Soil and Farm Health
Soil, our farm's foundation
Modern wisdom says food production must occur on an industrial scale in order to feed the planet. We think maybe that notion of feeding the planet is where the problems with our food systems begin.
Not so long ago many small dairy farms across the country produced all the milk we needed. With the end of WWII came the need to feed millions of displaced people and rebuild devastated nations, so that new war industry and its technology was put to use in agriculture. Soon synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides so recently used against "enemies", chemicals, and machinery were being repurposed to help "feed the planet". It didn't take long before there was a food surplus and with it the idea that food, including milk, should be cheap and convenient, and that our money should be spent on stuff. Lots of stuff. And thus began the age of consume, consume, consume, an age which we're still very much in.
As with everything else, the idea that bigger was more efficient and therefore better soon became the standard for dairy, at great expense to the land, the water, the air and, especially, the animals and workers. Big farms began gobbling up the little 30 cow dairies who could no longer compete, and then those big farms either consolidated or got gobbled themselves. Soon mega dairies with thousands of cows became the norm and with them the need for massive farm equipment used to spray tons of pesticides and herbicides on their monoculture crops (usually corn), which creates soil compaction, soil erosion, soil depletion, chemical and slurry runoff into waterways, worker exploitation ... just for a start. And that notion of "feeding the planet" and of the need for cheap food still persists.
We think, and studies have shown, that small, sustainable, regional agriculture is the best chance this planet has for adapting to the effects of climate change and thus for feeding the communities in which they exist. Farms that center their practices on soil health and bio diversity are the ones best suited to survive a warmer, dryer, more extreme planet, not the ones producing cheap food designed to be shipped long distances, whether a tomato or a gallon of milk.
Even though the land we occupy may be considered insignificant by today's agricultural standards, we take our roles as its stewards very seriously. Thoughtful and non intrusive practices including rotationally grazing our cows while they spread their own manure are the foundation of our farm. Encouraging a diverse population of grasses, wildflowers, and legumes also encourages pollinators and naturally occurring pest
controllers like dung beetles and manure bees, both of which are indicators of soil health. We've installed many, many nest boxes throughout the farm and seen a dramatic increase in tree swallows, blue birds, and wrens followed by a noticeable decrease in harmful insects like mosquitoes. Perennial plantings of fruiting and flowering shrubs and trees is an ongoing project helping to further increase the farm's pollinator and bird diversity. We allow stands of native milkweed to grow and thrive, something most grass farmers consider a nuisance and a weed for the space they take up. Knowing their importance as the primary food source of monarch butterflies, however, we're happy to have them. A small Class 2 protected wetland bordered by the rail trail which we consider the gem of the farm had been damaged by efforts to divert it a few years prior to our arrival. We've been allowing it to re-wild and have planted native trees and shrubs to help it along. Now, we regularly see muskrats and waterfowl in it and it's one of the best birding spots along the trail with orioles, cardinals, warblers of all kinds, vireos, thrashers, and its own little population of cedar waxwings.
Considering the increasingly dryer and hotter summers, we've made deliberate and conscious efforts to encourage more tree growth in parts of our pastures that lack any shade. A particularly sensitive area had an enormous open gravel pit dug into a hillside prior to our purchase of the farm, with virtually no vegetation of any kind. Dan's careful management over the past 11 years has transformed it into one of our best pastures, but all those years of soil compaction from heavy gravel mining machinery and constant extraction left it virtually treeless. To our surprise, a few years ago a cluster of poplar and birch saplings began growing in one of the drier sections. By allowing the cows to graze among the little trees, spreading their manure and its nourishment and keeping competing plants in check, those little saplings are fast maturing into their own lovely little grove, providing a much needed shady spot all the while adding their own nutritive benefits and water retention properties to the health of the soil.
While we realize that it is not realistic to expect factory farms to disappear, or that just selling raw milk from a tiny, 5 cow, grass based dairy will solve all the world's problems, we also know that many people do want better food options. And although we are confident that we will never, ever become wealthy (or even comfortable) in this life we've chosen, we also know that what we do is important. Producing a pure, natural food product overflowing with goodness and vitality, in tandem with the land we care for, is soul enriching. Educating consumers about the impact of their food choices and teaching by example are part of the whole picture. Providing people with a chance to actually see where and how their food is produced, to see that there is an alternative, to know that their support of small farms is a victory against industrial food and, thus, perhaps a path to change is something we are very proud to be part of.
We're a tiny little piece of this giant planet, itself a speck of dust in the enormity of the galaxy, and on and on and on. But we take our roles as stewards of this tiny little piece very seriously.
Closed loop farming for bio security
Since our establishment in 2011 we have had a closed herd. This means that we raise all of our own cows from calves that are born here. We spread their manure on our pastures in the off grazing season, which helps to nourish the grasses and other flora, which in turn feeds the cows the following spring and summer. The importance of this bio security for a raw milk dairy cannot be overstated. Eliminating our cows' exposure to outside animals and any pathogens they may be harboring means that we very rarely need to treat any of our cows for illness. Healthy animals are the basis for clean, safe, raw milk.
Because we don't grow field corn or any other monoculture crop, we have no need for giant machinery, nor do we use any insecticides or pesticides. And since our cows' diets consist mostly of grass and dry hay, rather than fermented feed like silage or haylage, their manure is not liquid and therefore is compostable. This is preferable to us because, unlike with slurry, or liquid manure, composted cow manure is made up of just that, manure, which we can use to spread on our pastures, to enrich our vegetable gardens, or to sell to other home gardeners. Slurry from conventional farms can contain not only manure but milk house waste and chemicals, such as acid and detergents, used for cleaning milking equipment, not to mention any pharmaceuticals or parasite controls used to treat the cows.
What goes in our cows, the grass they eat in our pastures, comes out of our cows, and then goes back on the pastures. In this way, the soil becomes richer and healthier, its populations of beneficial microorganisms keeps growing, its flora becomes more diverse and better able to withstand the effects of climate change, and we continue to produce raw milk in which all those nutrients from our closed loop system provide a pure, clean, safe food for our community.