When people find out I’m starting a farm, the first question they usually ask is, “What are you going to grow?” After I’ve told them about the extensive gardens, orchards, vineyards, woodland crops, wetland crops, animals, and honey bees in the plans, most people respond with a comment along the lines of, “that sounds like a lot of work”. And yes, farming is undeniably a lot of work. But raising a wide variety of crops can actually make the small farm more efficient. By strategically designing a self-sustaining ecosystem, the farmer harvests more, wastes less, and diversifies her workload rather than increasing it. Take a look at the flow chart below, showing the complex relationships between the various crops and animals planned for Strawberry Moon.
In the system above, the farmer does a wide variety of jobs, but each task sets multiple other tasks in motion. I personally find it more enjoyable to spend small amounts of time doing many different things than to spend a large amount of time doing one thing. Additionally, many of the least desirable jobs can be delegated. For example, look at how the chickens fit into the farm ecosystem. The farmer does spend time and money buying food for the chickens, caring for them, and building a safe shelter for them. However, in return, the chickens will prepare new garden beds, provide fertilizer for the crops, control insect pests, clean up and “compost” damaged fruits and vegetables, and as if that wasn’t enough, they also reward the farmer with eggs and feathers! And if you are someone who eats chicken meat, then that can be another benefit as well. Even if the chickens did not provide eggs, they would still be valued partners on the farm. Now, take a look at the chart below. This shows a less complex system with fewer elements, but notice the additional tasks that now fall to the farmer.
In the first chart, the farmer was responsible for 13 tasks, but some of them were one-time jobs such as building shelters for the animals. In the second chart, the farmer is responsible for 13 very significant, ongoing tasks. Yet, the farmer no longer receives wool, milk, honey, wax, eggs, or feathers. The farmer is not purchasing chicken feed, however the farmer is now purchasing fertilizer and pesticides. The farmer is not responsible for caring for the sheep, but she must now spend hours per week mowing grass. By omitting the farm animals, the farmer must do the animals’ work*.
This method of designing an interdependent, self-sustaining farm ecosystem is called permaculture. The concepts of permaculture are based in nature and in traditional family homesteads. If your great-grandparents farmed, they may have used some of these techniques. Permaculture farming is less common in modern times, perhaps because modern farming is usually done on a very large scale in which machines are necessary to keep up with the work. It would be very expensive to maintain factory grade equipment for so many different crops and animals. However, on a small ten acre farm such as Strawberry Moon, where we do our work with hand tools anyway, this is a compelling farming system to consider. In addition to optimizing the rewards for the farmer’s labor and purchases, this farming style is incredibly earth-friendly and sustainable. How would you rather spend your Saturday afternoon: watching some fluffy little sheep chow down on your orchard grass while you refill their water trough, or breathing in diesel fumes from your noisy lawn mower? I definitely know a few people who would prefer the mower, but for me and my farm, I choose the sheep!
* Please keep in mind, farm animals are living beings. It is a great responsibility to enter into a partnership with an animal, so first please be sure you can accommodate their needs appropriately.
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