We spent yesterday at a small farm conference in a nearby town. We learned a few things, picked up some good ideas and were able to spend some enjoyable time talking with some folks who are on this journey with us, and who share our values.
We attended one session, however, that had no relevance to what we do here. The session was titled “Soil Nutrient Management,” but it turned out to be about when and how to apply nitrogen to an industrial corn crop. Obviously we have no reason to learn how to apply anhydrous ammonia, ammonium nitrate, ammonium sulfate, urea and ammoniated phosphates to crops of field corn, inedible by humans and intended to be fed to ruminants. None of that stuff will ever be on this farm.
It seems to me that there is a sensible and sustainable way to operate a farm. Done right, it’s a beautiful thing. I can’t claim we do it perfectly, of course, but we try our best.
We see our farm as a living organism, of which we are a part. Sunlight and water grow the grass, the grass feeds the livestock, the livestock produces the manure, the manure fertilizes the gardens, and the gardens provide our food. We exchange some of our surplus for the things we need but are unable to produce here. Ideally we take no more from the farm than we need, and we pay for it with our labor, with which we tend the soil and animals.
We treat the soil gently and with respect. We use no herbicides, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. To maintain fertility we rotate crops and we grow cover crops. We aim to allow the soil to maintain a proper balance of nutrients and we aim for it to always be alive with microorganisms. We intend to leave it better than we found it.
We fertilize our gardens with the litter from our chicken coops, with castings from our worm bin, and with compost we make on the farm from the animal bedding from the barn stalls, horse manure, leaves, spoiled hay and our kitchen scraps. We use no off-farm inputs.
We provide food, shelter, protection, medical care and a happy stress-free life to the animals we raise. They, in turn, contribute to the farm’s well-being and sustainability, by providing us with eggs and meat. We do our best to protect our livestock and gardens from wildlife, but despite our efforts the wildlife takes a share. We, in turn, take a deer or two, and fish from our pond, to help nourish and sustain us.
Treated this way, the land will sustain the creatures living here (human and nonhuman) forever. Nature provides enough for humans to live and thrive, in harmony with the plants and nonhuman animals, as long as we don’t take more than our fair share. That makes good sense.
But raping the land, stripping it of its nutrients, pouring poison onto it, allowing it to erode, depleting and degrading it; that makes no sense. Treating farm animals cruelly and unnaturally, denying them their proper place in the life of the land; that makes no sense. When humans treat land and animals that way, they destroy the natural balance. They take more than nature allows them. It is not sustainable.
Although there was nothing in that “soil nutrient management” session that will ever be a part of the way we farm, it was good to be reminded of why we farm the way we do.