Friday, March 30, 2012

A Matter of Perspective

We're working with some homeowners near Auburn to try to control yellow starthistle using sheep.  As part of this experiment, the homeowners are also spraying some of the starthistle patches.  Several weeks ago, I heard second hand that the man who is applying the herbicide told the homeowners that grazing wouldn't work.  I didn't feel too bad - I feel the same way about the long-term effectiveness of spraying!

His comment, however, made me think about the difference in perspectives that would lead one to favor grazing over herbicides (or vice versa).  I'm not necessarily opposed to using herbicides as a tool (if they can be used safely).  To me, though, herbicides are often used to treat a symptom rather than a disease.  Let me explain.

Yellow starthistle is often a symptom of larger land management issues. Infestations seem to occur where there's been soil disturbance, un-managed grazing, or other problems.  Starthistle, with it's deep tap-root, can often out-compete other rangeland plants for moisture - it's especially adept at using late season moisture.

By my observation, chemical applications will kill starthistle, reducing seed production and ultimately reducing the viability of a population of yellow starthistle.  However, I've also observed that starthistle is typically replaced by equally undesirable invasive weeds when spraying is used.  In our region, medusahead barley, another invasive from Eurasia, seems to be well-suited to take over once starthistle is sprayed.

By contrast, the type of grazing management that we practice is designed to address the underlying health of the soil.  By managing the timing, duration and intensity of our grazing, we hope to cycle nutrients through the soil (including carbon).  We also hope to create a micro-environment that favors the growth of more desirable plants (usually a mix of native grasses and beneficial introduced annual grasses).  With the project I've described above, we started by putting the sheep through stands of last year's starthistle carcasses.  The ewes ate last year's seeds (reducing the seedbank for this year's crop) and trampled the dead stalks.  This trampling puts a substantial amount of carbon in contact with the soil, where bacteria and other soil organisms can break it down into accessible soil nutrients.  As the current year's growth begins, we make a second pass - grazing the germinated plants will stress them enough to reduce seed production.  When the plants begin to bolt (usually in May), we'll make one final pass.

We all enjoy instant gratification - spray a plant this week, and it will start to die immediately.  A systems approach (like grazing) takes longer - our soils didn't become unhealthy overnight, so grazing can't fix the problem overnight, either.

Here's a video of us using herd effect to trample last year's starthistle.  

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Plow to the End of the Row

Perseverance and discipline are characteristic of most of the successful small farmers I know.  The work of farming requires us to work until the work is done - there's no "in basket" that can wait until tomorrow.  A job that's started must be finished.  We all must plow to the end of the row - I can't quit shearing a sheep halfway through the job.

Sometimes the perseverance and discipline that we apply to the physical work of farming doesn't extend to the business and economic work of farming.  Small farms are small businesses, and the sustainability of our farms requires us to be profitable over the long term.  Indeed, a farm that doesn't make a profit will not be able to care for the animals, natural resources and people that depend on it's proper management (at least over the long term).  Many of us farm because we've rejected the typical American embrace of material wealth, but this does not excuse us from the necessity of "knowing the numbers" - of understanding the economics of our farm businesses.

Knowing our own economics is important, obviously, to the internal workings of our farms.  We must understand which enterprises or products are profitable and which are not - and we must understand why.  Several years ago, we tried raising pastured meat chickens for market.  We discovered that our direct costs - mostly feed and processing costs - were so high that the return to our labor was less than minimum wage.  When we ran the numbers, we decided to drop this enterprise from our farm.  We decided that our time was better spent in activities that provided a greater return.

Economic knowledge is also a community responsibility.  As a part of my local farm community, I have a responsibility to my fellow farmers to understand whether my business is profitable.  If I decide that profit is not important, or if I fail to even consider the economics of my farming activities, I will likely undervalue my products.  My neighbor, who may need his or her farming income to support a family, will be negatively impacted by my own indifference to profit.

I'll admit that I'm not always disciplined in this respect.  The last thing I want to do after a long day of working in the hot sun is an hour's worth of bookkeeping.  Most of us who farm at this scale love the physical nature of our work, and the fact that we get to be outdoors all day.  I farm, in part, as a way to escape a work life lived in an office.

If we are to re-invent (or revert?) to a food system that depends on lots of small, locally-based farms, we need to support the efforts of small farmers to be business people as well as food producers.  As small farmers, we must have the perseverance and discipline to finish our work - whether it's in the field or in the office.  We must plow to the end of the row - figuratively and literally.