Whole Farm Thinking

As some of you may or may not know, I am taking a summer course at Sterling College this summer called Vermont’s Table. It is an Agriculture studies, Culinary studies and food Entrepreneurship course all in one. Perfect for someone like me who loves food and has come to agriculture by way of food and who discovered recently that she has farming in her soul. We are lucky up here to live in a state that is very dedicated to the local food movement. It bodes well for Vermont’s future.

On Monday mornings, I take a three hour course called “Whole Farm Thinking”. It is a really interesting course so far. The first day we spent a lot of time in rotating group work, to describe and lay out our own individual ideal farms, or agriculturally based food businesses – how we could network with other local producers, and what natural synergies were to be found through all the various on-farm activities. It really helped me to lay out the ground work for what we want to be doing here on the homestead over the next few years and how we can go about turning our surplus food items, like eggs, cheese and other dairy products into a side business. This is my writing assignment for the class. Roberto suggested I write it like a blog post – and so I figured why not post it on my blog!!!

My dream is to be able to feed my family and my neighbors. My goal is not necessarily to have a HUGE cheese business, but just lessen the need for those in my community to buy their dairy and eggs from a big box store that ships them in from who knows where, and most importantly to make it easy for them to have access to healthy food, from healthy animals. Before 1950 most farmers did just this, fed their families and about 13 other Americans, which means a large part of the population had farms and farming was one of the main jobs Americans had.

But farming is not really a job to me, it is a labor of love. Our reading assignments this week discussed Traditional Farming Methods. I really loved reading Gene Logsdon and how on his diversified farm, he has learned that in many cases, nature takes care of her own and cannot be improved upon by “human cleverness”. Chickens help the cows by eating blood-engorged flies all summer long. The placing of fresh sod in with new piglets and sows knowing that they will get iron from the dirt, that will then eventually become iron for humans. As Joel Salatin says: “Nature is still the most beautiful, fearfully and wonderfully made design ever invented, and it cannot be abridged, adulterated, comprised or improved upon by human arrogance or cleverness”. It is up to us as modern agriculturalists to find and bridge the gaps between nature, by way of land stewardship and our modern world that is so obsessed with cheap, convenient food.

The discussions in the articles were about the differences between Traditional and more modern farming techniques – which is more labor-saving? Which really allow the farmer a better quality of life? I think the question really is, if you find farm labor and work drudgery, why are you farming in the first place?

Wendell-Berry discussed the changes to rural life when farms converted from horse power to machines, greatly reducing the numbers of farmers, arguing that we, as a country did not save labor, but in fact replaced it and displaced those who knew and cared for the land, taking us on a course as a country where we value the development of machines over the development of people. The emphasis on machines and technology has withered our moral fiber and put people in a place where they are ruled by their place of work, instead of their morality, skill and intelligence.

Traditional farms are diversified – a variety of flora and fauna, making it a less risky business for her farmers, as compared to monocultures, where one bad storm, swarm of insects or disease can wipe out the entire crop. On diversified farms, not only do the animals and plants work together to create a healthy system, but the farmers are more secure not only in business but the ability to feed their family and neighbors.

Traditional farming also relies a lot upon crop rotation. By rotating crops, your farm is more economical, as you do not spend as much on fertilizer. Building up the soil through crop rotation is a common theme running through all the readings. I really enjoyed Gene Logsdon’s account of his neighbor who not only does the traditional corn, oats, wheat , sod(hay) rotation, but also grazes his animals at appropriate times to increase these synergistic relationships between plants and animals. Specific ways of rotating crops for minimum weeds is discussed at length in the article by Nordell. But for me, this article felt out of place in company with the likes of Kline, Wendell-Berry and Logsdon, who spend their time getting to the heart of the matter in farming, fleshing out how and why people farm, and why working diversified farms and keeping close company with nature leads to the best yields without polluting or harming the wilderness around and within our farms. This really is the heart of the matter. Anyone can pick up a book and read about crop rotation and the science behind it. But why you are there in the first place is not something that can be learned.

“The Amish are not necessarily against modern technology. We have simply chosen not to be controlled by it”. ~David Kline
“Once we rely too much on human cleverness, nature suffers and we become alienated from it…As dressers and keepers of the earth, I believe we need some unconcreted mysteries. We need the delight of the unknown and the inexplainable in nature…” ~David Kline
I particularly enjoyed the readings by David Kline, and his Amish perspective. I think I may be somewhat Amish at heart, despite the fact we have different religions, the views and foundations of them, are very similar.

The Amish originally came from Northwestern Europe, and because of their belief in a true separation between church and state and that babies should not be baptized, instead waiting until adulthood when the individual truly understands the difference between good and evil, they rocked the religious-political climate of 16th and 17th century Europe. They were forced to flee the cities for their lives, and ended up living on the outskirts of rural peasantry. This forced them to learn how to grow crops and animals and build up fertility in dismal and unfertile land. This is the basis of their current farming techniques, which have been passed down from generation to generation.

Basic tenets of Amish life* that lead to successful farming and greater economic security and stability (from Stinner, Stinner and Paoletti):
1) Farming only enough land that one family can handle using horsepower – one team of horses – a judicious substitution of labor for machinery
2) They refuse government assistance or participation – therefore developing a strong sense of self-sufficiency
3) Above all occupations, the Amish should strive to support families through farming, a value that is passed on to all children
4) A deep respect for soil health, and farming, which has resulted in a strong sense of land stewardship
5) Diversified farming that includes animal husbandry in some form and other on farm activities like gardening, bee keeping, maple syruping, or woodlots for extra source of income
6) Animal manure as a sacred entity for building and maintaining land fertility
7) Crop rotation and no-tillage practices to reduce erosion
8 ) Physical labor is a religiously sanctioned aspect of Amish culture
*note: many of these same tenants are ones in place in Traditional Farming – diverse skills and enterprises.
The beauty of the Amish system and the backbone really, is their commitment to the land as stewards – the relationship between the farmer and his/her land, practices that allow nature to continue doing her thing, while humans work alongside. The other major component is the sense of community. This is why Gene Logsdon believes that the “back-to-the-land” movements have failed in the past: “…their homesteads were islands in an alien culture. There was no community to re-build their barns or their dreams”.
So we have to look at a different way to have that sense of community, so that we are not islands in an alien culture. By playing a vital role in feeding your close neighbors and community you begin to depend on each other for the very components at the heart of life – good food, good will, and economic security. Not all of us are fortunate enough to live in a community like the Amish, or even grow up on farms and learn that vital knowledge as we grow. But we can play a fundamental role in our community, a role that educates our neighbors through the pleasures and eating of food – where it comes from and how it is produced and how buying from your neighbor is more sustainable and increases overall community health and vitality. This is why all the rules and regulations imposed up on us that get in the way of that ancient and fundamental right to feed your neighbor is killing rural life and the health of our country.

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8 Responses to Whole Farm Thinking

  1. Awesome! Farm life RULES!

  2. Elle says:

    Very interesting, Jen! I particularly like how you pointed out the similarities between the Amish and the small farmers that are so important to a healthy food supply. And #2 strikes me as the most crucial! The government should have no say in what small farmers do. Ever.

    I have no doubt in my mind that you and Roberto will have a very successful farm!

    • admin says:

      I agree Elle – it is so important that this not be tampered with in any way! Those are inalienable rights as a human being.

  3. jayne says:

    Great essay! Even though we don’t have a farm (yet…fingers crossed), I feel like I am also Amish at heart.

  4. Wonderful Jen! Loved it! We hope to get ourselves some land and live the dream! In the meantime my vegetable garden is feeding my soul. :) Thank you for sharing.

  5. admin says:

    Thanks Courtney! :) I can’t wait to see your garden soon! :)

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