As I returned from the 2014 MOSES (Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service) Organic Farming Conference, I drove by hundreds of miles of forest, field, and rock outcroppings on Interstate 90. Although the fields were covered with snow, I could see the remnants of last year’s crops poking up. Of course it was mostly corn and some soybeans. Even though there are many other agricultural opportunities for the farmers to take advantage of, they seem to be locked in a death spiral with the corn and the soybeans. The corn they can sell or feed to their own livestock. The same is true with the soybeans. Many of the farms I passed had almost no wood lot, pasture, or natural area of any kind. The economics of modern agriculture just don’t encourage any revenue from those areas.
But at the MOSES Conference, I attended a workshop by Mark Shepard, a permaculture proponent. Permaculture is a really neat concept. It basically creates a whole-ecosystem strategy that takes advantage of what nature prefers in each section of a farm. With this strategy there is the opportunity to harvest products that would naturally grow there anyway. By choosing those products and giving them a little bit of assistance, they produce profitable quantities that are beneficial in the farmer’s economic plan.
Shepard grows chestnuts. We think of chestnuts as a winter holiday treat, but they are actually a very nutritious food, not only for humans, but for hogs as well. Shepard also has some cows. I remember seeing cows browsing on the lower branches of some of the trees in the Amish pasture next to my place in Monroe County. I had no idea that cows preferred to do this until I attended this workshop. Of course it wouldn’t be the complete diet for a cow, but twigs and leaves from a variety of plants offer a much broader spectrum of minerals, protein, and enzymes than a typical diet shoveled out of a wheelbarrow or stored in a silage bag.
The secret to permaculture is diversity. The old-fashioned way to say it is, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Shepard doesn’t put all his eggs in one basket. In addition to cows and pigs, he also grows hazelnuts, apples, asparagus, and chickens. The photographs he showed us revealed a beautiful, lush landscape, where everything seemed to have a place and everything flourished. There was no need to tear it up annually and drive a tractor over it, dumping chemicals.
I recommend you look into permaculture. There’s no way I can give it sufficient justice in this short article, because ecosystems are so complex and the practice of permaculture is discovering your system and getting out of the way of nature.
I’d also like to mention an excellent workshop entitled, “Farm Planning for Pollinators, Beneficials, and Biodiversity.” This workshop was delivered by Eric Lee-Mader, an agroecologist at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. His work is proving that a sufficient belt of natural herbs and flowers surrounding a vegetable crop can create a rich and diverse insect population that actually suppresses harmful insects so they cannot overpopulate and destroy the crop. The basic principle is that some insects eat others. If you don’t have the predator insects around, the ones who will ravage your crop have no natural enemies.
It was a tremendous conference, and thanks to the technology MOSES has arranged, you can get recordings of any of these workshops for $7 apiece from www.rhino-technologies.com or by calling 270-753-0717.