A Vocabulary of the Farm

For the last several weeks I’ve been writing about the Thomas Merton poem from which we get the name the Serene Disciple Project, but after last week’s newsletter, I received some very good questions about what we do here on the farm and decided to take a break and answer them. While I have previously answered the question, “why do we have a farm?” I have not talked much about “how” we do what we do on the farm. What do we mean by sustainable agriculture? What are “organic methods”? What are heritage breeds and why do we want to raise and sell them? What do we mean by biodiversity and why does it matter? How does all this “farm stuff” fit into your vision for Serene Disciple Project?

All great questions, but let me provide some context first. I wrote in a previous blog that what is now Egret Isle Farm was open, tall-grass prairie roamed by buffalo for thousands of years before being settled. After that it was part of a huge cattle lease of tens of thousands of acres called Robbins Prairie, but the area was still largely empty of people. Settlement came later here than further south due to the heavy black clay soil which is organically rich but difficult to work. John Deere’s new plough changed all of that in the last half of the 1800s. Shortly before the turn of the last century, Scandinavian and German settlers began to build homesteads, including Neils Nelson who bought the land I live on, and began to make a life along with his new neighbors. Nelson and his neighbors farmed the land quite differently than how most land is farmed today. Farms were much smaller in terms of acreage and much more diverse in terms of the animal and plant life the farms hosted. There were, in those days, dozens of different varieties of cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, and turkeys, as well as a wide variety of crops and vegetables grown. Along with the livestock and poultry, everyone had big gardens and produced most of the food eaten by the family on their modest farms. Very little was wasted and farms were, for the most part, not dependent on outside resources to continue because few outside resources were available. The population density of the country side was higher than today and there were many more small towns with their schools, churches, blacksmiths, drygood stores, and cotton gins.

Over the course of the twentieth century, all of that changed in a series of farm crises in the 30s, 50s, and 70s. Small farms failed and were absorbed by neighbors. Population density decreased as average farm size increased. The little towns disappeared and the regional centers like Taylor and Elgin shrank as more and more of their downtown shops were boarded up. At the same time industrialized farming grew to replace more traditional methods. This led to a drastic narrowing of livestock species to a relative few, all bred for mass production on large farms, while fields became vast monocrops dependant on the industrial application of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. The whole enterprise came to rely on the constant availability of outside resources.

But in the twenty first century, things have begun to swing back in the other direction. Farmable areas within commuting distance from large urban centers are rapidly reverting to pre-twentieth century population conditions. Large farms are being sold and broken up into smaller tracts, population density is increasing, small town business districts are coming back to life and people are, once again, putting together small scale farms to supplement their incomes or to raise more of their own food in a bid for greater health. That, along with the rise of consumer supported agriculture (CSA) organizations, farmers markets, and the farm to table movement, has created a new market for meat and produce raised and grown on small acreages like Egret Isle Farm. It is a new day for the small farm in some parts of America—a “new” day that looks suspiciously like farm life of a century ago or more. And now I am ready to answer those questions.

What do we mean by “sustainable agriculture”?

Sustainability means farming in such a way that it can be sustained over the long term with as few resources as possible needing to be brought in from outside. For instance, a pasture management program that uses selective grazing and mowing practices to keep the pasture healthy without the use of outside agricultural chemicals is sustainable, while hauling in fertilizer and spray herbicides to keep pastures in good condition for grazing is unsustainable because it cannot be sustained with farm resources. This sort of sustainability is not new. It’s what everyone did around here in the days when farms were small, industrial agriculture didn’t exist, and there was no other choice.

What are organic methods?

While we are not certified organic and do not intend to pursue certification, we deal with weeds and pests in non-chemical ways, make use of composted materials for fertilizer, and and allow our animals to graze or forage rather than being completely dependant on purchased feed products. Since we keep our numbers of animals low and give them lots of room to roam, we do not have to treat them with veterinary drugs and we do not give them hormones to speed their growth.

What are heritage breeds?

As I explained before, with agricultural industrialization came a drastic reduction in the number of domesticated livestock breeds as large farm operations bred for qualities that maximized production in contained environments. For example, that giant breasted turkey you have probably enjoyed at some Thanksgiving was selectively bred to have such a large breast that the birds have to be artificially inseminated because they cannot breed naturally. You have probably seen images of cavernous buildings packed full of thousands of identical chickens, turkeys, or cows.

Heritage breeds are all of those dozens of livestock breeds that were left behind in the industrialization process because they were not well suited for those mass production warehouses.  These breeds would including Narragansett, Bronze, and Spanish turkeys; Kerry, Red Polled, Guernsey, and Dexter cattle; and Gloucestershire Old Spot, Tamworth, and Red Wattle pigs. These breeds are, however, better suited for small farms because, in the numbers generally found on small farms, they are healthier, better at foraging on their own, and are generally scrappier and more independent than their industrial counterparts.

What is biodiversity, or genetic diversity, and why is it important?

My father-in-law passed away in December, but he spent the last few months of his life living with us. Poppy, as we called him, was a Marine who received the Silver Star for meritorious conduct in battle and spent his early childhood years riding horses and working cattle in east Texas. He was definitely not a hippy or a hipster. And no one could mistake him for a Whole Foods, crunchy person. Yet, as we drove the country roads around our place, he would look across the pastures around us filled large black Angus beef cattle and say sadly, “You know, I’ve heard that in another fifty years, there won’t be anything but black cows.” While he may not have studied biodiversity, he understood losing the variety of breeds he grew up with would be sad thing.

God’s abundant creativity as reflected in nature favors variety and diversity. Beyond the beauty and wonder of it, the less diverse a population of anything—from goats to strawberries to people—the more susceptible it is to disease. So, biodiversity is a hedge against a single disease being able to wipe out an entire herd or field or community. Without it, we are all in greater danger. Yet, industrial agriculture favors streamlining and standardization putting our most basic need for food at risk. That’s why Kay and I are members of the Livestock Conservancy and are committed to working for the restoration of heritage breeds by breeding to increase the numbers of these animals and by creating a market for their meat. We currently raise Red Wattle pigs, various heritage breed turkeys, and hope to begin raising Dexter cattle soon. Here is a great video with more information about Livestock Conservancy membership.

So, what does all of this “farm stuff” have to do with the vision and mission of both the Serene Disciple Project and Egret Isle Farm? All of these fancy terms and what they mean are really just ways of describing what it means to live at peace and in harmony with creation, to live in partnership with the land, the other plant and animal life we share the land with, and the “hovering” Spirit of God who created it all.