August 17, 2010
To me, there is no job more important than producing healthy food in a sustainable way. Admittedly I’m a newbie to this particular topic, but I feel my passion growing with every bit of new information I find. Can there be anything more beautiful than mimicking nature to produce an abundance of healthy food? Sustainable farming methods are gaining huge traction based on their fantastic results.
It is estimated that about 80% of our food comes from industrial single-crop farming and feed-lot livestock, all of which is factory processed to our plate. This method is an efficient assembly line however it is utterly dependent on fossil fuels, has been proven to spawn disease, thoroughly kills any organic life in the soil, and grossly pollutes any waterway that it touches. Is this is how we expect to feed our growing population forever – efficiency over quality, biotech over nature, oil over organic, and rampant pollution?
Wonderful books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and corresponding movies like Food Inc and The World According to Monsanto, are making a huge impact on the public. Conscious customers are driving demand higher for organic and local foods. Therefore, more farmers are now adopting sustainable methods because they have proven to produce better products.
- A d v e r t i s e m e n t
Two farming methods have really taken root and are beginning to flourish without the need for pesticides, fertilizers, or large amounts of fossil fuel. It is telling that both methods mimic nature to control pests and produce abundance. In other words, these methods work with nature rather than fight it with chemical additives and antibiotics.
The first method of rotational pastured livestock, or more simply – grass farming, has been popularized by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms (featured in Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Inc). Polyface focuses on healthy pastures and soil to raise the highest quality cattle, chicken, eggs, turkeys, rabbits, and pigs. It all starts with the grass which Salatin calls a grand “salad bar”.
Polyface’s method is a beautiful stage show of nature at work. First, the cattle are grazed in a specific area of the bountiful pasture where they eat the fresh salad bar and dung the field.
The herd is moved almost daily to new thick pastures. Following nature’s example, they then bring the poultry birds behind the cattle to eat the dropped grains, scratch the cow dung for bugs (which keeps pests to a minimum), all while their dung adds significant nitrogen to feed the grass. Salatin’s philosophy is to let the animals be what they were born to be, and to use their natural behavior to limit the work on the farm. For instance, they have developed a composting method where the pigs, through their tenacious rooting, turn the compost for the farm. Every action has a purpose and nothing is wasted.
It’s so simple it should be obvious – that following nature to create healthy pastures for happy animals will make for a much higher quality product than factory farming methods. And because there is less labor, machinery, and chemicals involved, Salatin says they can make a nice living. He claims single-crop growers with oil intensive practices make about $500/acre, while he says his pastures produce roughly $5000/acre. Buying clubs, local chefs, and retail shops all rave about Polyface’s premium quality, and their food purity tests off-the-charts, especially compared to factory farm chickens that have been filled with antibiotics and washed in bleach. I would say there is sufficient motivation for farmers to take notes – and they are.
The second method is permaculture gardening, which is an interdependent system where a large variety of complimentary plants are strategically located for the benefit of the entire garden. This design system is brilliant for urban micro-farms, kitchen gardens, self-sufficient homesteads, and even large scale family farming. The philosophy of permaculture gardening is to recreate nature in a profound way to produce chemical-free food.
Permaculture works something like this; you design an entire edible habitat based on the natural capital of your setting. Then, place plants to methodically balance the soil, water, and pests. For instance, a nitrogen fixing plant may be planted next to a nitrogen hungry plant, which may sit next to an ornamental that deters predators, and so on. Permaculture is also a closed circle philosophy where all resources are optimized though conservation and recycling. The immense food yields per acre are astonishing when using permaculture methods and the results are also drawing many newcomers.
Many homesteaders have utilized these techniques for years before Bill Mollison coined the term “permaculture”in the 80s. However since then, the definition of permaculture has grown to encompass sustainable design systems for all aspects of our existence – agriculture, water, housing, business, community, and wellness.
Now that conventional agriculture methods that depend on cheap infinite oil are proving to be unsustainable at best, permaculture’s popularity is exploding. Numerous businesses, institutes, courses, and internships are popping up to spread nature’s gospel.
Learning about these methods has given me new-found optimism about living in a sustainable way as humanity progresses. These techniques can truly provide a future of what has been previously called an oxymoron – Sustainable Abundance.