by Danny Botkin
Laughing Dog Farm, Gill, MA
The very definition and shape of “farming” is changing before our very eyes. The mistaken belief that you need large acreage to grow substantive quantities of real food has now been convincingly demolished (as documented on YouTube and elsewhere) by legions of micro-farmers, urban gardeners, hoophouse warriors, and backyard producers, everywhere. The revolution of permaculture has further blurred the line between “real farmers” and us “amateurs” and opened our eyes to re-think what is possible, on even marginal, miniscule plots, in virtually any climate.
More and more folks, (including many rank beginners moved by worldly, political and/or personal impulses) are today launching small-scale food growing initiatives, both “commercial” and otherwise. Another generation of “niche” farmers is re-learning to cleverly exploit new (and old!) methods, seasons, crops and products, while drawing variously on popular foody and permaculture principles, cultural/ethnic wisdom, (the internet) as well as their own ingenuity and hard work) to carve out one thousand different takes on the diversified, small-plot, food farm.
Whether CSA growers, outdoor educators, raw-foody fermenters, beekeepers, rabbit raisers, chicken lovers, mycologists, goat herds, herbalists, seed savers, or a huge combination thereof, what we are seeing today is that raw acreage alone isn’t always a requirement for productive farming enterprise. And, we are all learning to glean multiple layers of “added-value” (including those more-difficult-to-measure qualities like mental health, social uplift and healthy lifestyle) from the most local agriculture of all, that which happens under our very feet.
Notwithstanding all the buzz about permaculture, many newbie growers still reflexively mimic conventional agriculture with its perpetual plowing, chemical inputs, and long, straight rows. But with many new small-scale growers considering their options, it may be worth revisiting some conventional “truths” about horticulture and farming.
Seasonally tilling the soil to kill weeds, incorporate residues and amendments, and sow the seed might be the most universal and time-honored farming tradition. And freshly plowed soil is so lovely to look at, touch and smell. However, low-till farming methods, if followed conscientiously, can ultimately improve the soil and cut large fractions of labor and fuel right out of food chain. By spreading compost, manure, hay mulch, etc, in layers, on top of permanent beds, (rather than endlessly plowing and turning over the earth), we build a much healthier soil biology (i.e.: colonies of microbes, worms, soil tilth, etc.) which can continuously grow outstanding crops and repel drought and weeds, using far less energy.
Some critics of “low till” will point out the modest initial returns, not fully understanding the long-term nature and incremental payoffs of this approach. And admittedly, there are places more and less conducive to “low-till” methods, like a thousand acre soybean field. But the future is about smaller, more diversified, more energy-neutral, local farms, and about finding crafty new ways to tease out a harvest without plowing. And yes, farming this way sequesters lots of carbon!
We are a culture of “immediate gratification” and “instant results”. Like everything, we want our farms to yield HUGE, the first year. We want to rent that rototiller and “install” our gardens, in a day, or a weekend, not build them up slowly, over a decade or more. We want “guaranteed results”, tomorrow, not a five year plan. But when you begin to understand the ongoing, circular trajectory of this permaculture-influenced motif, you also begin to see multiple rewards accruing incrementally over time: food, fuel, fodder, fauna, fertility, fun, funds, farmscapes, etc, etc…
In traditional agriculture, we plant one, solid crop, tend the field, and cut the entire stand, in sequence, with the “harvest” being the principal objective. With permaculture, we try to mimic nature, so we set in motion a community of species, which share space and evolve together, for years perhaps, in dynamic tension. In such a system we are continuously planting, pruning, mulching, harvesting, around the calendar, with “perennials” and trees remaining alive, complementing our traditional summer crops. This method lets the sun, the snow, rain and mulch and worms and microbes, etc, do the most work, while yielding a steady flow of fresh food, among other perks. Ultimately, such a system will require less brute labor to maintain – less digging, less mowing, less weeding, less gas, less soil compaction, and less greenhouse gases produced.
“Well, Dan, I guess with the planet heating up you won’t need your hoophouses anymore!” an old friend joked recently. In fact quite the opposite has proven true! Low cost, low-tech hoophouses, built of steel pipes covered by a plastic “skins”, today offer horticulturists and farmers of all stripes a uniquely protected grow zone for all kinds of crops, from the pedestrian to the exotic. Hooophouses efficiently maximize the solar potential of small plots, and they can be productive in every season, with no added heat. Once an anomaly in America, hoophouses are giving all manner of farmers a fighting chance amidst the violent rains, winds, droughts and floods that have become our “new norm”.
We all grew up in an age where hand labor was denigrated, where there was a machine for every purpose, but before we understood the greater footprint of all our stuff. Without impugning the appropriate use of technology in agriculture, many of us small producers today are rediscovering the inherent value of hand labor in sustainable economies. Hand labor, despite some obvious limitations, is imminently loyal, available, adaptable, and smart. Hand labor keeps us “in touch” with our work. Hand labor allows us to customize our responses, to exploit anomalies, and to turn on a dime, applying new methods to changing realities on the ground. Plus, we farmers get to grow our very own fuel, and what could be more sustainable than that?!
The belief that you need lots of capital to begin farming may apply to larger commercial ventures but less so to a mom and pop scaled, backyard farm. Land is, of course, the most cash-heavy commodity involved, but you need not even “own” land to farm it. Fallow land lies pretty much everywhere, for those with good neighbors, good connections, good imaginations, or great persuasive powers. And clever urban farmers like Will Allen of Growing Power, (Milwaukee) have shown us how even just a very little land can be rendered very productive (albeit with capital support in his case). Incredibly, many of the major inputs required for successful organic horticulture (manure, hay, leaves, lime, hand tools, etc) are inexpensive, even available for free, or barter. Even those exciting heirloom seeds, all the rage now, can be acquired inexpensively or free, from various agencies, including fellow growers, and one’s own backyard. And of course, the sun, the rain, the pollinators, the worms, microbes, etc, are phenomenal resources that are all totally free.
By raw dollars and cents, most backyard-scale farming operations today might have a hard time “justifying” themselves as anything beyond “hobby gardens”. In fact “hobby garden” is a slur long invoked by “real farmers” to peg newcomers, small fries, wannabe’s, hippies, greenhorns and others who’ve ever dreamed of raising a crop or stewarding the earth.
While it is always important to critically inventory any farm’s "energy ledger", it is also true that some farm values transcend the simple calculus of dollars per pound or bushels per acre. For example, keeping of small herds of backyard livestock, like chickens, rabbits or goats can barely be justified by the strictly financial value of the eggs, milk and meat. However, ask any backyard herdsman, if you also consider the entertainment, education, psychotherapy, compost, fun and all around spiritual and emotional uplift (not to mention bodily HEALTH benefits…) from tending these animals, then the endeavor begins to more truly reflect its accurate “value”.
And before anyone dismisses the potential wider significance of millions of backyard-scale food gardens, we should recall our own WWII “Victory Gardens” which not only rallied and focused patriotic spirit at home, but also supplemented domestic produce, reportedly by as much as 40%.
The potential food security generated by the keeping of small gardens and backyard livestock should neither be underestimated. Think of it like this: If a family butchers a goat, they could eat for a week. But if they keep a goat alive for a year, that family (or neighborhood) has the potential to eat over all 52 weeks. They may not actually need that meat at a particular time, but it can be maintained there, week after week, month after month, representing a reliable buffer against possible emergency or need. In this sense, managed well, a small quantity of actual food can be very valuable, not just as raw calories, vitamins and nutrients, but as insurance. If we do it right, a little food goes a long way. What this hungry world needs, it seems, more than warehouses full of grain is the ongoing potentiality to access real food. Incredibly, it may actually require far less energy (and less actual food) to nourish all people on earth.
In today’s rapidly changing climate and economy, anyone can be a real farmer. Today everyone ought to consider it.
Posted: to General News on Fri, Mar 1, 2013
Updated: Wed, Mar 18, 2015