Archive for the 'agriculture' Category

Should You Drink Raw Milk?

Sharon March 28th, 2012

Or rather, maybe I should ask “how should you drink raw milk, if you are going to.”

As I’ve mentioned, we raise our own dairy goats and milk them, and we drink the milk raw, or rather, unpasteurized. Since I wrote my last piece about the goats, I’ve had several people email me asking for advice about their dairy choices – one person living locally wanted me to sell her raw milk, two others asked if I advised people who can’t get their own livestock to source and purchase raw milk. So I thought I’d write a piece about raw milk and your options.

Perhaps the first thing I want to say is that I actually don’t have that strong an opinion on this subject, believe it or not. That is, I drink raw milk because I have raw milk. I could pasteurize it, but because we have a comparatively small number of animals, and a very, very short food chain – ie, my milk goes from the goat to a sterile jar to my kitchen to cool to another sterile jar to chill quite quickly – it doesn’t make sense. We know just what our goats are eating and we watch them closely for signs of disease. If there’s any reason to be concerned, we dump the milk.

We also have no compelling reason to pasteurize at this point – my children are all over 2, I am no longer in my breeding days, and everyone has a perfectly healthy immune system. Had we had goats when the kids were babies or I was pregnant, or with anyone with a compromised immune system, we’d pasteurize.  If we were permitted to feed foster children our own milk under any circumstances, I would pasteurize just to be safe, but we can’t.

As it is, we don’t pasteurize for two reasons – the first is that we prefer the taste, particularly as we eat most of it, as yogurt and cheese, and the second is that we do think that milk in its natural form is easier to digest. I’m mildly lactose intolerant, but can use raw goat’s milk more easily than pasteurized – I’ve experimented and find that my own problem with lactase seems to be less with unpasteurized milk.

The sheer quality of raw milk cheeses is its own argument for raw milk, honestly – if you seriously like cheese, you just wouldn’t choose the pasteurized.

What about all the other claims that people make about the benefits of raw milk? I am completely agnostic on this subject, but I tend to suspect they are probably overstated.  That doesn’t mean they don’t have any merits, just that I don’t think it has magic properties.

I can say with complete truth that drinking raw milk has not magically healed my child’s autism, or made my husbands allergies disappear. This, of course, is anecdotal evidence, and there does seem to be some rather uncorroborated evidence that children with allergies may benefit from raw milk, but there simply isn’t enough research to make some of the claims that people make. I’m willing to see compelling evidence for milk-as-medicine, but ultimately, I think raw milk is mostly just food. It is a very nice food, good, healthy food, but just a food – perhaps with health benefits, also with some health risks.

To be honest, I find myself joining with Michael Pollan on this – I don’t trust the idea of food as medicine. I prefer to think of food as food. By this I mean that I don’t trust people who claim to have taken plant matter, taken it apart and isolated the single “important” part and then synthesized it and suggested we add it to our diet. I also don’t trust people on the other side of it who trumpet the magic powers of some new tropical plant to heal everything. And I don’t buy it in relationship to milk. The reality is that food has an enormous amount to do with health, and there’s some deeply crappy food out there – that said, however, none of us ever just drink milk or oat bran or Tibetan Noni Juice – the idea of the single food as savior doesn’t work for me.  What you should eat is a simple, healthy, basic diet that involves lots of kinds of food – that’s the most important element in good health – a large variety of good for you stuff and a small variety of the rest.

That said, I admit to a mild suspicion of the claim that pasteurization has absolutely no effect on the benefits of milk – we know for example that in human milk, raising the temperature of the milk does remove beneficial elements and reduce digestibility in infants. That doesn’t mean that pasteurization isn’t beneficial – but it is a balancing act, thus, breast milk is not routinely pasteurized, although it may be to prevent the transmission of HIV or CMV. That’s not an argument, in and of itself against pasteurization, but we already know that the heat treatment of milk affects its constituent elements from considerable research into breast milk.

And raw milk may well have benefits, but it also does have risks. The reality is that milk is a perfect medium for bacteria growth – and that people have gotten ecoli, salmonella and listeria from raw milk. The FDA claims 800 illnesses from raw milk in the last twelve years – and there has been at least one serious outbreak of illness associated with raw milk, in California. It is easy to think of e-coli as a minor illness, just a little case of food poisoning, but it can be fatal, and even if it isn’t, it can make you wish it was.

The truth is that unless I’d seen the inside of the barn belonging to the person who I was buying milk from, and seen their herd records, I’m honestly not sure that I would buy raw milk. That doesn’t mean that dairy farmers don’t handle their milk carefully – they do – but on a large scale, milking a lot of cows with equipment that moves over multiple animals, I’d be at least more cautious. And if I were pregnant or feeding a child under two, I would recommend against unpasteurized milk.

Besides taking great care in selecting a raw milk producer, honestly, I’d also remind people that if you are buying milk, you do need to treat it differently than you would pasteurized milk. I think some of the health difficulties associated with raw milk probably stem not from producers but from consumers who don’t grasp that raw milk is a more sensitive food. I think there is a real case, for example, for the beneficial bacteria in raw milk in our digestive systems – after all, we don’t pasteurize breast milk. But then again, we don’t pick up our breastmilk on an afternoon in July, carry it around in the sun for half an hour at the farmer’s market and then spend 40 minutes in a warm car with it either. Your grocery store milk may have its lifespan shortened slightly by that kind of treatment. Raw milk may be substantively changed – there’s just a lot more going on inside of it.

So if you are the sort of person who buys a half-gallon every week and drinks it for seven days, until the last glass is a little off, you won’t want to be a raw milk consumer. The truth is that I wouldn’t keep my raw milk more than three days, even in perfect cold conditions – either drink it or turn it into something that does keep, whether cheese or yogurt or kefir. If the conditions are less than perfect, you want to keep it even a shorter time. The reality is that the longer you keep living food, the more life, good and bad it will have in it.

I think raw milk should be available for sale everywhere. I also think that explicit labelling should be required – I don’t just mean a casual “read our brochure about raw milk” kind of thing but an explicit articulation of risks. At this point, however, most states don’t permit the sale of raw milk, so many people are getting it illicitly. In general, I’m pretty much in favor of illicit agriculture, and opposed to regulation, but the truth is that the milk laws emerged for compelling reasons – milk is a bacteria friendly substance that shouldn’t be taken lightly. I don’t have a problem with appropriate dairy regulation – on the other hand, that shouldn’t mean you have to spend 50K on a barn, either.  It should be perfectly possible to make people aware of risk and also of benefit, and let them choose.

If you want raw milk, I would purchase it only after understanding the full risk-benefit analysis. I do not recommend it for pregnant women or children under 2, although I know plenty of people do drink it in those circumstances. I would either get your own dairy animal or purchase milk *only* from people who you actually develop a relationship with, after seeing their barn and handling techniques, and knowing what testing they do. I would make sure that I *always* do my milk pickup with a cooler on hand and keep it cool all the time. I would drink my milk quickly, or process it to make cheese and yogurt.

I would love to see raw milk be more available to those who do make informed choices and who want it, and I’d love to see small dairy producers able to sell it. But to do so requires a level of involvement and consciousness about your food that is simply different than picking up a quart of milk at the grocery store.

Ending “Farmer’s Wife” Syndrome

Sharon February 6th, 2012

Fairly often, when someone comes to our farm to make a purchase or do a job, the implicit assumption is that they should talk to Eric. The first time I remember seeing this was when we were farm shopping back a decade ago – we met our first realtor and visited our first farm, and the realtor led me into the house and then turned to Eric and said “Let me show you the barn.” My husband’s very calm response was “Sharon knows much more about barns than I do, I’m going to take our son for a walk.” This was the beginning of my experience with “farmer’s wife” syndrome.

Now on virtually all farms I have ever visited, everyone who lives there farms. The children help in the barns, the spouses share the duties – even if there is a gendered division of labor much of the time, as on Amish farms, the harvest or peak canning season overwhelm this and everyone who is present pitches in. It should go without saying that no farm can have anyone who isn’t competent to recapture lost livestock, fix a fence, handle an emergency birth or a medical crisis – because some days one person isn’t there. Nor can all knowledge rest in one person – because who milks or picks the beans when someone is ill, giving birth, caring for a family member or making the money that most farms don’t provide to pay taxes and bills?

Yet we cling stubbornly to the idea that instead of a family of farmers, all equally engaged with the land, if sometimes in largely different ways, that a farm family consists of a “farmer” and a “farmer’s wife” – and that the female partner is necessarily secondary. Gene Logsdon has a great essay about both why this is, and how that presumption is being disrupted by the growing number of independent women farmers:

Women rarely did the plowing however, and that seems to be the key difference. Lots of plowboys, nary a plowgirl. In other field work, women did more than their share. (I have theories but will leave it to someone smarter to explain why women didn’t plow.) The notion that males were the real farmers probably was rooted in the hunting and gathering stage of civilization where men brought home the game from afar (adventure time) and the women did the rest of the work at home (boring).

At any rate, after the plow became the symbol of agriculture in America, the role of women in farming did recede from the public eye. Women were supposed to stick to the kitchen and leave the real business of farming to their menfolks.

This prejudice was astonishingly apparent even at farm magazines. As a journalist working for Farm Journal magazine, I often sat in farm kitchens interviewing farmers and their wives about their business. It was amazing how often the wives answered my questions much better than their husbands and how they so often did this by diplomatically and cleverly putting words in their husbands’ mouths. It was obvious that most successful farms got that way because the wives were smarter and more articulate than the husbands. But the wives knew how to keep the male crest from falling by seeming to defer to their husbands on every occasion. The wives knew they had to make their mates look like top operators so that they could borrow the money they needed to keep on going. Bankers were no different from farm editors. They wanted to deal with men: women weren’t smart enough to run a business like farming.

The answer to the question about why women didn’t do the plowing is anthropological – when tillage was done with digging sticks and handtools, in many societies women were the primary tillers of soil. But as anthropologist Judith Brown long ago observed, there is virtually no society in human history where women’s primary work is incompatible with the care of young children – and plowing behind draft animals is tough to do with a babe in a sling, and hard to do when you may have to stop and nurse, or chase a toddler away from the horse’s feet. Tractors are not good places to haul babies and young kids for long stretches either, and I know from experience you don’t fit well behind the wheel in late pregnancy. Moreover, in the era of chemical agriculture any number of things that are part of the farm experience are best not touched by women who may be pregnant or nursing. For most of women’s history, being pregnant or nursing was a normative experience for many years.

Most of us don’t have a baby every three years anymore, so there isn’t any reason why tillage or organic no-till agriculture can’t be done by women (chemical agriculture is still tougher for women of childbearing age, since so many things accumulate in body fat and breast milk). So is small-scale farming without large equipment – with the modern digging sticks. In the meantime, independent women small farmers are the only fast-growing segment of American agriculture – an entity that we all know is going to have to grow fast just to keep up with the aging population of farmers, and all the more if we are to remove the fossil fuel inputs from our agriculture and untie food and oil.

We have used language to write women out of agriculture – out of its history, out of its present, engaging in the “housewifization” of real agricultural work. The implication that the farmer’s wife is not a farmer, and is thus knowledgeable about only kitchens and babies (as important as those things are) is a diminuation, an act of linguistic violence that erases the multiple competences of farm women, partnered or not.

I look around me at the farm families I know and see women and men with a host of skills that step outside of gender. Sherri, who lives with her aging mother cuts hay for a living. Alice handles the thousand pound draft horses on their farm with skill and grace. The sheep are Rosa’s, not her boyfriend’s, as is the market garden. Louise milked fifty cows a day to her husband’s fifty and drove the tractor while he tossed the hay bales for forty years.

This started out as my farm, with my husband who was happy to give me credit, happy to do the heavy lifting, but not so interested in plants. It has become a project of two overlapping people with related interests and the ability to do one another’s work. The bees are his. The native plants and herbs are mine, the livestock are both of ours, the work is shared inside and outside as preference, pleasure and ability define. The daily applied science of agriculture is worked out between us. The pride in it is shared, and neither of us would demean our contribution by suggesting it comes primarily through the other, as “farmer’s wife” does.

The question of where the next generation of farmers is going to come from is an important one, because we’re engaged in an experiment with no historical precedent – for the first time in history, the majority of new farmers will have to come from off the farm – for decades we have been able to reduce the number of farmers by drawing off many and destroying farm cultures and communities, while still having enough to meet our needs, but the farm population is rapidly aging, the next generation of farmer’s children have already left the farm, and now we must ask who will replace them?

The answer so far is that women are a part of the answer, and I hope this will be the end of farmer’s wife syndrome and the emergent recognition of the fact that farmers come in many packages, and that a way of life is something that circles round and encompasses everyone who lives it.

In High Summer

admin July 19th, 2011

We shared two cherry tomatoes this morning, the first ripe of the year, and that, to us, is the proof we’re fully into high summer.  If I don’t pick the zucchini every day, I’m sorry.  The weather is hot and sultry, the apricots are close to ripe and the peaches are following.  The boys drown in fruit every day – it is the one thing I can’t say no to.   The fireflies sparkle like fireworks.  The kids live in the creek and under the sprinkler, and seem to stretch out daily, getting taller, stronger, learning new things.   Tonight we’re headed to a baseball game (local minor league) – what more perfect summer evening activity is there?  Without precisely planning to, we are replicating the idyllic American farm summer of nearly everyone’s childhood dreams.  Even if you didn’t live it in your youth, you know this somehow.

The calves have moved from being wobbly babies to young cattle, busy at the important work of grazing.  Most of the summer crop of babies are born – seven so far, Midori, Amaretto, Margarita, Tequila, Kahlua, Grog and Stout.  Only Selene and Calendula are left to kid in the next week or two.  The pregnant goats waddle crankily in the summer heat, ready to be over with this nonsense, while the new moms call anxiously back and forth to their little ones.

The first crop of pickling cukes has turned to jars of pickles, the second is fermenting in buckets.  The blueberry jamming will start this weekend.  The raspberries have been coming in for weeks, but I never get any – the boys regard our plentiful canes as their own private snack bar.  Raspberries, what raspberries?

The boys grow lean and strong on summer the way goats fatten on browse.  Their knees are always scabbed, they are nearly always dirty, but it is rich, healthy dirt, like the best soil.  They grow like zucchini in wild excess.  The younger boys earned their pocketknives at the end of June, and I watch 7 year old Isaiah cut the twine on a bale of hay or carve a stick to a point.  Asher lifts a full water bucket and staggers to the goats with it.  Simon tells me airly that this year he can help me load hay, and is strong enough to lift a bale.  ”Feel my muscles!” they beg, and I do!  Eli cracks 5’5.  Simon masters lighting a fire with a flint and steel “I can show you how, Mom.”  He’ll have to – I never could do it without the magnesium.

Dinner makes itself.  Take some sweet corn and tomatoes (the farm stand in the valley has plenty already – they are always 10 days ahead of us or more), a sprinkle of basil, the last of the snap peas, some sliced zucchini… there’s so little that is needed after that.  Don’t know what to make?  A vast salad of mixed greens and herbs, into which go what you have – some new goat cheese, crumbled, a couple of handfuls of blueberries, a hardboiled egg,  tiny new carrots, cukes,  a fresh pulled beet…  Sprinkle with flower petals – sweet daylilies, cucumber flavorted borage, licoricey anise hyssop, bergamot flavored bee balm – and devour.

Ravenous boys and adults will eat anything fresh and delicious, particularly if they pick it themselves.  Asher gnaws on a raw zucchini – I wonder who taught him that, and taste it.  The Costata Romanesco zucchini are delicious raw!  The livin’ really is easy.

And not.  There’s so much work to do on the farm in summer.  Move fence and animals.  Barn the hay.  Pull the weeds, scythe the grass, put up the blueberries, ferment the cucumbers, fix the gate, make cheese, feed the calves, move the chicks, pull the bolting bok choy, dry the herbs, make the tinctures, cut back the tansy, move the rabbit tractor, side dress the kale, transplant the last broccoli crop, and always, always look ahead.  Because even though it seems on these long, hot days that it will always be summer, winter is coming – darkness and cold are on their way and the more summer we can contain in jars, the more growth we put on the animals with fresh grass, the better we prepare, the better the living will be when it isn’t quite as easy.

Everyone knows this, not just us.  There is a purposefulness in all this biology – or so it seems.  ”Eat, darling, winter is coming” say the mother goats.  ”Outside and scratch – the grasshoppers won’t always be here” calls Mama hen to her babies.  It is fanciful, of course, but true as well – they know, we know that these days can’t last.

The kids know it too – they revel in summer, and are mostly old enough to know that it won’t always be like this.  Brown like nuts, they hurry to make the lists of the things we want to do yet.  Can we build a tree house?  Can they climb to the top of the hill in the woods all by themselves to pick blackcaps?  Can they follow the creek back a whole mile?  When is the fair?  When is camp?  When are swimming lessons?  When does Daddy go back to work?  When does the pool close for summer?  Will there be time for everything?

We’re not there yet, of course and we mostly live in the present, but they know that August is close, and then as August winds down, so will the summer idyll.  Not into winter yet – fall is our favorite season with cooler weather and the delights of harvesting.  We’ll be ready for pumpkins and apples by then, for new backpacks (ok, well, new-to-them, anyway) and crayons, for days at the creek when you don’t want to be in the water, just nearby, for colored leaves and busier schedules.  There won’t be quite so much time to just pick berries or climb trees.  We’ll be ready for butchering and getting wood in and the rest.  But it is impossible to live on a farm without seeing the cycles of the year and nature come ’round and ’round and always be thinking about what’s next.

You have to.  The beets that will nourish us in the fall have been seeded.  I’m thinking about when the spinach and arugula crops for overwintering will go in, now that the turnips and kale are set.  When best to plant the broccoli for late fall – it doesn’t love the heat, but it has to go in at the end of July.  A fall pea crop is always a challenge – but hey, worth a shot!   The meat birds for fall arrive any day now, and we count weeks for butchering dates.  We must build more rabbit housing for growing out the young ones – they’ll be ready soon and will be butchered in September.  Time to think about breeding dates for next year and where the garlic will go.  Right now all is lush and abandoned with endless hours of light and infinite heat, but the hours and the heat will gradually decline – the thing about being at something’s peak is that the slide is downwards.

I don’t mind, though.  Autumn has never looked depressing to me, as it did to Keats.  The Jewish year begins in autumn, and that always seemed right to me – everything starts anew, refreshed by the cool breeze.  And in truth, who could keep up this pace all year ’round?  Almost all places have a quiet season, whether it is the heat of summer when little grows, too hot, too dry, or the cold of winter when the ground is frozen.  By the time the jars have been filled and the treehouse built, the salamanders caught and released a thousand times, by the time corn is no longer new and you long for pumpkin and hearty things, well, it is time.

We live looking forward.  We move on to the next season as the work we do now itself lays the groundwork for the fall, winter and spring crops that we will subsist upon.  We are watching the boys grow big and strong in summer, envisioning the next year and the they next as they mature.  We live looking back, remembering as I pull this crop of bolted lettuce the cold, wet spring day I transplanted it.   As each goat delivers, we recall the February day that I released does and bucks to their mutual delight, and always remember the summer farm childhood we all lived or dreamed of.  We live in the moment, delighting in the full milk pail, the first harvest, the sweetness of berries, the warmth of the sun, the cold beer in the shade, the first time the boys use their pocketknives or climb to new heights.  At high summer, more than at any other moment, past, present, future come together and simply are.   The days are so long, they seem to be infinite.  We know it is merely an illusion, but we revel in summer, stripped of limits, timeless and beautiful.


Doing It Right

admin May 9th, 2011

Today Eric picks up two nucs of bees for our farm.  I’ve been wanting bees since we moved here a decade ago, but Eric had a lingering fear of stinging insects, and declined to support the project, so from one thing and another, we’ve always put it off.  Finally, for his 40th birthday last year, Eric decided to get over his fear of bees by facing it directly – he wanted his own.  This is the first major farm project we’ve ever engaged in where Eric took the lead. Even though I’d done considerable research on the subject myself in several previous years, I backed up and handed it over to him – the bees would be his bees, although I was happy and excited to help.  He spent much of the winter obsessing about the complex decisions to be made.

Beekeeping is among the more arcane and detailed segments of agriculture, and there is a long list of decisions.  Langstroth or top bar hive?  Foundation or let the bees build their own?  If foundation, what size comb?  Where should you get your bees?  Queen excluder?  No Queen excluder?  The old joke about Jews, “Two Jews, three opinions” goes double for beekeepers.  We sat down at the table with three or four beekeepers, all of whom had broadly the same goals we did (low input, sustainable, natural for the bees) and each earnestly told us about their choices – all of which were totally different from one another, and many of which were entirely contradictory.

Eric and I very different people, which is one of the great pleasures of our marriage.  I tend to rapidly formulate a working theory and jump in with both feet to test it.  Eric is more cautious, and wanted more and more information, more opinions, more discussions – probably wiser in many ways, since we are dealing with investments of hundreds of dollars.  Ultimately, however, like almost everything in homesteading or farming, in sustainability or parenting, we both knew we finally simply had to try – and probably make mistakes.

All of us, when we take up a new project, want to do it the right way.  When we are dealing with living things, this need is particularly acute – no one wants to kill anything, whether garden plants or livestock.  We all of us want to know as much as we can, want as much experienced advice as possible – and such advice is invaluable.  It gives us confidence, a sense of understanding, and if you can find people who do what you want, it can save you a whole host of stupid mistakes.

It can also open the door to a great deal of confusion – do you let the dam raise their kids or do you bottle feed?  One person tells you that goat kids raised on the doe become wild and hard to milk, another person tells you they are healthier and sturdier and plenty friendly.  How do you know?  Moreover, how do you know what your priorities are until you have some experience.  How different is the health difference?  How much do you like or dislike bottle feeding?  Do you need more milk or can you spare more.  What if you don’t know?

Should you sheet mulch to reduce weed pressure, maintain fertility and improve your soil, or do limited tillage?  How do you know?  On the one hand one gardener assures you that mulch harbors slugs and voles, a bigger threat to your garden than the weeds.  Another person tells you that the slugs and voles aren’t that big a problem.  Which is right?  Well, it may depend on your site, your other management practices, and how gross you find thistles and slugs, respectively.

A lot of what we do is based on imperfect information and not enough certainty – and at lot of times, we’re going to screw up.  The hope is that the screw ups won’t be dire – but sometimes they are.  Sometimes if disaster doesn’t strike we’re certain it is our superior management technique, or if it does, that we did it all wrong, and that a different technique would have saved us.  Sometimes those theories are right- and sometimes they aren’t.

That doesn’t mean that all techniques are equally good, or that there aren’t some real rules of management – but it does mean that all the advice in the world isn’t always enough to spare us some really big screwups.  You can read and study and talk as long as you want, and people who have had enough experience to become expert will offer good advice – and some of it will be relevant.  Sorting out what is and what isn’t, trying things out, accepting your failures and verifying that your successes come from the causes you think they come from – that’s your job as a farmer or a homesteader.

The bees come today – Langstroth hives, strips only, no queen excluders….so far.  That’s the starting point.  Now the interesting part begins – seeing where we end up from the start we planned.


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.


Next »