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Achieving Food Independence

Table of Contents

1: Industrial Food and the Homestead Alternatives2: Soil Fertility3: Organic Matter4: Minimizing Tillage5: Garden Year--Spring6: Garden Year--Summer7: Garden Year--Fall8: Garden Year--Winter9: Orchard and Woodlot10: Forest Garden11: The Lawn12: Livestock13: Poultry14: Ruminants15: Closing Thoughts on Livestock16: Local Foods17: Bringing It All Together


17. Bringing It All Together

The key to efficient and sustainable food production on the homestead is establishing integrated patterns, bringing into play synergies not available as long as we treat the homestead as a collection of disparate, atomistic parts. The traditional homestead was characterized by diversity and integration of its parts. Monoculture, putting all the eggs in one basket, was alien to the organization of the traditional homestead and small farm. There is nothing particularly mysterious about the goal—we are simply trying to maintain the complex, diverse, interwoven, inderdependent web of life in the homestead as elsewhere in the natural world. Remember that if we rip particular strands out of that web, we inherit their work.

An example is the production of orchard fruit and chickens. In the traditional homestead, the poultry flock free-ranged, meaning they ate insects which could damage the orchard, as well as dropped fruit which otherwise could be a vector for disease. At the same time, the poops from the poultry were “digested” by the orchard ground cover and their fertility made available to the orchard trees. The orchard was more disease and insect free. The birds were healthier, and better (and more cheaply!) fed without additional inputs from the homesteader. Contrast current practices, in which the flock and the orchard have been separated. Multiple toxic sprays in the orchard to prevent insects and disease are both necessary and routine, as is annual fertilization with chemical fertilizers inimical to soil life. At the same time, our laying and broiler chickens are crowded in huge numbers into buildings requiring enormous inputs of energy for heating, cooling, and ventilation. Antibiotics are included with feed from hatch to slaughter in order to prop up highly stressed populations otherwise in danger of immediate collapse. Feed which is the opposite of the live food a natural flock would forage for themselves has to be trucked in from distant sources. And what to do with all those poops?! Even in the best of circumstances they are an ongoing source of pollution of groundwater, rivers, and bays. Even when used as fertilizer, the surrounding farms can only use so much before accumulating unhealthy levels of nutrients like phosphorus, and the manure has to be trucked greater and greater distances to be spread on crop land. And we haven’t even begun to talk of arsenic in the feed and its residues, the release of antibiotics via the droppings into the environment, pesticide residues in fruits, etc. Indeed, we have made most peculiar choices here in trying to take over the work of natural systems—and we’re doing a pretty sorry job of it.

Your own homestead is an opportunity to heal the many breaches, to take up the work of nurturing wholeness, striving for balance, closing natural cycles. Each homesteader will find his own ways of doing so, but here are a few illustrative examples.

I’ve mentioned that I now use a good-size vermicomposting operation in lieu of classic compost making. In addition to the abundant worm castings for garden fertility, however, I also anticipate being able to make regular “harvests” of worms from the bins to feed my poultry, boosting their access to live food of a quality I cannot purchase, and helping make my homestead more independent of outside inputs.

I use chicken flocks to till in cover crops or take off a weed cover in preparation for planting, even for tilling in an established sod—a laborious job if I do it, even with a power tiller—when developing new garden ground. I simply place a pasture shelter and a water supply on the area, surround it with an electric net fence, and leave the birds in place until their chore is done. Not only do I get the work done without heavy labor, the birds are gathering a good deal of nutrient-dense nutrition on their own. I have found as well that the birds help “sanitize” the area for weed seeds and slugs, and I am less troubled with both throughout the entire season. At the same time, of course, they are boosting the populations of soil microbes with their droppings, leading to gains in fertility.

In my area, squash bugs are one of the most difficult insect competitors of all to control. But I have found a solution both 100 percent effective and 100 percent organic—guinea power! I plant my winter squashes and monitor daily as they grow and start to vine. At about the time of the first flowers, I see the first squash bug. I set up an electronet around the squash patch, put in a few guineas (only a few are needed, maybe a trio, no more than five)—and that first squash bug I saw turns out to be the last.

I know a successful small farmer—Joel Salatin, who led the way re-introducing farm-size poultry flocks to pasture in this country—whose success has been greatly dependent on finding the sorts of synergies I’m talking about. In the huge loafing shed for his over-winter herd of breeder cows, the cows eat hay (only—he feeds no grains) all winter as the poops and spilled hay accumulate in a manure pack four feet thick. A great fertility source, but inhibited from proper decomposition by anaerobic conditions in the pack, until aerated by a tractor equipped with a frontend loader and— But wait! Joel is a bit smarter than that: Throughout the winter, from time to time he scatters whole kernel corn over the accumulating pack. In early spring, when it’s time to spread compost onto the fields, he turns in his “pigaerators.” You should see those 200-pound pigs going after the fermented corn buried in the pack—a feeding frenzy which turns and aerates every cubic foot. Labor-saving bacon—that’s what I call using your head.

Another strategy on the Salatin place is following pastured beef cattle with laying hens. All of us who have been on cow pastures have seen the lush, intensely green clumps of grass around cowpies, in contrast to the shorter, paler surrounding sward. Those clumps are the result of what Joel calls the “repugnance zone” the cattle allow around their own manure. That is, they have the instinctual wisdom to know that the manure is a potential vector for pathogens, and avoid it. In Joel’s system, the cattle graze sections of the pasture intensively, controlled by single-strand electric fence, and are followed by a large flock of laying hens centered on the Eggmobile, a mobile henhouse which is moved by tractor. The chooks scratch apart the cowpies for the fly maggots growing in them—a significant protein boost for them—in the process scattering the poops over a wider area, dispersing their fertility to the entire sward, as well as exposing any pathogens to sunlight and air, nature’s antibiotics. Both species benefit from the services of the other, and the farmer realizes higher production for less labor.

Becoming Native to Your Place

I opened this article by pointing out some of the failings of our contemporary food system, some of the reasons that might encourage us to strive to become more self-sufficient for our food needs. But my own reasons for embracing the homestead life are not primarily negative, and I assume that will be true for you as well, if you try to shape your little piece of Eden into a more bountiful source of food for you and your family. It has been observed that “you are what you eat,” but I’m increasingly certain as well that “you are where you eat.” If you work with your piece of ground with a reverent and nurturing and grateful mind, you will become more attuned to the spirit of your homestead and its place in the world. In the words of Wes Jackson, you will become more “native to your place.” Good luck!