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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Farm as an Organism

Farm As An Organism
February 15th, 2007

Ideally a farm should function as an organism, recycling wastes to meet the needs of other elements of the system and deriving its needs from other elements within this loop. Photosynthesis and oxygen/carbon dioxide gas exchange is the ultimate blueprint for this pattern. Treating the land, as an organism is clearly the goal to all holistic approaches to farming or land management, whether it’s permaculture, biodynamics, holistic resource management, biointensive, forest gardening or natural farming. The realm of physics offers some guidelines. Everything encounters the Law of Conservation of Energy; which states “that energy can not be created (made from nothing), or destroyed (made to disappear to no-where) and that energy can be changed from one form to another (such as electrical energy in to heat energy).” ( The classification of waste is non-existent in an ecological system. The distinction between where something is a waste product and a food source becomes blurred. Contrast the food chain worldview to the food web approach. The food chain represents the industrial, assembly-line outlook, whereas the food web view recognizes that all elements of a system are interconnected.
The trouble with designing closed-loop systems which self manage is that the law of conservation of energy within a given system doesn’t take into account the surplus ancient energy made available through the use of fossil fuels. Further, the economics of living in our “everything at your fingertips” consumer culture makes it difficult to create closed loop systems. Why grow grain or fodder crops for your animals when it is so easy and inexpensive to buy suitable feed at the local farm supply store. The industrialization of organics has even made organic factory-farmed feeds easily accessible. Because those of us living in industrialized nations live under a veritable cloak of waste (fossil fuels transmuted into surplus carbon) it tends to cloud our judgment as holistic designers. The monetary economy functions as a zone or element of our permaculture landscape. This facilitates an easy rationalization towards buying that reasonably priced certified organic poultry feed to ease management of our multi-species forest gardens.
The proliferation of Biofuels has brought the concept of Food=Waste to the forefront of the political and public sphere. With more corn and soy being grown to create ethanol and biodiesel we are casting our vote for the preferred pseudo-livestock of our postmodern permaculture landscape – the automobile. Food that could feed people and animals is being rendered into fuel by industrial processes, which cannot escape the law of conservation of energy. The streamlining effect that the food chain worldview has upon ecological systems aims to shorten the loops that solar energy goes through to meet human needs. In this vein the Biofuels argument is seen as a sound approach to deal with waste (in this case gross overproduction of corn and soy by agribusiness) and turn it into a resource, fuel, food for our cars and trucks. Measured in terms of total energy yield per acre, the land that now produces so much corn and soy is a pathetic waste of what was once an incredible prairie poly culture dominated by grasses, forbs, Bison and wildfire. Yet within our emerging ecotopian culture we have become blinded to the laws of physics. We embrace biodiesel (which uses more energy to make than it provides when burned), the compact fluorescent light bulb (which although they conserve energy, contain mercury), and other tech-no-logical band-aids in our valiant effort to ameliorate our impact upon a biosphere that is struggling with the modern human lifestyle
Clearly the pattern of natural systems is that of recycling and capturing energy. The complexity of interconnections in functioning ecosystems is the result of an endless process of new species moving into niches that may only exist for a geologically brief time. Human beings may well be such a species capitalizing upon a niche. Regardless we have a role to play. Founder of biodynamic agriculture, Rudolf Steiner once claimed that the role of humanity is to change the Earth. This concept is hard to accept, yet equally hard to refute. Rather than adapting to a niche, we have learned to adapt our environment to the agrarian and pastoral niche within which we have grown comfortable. Humanity seems confounded by a quandary here: the pattern of nature implies a hunter-gatherer nomadic relationship to the landscape rather than our sedentary agrarian relationship. Nevertheless, exceptions abound! Perhaps we may rejoice that humanity is not alone in our agrarian pursuits. Maybe we should laud our cleverness to join the ranks of fungal farming termites in South Africa, honeydew farming ants, or nectar gathering honeybees.
I believe that we can view the permaculture relationship to the land as a long trajectory process of ecological restoration. We aren’t going back to the past of foraging and hunting just yet. The farming systems and settlement patterns that we thoughtfully set into motion now are governed by the same rules as the rest of Gaia. Careful observation results in a feedback loop of what is successful and capitalizing on pulses of abundance, be it a bee tree, pigeon guano in an old barn, salvaged metal roofing, or a windfall peach crop dried and canned for storage. As we slowly wean ourselves from the petroleum umbilical cord that keeps many brilliant designs at bay, we are becoming more aware of numerous opportunity areas. Less external resources will force us to look to within our own system for its needs. As we start small and harvest our mistakes we will model farms and villages after ecosystems, which capture resources as they cascade through the food web like a net.
Farming for a living in the 21st century, I have found that needing to remain economically viable stimulates my creativity towards intelligent, holistic design. It helps if you have a permaculture streak running in your veins. For example, we grew about 1/6 of an acre of Calendula flowers to be dried and sold for medicinal use for a few years. The high labor costs of picking the flowers twice a week and the wholesale price we were being paid was beginning to edge this crop out of our production scheme. This was until we pursued a seed contract for the seeds, which we could still reliably mature after meeting our flower harvest quota. We also noticed over time that Calendula provided a trap crop for cucumber beetles, which helped our cucurbit vine crops. The goal of needing to remain profitable to stay in business farming precipitated an opportunity to stack functions.
We have also used this strategy successfully when integrating plant breeding, seed production and market gardening. In order to improve the genetics of many vegetable species that we grow on commercial contract for seed companies, we must cull or “rogue” plants with undesirable characteristics and deleterious genetic traits. Sometimes this can account for as much as 10% of a planting of lettuce or up to 90% when do selection for radish stock seed. So we have developed our market outlets (CSA, Growers’ markets) to accommodate selling our rogues, which are perfect for food, but are considered “off-types” in a seed planting. Seed growing in general has fostered a different outlook on vegetable farming in that the vegetable itself is merely a vehicle to grow the seed. So, the fruits of tomatoes, melons, squash and peppers are waste by-products of our seed production goals. Of course we don’t let this opportunity go unutilized, melon and squash halves are bagged for distribution to CSA members and countless wheelbarrow loads of fruits minus seeds feed our menagerie of livestock. Our motto is increasingly that each crop must have multiple yields and these should serve a diversity of elements. This view has been the result of observing resources pass unutilized through our farm system: calendula seeds, tall grass, rainwater from a roof, pest outbreaks, algae in ponds and countless others. This has enabled us to stay on the land farming a diverse small acreage without needing off farm jobs, as many farmers must do. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm sums up the value of these observations nicely, “I am just the orchestra conductor making sure that everybody’s in the right place at the right time.”
Farming in the same spot for the past decade we have come to recognize that nature tends to produce periodic abundance in pulses rather than a steady stream. Oregon White Oak (quercus garyii) trees produced a bumper crop a few years back and we noticed resident wild turkeys and deer voraciously eating them. Our sheep also scoured oak grove edges overhanging their pastures for acorns that they would audibly crunch enthusiastically. This prompted us to begin to include turkeys in our pasture and woodland edge management and seasonally graze our sheep in oak woodlands. When crushed, our chickens and ducks relish acorn meal and with a bit of processing we relish them too (both the acorns and the birds). While deer, bear and others consume large amounts of acorns in season, we can capture surplus, or waste yields for a farm feed that is ideally harvested by the animals themselves. Although Oregon white oaks tend to produce acorns every year, varying in abundance, California Black Oak (quercus kellogii), yield every 2-5 years, were the preferred species of native peoples here due to their higher oil content (10-12% for Q.garayii, vs. 25-30% for Q.kellogii). This information has also influence our woodland management to favor Black Oaks and thin coniferous trees for structural poles, firewood, bark, fencing and lumber around them.
Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menzesii) presents itself as a classic opportunity to turn a liability into an asset as it regenerates readily in its own shade and tends to form wildfire prone thickets in the absence of periodic fire or disturbance. We build with peeled Douglas fir poles in place of dimensional lumber whenever possible. Soil tests indicated that although our land was historically a mixed coniferous and hardwood forest we had alkaline soil (pH =7.5 –> 8). Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm fame integrates forestry with farming using wood chips from logging and milling wastes as animal bedding and compost carbon source. Inspired by the example of Joel Salatin, we were encouraged to use forestry by-products (wastes) to meet our carbon needs on our farm. Starting with dead and windfall trees we integrate wood chips and saw dust from lumber milled on site as animal bedding under the theory that we can capture the excess nitrogen in sheep urine and poultry manure in a slow composting process with wood wastes and possibly help steer our pH to a more neutral reading. This also helps to limit our need for off farm straw for animal bedding and helps us reticulate carbon from the forest into our fields. Woodland and basketry coppice wastes wind up in brush fences, paddock cross fencing and a native alternative too many uses previously met by exotic bamboo. In many of these instances we are using forestry wastes to feed fungal communities and steer a bacterially dominated pasture based farm system to a mycrorhizal fungi dominated woodland savannah system.
An important observation about the unfolding of our farm system is that, although we set out with a design based on observation and assessment from the beginning, many of our most successful endeavors have been the result of a long-term relationship to the site. As we become clearer about our needs and the needs of the plants and animals around us, both domestic and wild, the clarity of our observations increases dramatically and design ideas spring forth as the obvious next step in the sequence of closing resource loops. I am certain that indigenous peoples adapted to changes in their landscape and their needs in a similar fashion. This is the long-term trajectory of which I mentioned earlier. These early versions of modern permaculture/whole systems farms will resemble modern agriculture less and less as they go through the process of becoming indigenous landscapes and communities. Until we see ourselves as fully enmeshed in our bioregions food web we will still perceive resources through the eyes of the food chain industrialist, as waste or idle and unused. The yields of the truly sustainable farm of the future will be an adaptation of the energy flowing through the system. Call it resources, waste or food, it all represents solar energy fixed as carbon, air, water and warmth. In our bioregion, the Siskiyou mountain farm of the future may be based much more upon supporting native pine/oak savannahs and their associated herbivores. However, it may involve planting of superior strains of genetically selected natives and inclusion of proven exotic species in a complex web of species garnering calories as sunlight, water, nutrients and carbon trickle through a series of sieves that resemble tree canopies, ponds, marshes, soil, animals and plants.

Don Tipping, and his family steward Seven Seeds Farm in the Siskiyou Mountains of Williams, Oregon. This is their 11th year growing seed, eggs, fruits, vegetables, sheep, mixed poultry and spreading the gospel of ecotopian culture. They help manage a cooperative CSA and seed growers network ( and train future permaculture farmers through classes and apprenticeships.

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