If you’re a homesteader, gardener, or farmer, chances are you’ve thought about how recent economic and geopolitical events are affecting your ability to raise food. Rising fuel costs, supply-chain issues, and violent climate conditions are making some of the vulnerabilities in our systems and practices more apparent. While we here at Fox Holler Farmstead focus on a pasture-based, low input, low fossil fuel program, we still need to do better. Feed prices sky-rocketing, and how we react to this sudden increase in cost may well determine our future farming. If I was successfully riding the tide of instability, I would obviously share my secret with the world. What I can share are some of the vulnerabilities I am noticing here in our project, as well as some practices that appear to be keeping us balanced at the moment. In this post, I will give you some examples of where I see resilience in our system, and where I see vulnerability.
First off, how do we define resilience? As I see it, resilience in our system is its ability to functionally and easily produce calories in the face of exterior disturbance. Let’s take an arbitrary example, like, I dunno, say highly pathogenic avian influenza wiping out our chicken flock. If that flock dies mid-season, even if I’m managing them in a completely humane pasture system, I cannot eat the chicken feed, grass or bugs. The project is not yielding anywhere near it’s intended goals. I could quick, till that pasture and try to plant a vegetable or staple crop, which would cost a lot in fuel, time, effort and stress. If I managed to pull it off, and the crop didn’t fail, we could define that as survival. Resilience isn’t just about surviving. It’s about thriving, weathering the storm with little stress. If we take that same pastured poultry flock, but manage it in an orchard setting, I will still have chestnuts, apples, pears, mulberries, hazelnuts, and blackberries, regardless of poultry disease, fuel costs, and economics. Perennial tree crops are one key to resilience.
Tree crops, once established, can survive weather extremes better than annual crops. One significant flood event can wash out entire fields of corn, wheat, and beans. Nut trees, particularly a diverse range of species, can fill in the nutritional gaps left by this type of exterior pressure. There are many heavy bearing tree crops which can not only make up for human nutrition, but can aid in feeding your poultry crop or pig herd as well. Even leaf and fodder crops, like mulberry and willow can make up for a bad hay or grass year. Mulberry leaves are very protein rich, rivaling alfalfa, don’t need replanting, and are so digestible that non-ruminant animals like pigs, chickens and humans can consume them. Come what may, and whether or not you are currently a land owner, find somewhere to begin planting useful trees. Your future self will thank you.
The rising cost of feed in combination with our fickle local market has forced us to cull our layer flock a bit more dramatically than usual this spring. Honestly, this is probably our own fault… we tend to hold onto our old biddy birds for a lot longer than most egg producers. Part of it that we have traded some economic inefficiency for more naturalized brood-hen behavior. Part of it is that we’re damned softies, and have developed emotional bonds with older birds. What can I say, I’m soft. Still, we do gain some resilience in that we can raise our own replacement hens without needing to order from a hatchery. Should the US Postal Service further degenerate from privatization and a lack of funding, we can do without. The same is not currently true for our turkey program, but we’re working on it. Of all our poultry species, muscovy ducks have really been the most consistent self-replicators, and they’re excellent at foraging. We can produce quite a bit of pastured poultry with very little feed raising muscovies, especially during duckweed season.
So we can weather climate disruption and feed costs with perennial tree crops, and we can further reduce our reliance on hatcheries and imported feeds by switching to muscovy ducks for our poultry needs, but how can we better deal with rising fossil fuel costs? My answer to this may come as no surprise: we do not invest in systems or infrastructure that would fail without fossil fuels.
I admire all the farms out there I see producing food at scale. I understand full well that producing field scale grains and legumes with draft animals is laborious. Perhaps even inefficient. These activities can, however be practical on the homestead/community level. One example I often see of farming systems and infrastructure heavily reliant on fossil fuels is in pastured poultry. If your pastured poultry shelters can only be moved with a tractor, and the move needs to occur frequently, it is subject to external shocks in the fuel market. Utilizing wagons that can be pulled by draft, human power, or generally less frequently with portable electric fencing cuts down on this vulnerability. Utilizing ruminant grazing instead of tractor mowing on poultry pasture not only reduces the vulnerability, but increases calories per acre, soil health, poultry forage, and parasite control. Similarly, the fuel cost of tilling modest garden and staple plots can be saved when pigs and a nice broadfork are brought into the mix.
We’ve seen how raising livestock can be a liability in our resilient system, or of great benefit, depending on our management. Another current problem that livestock can help buffer against is fertilizer shortages. This is low-hanging fruit, y’all. With repeated and careful management, multi-species pasturing can increase fertility in our paddocks. If we plan and design our shelter systems to facilitate easy manure collection, we will have abundant access to fertility. Even if we choose not to raise livestock, human beings are emitting plenty of their own fertility on a daily basis which can be composted with relative ease and the right neighbors. In the design phase of your resilient farmstead, pay careful consideration to fertility cycling. Do not take imports for granted, do not rely on them being available or affordable. Instead, implement a soil health plan that increases your land’s capacity for fertility by supporting microbial and fungal life, and increasing carbon and organic matter. The principles of regenerative agriculture don’t just apply to the big farms; we’re all more resilient when we pay close attention to the needs of our soil.
Another way we can plan for bad times is by maintaining our own seed and stock genetics. I previously mentioned breeding your own poultry flocks to limit reliance on hatcheries, and obviously, we might consider doing the same with other species, if it matches our scale and breeding goals. Seeds, however, are cheaper to maintain and more fun to sort than animals, so I recommend saving and selecting seeds from open-pollinated vegetable and grain varieties as a great place to start. If a gardener were to plant, say 10% more of each vegetable crop just for seed production, they’d most likely not need to purchase seed for the next year, and will have a surplus to share, barter, or sell. My strategy for seeds has been to stick with what works, what tastes good, and try a few new varieties. Succession planting is also a resilient practice, increasing our odds of having the right timing in our garden. With the exception of transplants, every seed I plant gets replanted two weeks later, and perhaps even two weeks after that. This is an especially helpful practice for prolonging manageable sized harvests rather than having to eat or process your crop all at once.
Our food systems need hardy dispositions, healthy soil, careful selection and thoughtful management. One other key way we can strengthen our systems is in how we handle water. Water capture and storage as well as distribution infrastructure, is of utmost importance on the resilient homestead. A tank or cistern can help, but nothing beats a well-sited pond for year round water access. Beyond collection and irrigation, developing healthy soils which can buffer against both drought and flood conditions (the “fertile, well-drained” soils mentioned in your seed catalog) is a vital step towards water self-sufficiency. A grower can collect and store all the rain they want and still their crop will fail if their garden isn’t well mulched or their pastures are stripped of water-retaining top soils. The subject of building water-smart soils is very dense and may well need a post of its own.
On my own farmstead, I’ve had no choice but to evaluate how well I’m doing in these practices. Like everyone, I don’t have all the answers, haven’t honed my own systems to perfection, and am learning through observation everyday. I learn the most by watching our land over time, and being honest with myself. As a homesteader, I’ve worked very hard for the past few years to master new skills, create positive change, and improve my resilience, and it can be tempting to ignore the elephant in the room when a system if failing. Honesty with yourself is the best policy. Responding to geopolitical, economic, and environmental changes is just a part of modern life now. Even the most privileged among us are vulnerable to the external state of affairs. Shift, adapt, and plan for an abundant and resilient future on your homestead and in your community.