Archive for January, 2011

Once You’ve Got the Chickens, You’ll Hardly Notice the Yaks: Reinventing the Diversified Small Farm

admin January 26th, 2011

I ran this post at science blogs last winter in response to something reader Claire said, and as I go through my annual spring planning for the farm, that usually involves additional livestock, I find myself revisiting the general principles, so I thought I’d re-run it here!  Bees are our next project, and probably geese, and then there are the fiber goats….

Over at ye olde blogge, on one of my Independence Days updates, a reader commented on something that I’d posted. I’d mentioned that we are having trouble with goat parasites – most specifically, meningeal worm. Meningeal worm is a parasite is hosted by snails and transmitted by the feces of white tailed deer. It is worst in camelids like llamas and alpacas, but goats are a secondary host, and two of our does, Selene and Mina, have had  it. It is most common after a wet summer and warm fall – this past summer (2009) was the wettest in living memory here – we had almost 20 inches of rain in June alone, and it was generally a warm fall, with few frosts. We’re lucky – we knew what it is, our vet knew how to treat it, and we caught it fairly early, so everyone should be fine.

In order to prevent recurrence, I have two choices. The first is large doses of wormer, much larger than one would typically give a goat. There are two problems with this – first, the possible health consequences of using this as preventative, the second that a growing immunity to wormers in general, including the two specific ones most effective on this parasite is a chronic issue with goats.

The other option is to try and exclude either snails or deer from our pastures and browsing areas. There are two options for this. The first would be an additional dog – we have a working farmcollie, but she’s not an aggressive territory protector, and we know that the deer have been coming closer and closer to the house since we lost Rufus, our alpha dog. The dog might exclude the deer from areas that the goats browse and reduce incidence of the parasite. (In fact, since this was written, we added Mac the Great Pyrenees).  The other option is ducks or geese or guinea fowl – ie, some animal that eats snails to reduce the density of snails on the material the goats are browsing. We’re considering both of these options (actually, we wanted both ducks and another dog anyway for various other reasons – we ended up with both).

Claire, commenting at the other blog observed that every animal we get seems to require another animal – that, for example, we use cats to control the mice, but if we aren’t to be dependent on commercial pet foods, that means we need to raise a meat animal to feed them (hence, in our case, rabbits). To the commenter, it seemed like a negative – one animal might lead to another.  And on a small homestead or urban project, you do have to place limits upon that sort of thing.

But for a farm, I actually see the comment as both true and a positive thing – that is, I think this is a really useful ilustration of why farms once were diversified, and why they probably need to be again. We could simply worm heavily. We could try draining the wetter parts of our pasture, or excluding all wildlife, or putting our goats in pens rather than on grass – these are other possible solutions to our problems. But they aren’t the ones we want to use.

What animals live on a farm? Of course we can all close our eyes and make the list – and in the old kind of farm, many species lived there at once – any children’s toy farm will have one of each common species. This is in complete contrast to the modern farm, where farmers raise sheep, or cows, or whatever, but an enormous preponderance of one animal. The classic small farm had sheep and cows, ducks and geese, cats and dogs. There’s an actual reason why our old vision of what a farm is has so many different kinds of livestock on it.

One is simply that diversification was more better for the farm economy. Having different crops to take to market at different times of year spaced out the work, and the profit. Different animals and plants use different habitats and kinds of land. But there are more complex reasons as well.

Consider this – a pasture that will support one cow but not two cows, will generally support one cow plus 2-4 sheep and their lambs. This is because the sheep will eat shorter grasses that the cows have already grazed, and eat some plants that are less palatable to cows. There are several advantages to this – the first, of course, is that you have lamb, wool, sheep’s milk and sheep manure as well as milk, beef and manure from the cow. But your pastures are also grazed more fully and more evenly, with fewer problems from unpalatable plants that would otherwise proliferate as the others were eaten down.

These analyses can get complex – the same pasture can probably also support an indeterminate number of geese which will eat shorter grass still, or a few goats (assuming cow and sheep are both Johnes negative) that will eat brushy weeds and clean out hedgerows. But do you want your hedgerows cleaned out? Do you have a market for geese? Might it be better to follow the sheep and cow on pasture with chickens who will eat pasture and insects and also help reduce worm pressure for next cycle by eating worms and worm eggs. Or perhaps you want to use that ground for growing grain next spring, and should put pigs on it to till it up…

The low energy farm often uses animals to do things that other farms do with fossil fuels. So rather than use a chemical poison to kill the snails on my property, I can use ducks to eat them. Besides not being a poison, I get to sell the ducks for meat afterwards. But they also require balance – too many ducks are not a good thing. I can’t always do what I want – I might find that I need another animal to fill a particular ecological niche on my farm – say, that I need Guinea Hens to reduce tick pressure on humans and dogs, even though I don’t particularly want them, or even though guineas are less profitable than chickens.

My dog keeps down predators, but requires some animal proteins to eat. Thus, she and the goats are reciprocal – without Mistress Quickly, the goats would be prey to the coyotes that den across the road. On a traditional farm she’d be paid in a share of their milk – we do this, although she also gets some dog food. The cats keep our grain losses down – for them (and other reasons) we keep the rabbits, which make use of marginal weeds that otherwise would be pests to us… The relationships are stronger when they are more complex and diverse, when there are more participants in each system.

Most of us grasp, of course, that monoculture is bad in general, but it is hard to viscerally grasp the consequences of reduced complexity, or of using one solution (fossil fuels and its outputs) to replace multiple resources. My own exploration of what our family needs for self-sufficiency plus income is a kind of re-inventing of the wheel, and not coincidentally, it comes to look more and more familiar.

There’s a price to be paid for all of this, as well as benefits – you can specialize, but only to an extent. You can pick and choose, but only to an extent. You will be more independent in many ways, but often, not as profitable as a farm that chooses the highest value crop and produces only that. There are costs in land use and resource use as well – the additional animals take space and time.

When we started out farming, we grew a huge garden and raised chickens. The chickens gave us eggs to put in the CSA baskets and eggs for the Challah we included in our baskets. They also gave us manure for our gardens. But we found that it was hard to get enough manure to support a garden big enough to run a 20 person CSA – we were dependent on neighboring farms, which wasn’t bad, but they didn’t always have manure when we needed it. Or we were dependent on soil additives and fertilizers that we didn’t make. We were also dependent on the lawn mower to keep weeds from going to seed, since we didn’t have enough stock to keep them down. Adding more animals made it better possible to grow the garden – but created new incentives to shape the garden in particular ways, so that we didn’t trade one dependency (on soil amendments) for another (on the feed store). Diversity was better – but not just more diversity, the right combination.

It isn’t just animals that work this way – plants do too. We know from research that in terms of output (as opposed to yield) diversified small farms produce more food, fiber and fertility per acre than monocrop farms. We know that polyculture is better for the soil, better for wildlife and soil life, better for people than monoculture. We know that different plants do well in different environments and that no 2 or 50 or 10,000 acres are precisely alike – trying to get the same amount of corn out of every single acre regardless of its conditions is not good for anyone.

This runs through pretty much every part of the diversified small farm, and it gets played out at the economic and social level – for example, running the diversified small farm with minimal fossil fuels takes people too. One way to do this, the traditional farm family way, was to have many children – but that’s not all that was involved. Neighbors traditionally shared work during busy times, sharing tools, resources and time – effectively allowing a farm population of four or five to expand to fifteen or twenty when it is needed.

The farm economy was diversified as well – my family often stops at a historical reenactment village that happens to be at approximately the halfway point between our house and my extended family’s. Once, while chatting with one of the gentlemen there, the village cooper, he observed that his shop would soon be closing, because he practiced cooperage only in the winter – spring through fall, he farmed. I was struck by this example of something that has always been true – only the most affluent farmers (or the ones in the best climates) actually farm all year round – the supplemental income that is the norm for farmers now has been the norm for a very long time. Thus, the cooper of 1830, my great grandfather who farmed and taught school in Maine in the 1890s, and the guy who farms and drives trucks now are all part of a logical continuity – that there is time for paying work in the winter or the dry season, and that farm economies are stronger when they are diversified.

Does this mean that everyone who gets chickens is doomed to own a yak?  No, of course not. But it does mean that once you open up a system to ecological management, the process of figuring out what its proper mix of species is isn’t an easy one. Honestly, if I didn’t want ducks and another dog, I’d find another way to do things. But it is the case that the small farm of the past has lessons for creating a low energy small farm of the future – there’s a reason that there are more species, not fewer.

We’re still figuring out what the right combination of creatures and practices are on our farm – still debating whether we can make a living using our marginal wetlands as they are, what animals we should be eating down our pastures with and what will be needed as time goes on. But we’re committed to this basic project – to the idea that it is possible to create an integrated, self-sustaining system where most of the interventions are productive, rather than reductive – that is, rather than just poisoning the things we don’t want, we can intervene in ways that create some kind of net improvement in our situation.

Sharon

Farm and Garden Design and Memorial Day Family Weekend

admin January 26th, 2011

I am *still* without full access to my email, although new stuff is at least being forwarded to Eric’s account. I apologize profusely for the difficulties, but I know that some people who tried to register either got bounces or got through, but are buried in my gmail account without my having access, so I would ask you to please send again! I’m very, very sorry about this! I’m told (for the fourth day running) that the problem will be resolved by my ISP by tomorrow. Hopefully this time it is actually true.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t registered for the class, and would like to, I will at least receive your email now, I promise (don’t be weirded out by the albany.edu address your reply may come from!). Here’s the class syllabus. As mentioned before, the class is online and asynchronous, suitable to just about any climate and circumstances (we’ve had city gardeners, community gardeners, container gardeners, large farmers, small farmers, and everything in between, with climates ranging from Fairbanks and northern Sweden to the Tropics), and fun. The idea is for you to use the specifics of what you know about your place to expand your garden skills and create a garden that is productive in the near term and provides you with longer term food security without a lot of inputs. You will come out of it with a bunch of model designs, and one year and five year plans for your own site.

Cost of the class is $175, and we do have two remaining scholarship spots for low income participants who couldn’t join us otherwise. If you’d like to make a donation to our scholarship fund, 100% of all donations goes to making spots available in this class to others. Please email for details:

Week February 1:Welcome, Introduction, Sun, Soil, Water; Taking Measurements;
The Project of Design, Meet Your Graph Paper ; Addressing Garden Challenges,
Thinking in terms of Depletion, Getting Started

Week February 8: Soil Preparation, Perennial Plantings, Orcharding and Woody
Agriculture; Permaculture, Seed Starting and Variety Selection, Building and
Maintaining Fertility, Calorie Crops, Beginning to Plan, Container Gardening
Design Project 1 – A Courtyard Garden

Week February 15: Transforming a City or Suburban Lot, Dealing with Zoning,
Small Space and Urban Gardens, Small Livestock and Polyculture; Finding More
Land; Gardening Cheaply, Gardening in an Unstable Climate, Design Project 2 – A
Suburban Yard

Week February 22: Community and Garden; The CSA Model, Making Money, Children’s
Gardens, Year-Round Gardening, Maximizing the Harvest Garden Design Project,
Public Space Gardens. Design Project 3: An Urban Farm – in Many Yards

Week March 1: The CSA Model, Farm vs. Garden, Making Shade Productive, Vertical
Gardening, Succession and Long term Planning, Deep Food Security, Designing for
Personal Resilience. Design Project 4: A Larger Farm in Smaller Pieces

Week March 8: Visions for the Future, Cover Cropping, Undercropping and Long Term
Fertility, Larger Livestock, Becoming a Victory Farmer; After the Design Phase;
Where to from Here?

Email me at [email protected] to register or for questions!

Also, we’ve definitely scheduled our family apprentice weekend for Memorial Day weekend of this coming May. If you’d like to see how we (don’t) do it all, we’d love to have you join us. Everyone is welcome, but this weekend is specifically focused on families with children or grandkids, and there will be lots of kid activities, as well as the creek, the animals and the meadows to play in!

We invite new and old friends to come to our house, to stay with us, camp locally or on the farm or stay in one of our bed and breakfasts and spend the weekend talking, learning, playing and exploring our farm. We’ll teach basic goat care and milking (and we’ll have a lot of goat babies running around!), make cheese, discuss garden design and garden strategies, herbs and herbalism, food storage, scything and hand tools, bentwood architecture, wild plant foraging, cooking on a rocket stove, small livestock and more!

Payment is by donation, and we ask before we confirm that you send us an introductory email telling us about yourself. We also ask everyone to help provide potluck meals, so that Eric and I can spend our time doing cool farm stuff, rather than cooking! We also ask that you bring enough adults that you can take primary responsibility for your own children, if any, especially if they are very young.

We can accomodate a fair number of people at our place, so that’s first come, first served, and after that, there’s plenty of space for camping and other local options. Email me for details. We have two spaces for volunteers who would like to trade a weekend visit and a chance to do all this good stuff, one for help with dishes and odds and ends, and one for help with kids – we’re willing to trust that you can do dishes, but if you are looking for the job keeping an eye on the wee ones (none of this will be terribly onerous – most of your time will be spent enjoying the weekend, but a few hours would be dedicated to either keeping things tidy or keeping the kids entertained when the creek and critters pall ;-) ), please let me know what your experience is in this matter.

We’d also do an additional trade of a space and could offer additional payment too for someone who has experience working with autistic kids and would be open to spending a few hours during the weekend playing with our autistic eldest, Eli – last time we found that he was a little overwhelmed by the experience (although he did well) and it would be great to be able to give him some additional special attention! Warning on that front – he’ll be 11 on that end, he’s big and friendly and likes physical play, so if you volunteer, make sure that’s something you feel comfortable with! Obviously, btw, we deal with disabilities and special needs ourselves all the time and do not live in either a pristine home or a special-needs unfriendly environment, so we welcome families with kids with special needs – I say this because I know it can be overwhelming and difficult to imagine going on a visit with disabled kids, and we’d like to make that possible for people to come visit if they’d like. Email me with any questions.

The last time we did it it was a delight – children ranged from 3-13 and free ranged around the property, having a delightful time. If anything, we overestimated the amount of time we’d actually have to spend entertaining the kids – they were blissfully happy roaming and exploring. Meanwhile, the adults had a great time – it was a win-win thing, and we can’t wait to do it again! So definitely email for details!

State of the Goats Address

admin January 25th, 2011

I’ve had a number of people write to enquire if we had goats for sale yet, so I thought it would be wise to offer up an update – call it the State of the Goats Address. 

Right now our Senior Does are bred to kid in April, and we will have kids and at least one milker available as soon as everyone is big enough/ready enough to go home, in June.  The Junior Does will kid  in July and we’ll have babies and at least one milker ready to go home in September.  If you are interested definitely read about our bucks and our overall approach to Goatkeeping, as well as our breeding plans.

Not sure if you are up to keeping small dairy goats?  The Milking Life can be a lot easier than you think it would be!  We find it to be very adaptable to our life, not at all the daily grind that most people imagine it would be.

If you are interested in a goat or goats please email – we are still expanding our herd and we expect to have a very limited number of kids this year!  While we won’t reserve a kid from any particular breeding, if you are looking for a milking doe or a doeling, you’ll want to let us know ahead of time so we can hold one for you!

Cheers,

Sharon

Garden and Farm Design Class Coming Up

admin January 13th, 2011

I’ll be offline until Tuesday of next week, running my winter apprentice weekend (or Goat Camp as one attendee called it ;-) ).  The next one will be offered in May, and will be a family-friendly long weekend (tentatively Memorial Day weekend – I’ll confirm that in the next week).  You can bring the kids, stay with us or camp, and we’ll have baby goats and chicks along with a chance to do herb growing, milking, dairying, tree fodder crops, and many other projects!  If you are interested in a spot email me at [email protected].

In the meantime, Aaron Newton and I will be running our annual Garden and Farm Design class for six weeks in February and March.  This is the perfect time to plan the garden season, expand what you’ve been doing and try new things out.  The class is online (ie, you don’t have to live near us, which is good, since we live 1000 miles apart in New York and North Carolina ;-) ), asynchronous (ie, you can be working on the class material whenever it is convenient, on your own schedule) and designed to make sure that you have a garden plan that is actually implementable.  We’ll cover everything from the basics of fertility, water and annual gardening for new gardeners to perennial agricultural crops, orchards and forest gardens, small space, container and vertical gardening, urban and community gardening, cover crops, seed saving and small scale home breeding, and integrating livestock into the small farm or garden.

Aaron’s training is as a landscape architect, but he’s also been a CSA farmer and is presently his county’s local food Czar.  Me, I’ve been growing gardens that range from balcony gardens in cities to a 22 person CSA for a long, long time, and running the farm here for a decade and I’ve now made every mistake humanly possible, just out of the goodness of my heart so that you don’t have to ;-) .  Aaron gardens in a hot climate in a small city, I garden in a cold climate in the country, and between us, we can cover a pretty good landscape.  As you know, we wrote _A Nation of Farmers_ together, and we want everyone to have a great garden!

Classes begin on February 1 and run until the second week of March.  Cost of the class is $175.  I do have a limited number of spaces available to low income participants who are unable to pay.  We welcome donations of additional spots for low income participants – 100% of your donation goes to making more spots available.  Email me at [email protected] for more details, to register or to inquire about scholarship spots.

Also, just to let you know, I had a lot of people ask about the next time we would offer our Adapting in Place Class.  We will be offering it from April 5 to May 10 of this year. I’m not presently taking reservations, but will announce the class shortly, but if you are planning ahead, this is your heads up.  Also, we plan to offer Adapting-in-Place 2 in the early fall of this year.  We strongly prefer that people taking AIP2, which will focus on psychological adaptation, community organizing and adaptation, and how to integrate your preparations into the life we’re living now, have taken the first AIP class.  So if you’ve never taken AIP and are interested in the second class, April and May are your opportunity!

Have a great weekend everyone!

Sharon

The Geopolitics of Food

admin January 12th, 2011

Nations and the world’s political stability live and die on dinner.  We know this to be true – the Soviet Union collapse, for example, was directly tied to issues of food security.  As  long as the SU was able to purchase wheat on world markets with its natural resource sale profits, it could keep going.  When prices tanked and the Soviet Union was cast back on its own resources, its own wheat harvest would not support the people, and the people would not support the government.  This has been true over and over again in history – that the basic legitimacy of a government often depends on the food security of its people, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that this rule has been overturned.

That’s why the Tunisian food riots should be seen as a harbinger of a larger issue - the return of the food crisis:

“We are entering a danger territory,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, chief economist at the Food and Agriculture Organisation, on 5 January. The price of a basket of cereals, oils, dairy, meat and sugar that reflects global consumption patterns has risen steadily for six months, and has just broken through the previous record, set during the last food panic in June, 2008.

“There is still room for prices to go up much higher,” Abbassian added, “if for example the dry conditions in Argentina become a drought, and if we start having problems with winter kill in the northern hemisphere for the wheat crops.” After the loss of at least a third of the Russian and Ukrainina grain crop in last summer’s heat wave and the devastating floods in Australia and Pakistan, there’s no margin for error left .

It was Russia and India banning grain exports in order to keep domestic prices down that set the food prices on the international market soaring. Most countries cannot insulate themselves from this global price rise, because they depend on imports for a lot of domestic consumption. But that means that a lot of their population cannot buy enough food for their families, so they go hungry. Then they get angry, and the riots start.

Hunger in South Asia, North Africa or Central America doesn’t end there – it reverbates through the world picture, shaping how other nations use their resources.  There can be no world stability in an re-emerging food crisis.  I’ve written more about the complex causes of the food crisis here and of course in _A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil_ - but the fact remains we should be prepared to see the world landscape changing, perhaps more deeply and rapidly than during the 2008 food crisis, since we are seeing that this is not merely one event, but the repetition of a cycle.

Sharon

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