There are a lot of ways that farmers can diversify their land and make their farms function more efficiently by using a closed loop system that doesn’t rely heavily on outside inputs. Using natural fertilizers, saving seed, and storing food are all methods that can decrease expenses and allow for increased self-reliance.
Darby Smith co-owns Sun Dog Farm in Blairsville, Ga with her husband, Elliott. Everything on their farm including vegetables, fruits, and herbs, is grown biodynamically. Smith believes in diversifying farms while promoting a healthy environment that resists external inputs. Darby and Elliott Smith will be speaking at the 18th Annual Georgia Organics Conference, Recipe for Change: Better Farms, Better Flavors, which will be held on Feb. 20-21, 2015, at the Classic Center in Athens, Ga.
What are some of the first steps you’ve taken to avoid outside inputs into your farm?
Some of the first things we considered on our farm were the ways in which we could diversify the landscape and promote a healthy ecosystem. This diversity includes habitat features, the combinations of annual, biennial, and perennial plants, livestock, pollinators, and the management of a wood lot. When all of these features are included in the layout of your farm, the farm organism is able to thrive. A thriving farm organism is one of abundance, and from a healthy farm organism, true self sufficiency and sustainability can be obtained. This diversity contributes to the equilibrium between good and bad biology in the soil and on plants and livestock who consume waste, provide byproducts, and contribute greatly to homemade compost. Once you have your farm operating in varying levels of symbiosis, there is only labor left to keep your family fed, warm, and healthy.
What advice would you give people who are just beginning to grow their own garden?
Our biggest piece of advice for someone just starting out is to start small. Once you have mastered what you have begun, you can expand. Experimenting with plants in the garden, with beneficial organisms, compost making, compost teas, and soil testing, is the easiest place to start. Once you feel you have your biological environment working together, you can incorporate perennials and possibly livestock to up the diversity necessary for a happy ecosystem and a healthy larder. Homesteading is like everything else in that it is a process of devotion. You have to work with what you have and make the most of it. Your abilities will grow in tandem with how self sufficient your farm organism is becoming. Growing annuals, picking one crop and saving the seeds, picking one crop and canning every fruit; these are the tiny milestones you can make year to year that will cut costs and limit trips to the grocery store.
What are some of the easiest ways to decrease expenses on a personal garden or farm?
Here are 5 of the easiest ways to start your voyage of self sufficiency:
1. Save Seed. Start with easy things like beans, potatoes, garlic, and squash. Move into the intermediates like tomatoes, peppers, flowers, and eggplant. Once you have a few seasons mastering these, try the difficult plants like greens and herbs. Saving seed not only reduces unnecessary spending, but it allows your plants to thrive in your particular environment. When seeds are saved in the same location over and over again, the result is a plant that is very proficient at producing in your bio-region. It becomes resistant to ailments common in your area and opens itself up to the formative energies that sculpt everything on your particular plot.
2. Make compost and compost teas. If you do not have livestock for making compost, make friends with a farmer who does. Even if it is a little bit of a travel to get fresh manure (hopefully not too far), making your own compost will enhance fertility and give your plants vigor unlike any fertilizer or bagged compost you can buy. When you make compost from organic material directly from your piece of land, you are not only recycling valuable nutrients, but you are utilizing the biological imprint that exists on your farm and working with bacteria and fungi that have become accustomed to your particular environment. The rhythm of birth, life, and decay are already in place on your property and working with the organisms that are capable of thriving in your particular conditions will make what you do easier, better, and begin closing waste loops that would otherwise have you buying up materials that are not only unnecessary but potentially counterproductive.
3. Diversify. If you have a small garden, mixing it up with different annual crops is a great way to get started. Try fun varieties, pick your favorites and save the seeds. Once you have a handle on the seasonality, add some perennials and or biennials. Experiment with companion planting and cover crops. If you have the space, living mulches and grass walkways are excellent means for keeping biology alive as you disturb the soil to plant. Eventually some chickens, sheep, or a cow could be in order. As many different habitat features that you can incorporate on your plot, the better. It is important to note, however, that each feature needs to be done well for the whole system to work. If you over-work any piece of your land with plants or animals and the landscape begins to lose nutrition, you will begin to unravel the fabric that makes the whole system work. Start small, diversify, and be observant. Treat your land like a precious resource and you will get rewarded for it.
4. Stop using plastic, bagged fertilizers, and other unnatural supplements. All of these items, no matter how safe they may claim to be for your garden are not as beneficial as what you can use right from your farm or from your neighbors. Plastic is an unrealistic resource and should be used minimally. Bagged fertilizers do not represent the biology present in your farm organism and can often do more harm than good or have a minimal, non-lasting impact. If you want your farm to be self sufficient and you want it to succeed, you will need to learn about your landscape. Observe what it needs, give it treats made from the plants that exist on your property in the form of teas and sprays. Work the biology in your soil to mine for the nutrients you are lacking. The less you buy in, the more likely you are learning the tools your landscape is giving you. No Till, Mulching, Living Mulches, Permaculture, and other concepts will aid in the elimination of needless spending and wasteful practices.
5. Store food for the winter. It is a strange phenomenon, one based on the principles of production farming, that has us harvesting all of our fertility and selling it to eager buyers. While I totally respect and support the food system we are all tied to, a homesteader has the responsibility of not only taking care of the fertility of the land so that every crop is an improvement upon the last, but also that the larder is full of the most you can grow and put up. Our idea that money is more valuable than say a cupboard full of canned tomatoes will eventually be an outdated concept. When evaluated from a perspective of personal and familial stability, there is more value in a well cared for garden and the wares that have been stored for winter. These foods are so precious in fact; containing within them nutrients you cannot even buy at the grocery store if you wanted to. Holistically managed produce has more vitamins, minerals, and love than anything you can get in the grocery department of a chain store. A high functioning Homestead operates off of the ideas of excess. Grow, make, and raise what you need to survive and then sell off to your community the beautiful excess. It is within this system that the diversities of our gardens in contrasts to our neighbors where we can meet all of the requirements for a properly nourished life.
What are the economic and ecological benefits of a “closed looped system”?
Economy and Ecology should be two words inextricably linked in every possible way. We as a society live our lives as though our Economy is this incredible, important, societal structure derived totally from the hard work and smarts of our most elite. While this may be partly true, another huge portion of a thriving economy is resource and resource management. Currently, there is a battle brewing in our nation about the inherent value of resources both in their natural forms and as trade worthy goods. This battle is divided between those who see resources as having their most value as virgin lands, untapped ecosystems and preserved wildernesses and those who believe we will lose power in a material driven global economy when we do not utilize what is ours to make goods that will benefit humanity and add material value to our country. On a grand scale, such as the evaluation of an entire continent, this can be a very tedious issue to argue. That being said, we as individuals can take the responsibility of our ecology and our personal economy and take steps towards sustaining ourselves through the management of both in a very eco-friendly manner.
A closed loop system frees the individual from relying totally on outside resources to function. This partnered with the benefits a landscape gains from an individual planting for their own needs (adding biodiversity) and you have a piece of land at its most valuable; fertile, productive, and providing for a family and community. The more connected we become to the rhythm of our land, the less money we have to spend for goods that would be more beneficial to us if they were grown or made with our own hands. Everything from vegetables to proteins, culinary herbs to medicines. We are extraordinary creatures with the creative capacity to accomplish so much, especially when we steward land that is happily nestled in a cycle of death and regeneration.
How did you discover these methods? How did you become interested in self-reliant farming and do you think more farmers are leaning in this direction?
I attended a college in Northern Vermont called Sterling College, which I would recommend to any young person hoping to use their life to engage in the local business/agriculture/environmental movement. There I was exposed to these concepts, saw them in practice, and was able to put together an ideology that could sculpt my life and make an impact. I feel like once you learn about the horrors facing our vanishing environment, you have no choice but to do what you can to preserve a piece. I have since met several homesteaders from here to the North East and have found that their diversity in methodology and the beauty of their crafts to be incredibly inspiring.
Right here in Georgia, I was lucky enough to live down the road from Tate Tewksbury a farmer in Madison, Georgia with a family fully dedicated to the art of homesteading. Through our relations to him, his parents, Mark and Carol Tewksbury and his brother Erin Tewksbury, we have continued to learn so much. These homesteading skills are gained from experience, our constant conversations with Mark Tewksbury, and the evolved learning of Biodynamics and Homeopathic farming gained from our mentors Hugh Lovel and Shabari Bird, and we have a means for making a living by encouraging other organisms to live.
I don’t know if more farmers are leaning in this direction. There is a sense I get from the current state of things that young people who choose to farm have a lot to prove. They want to prove that farming can bring in as much money as any other respectable profession and often times this comes at the expense of the land and their bodies. I am in awe of the production I see coming from some of my peers in the field and I commend their immense efforts. I do believe, however, that the Earth benefits most from those who listen and while producing a lot of food for your community is certainly a worthy goal, if you are not taking care of your land and yourself, you are being cheated by our current economic system. There are great examples of closed loop systems and terrible ones on all scales with every shade of grey in between. The focus is always on what you as an individual can do and the good news is, it’s probably more than you can imagine.