Thursday, August 30, 2012

Symbiosis and Diversity

sym-bi-o-sis [sim-bee-oh-sis] - noun: 4. any interdependent or mutually beneficial relationship between two persons, groups, etc.

di-ver-si-ty [dih-vur-si-tee] - noun: 2. variety; multiformity.

We have the good fortune at the moment to be working with two other farmers in a mutually beneficial (symbiotic!) arrangement.  We're providing sheep, fencing and grazing management in exchange for green grass (which is in short supply at this time of year).  We're also adding diversity to these operations.
Our ewes are managing weeds at Elster Ranch.

At Elster Ranch (between Grass Valley and Auburn), we're trading access to irrigated pasture (to finish our grass-fed lambs) for weed control services (as I described in my last post).  This morning, I moved the ewes out of a paddock where they had been grazing brush and blackberries.  The new paddock incorporates several electric fencelines, a drainage ditch and a ranch road.  Normally, the folks at Elster Ranch would have to spray or mow the weeds in these areas - tall weeds short out the electric fence, and roadsides and ditches can provide a place for invasive plants to gain a foothold (and ultimately move into irrigated pastures).  Our sheep are providing a chemical-free option for maintaining the ranch infrastructure - saving money for the ranch!

Lambs on green grass between blocks at Amber Oaks.
We're also grazing ewe lambs and feeder lambs at Amber Oaks Berry Farm here in Auburn.  In this case, we're grazing under chestnut trees, between blocks of vegetables and berries, and within blocks that are being converted to a different crop.  This autumn, we'll graze the ewes on crop aftermath. Again, the sheep are providing a service - they are managing vegetation that would otherwise require mowing.  Amber Oaks saves fuel and labor, while we get access to green grass.

The addition of sheep to both operations has allowed George Nolte (at Elster Ranch) and Tim Boughton (at Amber Oaks) to diversify their operations.  Sheep give George the flexibility to manage areas of the ranch that are difficult to graze with cattle.  From our perspective, the lack of sheep at Elster Ranch on a year-round basis means that we're dealing with far fewer opportunities for our animals to get internal parasites.  Cattle are a dead-end host for sheep parasites (and vice versa).  At Amber Oaks, the addition of a ruminant animal allows the farm to convert a problem (weeds) into a product (meat and wool).

I have generally viewed agricultural diversification has a technique for adding revenue and reducing risk.  Diversification can add revenue by giving the farm another product to sell.  Risk reduction is related to this additional income stream.  In theory, more products means less risk from low prices or crop failures.  This approach to diversity assumes that one farm (and one farmer) is doing all of the diversification.
Grass-finishing our lambs at Elster Ranch.

The chestnut orchard at Amber Oaks also provides
grass for our lambs!

The challenge to this approach, at least for me, is that small farmers rarely have enough time to do everything!  When we started farming commercially, we grew vegetables, raised chickens for meat and eggs, raised sheep for meat and wool, provided targeted grazing services with sheep and goats, and cut firewood. At our scale, I couldn't afford to hire others to help with these enterprises, which meant I needed to do everything.  These issues of scale and labor necessarily meant that each enterprise remained very small - too small to make sense economically.  As our farm evolved, we eventually eliminated many of these enterprises and focused on those activities that were big enough to be profitable (and that we enjoyed doing).

Our experience over these last several weeks suggests another approach to diversification.  By developing these mutually beneficial relationships, we've diversified our forage base while Elster Ranch and Amber Oaks have diversified the suite of products they produce.  As we reorganize our business, these symbiotic relationships will become increasingly important, I think.  We may also find ways to diversify our product mix by involving other farmers.  Diversity and symbiosis, then, are products of a vibrant farming community.

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