“The more diverse an ecosystem, the more stable it becomes” is a law of nature. From our rich, fertile soils here at Elmwood Stock Farm to the jungles along the equator, this is true. We follow this law of nature—and many others—by choosing to raise lots of crops and rear several species of mammals and birds. This is also a stabilizing force in the cash flow, a business model. The idea being if a late freeze takes out the strawberries, it drops the spring revenue a bit, but we can try to make it up elsewhere. But dang, there’s a lot to keep up with!
The diversity starts with our interpretation of what this little patch of earth offers us biologically. Capturing the solar energy in forage that ruminants graze on the hillsides, cultivating the soil with the long view in mind, just as nature does, is agriculture by definition. We put the emphasis on culture. Our forefathers knew how to read the lay of the land, to establish a stable lifestyle, while doing no harm. The fence lines, locations of houses and barns we use today, spring developments—all were decided some 200 years ago with the intent to become an integral part of the ecosystem and provide for their families. Passing the land and all she holds to the next generation was paramount in their thought process. One wouldn’t dare foul their own nest. We are caring for a farm that has been well-tended for generations.
So to harvest all the potential and sell it for money while doing no harm means there is always something to do. This is not a woe-is-me soliloquy; we choose this life and wouldn’t have it any other way. Such intimate relations with the wonders of nature can be had no other way. But dang, there’s a lot to keep up with!
Keeping Up With Spring
Spring equates to planting season. Prognosticating the weather forecast is an art form. The windows of opportunity to work the soil and run the seeders or transplanters across the fields are random. If we rush to the field too soon after rain, we run the risk of clumping the wet ground or causing crusting at the surface, and both will diminish plant growth. Let the soil dry too much, and valuable moisture is lost forever. Back in early March, we had the proper soil conditions to plant peas, beets, carrots, etc. Now conditions are prime to plant all kinds of other crops because the soil has warmed.
Having the proper seeds in inventory, transplants sized up and hardened off, equipment prepped and ready—all of these actions must be choreographed to optimize the season’s potential. Little seeds need to be placed close to the surface, bigger seeds can be deeper, which affects which you can plant when. Some fields dry out sooner than others based on soil type, up-slope versus down-slope, aspect, previous cropping history and degree of tillage necessary, to name a few of the factors at play.
Transplants need to be large enough to be handled by the setter implement, with a good root ball, but not so large that the leaves will get hung up in the process. We can speed them up or slow them down with temperate and moisture management in the greenhouses, in anticipation of when we can go to the field with them. When the transplants are ready, the fields are ready and the weather is ready, at least three of us drop everything else for one to drive the tractor and two to feed the plants into the setter mounted on the back of the tractor, one at a time. Rather quickly I might add. Then when the setters get their rhythm down, the driver gradually speeds up so more will get done. (Did you catch that when we refer to a “setter,” that can be an implement or a person?)
The daily, almost hourly, shifting of priorities, based on weather and soil conditions is not for the faint of heart. Weeding the strawberries can be done when it’s too wet for field work, but it’s not so great in the rain. Fencing, picking up fallen limbs, or cutting up whole trees from winter’s wrath can be done when it’s too wet for anything else. There is always a list of rainy-day work and office responsibilities to fill any voids in the days or weeks. Farmers markets go on, rain or shine. When our Summer CSA starts in early May, that will take place reliably, every week through September. (Are you signed up yet? We want you on board!)
Our livestock not only add diversity to the products we market and generate income from the forage maintained on the hilly ground, but they are much less weather dependent. We try not to do chores in the rain, but if it is rainy, we have to suit up, because the animals really don’t care if it’s raining. Lambs started coming last week, turkey eggs are going into the incubators, new pullets (young laying hens) are on the way, calves are to be weaned soon—all of this work now will set in motion daily chores that are more manageable when the field work really ramps up, effectively balancing our seasonal labor demands. Diversity equals stability. But dang, there’s a lot to keep up with!
Some farmers choose to grow just grain, for example, for the commodity markets. Their business- and land-risk exposure is greater if they are not fully ready to plant at the right time, don’t have the equipment to harvest large volumes in a short amount of time or experience a hail storm that devastates the crop. This is somewhat offset by readily available markets at a predictable price. The more they grow, the more they sell. To be clear, big crop farmers are not bad people for using GMO technologies and applying numerous pesticides to their crops. The cheap-food policy in this country is the driving force. Seemingly, they do have more time available for other things between tasks. I wonder what that must feel like.
Learning from Nature
We are not the deciders on our land; the laws of nature show us the way. We don’t just commune with nature, we are one organism within the thousands of others, sharing this place. Sure, we are a major player, but only in the sense that we decide how to react to stimuli. Most everything around us acts predictably in some biologically linear fashion. Our role is to guide the plants and animals through life with a sense of calm and stability. It has become more intuitive as we have experienced more combinations of influences over the years. This intimate insertion into the ecosystem we have evolved into Elmwood Stock Farm is the most rewarding feeling in the world. The results are well worth the effort. But dang, there’s a lot to keep up with! —Mac Stone