Imagine looking at your plate and being able to name all the ingredients on it. Imagine the food that tastes great without having to add any spices or fancy sauces. Imagine it actually being good for you.
Imagine no chemical names, no plastic wrap and no barcodes. Imagine no supermarket line-ups under fluorescent lights. Imagine simple recipes that bring out nature’s bounty. Imagine being able to buy all the food you need locally.
Now let’s take this a step further. How about if you knew the person where all this food came from? If you were able to just drop by at the farm and see all the happy animals and plants being raised there? To take a walk through the forest, walk around the pond, come out at the fields.
Look at the happy cows grazing at the salad bar, pigs rooting to their hearts’ content for acorns, bugs and worms, chickens busily scratching away. You can wade through the clover meadows in the sunshine while inhaling the aroma of the herbal bouquet. Closer to the house, you can see berries ripening, vegetables and herbs nodding, perennial garden blossoming, and kids playing around or going about the farm chores.
Next step – imagine the countryside full of farms like these, where young strong people and families are working hard in the open air healing the land and really caring about their animals, their customer and their domain. Barns that are solid. Fields that grow crops other than soya and corn. Horses instead of combines. Farmers that don’t need to work in town to pay for their farm habit, no brain drain from the countryside.
You will tell me that it’s an impossible dream. You will tell me farms like these will not be able to feed the world. You will tell me that there are reasons for things being the way they are, that industrial approach is needed to provide for all our food needs.
Well, you see, it is our own cleverness that has got us to this point. Remember, there was a period when we thought baby formula was better than breast milk? That science has tremendous power and can improve on nature? That machines are more useful than people (remember Ford who was lamenting that he needs to hire the whole man when he only needed his hands).
Well, as a result of this optimistic but flawed thinking we have slowly replaced the loving, caring and knowledgeable farmer with sophisticated mechanisms that are so wonderfully efficient at cranking out huge quantities of monocultures. And now we are realizing that monoculture and segregation are not sustainable, that it drains the soil and leads to progressively lower return on investment, and that if we continue doing this, agriculture will be bankrupt.
The only answer to this is a complete turnaround, a situation in which the farmer becomes an orchestra conductor who listens attentively to his plant, animal and microorganism performers so they can play in harmony and help heal the exhausted land.
Here is what we are trying to do – we are living off the knowledge capital of a great self-certified lunatic farmer Joel Salatin who spreads his passion for land stewardship and all its attending how-to with an incredibly generous hand.
We are trying to reclaim 225 abandoned acres on Chemin de la Swamp (don’t laugh) in the poorest demographic of rural Quebec right across the road from the gorgeous Gatineau Park.
We are raising sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits, vegetables, herbs and orchard fruit in such a way that we can hold our head’s high and confidently say we are multiplying the land’s productivity and beauty.
We are still getting ready to raise our main crop – passionate young people with the knowledge of going forth and doing the same all over the countryside. It is a great mission and our deepest hope and desire.
And here is how we are going about it. At the very base of everything that the land can produce are all the nutrients (visualize them as lego pieces) that are needed to make an organism, be it a plant or an animal. Given a variable enough mix and the right amount, you can build pretty much everything out of lego pieces, right?
Now, how much can you build out of 3 pieces – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the NPK of your standard fertilizer? Not much, right? You need to borrow somebody else’s pieces so that something halfway resembling an organism can be built. And here is the problem – the pieces borrowed are not returned. The soil is not regenerating and its potential is being depleted. More and more fixes are needed to be able to garner at least something.
The nutrient cycling is quite a miraculous thing, really – decaying plants and animal manures are exactly what is feeding the soil’s microorganisms, they in turn die and give their nutrients up. The plants pick them up then harvest the energy of the Sun and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to build themselves up and feed us and the animals.
The cycle then repeats, the Sun’s energy being free for the taking. The main ingredient is the humility and respect for this cycle, not trying to override and separate it with our human cleverness.
Enough science. We put animal on pasture, but we use mob grazing, mimicking what herbivore animals do in nature. They stay close together for protection from predators. They move to new pasture every time the old one is no longer palatable. They move every couple of days. They fertilize the soil.
So we get our cows together in a paddock that is big enough to keep them comfortable, but not so small that they trample all the grass looking for the tastiest morsel. We bring water and shade to them. Then we move them to the next paddock after a day or two. They go to the new clean section of the salad bar and leave their patties behind.
They are followed by chickens. Birds are nature’s sanitizing system. Chickens are not meant to be fed in confinement. They like their fresh air, sunshine and exercise as much as the rest of us. And they love scratching for worms and parasites. It’s ice cream for them.
So they scratch the herbivores’ offerings into the ground, spreading and incorporating it for easier processing by plants and microbes, then add their share of nitrogen to the soil, just enough to be eagerly taken up by the growing grass and forages, then move on. There is always the sweet spot – just enough scratching and nitrogen to encourage the grass and destroy the parasites, but not so much as to damage and overacidify the land.
Then there are pigs. Do you know what a bush hog is? It’s like a giant lawn mower on a tractor that chews up the brush in a field. Well, the pigs are the cute four-legged bush hogs. They use their powerful snouts to root out all the weedy bushes and to turn a scrubland into beautiful pasture, fertilizing it in the process. And they love to be turning compost.
Then there are horses. True, they don’t have the front loader and the PTO, but they move gracefully, smell good and have these wonderful velvety lips, wise eyes and infinite fidelity to their master.
They are not dependent on what is happening at the Arabian peninsula, and how much a barrel of oil goes for now. They improve the forest rather than damaging it when they take the wood out. There are a lot more uses for them then trying to jump high fences.
And all these animals are the basis of fertility that helps our plants flourish. They all dance together to create the whole that is much larger then the sum of its parts, the whole that that centers around delicious healthy food and unites the happy diner with the happy farmer, happy animals and flourishing land that will stay this ways for ages to come.
The last bit is about us. My husband and I have bought this farm in 2009 following the call of our farming ancestors. The farming ancestors are long dead, and only present in our childhood memories, stories of our parents, and the powerful way they tug at our heartstrings when we see land.
Our parents grew up and spend their lives in the cities, Ben’s in Halifax and Toronto, mine in St. Petersburg, Russia. We spent our lives entirely in the city, Ben studying Math and Computer Science, and me studying medicine.
We now have six wonderful children, who are instrumental to the inspiration and success of our farm, my parents live with us, and Ben’s are not far away. Ben travels the world as internet consultant, and I work night shifts as an emerg doc.
We are learning as we go. We’ve started with the notion that we would like to live in the country, plant some berries, and have some animals so that we can provide our children with a non-virtual world of beauty, responsibility, cause and effect, and a blank canvas for their developing imaginations. We would like them to look at lizards and tadpoles, and not spend their childhood in front of a computer screen.
We knew we were not going to use any chemicals hazardous to our children’s welfare, but we were not aware of the fact that not using chemicals comes at a price. Caterpillars chew up berry bushes. Parasites invade the goats. Mice and voles girdle the seedlings. Rats steel chicken food.
If you are trying to farm without chemicals, and if you are trying to grow multiple species, you don’t have the luxury of falling into the well-developed rut of conventional or even organic production.
The only way to approach these problems is to address the whole system, observe and study the interrelation of the parts. To respect nature and find the way of rolling with the punches, using them to your advantage. To love and know the land.
To have the energy and the desire to make it productive, and to give you, our dear customer, the best food, and a safe haven to come to with your kids when the virtual world is closing tight. We haven’t implemented all the parts of the system yet. We need your help. Are you ready to help us make it happen?
Maria, Ben, Andrew, Alexander, Kathleen, Peter, Anne-Marie, John, Vladimir and Lily.