ourselves if there wasn’t a better way.

Not only that, our animals themselves seemed to demand that we find a better way; given half an opportunity they showed us that they were so much more than furry or feathered feed converters.  History demonstrates, and reason insists, that, once upon a time, animals were active parts of the farm community.  Cows and sheep grazed; hogs rooted; chickens scratched; all of these impacts together somehow made a farm.  We began to pay attention; and we began to put our animals’ natural behaviors to work.  The upshot is that today we see the purpose of keeping farm animals in a totally different light, one shaped by the animals themselves, and their place in the ecosystem which is our farm.

Yes, a farm is an ecosystem.  We don’t mean a factory farm of concrete and monoculture, no, but a real farm of dirt and animals and diversity is a de facto, human-managed ecosystem:  things are born, live, and die, eat and are eaten, defecate, decay, and return their bodies to the soil to perpetuate the cycle.  That’s how it works in nature, and it’s a pretty good system, a truth which is testified to by the fact that the natural world has sustained itself for a long time.  Using solar energy plants harvest carbon, hydrogen and oxygen to build up a bank of rich, moisture-retentive soil that, under favorable conditions, deepens every year.  Animals help.  Add human beings, though, and things get more complicated.  When humans move in and make themselves part of the community, they can – today they almost always do – lay absolute claim to the territory and vote most of the other living things off the island to make room for a few chosen species.  Once this happens the people are in charge, and all the natural systems that were harvesting and processing energy and moisture and fertility must be replaced by human knowledge and understanding and extracted resources.  The material requirements of life that were once met by simple inputs – mostly sunlight, air and rainwater – subject to the transformative action of an incomprehensibly complex living community, are replaced with increasingly numerous and complex imported inputs – extracted nitrogen, glyphosate, and irrigation water piped from distant points, to name just three – managed by whatever we can muster of human understanding and restraint, or, failing that, human manipulation and greed.  The natural community has been replaced with the commodity market and the chemistry lab.

And folks, it’s not working.  Maybe this statement seems a little hard to defend, given that our grocery stores are bulging with what appears to be an astonishing array of food stuffs?  Hybrid and genetically modified grains and vegetables deliver yields our grandparents couldn’t have dreamed of.  Our per capita food consumption, even, has increased by xxx%  since 1950.  So aren’t we demonstrably better off than we’ve ever been before?  But let’s turn our eyes to some other statistics, statistics that have followed an even more aggressive upward curve than our agricultural productivity, over the same period.  The Western diseases – heart disease, cancer, diabetes – are monumentally increased.  Autism in all its forms – and there was no ‘autism spectrum’ fifty years ago – is said to affect xxx% of our children, and the number is rising ever year.  Infertility, food allergies, asthma, in epidemic proportion – the list seems endless.  Granted that our agricultural methods are producing mountains of food, it seems that this food is producing people with mountains of problems – and, possibly due to the deficiencies of that food, we’re even producing people like mountains, with morbid obesity at levels for which we have no historical precedent.  That we can produce food in quantities beyond any reference to previous experience may not mean that we have found the key to present and future abundance; it could mean we’ve disconnected food production from nutrient and micronutrient production, and what our agribusiness factories are pumping out is not food, but empty calories.  Perhaps this doesn’t even matter in the long run, since producing that ersatz food has required that we bypass natural soil fertility for temporary chemical fixes in a kind of scotch-tape and shoe-string jury-rig that gets more complicated — and more insecure — every year.

Returning the soil, plants and animals to their natural, ecological functions seems to us the first step back toward a sane agriculture.  So our farm animals are living members of the community, not just eggs, meat or milk on legs; their activities are vital functions of the farm’s life.  A grazing, manuring cow is both nutrient harvest and fertility redistribution; a scratching, pecking chicken is weed, seed and pest patrol; the pig tucking into his trough full of whey, buttermilk and kitchen scraps is a waste nutrient conversion and storage unit.  Appreciating this enables us to apply their labor where, when and how we think it will be most beneficial to the farm ecosystem.  It must follow in the long run, we believe, that the same choices will also be the most profitable – in the form of food, health, future fertility, and security – for the people, too.

Our husbandry reflects this philosophy.  Our cows eat just grass and forage, no grain; we rotate them in 12- or 24-hour paddocks over the pasture, with long rests between passes, which allows the grass to recover fully, increases the organic matter in the soil and discorourages parasite infestation.  Our chickens, with their frenetic scratching, spread manure in the pastures, or are applied intensively to clean garden beds or harvest and till in cover crops – while adding their own high-nitrogen fertilizer to the carbon thatch.  Pigs convert the farm’s every spare nutrient into bacon, sausage and roasts, plus nitrogen-rich compost for our gardens, where all this fertility is transformed still another time into vegetables for humans, roots and corn for hogs and birds – and so the wheel turns round again.