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Saturday, March 25, 2017

What To Do With Climate Change Stress

Source: Grist Climate Article
We are animals, there’s no way around that. We have the instinctual reactions of our animal ancestors within us in the form of fight or flight stress responses. But our stress today is different than anything our ancestors faced because of our ability to know what is happening around us. Ancestral human-like creatures used their fight or flight triggers to give them speed and agility when facing an immediate threat. If a cave lion is stalking you, run! If there’s a fire headed toward your village, run! And run fast! The physiological effects of being in a stressful situation are designed to give the body a short-term boost of energy, strength, and coordination. What they don't do is respond well to long-term stressors. 

Chronic stress is a leading killer in today’s world, possibly more harmful than smoking. Evolutionarily it’s as if our bodies haven’t yet adapted to our intellectual capacity. We can remember the past in great detail; we can look into the future and deduce the most probable scenarios of what is to come. This intelligence leads to long-term stress, and our bodies can't handle being in stress mode for very long. When we’re stressed, our bodies shut down less important processes like tissue reparation and digestion. Our blood pressure spikes, our heart rate increases, and our sympathetic automatic nerve system takes over. When exposed to stress chronically, our bodies start to break down and eventually, we develop heart disease or other long-term illnesses.

So, if we aren’t designed to live in constant stress, how do we deal with a collapsing ecosystem, energy system, and financial system? How do we find happiness in what can seem like such a hopeless world? How do we avoid the dark chasms of grief, and how should we live?

It appears as if each of us is going through a different stage of grief for the loss of our beloved environment. There’s plenty of denial out there, anger, hopelessness, and even some acceptance. When we lose a loved one, we’re expected to move through all of the stages of grief…so should it be different when we’re faced with the loss of our civilization? The fire is edging the village. What are we to do…Fight? Flee? Or Mourn?

Focus on the Breath

Meditation is the act of clearing the mind of clutter and worry. In times when life seems overwhelming, sometimes a few conscious breaths go a long way. Through teaching our minds to focus on the present moment instead of the perilous and uncertain future or painful past, we can counteract many of the stress responses that occur within our bodies. Taking some quiet moments, or even an hour, each day to clear the mind and focus on the breath will combat any stress, whether it be climate related or not. We can take this consciousness and inject it into every moment of our lives through practicing mindfulness. 
Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on what is, and what is right now. Give all of our attention to the task at hand, even if you’re doing the dishes…and do them well. When the Dalai Llama was asked by a college student what she should be doing in the face of all this climate change and societal collapse his response was a question.

Dalai Llama: “What are you right now?”
Student:  “I’m just a college student…”

Source: Mystic Medusa
Dalai Llama: “Then just be the best student you can be.”

It reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s famous advice, "follow your bliss." Follow that which makes you feel fulfilled and joyful even if it doesn’t seem like the most logical path. People often respond to this with something like, “if we all did that then who’d take out the trash?” I don’t think a world full of fulfilled and joyful human beings would be trashy. As we place our security into the hands of nature and community…we will naturally take better care those things. Responsibility is part of living a purposeful life, we want a working role to give us purpose within a community. Human beings typically all want the same things: security, purpose, and community. We have proven over the ages that we will stand by and defend any system that offers us even a sliver of those feelings.

Nature is highly adaptable, and the universe is in constant change. Like in Permaculture, nature controls through rampancy. A fish lays 3000 eggs so that 100 will survive…but think about it. 100 fish just came from the one, that’s prolific! The point, please? It’s just that life, to quote Jurassic Park here, "finds a way.” The point is we are adaptable, our systems can change and us with them. Even when facing imminent doom, even after so much life has been can all turn around. I think that is why we exist with our big brains, language, and underdeveloped stress responses. We exist to predict the future, to participate in it, and to drive our evolution toward a sustainable existence.

Horror Science vs. Hopeful Science

The media is great at triggering our stress responses. If they succeed, then our attention is suddenly focused in on them as if they are giving us the biggest news of our lifetimes. Recent events have given them a lot of fuel to throw on that fire, and they are soaking it in gasoline (okay, enough with the metaphors). We are faced with unending studies warning of climate collapse, ocean acidification, melting arctic ice, methane release, pipeline contamination, etc. These make the news channels because they rally us around the televisions. The studies that don’t make the news channels are hopeful scientific studies, the ones that inspire us to turn off the noisy TV, breath deep, and smile.

The reality is we have all the tools we need to reverse climate change. I don’t put much stock into claims of a ‘tipping point’ or ‘point of no return,’ however scary they may sound. Those studies are based on models that don’t incorporate the potential of human-led reparation. Elaine Ingham at the Rodale Institute has demonstrated the ability of spirulina to bioremediate soils. This means that it removes toxins like arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals from the soil by breaking them down into constituents that are sequestered. Her active compost can break down asphalt and grow plants in oil contaminated soil.

Paul Stamets in his work with fungi has uncovered the massive healing characteristics of mushrooms. The Agarikon mushroom has shown the potential for being the world’s best defense against multiple viruses and pathogens. The Red Belted Polypore mushroom breaks down pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. It will likely be able to prevent colony collapse disorder in bee colonies. Oyster mushrooms have the ability to clean oil out of water.

Geoff Lawton along with those mentioned above is currently experimenting with mycelium’s ability to lock up salt in sandy desert soils so that plants can grow without extensive flushing, erosion, and microbiological loss. They also lock up fertilizer salts (nitrates) and prevent them from washing into lakes and streams. We can pull carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the ground simply by re-greening portions of the earth. We now know that through repairing the life in our soils and greening deforested land, we can not only mitigate climate change but can reverse it.

The healing, like the destruction, will spread exponentially creating a domino effect of climate stabilization. The best part is that all the actions we’ll take to heal the earth will also make it fertile again so we can grow more and healthier food. It will incorporate animals, so we'll have vast herds of livestock that are treated with the utmost care and reverence, even, after we realize they are an essential part of this global ecosystem. Nature will diversify, adapt, and provide us with more solutions to future problems we haven’t even faced yet. We must embrace biology as a technology, but instead of trying to reduce it to its constituents, we’ll begin to study the connections and interactions within biological systems.


So fill your days with hopeful science, and learn about the solutions. The next time you find yourself in a climate discussion that seems hopeless, you can spread the word that nature is mend-able and we as humans are redeemable. It isn’t just a possible future, it is our future. As if trapped on a sinking ship with no land or lifeboats in sight, inevitability will catch up to us. We will set down our pride and humbly take a knee to the awesome power that was here before us, the natural world. It’s the coming of age ceremony for the morphogenic field of humanity, and after we learn some of life’s greatest lessons, we will celebrate this.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Rabbitry

There is an elephant at the Permaculture Homestead, in my opinion…and it’s something that not many folks I’ve encountered like to even talk about. If you’ve read our posts, you’re aware by now that we are passionate about animals and their welfare. Many of my neighbors, fellow homesteaders, and Permaculturists want to raise meat animals. They do care about the quality of the animal's life and want to provide a good home and diet for their animals.
There are handfuls of articles out there heralding the convenience of meat rabbits for small scale and urban homesteaders. They are quiet and will not annoy neighbors. They are prolific and will produce many offspring. They are also primarily grass eaters, making their food easy to come by. The final reason that homesteads gravitate toward bunny breeding and eating is one that raises, for me, more questions than it answers. They can be kept in small cages.
Photo Credit:

I am struck with a sense of hypocrisy when I see a homesteader providing the best pasture, the cutest coziest stall, and lots and lots of running room for their horses, cows, and sheep, and then, on the other hand, they raise meat rabbits in suspended wire cages. Tons of experts will tell you that it’s a clean and safe way to raise rabbits, but I have to wonder if that reasoning is from the rabbit’s perspective or the humans. Is it more convenient to have their poop in a pile that you’ve got to shovel out and distribute around your garden? Debatable. Is it worth reducing the quality of life of your animals drastically? A rabbit tractor may be the best of all worlds in this respect. Rabbits are on grass, where they would naturally be so you don’t have to feed them, and the excrement is distributed by them…not you.

Photo Credit:
Permaculture is about imitating nature, observing natural ecosystems, and attempting to recreate that stability and complexity within our own systems. We tend to recoil away from systems that confine animals and concentrate waste and are drawn to systems that rely on the animal’s instincts and behavior. For instance, a dairy where the cows are kept in concrete stalls for the entirety of their milk-giving career would not be a system that a Permaculturist would adopt. From our perspective that is a labor intensive, risky business. Why would you harvest and bring food to the cow when she is quite willing and eager to go and get it herself? Why would you concentrate her waste just to spend laborious hours re-distributing it when she can distribute it for you? Why would you ever risk her becoming ill because you can’t read her mind when she is capable of self-medicating if allowed a wide variety of forage and free choice? When you take this perspective, suddenly what is convenient for you is also beneficial for your animals. I think rabbit raising is no different and suspended wire cages are the concrete stalls of a dysfunctional rabbitry. 

Joel Salatin (Yes, I have to bring him up in every meat-animal related article I write) says to honor the cowness of the cow, the pigness of the pig…and the rabbitiness of the rabbit! Tell me what rabbitiness is expressed from the 24 inch square of a suspended wire cage? Not a whole lot. Rabbits are ground animals, not only that but they are burrow creatures. Getting their paws into the soil is an ecstatic fulfillment of purpose for them (seriously). If you’ve ever watched rabbits dig, you know what I’m talking about.

We are currently in the process of improving our rabbitry, and in the coming months, I will write a piece dedicated to showing it to you. In a word, though, I’d say it’s paradise. Paradise for rabbits, and I don’t think any of our animals deserve anything less. It didn’t take too much work, it’s not difficult to maintain, and it encourages the widest range of behavior in our animals which is what we strive for in every environment we create. I still get rich compost, it’s super convenient for feeding, and our rabbits have fresh grass and an extensive tunnel system they built. By incorporating the habitat into our greenhouse, they get protection from weather and predators plus I get to throw them whatever treats happen to be growing in there.
Photo Credit:

Our system isn’t for everyone, but it works for our homestead. I encourage everyone considering raising meat rabbits to avoid wire cages at all costs and put some time into designing a habitat that is rich for both you and your animals.  Farmers aiming to nurture life, add vibrancy, and create a sense of whimsical magic will benefit from self-designing their habitats within their practical design. That goes for every animal on the farm, always think habitat…not stall or coup or field or shed, and certainly not cage. It's not Permaculture until all of the aspects of the farm function like an ecosystem.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

5 Amazing Ecological Restoration Projects

Many people view the best response to climate change as inaction as if humanity should stay out of nature's way and stop interfering. Our growing world has growing demands for food, water, and other natural resources which seem at odds with conservation efforts. It doesn't have to be man vs. nature. Humans are a part of the natural world and should learn to live sustainably within it. Innovations in the way we view ecology and agriculture have led to amazing projects that seek to both serve the needs of people and rehabilitate ecosystems.

1. Veta La Palma

New York chef Dan Barber challenged what it meant to produce a sustainable food product in his wildly popular 2013 TED talk titled "How I fell in Love with a Fish." In this talk, Barber introduces a western audience to Veta La Palma, a fish farm in southern Spain. Not just a fish farm, this is a 28,000-acre wildlife sanctuary and ecological preserve. Historically, farmers built extensive canals to drain the entire area and make it habitable for raising cattle. In 1990, the local rice company PIMSA, in partnership with local ecological authorities, used the canal system to re-flood the region creating a network of aquaculture ponds and islands.

The fish are native species raised by biologists on a diet of natural algae until they are mature enough and released into the free-flowing system. The estuary is so abundant in natural resources that once released the fish eat what they would in the wild including shrimp, smaller fish, and aquatic insects. Over 250 species of waterfowl nest and feed in this rich environment including a flock of flamingos that make a 300-mile journey each day to feed here. This ecological and agricultural activity is not just producing food, it's helping to clean water and provide habitat for over 50 at-risk species of bird. The project has been massively successful, and Veta La Palma has now expanded from fish farming into rice production, livestock, and dry land crops.

2. Nachusa

There are few images more iconic to America than a herd of bison thundering across the midwestern prairies. Thanks to the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, The Nature Conservancy, the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that is becoming a reality again. Since 2013, ecologists have shaped the land for hydration and re-seeded 3500 acres of Illinois to rekindle native grasslands, wetlands, and forests. They have reintroduced over 100 native plant species. Ecologists released 30 bison into the habitat in 2015. Today, the herd has grown to 90 healthy individuals. The animals are attracting attention near Sioux City, IA where cars line up to see them.
After over 100 years of agricultural abuse, this region is getting a taste of a future dedicated to healthy diverse ecosystems. Only about one 100th of one percent of native Illinois prairie land hasn't been converted into farmland. Projects like this one seek to increase that prairie land. They are also challenging what it means to farm vs. restore wilderness. The Nature Conservancy is considering selling some of the animals for meat in coming years. If ecologists steward the wild herds and harvest food from them the way the Native Americans did pre-colonization, is that not conservation and agriculture at work?

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "What once was a cornfield, is now a diverse ecosystem that provides habitat for thousands of native species, including sandhill cranes, state listed Blanding and yellow mud turtles."

3. Loess Plateau

The restoration of China's Loess Plateau has been a two-decade-long lesson in land degradation and rehabilitation. It has taught the world about economic and cultural impacts destructive farming, and grazing, have on a region. Chinese American filmmaker and ecologist John D. Liu documented this effort since it began in 1995. The Loess Plateau is a 250,000 square mile sedimentary deposit of rich fertile soil. People have lived here for 1.5 million years according to the fossil record. Agriculture had taken its toll on the plateau for 10,000 years, leaving the residents with degraded soils and yearly flooding.
Through offering tenure for the farmers on the land and compensation for lost income, the Chinese government convinced many of them to give up their tilled fields and plant trees. They shaped terraces on the hills and integrated watershed management. The government banned free range grazing resulting in setting ecological areas apart from economic land. The Loess plateau has gone from what looked like a desert ruin to a thriving agricultural and ecological economy due to these efforts. Through integrating the people and the restoration effort, farmers became educated about proper land care and sustainable agriculture. According to Liu, the local resident's incomes have nearly tripled since the project began and local markets are full of grains, meats, fruits, and vegetables.

4. Dimbangombe Ranch

The ranch at the African Center for Holistic Management (ACHM) is a 3200-hectare learning site partnered with the neighboring 40,000-hectare Hwang communal lands. This project reaches far beyond its physical borders with education and has roots throughout Africa, North and South America. Allan Savory gave a heart-wrenching TED talk in 2013 describing how he conceived of the practice of managing grazing animals to help repair the very land desecrated by bad grazing habits. Rehabilitating the land while maintaining local economies through keeping livestock is essential for communities and farmers who depend on cattle for a living.
Cattle, sheep, and goat herds at the ACHM ranch, are intensively managed in numerous paddocks designed to prevent overgrazing. Savory intended to imitate the patterns of natural herds in Africa. Moving the livestock quickly through an area allows them to trim perennial grasses, stomp down dead organic matter, and break up soil without causing damage to the ecosystem. If farmers manage their herds in this way, they don't have to burn dead grasses at the end of the year, and they maintain a healthy ground cover. Many of the cattle at the ranch belong to residents of Hwang who now help to demonstrate and teach the knowledge to students of the center. Local vegetable and fruit farms are also benefiting by allowing ranchers to use their fields as short-term paddocks. According to the ACHM website, paddocks of land that had not grown vegetation in 30 years have a cover of grasses and forage after just two years of holistic management. Rivers and seasonal pools are storing more water later into the dry seasons.

5. Dead Sea Valley Permaculture Project

This project is small, but the implications of it are massive for drought-stricken countries. Geoff Lawton and his Permaculture food forest videos have gained popularity in recent years. Known throughout the permaculture community as 'Greening the Desert,' this project is one of Lawton's food forests in the heart of Jordan's Dead Sea Valley. While only residing on one solid acre of land, the forest features an overstory of date palm with a multi-species understory including olives, fig, jojoba, passion fruit, custard apple, mango, carob, banana, cactus, and grape. These foods are grown without commercial inputs like fertilizers or soil and produced using far less water than other farms in the region. Through harnessing fungi and moisture retention, salt content has decreased over time in the site's soil composition attracting the attention of local conventional farmers.

Using a contour-based swale system helps the site conserve more water proportionately than commercial farms. Through implementing a multi-species food forest, the shade provided by overstory plants prevents moisture from evaporating helping contribute to water retention. The property also features a sustainable off-grid lodge with gray water systems, passive air conditioning, composting, wood heated water, and a classroom facility. Food forest technology is simple and accessible to most people around the world with a bit of education. It has the potential to rehabilitate regions struck with desertification and exemplifies a better agriculture for the entire Middle East.

These projects demonstrate how human ingenuity can play an essential role in re-greening the earth and producing sustainable food. As nature changes, man's relationship with all of his resources change. Sustainable agriculture and ecological conservation can work together in creating abundant ecosystems which feed people, provide habitat, and preserve nature.


Ted Gregory. "Bison mania hits 95 miles west of Chicago as herd continues to grow." Chicago Tribune, December 30th, 2016

Aleshia Kenney. "Bison in Illinois: A Story of Prairies and Partners at Nachusa Grasslands," U.S. Fish and Wildlife field notes, July 28, 2016

Liu Guobin. "Soil Conservation and Sustainable Agriculture on the Loess Plateau: Challenges and Prospects" Ambio, Vol. 28, No. 8, Ecosystem Research and Management in China (Dec., 1999), pp. 663-668

"Hope in a changing climate - the Loess plateau revisited, and other examples of earth healing," The Permaculture Institute, October 1, 2010

Pamela Ngwenya. "Guest Column: Sustaining grasslands: planned grazing at Dimbangombe," Newsday, September 11, 2013

Colin Sullivan. "Can livestock grazing stop desertification?" Scientific American, March 5, 2013

Geoff Lawton. "Rough, Ready, But very real - A November 2013 update on the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project (AKA 'Greening the Desert' - The sequel site)" The Permaculture Research Institute, November 19, 2013,

Sunday, January 8, 2017

5 Unknown Reasons Why a Simple Life is a Happy Life

I wonder what my parents were thinking the day I came home from college and said, “I want to put my education to work. I want to homestead!” There may have been a long pause, I can’t remember now, followed by some expertly crafted support rhetoric. I do remember, though, how that passion was sparked in what seemed like an instant. It was as if there was an unfinished puzzle sitting in front of me, and I had finally put enough of the pieces in to figure out what the picture was. I was entranced by the idea that I could work, live without clutter and noise, eat well, be sustainable, and stay healthy, all without driving anywhere. I knew it was for me, but not everyone who finds happiness in simplicity does in overnight, and happiness isn’t a permanent state. Exploring what happiness and simplicity really are helps to appreciate how a simple life, while maybe less convenient, can be a happy life.

1. Hard Work is Rewarding

It’s what your grand-pappy used to say right? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’m not going to pretend that fixing broken fences in the snow and rain is hella fun! It is not. Knowing yourself, though, is an unparalleled reward and there isn’t a better time to get to know yourself than when you are giving something your all. Real satisfaction is achieved in creating something with blood, sweat, and tears and there’s a lot to be learned from failure, like perseverance.  An integrated, agrarian life combines problem-solving with physical ability, research with experimentation. It occupies both your head space and your body. That is what I call a complete workout.

“I'm a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it” 
Thomas Jefferson

2. Creativity Abounds

I often speak with creative professionals who express concern that living simply is a boring, day-to-day exercise in the mundane; a cyclical ceremony honoring obsolete traditions. This is why my husband and I strive to make every act on the homestead an act of art. We don’t have to go out of our way either. When I design the year’s garden and then watch my beans, squash, and corn all grow into an expression of my intention; that is creativity. Crafting a new design for a gate, fence, or feeder fills the creative cup. Living simply buys you back time that would otherwise be spent in the car, at the office, restaurant, shop, club or movie. So, I have time to take photos, stretch canvas and actually paint. Not to mention the inspiration that bubbles over when surrounded by happy animals and rich gardens.

“My wish simply is to live my life as fully as I can. In both our work and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed. And in our time this means that we must save ourselves from the products that we are asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves.” 
Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

3. Practicing Goodness

A very happy time in my life was when I lived in a small apartment the city and literally walked 15-20 blocks to work every day. Every morning, the city came alive. Each day felt like I was a part of this organism. I was a cog in this machine that was propelling humanity toward future grandeur, and being a part of that something-bigger felt amazing. It feels great until you are faced with the fragility of it all, the wastefulness, and the reality that unless something changes it will all collapse. The ultimate organism that we are all a part of is Earth, not city. Knowing what is good for us takes reflection, and a life of simplicity allows for that. Watching nature come alive each morning is a sense of awe beyond any, and you don’t have to live in the country. An urban homestead still awakens to the sounds of its birds and gardens, and to the smell of home cooked meals.

“We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world - to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity - our own capacity for life - that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.”
Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

4. An Integrated Life

My childhood in the 80’s and 90’s was a series of rides to scheduled blocks of time. Ride the bus to school, ride the van to volleyball practice, ride in the car to piano lesson, ride with mom to do errands, ride to doctors office, ride to assisted living facility to visit grandma, it just seemed very compartmentalized, like those professional organizers who want you to have a plastic bin for every item you own. A simple life is an integrated life which means that the homestead is the school, and the grocery store, and the workplace, and the doctor’s office (within reason). Each act of living becomes an act of teaching, working, and learning. There is intention and information in something as simple as taking a shower when you’ve plumbed your grey-water through a greenhouse where it waters year-round salad greens.

“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex,
the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.” 
Bill Mollison

5. Security in Sustainability

We’re used to depending upon utilities and retail stores so much, we place our sense of security in them. Pulling in a year’s worth of garlic, onions, and potatoes always provides me with the deepest sense of stability, a ‘we’re going to be alright’ feeling. Imagine never paying a utility company again. As long as the sun is shining or the wind is blowing you will have lights, hot water, and telephone. Even if your homestead isn’t totally off-grid, with each step toward sustainability you gain security. In the gales of a winter storm, knowing that your Rocket-Mass-Heater keeps you toasty warm with the slightest amount of wood is enough to have you singing “let it snow.” Our current system of production, distribution and consumption is not sustainable. It is totally dependent upon fossil fuels, the exploitation of animals, and dwindling free resources from the Earth. It will fail, and withdrawing our investments in it now not only protects us, but it encourages the larger system to change for the better.

“A sacred way of life connects us to the people and places around us. That means that a sacred economy must be in large part a local economy, in which we have multidimensional, personal relationships with the land and people who meet our needs, and whose needs are met in turn.” 
Juliana Birnbaum Fox, Sustainable Revolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms, and Communities Worldwide

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Vegetarian Agrarian

Whew, it's been a while. I've decided to dust off this old farm blog and breathe new lift into it (so easy midwinter to say that)! I will attempt to post at least a few times a month so subscribe!! Of course, follow us on Facebook and Instagram for frequent farm updates, photos, and musings from this crazy farm lady. 

I know that I tend to be pretty radical in my convictions. All in the name of a better world, I say. Surprisingly, the one that affects me the most day to day is a philosophy that I hold really near and dear to my own heart. In fact, you might say that I think my heart is open because of this practice. That’s the practice of vegetarianism, abstaining from animal consumption. I find myself talking about this one thing more than most other things including gardens, farming, or Permaculture. There is one particular aspect that I want to specifically give some thought to, and I awoke from a dream this morning with this on my mind.

Animal farming. If you’re a dedicated Permaculture or organic farming enthusiast, chances are you’ve seen Joel Salatin and his amazing Polyface Farm in Virginia. YouTube is chalked full of videos of his farm, tours, chicken processing, TED talks, and presentations that Joel has given. He’s an intellectual, and a spiritual guy. I see the light inside of him when he talks about his farming methods. While, like so many other farms, they include the breeding and slaughter of animals, his approach doesn’t revolve around that, but rather the ideal health and happiness of his animals.

Photo Credit: CrozetGazette
The vision: green pastures with our own animals for meat, and some profits too. I know that vision. Creating it, in reality, is such a different story. More often than not an animal breeding venture ends in a battle of enslavement. The farmer enslaved by his responsibility to the animals which he or she created by enslaving the animals.

Salatin preaches about low infrastructureand, therefore, low startup cost. However, there’s another cost that so often seems overlooked in the initial start-up process of animal farms. It’s labor. I think everyone underestimates how much physical labor it takes to care for even a relatively small number of animals. For example, I spent two years working for a certain type of artisanal farm. It started out with 150 animals. To care for these animals they had one part-time employee plus the owner who was expected to split their time between running the business and caring for the animals. Needless to say, this turned into what I call a ‘mutual enslavement’ situation. Now you’re stuck.

This isn’t like getting into a garden where if you get really fed up you can walk away. You can’t walk away from hungry mouths to feed and yet people seem to do just that. They disconnect, they check out mentally on the situation and relinquish their responsibility because they’re tired. They start only going out to the animals when there is a dire need to do so, attempting to put them out of sight and therefore out of mind. Well, this leads to animal neglect and then animals get sick and die. Don’t underestimate how much this happens. The line between busy and neglectful is the same line. I’ve watched this time and again from people who are really passionate about what they want to do and people who actually care about the animals. They just get caught in mutual enslavement.

Photo: Flickr
The animals at this farm all got worms and hoof rot within the first year that I was there. Some of them died, some suffered, and eventually all of them had to be moved off-farm. Falling into the trap of making different sized compartments in our hearts for farm animals vs. pet animals is dangerous. The good shepherd should know all of his sheep by name, that’s from the Bible, and Wendell Berry’s “On Food and Farming.” If something is found in those two equally impressive texts, it must be important.

Problems of the heart

The most heartbreaking thing about the above situation and similar entrapments is that the farmer, a lover of the natural world, is forced to harden his or her heart toward their own animals. I have relationships with my animals and conversations; they know when I’m in a good mood or a bad one. They know the difference in the tone of my voice when I’m saying “Hi, I’m passing by” vs. “Hey, come over here.” I can tell them apart by their brays.  I know that Mattie has trouble with his hoof glands sometimes, and Lamby will not always follow the group and needs a bit of a keener eye on him. Other farmers who I’ve spoken with think that is ridiculous, they chuckle a little bit and dismiss me as a crazy woman who has too much love for her animals. I respond with, it’s not a problem of too much love which is never a problem. The problems I can see lie in the fact that you don’t think you have room in your heart, or your life, for that kind of love. That is what Buddha would call a hardened heart.

If you got into farming or homesteading to make money, you should get out of it and go into banking. If you got into farming so you can enjoy the pastoral scenery from the comfort of your living room window, you should get out of it and buy property next to a farm. The only reason anyone should ever have animals on their farm is because they LOVE them. Truly love them. It’s not a good enough reason to have grass that needs eating or a barn that needs filling. It's not even good enough to get animals just to feed your family. Making money is certainly not a good enough reason to raise animals...because you won't make money.

I know that Joel talks a good game and really makes raising meat animal's look easy. So many people think they are going to hatch a batch of chicks or kid their goats and sell the animals to make some cash. Isn’t that what a successful farming model looks like? This is what I call ‘the drug dealing of Permaculture.’ Here is why.

I have to pause here and say, there are many homesteaders who raise their own animals for their own meat, they do it well and the animals are well cared for. While I personally would still think that hardens the heart; it's really up to each person. I am specifically talking about people who choose to raise animals as a source of income for instance, meat animals or really any breeding-based business model. 

Remember when you were a teenager and just found pot? You were like OMG, all I have to do is grow some pot. Then I get to smoke it for free and make money off of all the suckers who buy my pot! It’s a brilliant business model with no flaws sure to take me straight to the moon. How often did that work out for them? I’ll tell you...never. This is because growers invest a lot of time and resources into producing a quality product. It takes some skill and experience just as it takes some skill and experience to get a successful farm model down. It also takes resources, both foreseen and unforeseen, like your time. The people who made a success out of pot growing didn’t do it overnight, they worked at it like everyone else works at what they do.

Sheep rescued from backyard butcher situation.
Not only do homesteaders and farmers underestimate what it will take, they also tend to overestimate the market for their meat product. Polyface farm waits for a large enough order and then drives to urban areas where distribution happens all at once. He also has an inspected slaughter facility at his farm so processing is all done in-house.

Often homesteaders are in rural areas where the demand for home-raised meat is considerably lower. This narrows their market and brings the price of their product down even if it’s better quality. Driving it into the city is only an option for farmers who paid to have their animals slaughtered in an inspected facility, and even then the meat is considered ‘custom’ and must be stamped with “not for sale.” Try convincing urban foodies to buy that! The point is if you are dedicated to producing meat, it’s still going to take some time to develop a market.

Grassy Knoll or Muddy Hole

No, it’s not a Kate McKinnon sketch from SNL however dangerously close. This is your pastoral green farm wrecked. I count myself among the many homesteaders and farmers out there who totally underestimated the amount of vegetation my critters would eat. I went from bragging about never having to pull out my lawn mower to wading through ankle deep trenches of mud in one year. We should all remind ourselves that overgrazing is largely how we ruined the planet in the first place so it’s time we learn the lesson of scale.

Again, I will compare with Salatin whose farm, mind you, is smack dab in the middle of what used to be rich natural grasslands. While his system of daily rotation surely works if followed diligently, keep in mind that Polyface land is predisposed to grow grass. Obviously, his business model was designed around that as yours should be designed around your specific geographical advantages.

I get mocked for having three wethered sheep. People are always saying, “But don’t you want the lambs each year they are so cute?!” Yes, they’re cuteuntil I have to feed or sell them.  This way, I get to enjoy my animals, avoid the heartbreak of separating them, and provide them with the care they need. My farm benefits from their controlled grazing and fertility, I get a wool yield each year from them and the whole thing is sustainable in that way, with very little inputs and no outputs. Would you consider them pets, or farm animals? I don’t think there should be much of a difference.

Photo: Pawel Kuczynski
I think one thing that pushes people into obtaining a bunch of meat animals is panic. They get out on the land and start to feel scarcity and wonder what they will eat out there. Growing fruit trees or having a vegetable garden seems daunting and the time gap between now and when you would have food seems enormous. Maybe you don’t have much of a green thumb yet and your garden didn’t do so well the last year. So, people panic and adopt 50 pigs, because they think that’s equity in food. What is really happening is you just traded the equity of your time and landscape for whatever food the pigs bring in after all the inputs you’ll have to buy for them. So, instead of honing your skills and prepping land for fruit trees, you’re going to be spending time moving, feeding, watering, slaughtering, and trying to sell these pigs.

My advice, whether anyone wants to take it or not, would be to calm down. You don’t have to provide yourself with all your own food right away; you can take a few years to establish a system. In fact, Permaculture dictates that everyone take at least one year to just observe the land. Do this, and don’t feel guilty about grocery shopping for a while. Use that time to really think about your vision, really think about the diversity of foods that you could produce, really think about what your landscape wants to be, and then design a system around that. The long term benefits will pay off.

The Vegetarian Agrarian

Having a farm as a vegetarian is, in my book, the best of all possibilities. I have relationships with my animals that will never end in betrayal or death. Children who come to our farm can fall in love with all the personalities here and never have to worry that one day they may come back to their friends on a plate. I don’t have to harden my heart to that supposed ‘reality.’ The time that I put into my farm is spent doing things that I love and that improve the land like planting food forests, vegetables, and herbs or soil regeneration, habitat restoration, and fungi propagation. My diet is bursting with rich flavors and homegrown goodness. I don’t feel that we’re lacking in anything. We have to purchase grains but we’d have to do that anyway on five acres. The fruit trees will soon produce enough for us but for now we buy some fruit too. Nothing is wrong with being part of an economy in that way. This is knowing the scope of your scale and staying within it.

One of our wethers, Mattie, scratching on the truck.

I don’t feel competitive with the natural world or like I am trying to catch up with her clever tricks the way I imagine the artisanal farm owners did when they were trying to treat that many animals for a disease that lives in the soil. Above all those other things (part of me wants to delete everything I’ve said and just say this), I can’t emphasize how amazing it feels not to be a part of the slaughter.  To let my heart swing wide open and welcome everything inside, it feels like Truth. The way in which we treat other living beings in this world is wrong and too often overlooked. I would like to re-define our relationship with animals. It would re-define our relationship with ourselves.
A painting in one of my favorite artist's series from Pawel Kuczynski