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Bio-Mimicry

Our farm is dedicated not just to responsible, healthy, accessible food, but also to changing the very model that our country uses to produce and consume food. We’ve said before that being certified organic doesn’t go far enough to affect this change; in this article we take a look at a few more reasons that eating local beats both organic and conventional. And at the end, we give you a sneak preview of what our “dream” food model looks like.

1. Local really is more nutritious

An organic controversy exploded in 2012 when a Stanford University study asserted that there’s no meaningful difference in the nutritional content of organic and conventionally raised foods. Stanford, along with many other food scientists and supporting institutions, make the claim that the only substantial drivers of nutritional content in food are genetics and freshness. If you take two seeds from an identical heirloom plant, raise one on a conventional farm, the other on an organic farm, and harvest and eat them at the same time, there will be virtually no difference between the two.

One will become a testament to the tasteful application of makeup and eyeliner, and the other will become Maggie Gyllenhaal.

One will become a testament to the tasteful application of makeup and eyeliner, and the other will become Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Supporters of organics naturally (hehe) fired back, citing everything from the university’s relationship with agro-giant Cargill to alleged technical flaws in the study itself. Importantly, however, critics of the study did not attack its underlying premise: that genetics and freshness are what really matters when it comes to nutritional content.

When you make the decision to ignore the labels, buy local, and source all your food from a nearby ecological farm, this controversy immediately loses meaning for you. If you’re buying heirloom produce from a farm less than an hour away, you’re pretty much guaranteed two things: 1.) you’re getting plant genetics at least as good as what you’d find in an organic market, and 2.) you’re getting your produce at the peak of freshness, especially if you visit the type of farm that lets you pick produce yourself. The only way to get fresher food would be to disguise yourself as a cow during the day, graze the fields with the rest of the herd, and hope the farmer doesn’t notice.

Soon.

Soon.

2. Local really does taste better

It’s not hard to find people – especially those who patronize expensive restaurants – that will insist that organic food tastes hands-down better than conventionally raised food. Unfortunately, those people would be proven wrong by a slew of blind taste tests in which people truly can’t tell the difference between stuff that’s grown in a chemical-bound psedo-soil and compost-pampered supersoil.

Much like nutrition, taste is largely the effect of freshness and genetics. For eggs, meat, and dairy, the inputs that create them are also a very significant factor… but one whose positive effect on the taste of the food is correlated with freshness.

Except for this thing, whose taste correlates with bacon.

Except for this thing, whose taste correlates with bacon.

As great as organic farming is compared to its conventional counterpart regarding environmental impact, it gleefully shares conventional ag’s most glaring structural problem: centralized distribution. This model of distribution underlies the efficiency that some would argue is modern agriculture’s biggest strength, but it also underlies its biggest weaknesses: the ecological compromises demanded by farming for economies of scale, and products whose nutrition and taste suffer from shipping (to distribution facilities and markets) and waiting (in markets to be bought).

Do you find it strange that you can buy organic sweet corn and vine tomatoes at health food markets in January? If you don’t, then you should. That sweet corn and that big red ‘mater, being more than six months out of season, are both going to taste like hot-house garbage. If you buy from an ecological farm, however, this isn’t going to be a problem because an eco-farmer worth her salt will not grow things out of season, even in a greenhouse. Shopping for groceries at such a farm ensures that you’re buying food in season and at the peak of freshness, which is the ONLY way to guarantee your food is at the height of its nutritional content and taste.

3. Local really is best for the environment

Conventional and organic farming have something else in common besides centralized distribution: they’re founded on the idea that you have to fight nature to produce enough food for civilized society. The only difference between the two is that organic farmers are following the rules of gentlemanly warfare, while the conventional farmers are whipping out the nukes and mustard gas.

To be sure, organic farming is much gentler on the environment than conventional farming. The “Three Cs” of organic farming are compost, cover crops, and crop rotation; together, these are intended to minimize the effects of farming on the environment and reduce risks to public health. The first “C”, compost, provides natural soil fertility without frying soil life the way synthetic fertilizers do. The second, cover crops, prevents soil erosion and runoff pollution while improving soil structure and nutrient content after cash crops are harvested. The third, crop rotation, interrupts cycles of pests and diseases by taking away their food sources.

So... what do they eat?

So… what do they eat?

The Three C’s, unfortunately, do not address organic agriculture’s reliance on monocultures. A monoculture is what you get when you have a whole bunch of the same plant (or animal) covering a large area. This is something you almost never see in nature because, in nature, such a state can’t persist for very long. If a 50 acre field were to spontaneously sprout nothing but corn, then the beetles and armyworms would soon follow. With a gigantic food source and no habitat for their predators, these pests would reproduce explosively until all the corn was gone, at which point the they would starve to death. Their decaying bodies and rotting corn husks would cover the soil with new organic matter while the occasional breeze or four-legged creature would deposit various seeds from elsewhere. Over time, a new and balanced ecosystem would develop – one that would invariably be a polyculture rather than a monoculture. I won’t say that monocultures aren’t “natural” since “natural” is such a slippery term. But I will say that we’re swimming against nature’s current when we use monocultures, and that’s a dangerous proposition when we’re relying on them to stay alive.

If there’s one thing your small, local family farm probably doesn’t have, it’s a 50 acre cornfield. These little farms generally use hoophouses and/or raised garden beds to produce plants in polycultures that are much more environmentally sound. And while these fruits and veggies don’t provide the staples we rely on from corn and soy, there are permaculture farms coming online using tree guilds to replace them both affordably and with ecological soundness. Most of these operations are small family farms that need your patronage in order to succeed.

4. It’s the only way to make responsible food affordable

America’s food model is broken because it demands an interface between the consumer and the producer in the name of efficiency and centralized profit.* Proponents of this model will argue that such ruthless efficiency is necessary in order to meet demand; a dubious claim considering that America trashes nearly half it’s food.

"Smashes" rhymes with "trashes."

“Smashes” rhymes with “trashes.”

The organic movement, God bless it, does not address the structural flaw in this model. It instead funnels food into the same broken system as its conventional adversary (or parent company) using a production method that’s much less efficient. With its misguided focus on markets and monocultures, organic farms fight a relentlessly uphill battle against the efficiency of conventional farming’s chemical marvels and the inertia of mother nature’s ecological inclinations. The result? The most difficult, expensive food on planet Earth.

But in spite of the cost, farmers markets and agritourism are booming at the same time unprecedented public outrage is being directed at GMO, feedlots, and big agribusiness. The enormous demand for organic, relative to its supply, is one of the drivers of its high price. If we could only lower the price of responsible food to make it accessible to the average person, the sustainable food movement would be on its way to fulfilling its mission of saving the world by feeding it. This is where your local permaculture farm comes in.

Permaculture farms are those that intensively mimic natural systems to produce food that’s both ecologically sound and affordable. The affordability stems from a number of things: reliance on perennials that only need to be planted once; emphasis on forage rather than feed for livestock; selection of locally-adapted plants and animals that require minimum human intervention; focus on a hyperlocal customer base that does most of the harvesting; adoption of multistory agriculture (fungi, ground covers, tall annuals, bushes, and trees occupying the same space) to improve efficiency; providing the diversity of products that allows the farm to replace the supermarket.

Taking central Virginia as an example, the new agricultural model here would have 1,400 small (20 – 30 acres) plantations set up near population centers, each providing food for the 160 or so people living with the immediate vicinity of that farm. People would go to these farms to do most of their food shopping; the Whole Foodses and Harris Teeters would be for the things you can’t get locally – coffee, spices, citrus, etc. The time a farmer would ordinarily spend every year planting, cultivating, spraying, harvesting, shipping, etc. would instead be spent on value adding (e.g. milling wheat into flour, grinding corn into hominy, smoking bacon, baking bread) and surveying the neighborhood to see what products her customers want more or less of.

"Coming right up!"

“Coming right up!”

This model doesn’t exist yet, but it can in your lifetime. All you have to do is make a commitment to cultivate a relationship with a local farmer, make a commitment to buy from her as often as you can, and of course stay tuned to our website as we work to make this model a reality for everyone.

Chris Newman
Sylvanaqua Farms, Earlysville VA

*Before my more conservative readers accuse me of Marxism, please know that I’m not a proponent of socializing or nationalizing food production (notwithstanding charity). Farmers and those who own farms should enjoy comfortable lives financially to the extent their talents will allow them to steward the land responsibly. It is another matter entirely for Monsanto to advocate for market-divorced commodity subsidies, soil-killing chemicals, seed patents, and a factory farm system that brutalizes both farmer and animal… all in the name of its stock price and at the expense of literally everyone in the world.

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A few weeks ago, we talked about the reasons we don’t have Organic certification. The number one reason was that we sell directly to customers that we look in the eye and encourage them to come to the farm, inspect us, and “certify” us themselves. We believe that all farms should operate this way, being certified by dozens, hundreds, or maybe even a couple thousand customers every single year.

But then we got to thinking: how would a customer know what to inspect? How would a customer know whether or not we’re applying practices that heal the land, allow animals to express their nature, and restore the connection between food producers and consumers? We’re here to help! Here are 7 inspections you can conduct to make sure the farm you buy from is on the up and up.

1. Does the farm allow drop-in inspections?

If a farm has a no-visits policy, or one that makes it extremely difficult to visit, then that’s a huge red flag. You must, MUST(!), have easy access to visit your farm.

Visiting the farm should not turn into The Hunger Games.

Visiting the farm should not turn into The Hunger Games.

While it isn’t possible for most small-holder farms to have a 24/7 visitation policy, there should be regular visiting hours where the public can come in and check things out. You should be free to roam about the farm, even alone, and check out the animals, the planting fields, greenhouses, beehives, and anything else that’s around. It’s a good sign if the farm encourages you not just to visit, but to participate: we always need help moving animals, turning compost, weeding, planting, butchering, etc. A farm that lets you spend time with your hands in their production has nothing to hide.

Be very wary of farms that make excuses as to why visits are impossible. Some might cite theft. Theft of live animals is just silly; no one’s sneaking back to their car with a live pig or hen, and no one drives all the way to a farm just to steal a tomato. If a farm cites “bio-security” as the reason you can’t see the animals, then find yourself another farm. This is a near-sure giveaway that the farm is practicing confinement husbandry and is just one missed round of medication away from losing a few thousand animals. If the farm’s attitude is “we don’t have time for visitors,” then the farm needs to find another attitude or find some other customers, like U.S. Foods or ConAgra.

Inspecton Item #1: Does the farm have regular visiting hours with unrestricted access to the operations? Bonus points: Can I help out on the farm? Does the farm sincerely make time for me?

2. Does the farm practice bio-mimicry?

Ecological farming is rooted in managing animals and plants in a way that replicates the roles of their wild counterparts in nature. This practice is known colloquially as bio-mimicry. So how do you know if your farm practices it?

First, don’t necessarily dock the farm if they don’t know what “bio-mimicry” is; lots of farmers are doing it without realizing there’s a term for it. What you’ll want to look for is evidence of things like  rotational grazing, polyculture, composting, and cover cropping:

Rotational Grazing:

Rotational grazing is the practice of confining animals to a small space in the pasture for a short amount of time, then moving them on to new pasture, usually every day. This system mimics the behavior of wild herbivores who pack tightly to defend against predators, and move to new pastures after their dung, urine, and trampling have rendered the grass unusable. Pastures are then left to rest for long periods of time, their health ultimately enhanced by the animal impact. Unlike the term bio-mimicry, your farmer should know what rotational grazing is (though they may refer to it as “mob grazing”). Evidence of rotational grazing in cattle, dairy, sheep, and pig herds would be relatively large numbers of animals in a small paddock, sectioned off from the rest of the pasture by just one or two strands of electric wire. The grass on one side of the paddock should be clearly trampled and bitten, while grass on the other side should be lush and fairly tall. For poultry, you’ll want to look for pens that are easily moved, or a more fixed pen with movable runs made out of electric poultry netting.

This is what you're looking for. Note lightweight fencing, and height difference in grass.

This is what you’re looking for. Note lightweight fencing, and height difference in grass.

Polyculture:

Conventional farms typically produce just one thing: commodity crops (e.g. corn, soybeans, wheat), beef, dairy, pork, or poultry. An ecological farm, on the other hand, will out of necessity run multiple lines of production. At Sylvanaqua Farms our production is centered on pastured poultry, but we have a number of operations that support it. Pigs mow the grass ahead of the poultry pens, hens clean up behind the pigs, both hens and pigs spend time in hoophouses (during winter and nursing, respectively) to help fertilize greenhouse beds, and honeybees pollinate our crops and pastures. Each enterprise is necessary: Without the pastured poultry, we’d have to apply synthetic nitrogen to pastures. Without the pigs, we’d have to mow the grass ourselves with fossil fuels and our forests would be unproductive. Without the hens, the pastures would take too long to recover. Without the crops, the honeybees would have to range far from our farm. And without the honeybees, our crop pollination rates would be too low to offer surplus produce to the public.

You’ll also want to take a close look at the farm’s planting fields and greenhouses. You should notice lots of different things growing; if the farm is just a tomato plantation for example, that’s a red flag. Multiple crops are necessary to keep soil nutrients in balance, control pests and diseases, and maximize production per acre without resorting to GMO.

Yes.

Yes.

Composting:

Compost is the lifeblood of an ecological farm. It’s the primary amendment applied to keep crop and pasture soil healthy, allowing us to say “no” to synthetic NPK fertilizers. Ask your farmer about their composting operation, and ask to see it. They should be happy to oblige; eco-farmers are nuts about their compost and love to show it off. When inspecting compost, look for it to be deep, warm in the interior, and emitting only the faintest smell (and that only if animal products are added to it). Also, there should be lots of it (or, if it’s been used recently for top dressing, there should be ROOM for lots of it). A farm can never, ever have too much compost.

Cover Cropping:

Bare soil should be hard to find on a farm. If a field doesn’t have grass or a crop on it, then it should almost certainly be planted in an annual cover crop of some sort to maintain the soil structure, prevent capping and erosion, and draw nutrients to the surface. Popular cover crops include ryegrass, alfalfa, barley, buckwheat, and clover, among many others. Some farmers will even use edible covers like kale and mustard, which are more effective than annuals as green manures tilled back into the soil to amend it ahead of a production crop. Ask your farmer which fields are fallow, what they use to cover them during rest periods, and then go check those fields out for yourself.

Inspection Item #2: Look for evidence of rotational grazing, polyculture, composting, and cover crops!

3. What is the policy on shipping?

If your farm ships food to the furthest reaches of the country, it’s not an ecological farm. The whole point of ecological farming is to reduce (or invert) the environmental footprint of agriculture. Packing products onto an airplane or train to send it across the country – usually so they can be eaten in a place where they’re out of season – is anathema to our way of doing things. A farm that sells to national food hubs or distributors is on thin ice as well. Once products are sold to these entities, they enter a river of indistinguishable commodities that could wash up anywhere in the world.

Farms dedicated to the local model generally do not ship at all (unless they deliver themselves), instead executing their sales on-farm, via farmers’ market or CSA, through buyers’ clubs, in restaurants, or from local food hubs (e.g. Relay Foods).

Inspection Item #3: Beware the farm that ships via USPS, FedEx, or anything that isn’t the farm’s own delivery truck.

4. Does the farm practice seasonality?

Eating food out of season is one of the big ways that we, as food consumers, have distanced ourselves from the land. And the effects are harmful: the market for eating all kinds of food all year long are causing foods to be shipped longer distances, incentivizing farmers to consume disproportionate natural resources to grow out of season, and encouraging genetic modification, among other ills.

Your farm’s production should be in line with the seasons, which of course vary from region to region. In Virginia this means the following:

  • Nearly all animals should bear their offspring in the Spring
  • Leafy and green veggies are available in Spring (e.g. kale, spinach, asparagus, mustard, lettuce, cabbage, etc). Sweet, small immature and semi-mature soft fruits and “veggie fruits” (e.g. tomatoes, eggplant, beans, sweet corn, summer squash, peaches, etc.) are available in summer. Large, mature, hard fruits and veggies (e.g. pumpkins & winter squash, flint corn, apples, etc.) are available in Fall. And for winter, many of the early season Spring crops become available again.
  • Poultry production should run from about mid-March to mid-October.
  • Egg production should taper off, and even nearly cease, in Winter.
  • Large animal slaughter (beef, bison, pork, etc.) should occur in the fall, usually October – November

This, of course, is only a sampling. A simpler general guideline is to be wary of any farm (again, thinking about the mid-Atlantic) doing hardcore production in the winter. A yuletide visit to a farm should reveal a fairly dormant operation; animals being held in sheds and hoophouses for overwintering, egg-laying poultry being overwintered without artificial lighting to stimulate egg production, and the planting fields should more than likely be blanketed by frost-resistant cover crops.

Inspection Item #4: Production should come to a near-halt in Winter. Learn the seasonality of popular fruits and veggies, and watch carefully for farms that produce items well out of season.

5. What is the farm’s relationship with grain?

The use of grain is a touchy subject within environmental and agricultural circles. Most grain doesn’t go to human consumption; rather, it is turned into bio-fuels and animal feed. A very valid criticism of livestock management is the dependence on grain and the effects it has on everything from human health to the “corn system” underwritten by taxpayers and a deteriorating environment. Let’s address the facts of the issue.

First, feeding grain to animals is not a recent development, nor is it inherently unhealthy. The recent development is the AMOUNT of grain being fed to animals. There was a time in America when the average farmer produced a multitude of crops in line with market demands, and among those crops were grains like corn. In the event of a bumper crop that exceeded market demand, excess grain could be fed to livestock. This was a perfect arrangement: the timing of the grain harvest dovetails nicely with the timing of livestock finishing, and surplus grain that couldn’t be sold for human consumption could be diverted to a luxury item – corn fed beef – that sold for a premium.

Or enjoy Sylvanaqua's "Aztec Label" beef, which grazes in fields of chocolate. $10,000/lb.

Or enjoy Sylvanaqua’s “Aztec Label” beef, which grazes in fields of chocolate. $10,000/lb.

Then came the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Farm Bill. With these well-intentioned programs came commodity subsidies, and the side effect that farmers were encouraged to ignore consumer markets. From this well springs our now-perennial grain surplus, which is so enormous that only 20% of the corn harvest goes directly to human consumption, with fuels and feed evenly splitting the remaining 80%. Whereas grain was once far too expensive to be economical as a primary animal feed, it has now become so cheap that grass-fed animals are now the luxury item.

So what’s a consumer to do? First, don’t hold it against your farm if they use grain. Instead focus on how they use grain and whether or not they’re making efforts to return it to its natural role as a supplement:

  • Determine if their feed grain comes from a sustainable source; if it’s not organic, it should at least be local and non-GMO. Give the farm extra points if they raise their own small plots of corn and soybeans to direct to animal feed. The idea here is to make sure that the corn being used to feed the animals isn’t harming the environment.
  • Ask about the farm’s foraging program. The farm should a.) be doing everything it can to promote the development of perennial/self-perpetuating forages, and b.) ensuring animals maximize utilization of forages to reduce dependence on grain.
  • Ask the farmer if they have hard targets for reducing grain consumption. Sylvanaqua’s poultry operation, for example, has an 80/20 ratio of feed to forage. We’re aiming to reduce this ratio to 50/50 or better within the next five years by a.) introducing and improving heritage breeds that are more aggressive foragers and more protein dependent, b.) raising sources of protein ourselves – particularly compost worms, mealworms, and black soldier flies – that compliment our other enterprises, and c.) growing our own grain from local-hardy heirloom sources that are more nutrient-dense.

Inspection Item #4: Determine what efforts the farm is making to return grain to its role as a supplement rather than a primary feed, and determine how serious the farm is about those efforts.