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Permaculture

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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Click here for the first article in this series, Sustainability Rant Part I: Canaries in Camouflage.

Click here for the second article in this series, Sustainability Rant Part II: The Renegade Generation

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Here’s one great thing about Millennials: they don’t want to live in traditional suburbs. The sterile, cookie-cutter, vinyl-sided planned developments filling the space immediately surrounding cities are arguably among the most poisonous, least productive, wholly-uninspried landscapes on the planet. Suburban landscaping says little more than “at least I’m not concrete.”

Cities themselves, however, are generally too expensive to offer Millennials the space they’ll need to raise the families that, though they’re doing it later than their parents, they still very much want to have. And so this generation will move to the area outside the cities, and reinvent them completely. In fact it’s already begun; next time you’re driving through the closest-in suburbs of a major city, take a good hard look at the kind of development taking place. Real estate developers are finding higher demand and profits in mixed-use, high-density neighborhoods where all necessary amenities are located within walking distance of the residential units, lawns are replaced with common areas, room are smaller, hallways shorter, and bathrooms/kitchens more chic than grand.

This applies, of course, mostly to new development. There are countless suburbs of the old “white picket fence” model that will wind up coming on the market sooner or later, and it’s in these wasteful spaces that the Millennial’s appetite for change and transformation could revolutionize the way we live… and especially the way we eat.

Next time you’re taking a walk through a suburban neighborhood, take a look at all the lawns. The medians. The park and recreation areas. While you’re looking at them, think about this: a mature permaculture food forest can produce six million food calories on an acre, in a year. That’s the equivalent of 4,000 lbs of beef and enough food to feed eight people for an entire year. Assuming I’m off by half since we’re not raising any animals in the suburbs, that’s still enough to feed four people for a year.

Now imagine your typical suburban development with a 200 units sporting 0.2 acre lawns. That’s 40 acres without counting all the medians, common areas, and woodlots – and it’s enough space to easily provide a free organic lunch every single day to each and every person in the neighborhood. Imagine the amount of money households would save! The average worker spends about $2,000 a year on lunch. Doubling this figure to account for most suburban households having two workers (but leaving the estimate conservative since we’re not accounting for children) means the food forest would save the entire 200 household neighborhood close to $1 million annually. That’s going to be important as adult Millennials are predicted to enjoy lower inflation-adjusted incomes than their parents.

The environmental and aesthetic benefits are manifold. Food forests are polycultures that don’t have to be mowed, weeded, or artificially fertilized. Car-averse Millennials could narrow the roads in the neighborhood to encourage bicycles and more space for planting. Less impervious surface area coupled with a multi-story food forest means less runoff, flooding, and pollution. Finally, tree guilds are quite beautiful as they rely on a dozen or more different species planted together. The boring tree-mulch-grass trio common in suburbs today would be replaced by guilds of apples, comfrey, lupins, clover, daffodils, dill, fennel, chives, and chicory growing on every non-concrete surface in the neighborhood.

These benefits also wind up in your pocketbook as your HOA doesn’t have to spend money on lawnmowing, trimming, pruning, mulching, and annual ornamentals. The runoff reduction, if the food forest model were adopted among enough neighborhoods, would curtail runoff to the point where stormwater taxes could be halved, the costs of treating water quartered, and the price of environmental cleanup transferred to the corporations and factory farms doing most of the polluting.

You get all this just by changing the way we “decorate” the suburbs, and the seeds of that change are already being planted. Many universities and regional parks are already adopting the concept of “edible landscapes,” and it’s only a matter of time before a critical mass of individuals decides that it’s silly not to grow food right where they live. And there’s no reason this revolution couldn’t happen in workspaces either, as office parks suffer the same uninspired landscaping as most suburbs. Office food forests could save employees money and save the employer lost productivity as workers no longer need to take time to drive to lunch. Supporting all this could be an entire new industry of farming-as-a-service rising from the ashes of the landscaping industry, as the latter trades in its lawnmowers and hedge trimmers for greenhouses and harvesting tools.

The possibilities of this new model of sustainable food production are positively endless.

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Part IV of this series will be released on December 23, 2013.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms

A few weeks ago I was discussing various topics in sustainable agriculture with farmers and apprentices at the Accokeek Foundation’s Ecosystem Farm in Accokeek, Maryland, about 20 minutes south of Washington, D.C. During the course of the discussion, it was mentioned that my farm’s goal was to move the price of sustainably-raised food into a sphere competitive with that of conventionally-raised food. This statement drew two reactions, both of which are rather common whenever I mention the idea of democratizing sustainability through price.

The first reaction is amused disbelief: “Do you really think that’s possible?” is what I most often hear from a concerned face pitying my delusional optimism.  Naturally, I think it’s possible to compete with conventional agriculture on price, but not if we insist on playing their game: focusing on commodity and wholesale markets, relying on annual labor/machine intensive agriculture, and leveraging economies of scale. All of these practices require sustainable operations to compensate for their shortcomings in ways that will always result in a more expensive product.

Permaculture offers a way to lower prices in a revolutionary way: reducing the need for human intervention in agricultural systems. Pasture-based farms are the gateway to this model in offering a limited-input method for producing herbivores, but staple crops and omnivorous meat products (e.g. pork and poultry) can’t be produced in these systems at a competitive price point. Moving into staples would require a fundamental shift in the entire agricultural model: away from commodity/hybrid species and toward locally-adapted species, away from annual crops and toward perennial crops, away from specialization and toward diversification, away from centralized distribution and toward localized distribution.

When you read about all that necessary change, the “do you really think that’s possible” question sounds awfully appropriate. But ultimately, someone has to believe it’s possible because the alternative – maintaining the status quo and keeping sustainable ag products solely in the realm of the elite – is quite hopeless. The sustainability movement can’t save the world if it’s only accessible to a small slice of it.

The second reaction is more nuanced and requires a bit more thought. Many natural farmers chafe at lowering their prices, and not just for selfish reasons. The logic holds that people don’t place enough value on food, and the relatively high price of organic food teaches people that food isn’t a commodity and is something important enough to be valued. I’ve heard Joel Salatin echo this argument: “If you can understand the difference between a BMW and a Honda, then you can understand the difference between a Polyface Broiler and a Purdue Broiler.”

There are two big problems with this line of argument. First, it assumes that price is either the only or the most important vehicle for conveying the value of food. I’ve always thought the best way to convey the value and fragile nature of food production is to have people grow it themselves. Growing a tomato plant will change a person’s outlook on food in a way that higher prices and exclusive markets never could. And for middle- and lower-income people, the price of organics is not just higher, it’s prohibitively higher.

As I argued that last point, the folks I was debating made the valid counterargument that it’s not impossible to get middle and lower-income individuals to pay more for a good product. One of the apprentices, who grew up in southeast D.C. around the same time I did, correctly mentioned that you could go to a Section 8 project in the worst part of the city. and see kids with $400 iPhones and $200 sneakers walking out of apartments where the $60 heat bill hasn’t been paid all winter. The problem we have to contend with, I argued, is the fact that premium products in areas like consumer electronics and fashion provide instant, tangible benefits. To get benefits from an iPhone or a new pair of Jordans, you buy it one time and your friends ooh and aah over it right away.

Healthy food, on the other hand, conveys benefits that are both intangible and delayed. To get benefits from healthy food, you have to buy it for a lifetime and the benefits are only realized decades later when your friends ooh and aah over your lack of diabetes and hypertension. Of course, healthy food isn’t the only thing that people consume for a lifetime to provide a delayed benefit. Toothpaste also falls into that category. But the reason that only 26% of people regularly buy organic food while 94% brush their teeth at least once a day? Toothpaste doesn’t cost twice as much as the next best alternative.

Second, the Honda/BMW analogy hits the mark in terms of the value proposition (i.e. of course you pay more for a better product) but misses the broader point entirely. BMW, whose mission is to make a tidy profit and produce the world’s best-engineered cars, benefits from the exclusivity that stems from its price point. BMW can fulfill its mission without appealing to people with Honda budgets. In fact, offering products to appeal to budgets outside of BMW’s high-luxury wheelhouse (i.e. the introduction of the 1 series) produced quite a bit of groaning among the company’s core clientele.

Sustainable agriculture on the other hand, whose mission is to save the world by displacing conventional agriculture, would find that exclusivity directly contradicts its mission: We can’t replace conventional agriculture if we can’t capture their customers. This presents the following set of realities:

  1. Sustainable agriculture is producing BMWs
  2. Most people can only afford Hondas
  3. The fate of humanity depends on us getting Honda customers into BMWs

We’re left, then, with two options. 1.) Convince people with Honda budgets to pay the high price of our BMWs, or 2.) Find a way to make our BMWs more affordable without compromising quality.

The first option seems, to me, unworkable. Assuming that some marketing genius is able to convince the masses that organic food is as worthy a luxury item as an iPhone, you’ve still got a problem: people don’t consume luxury items everyday. It’s not enough to have people buying “BMW food” for special occasions to show off to their friends; sustainable agriculture only works if the majority of agricultural land is under sustainable management, and that only makes sense if people are getting most or all of their food from us. Catering to a bigger niche market may satisfy the 20 year financial goals of a few sustainable farmers, but it doesn’t satisfy the 100+ year goal of restoring the environment and changing the face of American agriculture. The bottom line is, even if you’re able to convince lower and middle-income people to pay the higher price for your food, our movement still loses in the long run because they can’t afford to buy from us every day.

That leaves us with the second option: making our BMWs more affordable. As I mentioned earlier in the discussion of low-input permaculture, this option seems viable. Our hope here lies in the yin and yang of technological innovation and ancestral knowledge, a holistic marriage of human ingenuity and natural elegance. In this space lies the solution to making the sustainability movement not just visible, but accessible, and capable of continuing our ability to live happily on this planet.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms

Be sure to check out the other articles in this season’s series:

Lessons from the Farm, Pt. I – Brooders and Feeding
Lessons from the Farm, Pt. II – Poultry Processing
Lessons from the Farm, Pt. III – Fact Check: The Cost of Starting a Farm

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Scalability

My father-in-law and I began clearing a bunch of trees last May, the first living sacrifices for what would eventually become our poultry pastures. I was still employed as a technology consultant at the time, so I was happy to be out in the country exercising and getting fresh air. At some point, either I or one of a few friends that were helping us said “Yeah… I could definitely do this instead of [current sedentary career] for a living.” Pops, a general contractor with decades of experience in construction, shot back, “Do it for a year, then say that again.”

He was right. The clearing of land dragged on through the summer and was easily the most backbreaking work I’ve ever done. By the end I didn’t quite hate it, but there’s no way I’d be willing to keep it up for an entire year, much less a living. Since the tree felling ordeal, there’s one very important idea I ask when presented with a new idea for our farm operation: Would this idea still work if I a.) had to do it forever, or b.) had to scale the practice up?

This idea first bore fruit when I was trying to figure out the broilers’ feeding schedule. I’d been reading all over the internet about people checking on their birds every three or four hours, carefully restricting their feed to just six hours a day, and otherwise babysitting them practically around the clock. Checking on the broilers every few hours would be fairly easy for us right now since we just have one pen fairly close to the house. But next year we’ll have three or four, and the year after that we’ll probably go to a dozen or more, with some of them being on neighboring properties. On top of that we’ll have pigs, hens, bees, turkeys, gardens and orchards to contend with at the same time. Needless to say, managing the birds by keeping a near-constant eye on them is a solution that wouldn’t scale to a mature operation, so I forced myself to come up with a service schedule that allows me to visit the pens just twice a day.

The same idea convinced us to get a guard dog for the broilers. After a raccoon attack claimed five of our biggest birds, we start putting 4×4 blocks around the edges of the pen to secure it against burrowing predators on uneven ground. Again, this solution works well for our single pen but fails the “what if I had to do this for ten pens” test miserably. Unpinning and re-pinning the 4x4s on one pen takes about seven minutes. On ten pens it’ll take over an hour, ultimately tacking on additional labor costs of $6,400 for the entire season. This adds about 25 cents a pound to the sale price in addition to tying up time (to the tune of eight man-weeks) that could be spent doing other things. The alternative was to buy a guard dog for less than $100 (allocate this at $10/year over the ~10 year life of the dog), make a one-time labor investment of about $800 in training (allocate this at $80/year over the 10 year life of the dog), bank on about $500/yr in vet bills and meds, and feed the guy with unsellable birds and homemade dry kibble for $50/mo. It wasn’t hard to opt for $640/year instead of $6,400/year.

We’re still using the 4x4s on the practice pen because it isn’t economical to use a guard dog for just one pen, but next year those blocks will definitely be repurposed for something else.

The bottom line is, do not become dependent on any practice that can’t grow with you.

The Importance of Having a Mission and Values

If you’re into sustainable agriculture, there’s a good chance that you’re fairly well read. Sustainability rarely makes the news, so having a clue about the movement usually means putting eyes on books. When you decide to take the plunge into a farm of your own, your voracious appetite for knowledge will be critical to your success. But it can also be your undoing.

Sustainable agriculture is experiencing a renaissance. Increasing numbers of people are both entering the field and maturing within the field, spawning an array of new and exciting ideas so vast as to be overwhelming. In my own experience, I found the ideas of my Native ancestors, Joel Salatin, Sepp Holzer, Mark Shepard, Alan Savory, and many others competing for space in my head, often contradicting one another. For example:

  • Compost is a key element of Salatin’s fertility program. But then, the legendary Sepp Holzer does not practice intensive composting at all.
  • Tillage disrupts and destroys soil life. But then, it can be done in a way where that disruption is only temporary and erosion/compaction doesn’t become a problem. Furthermore, no-till practices are nearly impossible to implement economically.
  • Nothing builds topsoil like perennial grasses grazed by herbivores. But then, forests and savannas produce much more biomass and capture much more sunlight than open pasture.

I was in danger of schizophrenic thinking. All the ideas sounded great, including those at odds with one another. What ultimately saved me was the fact that I’d articulated a mission statement and core values for the farm several months earlier.

It’s understandable that mission and values statements sound both corporate and hokey. And it’s deservedly so in many cases since large corporations have by and large reduced their mission statements to cheap marketing bylines, and drifted far enough from their stated values to render them meaningless. Nevertheless, a simple but thoughtfully considered mission and values can be indispensable in guiding you through difficult decisions. I’ll share Sylvanaqua’s mission and values:

Mission Statement:

Make a healthy, happy world.

Core Values

Holism: Evaluate actions against the holistic goal, and their potential impact on future times and distant places.

Sustainability: Produce a net improvement in the continued ability to live happily on this planet.

Inclusion: Absolutely everyone deserves to be healthy and happy

With that in mind, here’s how our mission and values helped us to adopt the farming strategy we have today: one that involves a few years raising commercial breeds on pasture-based systems until our permaculture landscape matures:

Our farm is fairly unique in its value of inclusion. Many natural farmers treat the socioeconomic exclusivity of organic food as both unfortunate and unchangeable. As I’ve argued earlier, however, sustainable agriculture can’t fulfill it’s mission (i.e. saving the world) without moving into the mainstream; as James Madison would have put it, “a minority may block or delay, but ultimately may not govern.”  Lots of natural farmers and our supporters fight the good fight against ag subsidies and cronyism in an effort to get conventional agriculture to reflect its true cost. And while I believe that’s a worthy effort, I also believe there needs to be a Plan B that wouldn’t result in a debilitating economic shock on middle and lower income populations.

We can’t make everyone happy and healthy if we suddenly dump the ag subsidies. Food prices would double (or worse) and there’d be blood in the streets. Mainstream organic and natural production, as they stand today, are simply not capable of providing a product that’s affordable for the average person.

We considered several solutions to this problem:

  • Overproducing intentionally by about 10% to provide giveaways of our food to lower income people.
  • Annual community fundraising to set up a mobile market that doubles the purchasing power of lower income people. People come to the market, and for every dollar they spend, we match it with the money from the donations.
  • Getting into the community to teach people how to grow their own food.

Each of these solutions was a non-starter. The first idea would practically eliminate our profit and violate our principle of reducing overproduction. The second idea would make lower income people dependent on fickle public charity and increase their powerlessness. The third idea is one we’re still pursuing, but there’s only so many fruits and veggies people can eat; they can’t grow adequate staple crops and meat in an urban environment. At least not yet.

Underlying all three of these ideas was an assumed high price of organic food. It became clear natural food would be forever inaccessible (or accessible only through undesirable means) to the average person so long as the price remained high. So, how could we lower it and make it competitive with conventionally grown food without all the subsidies?

Asking this question eventually led me to consider permaculture. Among other things, permaculture espouses the development of extremely resilient, low-input agricultural systems by maximizing the capture of solar energy, installing perennial plant species, rearing animals naturally, and aggressively culling both plants and animals to encourage local adaptations. While the environmentally restorative effects of the system are to be lauded, I found myself particularly interested in the notion of feed and labor savings. If my animals could be fed with forage that I had to neither buy nor plant (due to perennial species), and my time in feeding and babysitting animals not bred for local conditions could be directed elsewhere – then I could pass those savings on to my end product to make it available to more people.

For these reasons I ultimately decided to orient my operation towards permaculture, but the glaring problem with that system is the time it takes to become productive. In a pasture-based system I can buy 200 Cornish Cross broilers from Ohio tomorrow and in eight short weeks I’ll have a harvest. Permaculture involves extensive earthwork projects, planting of trees and shrubs that won’t produce a harvest for years, and cull-strengthening the flora and fauna to adapt them to the local environment over a period of several years. Because of that reality, I decided to continue with pasture systems (which are infinitely more sustainable than conventional and even traditional organic systems) long enough to get our permaculture landscape to the point where it becomes our centerpiece.

It’s worth noting that these decisions would have been much more difficult without our core values. The decision to pursue permaculture is entirely rooted in the promise of fulfilling our core value of inclusion. Without that core value to drive decision-making, it’s very likely that we simply would have taken and remained on the path of least resistance. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but I’d have likely spent the next several years second-guessing my decisions and being buffeted by the relentless tide of new ideas coming out of the natural farming renaissance.

Like a ship’s compass in a storm, your values will guide your farm through rough seas of naysayers, sales pitches, competing ideas, hyperactive enthusiasm, fads, and the desire to do everything at once. Take the time to build your compass, and find yourself farming deliberately instead of being moved along by the tide. You’ll thank yourself later.

 

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms