September 30, 2013

Sows and Soil: Building a Sustainable and Profitable Farm

By Harry Stoddart, Stoddart Family Farm, Ontario, Canada

The System of Rice Intensification drew last week to a close, but we continue discussing the challenges and means by which to increase productivity of land while balancing ecological and social needs. Today, Harry Stoddart articulates the approach and underlying mentality he has cultivated over the years, moving from industrial farming to a more holistic livestock management.

How does the way we think about intensifying agricultural production change when not just focused at a farm level? It’s unfortunate that this question needs to be asked at all. Nothing in the biological world has the defined boundaries that we use to understand our world. Ecosystems are fractal structures that every time you zoom in closer look exactly the same – from the planet as a whole down to the organelles within a cell – the boundaries that we define don’t exist. There is no life form that exists that is not dependent on another life form. For example, we cannot survive without the oxygen from plants and the digestion provided by the flora in our guts. To define and manage a “farm” without considering the context of the surrounding ecosystem and community is folly. Yet that is exactly what modern agriculture does – success is measured by the yield per acre. There is very little thought given to the impact beyond the farm. If we started from a goal of creating a flourishing future for every living creature forever – thank you to John Ehrenfeld for the definition – we would change our management of farms significantly.

If we want a flourishing future for the planet, we have to change our agricultural practises. Agriculture modifies more of the landscape than any other activity. Agriculture consumes 70% of our freshwater takings. Agriculture emits 10-20% of carbon emissions (depending on the particular bent of the person measuring.) Phosphorus and nitrogen runoff from farms is destroying aquatic ecosystems. Agricultural practises are consuming topsoil and organic matter.

In order for the planet to flourish in the future, agriculture has to be changed from a destructive force into a regenerative force. We need agricultural production methods that build soil, are carbon negative, are primarily rainfed, and rely on recycling nutrients.

The fundamental flaw in current agricultural practises is a management framework that causes us to focus on the financial return in the short term without considering the long term costs and benefits, which ultimately favours annual monocultures. Properly managed perennials can build soil, are more resilient and can be managed through erratic rainfall more easily than annuals but they can’t beat the short term windfalls available from corn or soybean production (although those windfalls are diminishing every time I look at the futures.)

The challenge is to meet a farm’s short-term goal of profitability (a pre-condition for a sustainable farm) while working towards the long-term goals. The good news is that we already understand how to achieve these goals. We only need to look to the ecosystems that we are surrounded by. The framework I prefer for managing towards a flourishing future is Allan Savory’s Holistic Management® framework. Using it causes a fundamental shift in approach. The farm operation becomes a tool you are using to create the lifestyle that you (and the other members of your production team, including your family) want and the future you desire for yourself, your land, and your community. Every management decision is tested against whether it moves you towards your long-term goals. You explicitly consider your impact on the four main ecosystem processes: energy flow, water cycling, mineral cycling, and population diversity.

Our farm has gone through a few major transitions since I bought my parents conventional farrow-to-finish confinement hog operation almost 20 years ago. Our first challenge with sustainability was economic – a devastating disease outbreak and the hog market crash in ’98 pushed us to the edge of bankruptcy. We reinvented ourselves as a certified organic cash crop farm but started to see negative impacts on our soils from too much tillage and were concerned that we were back into a price-taking role in the market. We’ve now transitioned to a Community Supported Agriculture model for grass-fed and pastured meats. This model addresses our need for financial sustainability, focuses us on serving customers in a local market to sustain our community, and allows us to farm with a model primarily based on perennials managed in a way that builds soils. And on top of that, I should be able to pass the farm onto the next generation in better shape ecologically and economically.

A farm cannot exist in isolation from the ecosystem and community that surrounds it, and therefore, management decisions must take into consideration their impact on the ecosystem and community.

Read more:
Real Dirt: An Ex-industrial Farmer’s Guide to Sustainable Eating: www.realdirt.ca

Holistic Management: www.holisticmanagement.org or http://www.savoryinstitute.com

Photo credit: Connor Stoddart

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