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Farmyard Fables: Tales of Resilience and Sustainability from Local Growers

June 26, 2024

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Farmyard Fables: Tales of Resilience and Sustainability from Local Growers

Rooting Ourselves in Nature’s Wisdom

I grew up in the bustling city of Chicago, my imagination fueled by the idyllic farm scenes in my favorite book, Charlotte’s Web. My childlike vision saw the farm as a harmonious place where everything we needed – our bread, fruits, vegetables, and cheese – was grown, with the animals gathered in the barnyard, each solving the other’s problems. The farm was a happy place, a sanctuary of wisdom, fun, and growth.

Little did I know that the reality of modern industrial agriculture would be so far removed from that pastoral fantasy. As I’ve learned firsthand since moving to a small farm of my own, the way most of us now pursue agriculture has become a key driver of the converging crises we face. We urgently need to ask ourselves: What happened? What was a farm, and what could it – and should it – be to grow our food in an increasingly uncertain future?

Reclaiming the Alchemy of Farming

Farming has become a euphemism, a delicate term for something offensive and unpleasant – “industrial agriculture.” I’ve seen farmers chop up the living earth, leveling it so that nothing remains alive above or below the surface of the soil. They inject seeds, spray a vast array of synthetic chemicals, and harvest all from high up on mammoth machines, breaking the land to fit a limited number of lucrative monocrops.

I imagine these men on tractors never pick up the soil with their bare hands to feel it, smell it, taste it. A monoculture is static, with no diversity – and therein lies the problem. A monoculture dies if it is not constantly supported, any connection to the natural world and the physical earth severed.

But when we allow trees, hedgerows, and animals to return to the land, and encourage small, diversified farms that feed their local communities, we can rebuild our ecosystems and create a more resilient food supply. The small, sustainable farm blurs the edges between the surrounding land and crops, becoming a place of alchemy and wellness – the polar opposite of industrial agriculture.

Embracing the Wisdom of Weeds

When I first began cultivating plants in a city front yard, I had no intention of growing food – I just wanted a small bit of enchantment and tranquility to come home to after work. A friend suggested native plants suited to the local soil and climate, and they maintained themselves and multiplied without much attention from me. I added a few favorite vegetable and herb seedlings, and that first garden gave me a little food to feed my family.

But the real magic began when the “weeds” – the wild plants that the uninformed call pests – moved in uninvited. Some were indigenous, like Joe-Pye weed and jewelweed. Others had been naturalized for centuries, like purslane and chickweed. And a few, like calendula, had simply hitched a ride with the nursery-bought plants.

These uninvited guests found their way into the growing community and were welcomed as food and medicine. The plant diversity gave a natural beauty to the garden and seemed to increase the resilience of the already-established plants. I had heard that the weeds would suck up all the surface water, starving the intentional plants. But in reality, they helped hold moisture in the soil, contributing to the nutrient exchange with the other plants.

Invasive wild plants are opportunistic, moving into unoccupied, disturbed soil. But by using cover crops and not tilling the soil, these “weeds” are not a problem – in fact, I want them. They tell me everything I need to know about the health of my soil. After all, how can the gardening columns or seed catalogs know anything about the particular land on which I live, or factor in the resilience we need with climate upheaval?

Cultivating Ecosystems, Not Monocultures

Mother Nature is not interested in monocultures. She cultivates in ecosystems, where most plants live in cooperative communities of canopy and understory, in complex partnerships with the soil biota and local animals. In the forest, the canopy is the upper level of mature trees and vines, but in a pasture, it’s the tall, dominant field grasses. Below the canopy is the understory, a complex mix of woody and herbaceous plants and ground covers, all living together and connected through the soil.

These are self-sustaining systems, requiring no irrigation, pruning, or seeding. And yet, as I look out at the forest surrounding our community, it appears greener and more robust on a scorching July day than most of the surrounding farms. It’s simpler and less work to grow food within a thriving local ecosystem, involving the purchase of little or no machinery. But there’s a caveat: every ecosystem is defined by its unique physical environment, organisms, and climate, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Observing and Responding to a Changing Landscape

Though I’ve borrowed ideas from everywhere – biodynamics, permaculture, regenerative agriculture, and wild farming – my best teachers have been my neighbors, the people who have lived on the land and know the animals, plants, and weather. Those who listen to the wind and watch the sky, rather than the weather report, know exactly how the climate is changing and how rapidly.

Farming requires being observant – of what’s already on the land, learning what was there before, which plants are arriving, and which ones are struggling. Because with or without climate change, the local ecology is always changing. Ecosystems are about complex relationships and energy flow, always evolving, even with natural disturbances.

My gardens and fields evolve more now than being planned. I toss out a lot of seeds and ideas, and what survives is suited to the region, the soil, the climate, and the already-existing plant community. A friend gave me stinging nettle roots when I first moved here and suggested a spot for planting, adding, “But after they seed themselves, let them decide where they wish to be.” That’s largely what I’ve done.

As our climate grows more chaotic, I pay attention to which plants reseed more aggressively, which return earlier or later, or are heavily laden with fruit. I do check and control virulent pathogens and a few aggressive insects, but it’s minimal. The more integrated the plants are, the more they find their own balance and the more resistant they become. Many naturally repel one another’s pests, unlike in a monoculture where a pathogen can hold an entire field captive.

Restoring the Fabric of Life

In rebuilding the damaged parts of the land, the plants and animals do much of the heavy lifting. I began cultivating where there were already trees – old trees. If there had been none, I would have planted aggressively-growing trees. Where there is a solitary tree, I encourage more, using fruit and nut trees as well as resilient local evergreen shrubs to transition from the woodlands to berry bushes, brambles, vegetables, and herbs.

The trees provide windbreaks, protect from fierce summer hail storms, and filter the hot afternoon sun from the more fragile summer greens. And within the vegetable beds, the deciduous trees allow the winter garden full sun. After six years, many of the vegetables and salad greens could be considered perennial, as they now reseed themselves.

On the heavily eroded areas and overgrazed fields, our first consideration was rebuilding and fortifying the soil. We needed trees to anchor the soil, control erosion, regulate moisture, and provide food sources and habitat. It takes decades to grow an oak into a meaningful carbon sink, but just a few years to establish a robust fruit tree.

I looked for rapidly growing trees that could handle the new, much hotter summers and heavier spring rainfall in my region – trees originally from warmer climates, like the Jordan fig, Central Asian pomegranate, and Chinese mulberry. And below the canopy, I planted fruit-bearing shrubs mixed with wild shrubs and ornamentals, with vegetables, greens, and herbs as the ground cover.

The Joy of Living in an Evolving Ecosystem

Once the fruit trees were planted, I needed the soil covered. I sowed local greens, hardy chicories, wild arugula, and ground cover herbs like oregano and parsley, leaving some to go to seed at the end of the season. In the late fall, I planted cuttings from our hedgerows – berry bushes and brambles – directly into the perennial cover crop. And in the spring, I added the seasonal vegetable seedlings.

That first productive garden, really a collection of small ecosystems, was organized on the south side of the existing trees. Most are deciduous, allowing the late fall, winter, and early spring gardens to bask in full sun. And I had a happy accident starting out: because I had little soil on a rocky substrate, I let the summer annuals decompose in place, and the seeds from the tomatoes, squash, melons, and potatoes came up the following spring, each thriving where the conditions suited them best.

Without monoculture farming, there’s no need for crop rotation. And this past week, when we had torrential rains, flooding, and the worst hail storm the local farmers can remember, the only damage was minimal – a few ripped leaves on the cucumber and zucchini plants. The taller trees took the brunt of the storm, shielding everything below and to the immediate south, breaking the fall of the plummeting hail. And after the storm, there was no standing water, though the open plains around us were all flooded. The trees regulate the water, sucking it up in their extensive root systems during deluges and dispersing it as needed during droughts.

Finding Joy in the Natural Rhythms

I could not farm without animals. Actually, I could not live without my two enormous Labrador retrievers, even in a one-bedroom, third-floor walk-up in New York City. On our overgrazed, nutrient-deficient land, a small herd of hooved animals was essential. After years of having goats, we now have a breeding herd of endangered donkeys, eating through the dominant invasive grasses and allowing the field ecosystem to come back into balance, their manure building fertility into the depleted soil.

When we first moved in and had planted nothing, we let the poultry go wherever they wished. The ducks fertilized the entire area between the house and the woodlands, the soil that now supports our two major vegetable gardens. The following year, we dumped the year’s supply of manure-laden ruminant bedding directly on the ground, over whatever the ducks left behind – that was the sum total of our soil in which we planted our crops.

I dig potatoes and feel the earth with my bare hands. Sometimes when I’m harvesting, I find myself rooted to the spot, the hyphae emerging from the bottom of my feet joining the rest of the mycelia and the plant roots in the soil around me. It’s hard to go inside even at dark; I’m with my kin. Beyond my belief that small-scale farms can feed the world better than industrial agriculture, I love my job. I don’t get it when friends ask about all the hard work – I’m not driving a petrol-guzzling tractor all day in the hot sun, nor am I exhausted from pushing a plow or weeding a field.

Embracing the Abundance of Ecosystems

From my vantage point, sitting in the chicken yard eating just-harvested mulberries with blue-stained fingers, farming within an ecosystem can be joyful and meaningful, life-affirming. It should be an integral part of how we feed the world and revitalize our degraded land. Though the rapidly escalating crises can seem overwhelming, we have choices, and there is always something we can do.

The care and creativity regenerative growers showcase yield benefits on and off the land. They grow food and fiber, draw down carbon, conserve water, replenish waterways, grow healthier foods, reduce their use of synthetic inputs, employ people within their communities, and ensure the long-term vitality of the land. As I look out at the forest surrounding our community, it appears greener and more robust than most of the surrounding farms – a testament to the power of working in harmony with nature.

If you’re inspired to join the regenerative agriculture movement, whether as a farmer, gardener, or consumer, I encourage you to visit Thornapple CSA to learn more about our community-supported agriculture service and how you can get involved. Together, we can write new chapters of resilience and sustainability in our farmyard fables.

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