It doesn’t have the current buzzword recognition like “regenerative” or “pasture raised”, but I like talking about our farm as a Peripatetic Pasture Farm.
The biggest problem with the word peripatetic is that most people don’t know what it means. Here’s the definition, if you haven’t encountered it before:
Peripatetic (adj): Traveling from place to place, in particular working or based in various places for relatively short periods.
If you watch wild animals you’ll notice that they never stay in one place for very long. The twin pressures of finding the next good bite of food and the fear of predators keep them moving. They are peripatetic. This pattern of movement is seen whether the animals are rabbits moving through residential backyards or large bison herds migrating seasonally across hundreds of miles of rangeland. Since animal movement and migration is a critical ecosystem process, we want to ensure our farming emulates this.
Agriculture, even back in the “good old days” before industrialization, has had trouble with animal movement. The problem really became exacerbated with the invention of barbed wire in the 1870s. Before barbed wire, fencing a whole farm with wood fences was prohibitively expensive. Stone fences and hedges usually don’t keep a group of animals contained for long. So for most farms, except for a small area near the barnyard for the farm horses and maybe a few milk cows, the rest of the livestock didn’t spend much time fenced in. In order for sheep, goats, or cattle to graze without wandering a person stayed with them, herding them to fresh grazing for the day. But barbed wire was a revolutionary product, a disruptive technology. It allowed large fields to be fenced economically. Suddenly nobody needed to spend the day watching the flock or herd. Farmers and ranchers quickly discovered how easily they could fence the stock into a field, leaving them there all season with no ongoing effort other than a quick daily check on everybody to make sure all was well.
Placing a herd of livestock in a pasture and leaving them there turned out to be a huge labor savings, but the labor savings incurred some hidden costs, with the land paying for these costs. Animals in one place for a long time imbalance the pasture ecosystem. They overuse their favorite areas. Overgrazed ground becomes prone to compaction or erosion. Animals congregate in wet areas on hot days, leading to silting and mud in wetlands and ponds, and streambank erosion on waterways. Over time, this pattern degrades the land resources and the wildlife habitat, while also gradually degrading the quality of the pasture for the livestock it was intended for.
Peripatetic farming allows us to keep our livestock constantly on the move. Instead of suffering the consequences of keeping livestock penned up in the same place all year, we let our land experience a more natural state of ebb and flow. The grass grows, the cattle move through, the grass grows again. Peripatetic patterns allow the plants to recover between grazings, so they never lose their root mass or expose bare dirt to erosion. Water resources remain clean and wildlife habitats are preserved. It is a beautiful system, and all quite achievable.
On our farm we have a rule that everything must be movement-oriented. We move our grass fed beef herd to fresh grass every morning. We move our pasture raised chickens to a new pasture every second evening. And our turkey flock moves to a new pasture every three days. These intervals are related to the size of the groups of animals we raise and the area we give them each time. For other farms and in other situations the movement requirements may be different, but I am persuaded that incorporating some sort of consistent peripatetic practice is a fundamental aspect to farm land stewardship.
What do you think? Can we make Peripatetic Pasture Farming the next big farming buzzword?
Compost mentis: Pseudo-Latin for having compost on one’s mind. A common condition among farmers and gardeners.
With the help of a well-equipped neighbor, we were able to spread some compost yesterday. We worked through about 130 cubic yards before breaking a link on the chain that drives the augers on the spreader. There’s a truism in farming that spreaders never break when empty. Repairs always involve a lot of shoveling to dig down to the rock or frozen chunk that’s causing the problem. At least we weren’t dealing with a spreader full of manure; every farmer has stories of forking their way through a steaming load of manure to fix their spreader. Regardless of the setbacks, I’m glad that we were able to spread the compost.
I decided to apply the compost to the most knapweed- and multiflora rose-infested field we have. It also happens to be the least fertile field on the farm. My observation is that many weed problems are actually fertility problems, so adding the compost should change the composition of the plant species and shift things toward more palatable grasses and other forages. Of course, if this is the case, then everything I wrote last week about how the farm grows more grass as we improve the soil will mean that we’ll need to add still more cattle to graze all this!
Rachel grazed the cattle herd across the field and then after they left I went through with the tractor and mowed everything down to clip back the weeds. The compost was in great shape, consistent and crumbly, so I have high hopes for the value it will add to the pasture. With rain showers forecast for this week, the moisture should gently massage the compost into the soil. By this time next summer I should be able to gauge the success of this project, hopefully by standing in a greener, lusher field.
I need more customers. But not for the obvious reason. I need more customers because something remarkable is happening on the land and in the soil here at Wrong Direction Farm. Our farm is waving its leafy appendages at us, asking for more cattle.
Before we moved here in 2011, all the ground that wasn’t swampy or tree-covered had been cut for hay year after year. Making hay just involves mowing the grass, drying it in the sun, and baling it up. Haymaking as a practice is fine in itself, but when all that vegetative growth is exported off the farm year after year, it tends to create soil fertility problems. Removing tons of hay displaces the embedded stores of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and all the other important minerals.
As we began farming, we wanted to do things differently to begin the process of regeneration, so we started by keeping all the grass on the farm, and then added cattle to graze the fields. At first, the forage wasn’t great because of the depleted soil fertility. We’d graze 25 head of cattle and that reached the limit of the farm’s grass resources.
Fast forward to today, and we have a herd of about 50 cattle and we encounter the situation that our farm is growing far more grass than we have cattle to eat it. Hence my need for more customers so I can raise more cattle to eat all this leafy abundance. Properly managed, cattle improve soil fertility and create more plant growth, which in turn supports more cattle. This isn’t magic — it’s all real and measurable — but it seems hard to believe that the soil fertility resources within one farm can be so extendable.
Let’s talk about soil fertility, and then talk about cows.
Soils Aren’t Born, They’re Made
Dig down in your yard below the topsoil and you’ll arrive at a subsoil level which will be the raw clay, sand, or gravelly substrate naturally present in your area. On our farm this is a dense clay or, in some places, a clay-gravel mixture. Plants can’t do much with this subsoil because it has very little carbon, the building block for sugar (remember CHO from high school bio?), which is the fundamental resource for plant growth. Subsoil also lacks the microbial community life of the topsoil. Over recent years plant science has begun to understand just how critical fungal networks and bacterial activity are to proper nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, and water absorption.
Plants on their own can slowly transform subsoil into topsoil as they capture atmospheric carbon and store it in their stems, leaves, and roots. When one generation of plants dies and decomposes, that captured carbon becomes the basis for soil organic matter to support future generations of plants. Over a process of many years, organic matter accumulates and the topsoil layer grows.
The important flow to understand is that atmospheric carbon becomes plant material which then becomes soil organic matter which then supports the biological activity belowground which then supports the biological activity aboveground. There’s endless opportunity to further study the complexities of each aspect, but bearing this cycle in mind should give us sufficient background to understand the next big thing: adding an animal.
How Cattle Make Soil
Adding a cow to a grassy field shifts the curve of soil building dramatically (and this has been true for ecosystems over time whether we’re talking about a deer, a bison, a wooly mammoth, or a brontosaurus). But I should preface everything here by saying that adding cattle only helps the soil insofar as we do it in a responsible way that mimics their natural role in grazing. In wild grasslands, herbivores never remain in one place for long. Pressure from predators and changing seasonal conditions keep them on the move. We replicate this with daily moves as we rotate the cattle through small paddocks. Keeping cattle in the same field all the time leads to a bunch of negative outcomes, so we should be careful to note that cattle can be a biological tool, capable of being used for good or for ill.
By practicing this movement-based grazing on our farm we’ve seen grass fed cattle stimulate soil fertility in three important ways:
1. Trampling. This likely isn’t the first thing to come to mind, but I believe it is the most important part large animals play in creating soil fertility. The cattle step on plants, and with their hooves they crush plant material into contact with the soil. The trampled leaves and stems rot, increasing the amount of organic matter (carbon) in the soil. In a heavy ice and snow environment like ours, all the grasses are eventually flattened each winter, but by grazing cattle through a field three to five times each year we can increase the amount of carbon that gets cycled back into the ground. In effect we double or triple the amount of carbonaceous material going into the soil compared to an ungrazed field just by trampling.
2. Grazing. Unlike mowing, which cuts off all plants close to the ground, animals are selective grazers when given the chance. If we were to lock cattle in a field for a long time, they’d eventually eat everything, but when we rotate them they tend to just select the most nutritious parts of the plants, usually the youngest leaves and leaf tips. The next day we move them to another pasture and the grasses have a month or two to recover. Because we don’t cut the plants off at the base, they still have plenty of leaf area to continue photosynthesis. Pasture plants have ancient adaptations to this kind of selective grazing, so they are stimulated by grazing and actually grow better with occasional grazing. With periodic grazing we can actually grow more plant material tonnage per acre and do more photosynthesis than if we left those plants to grow for a whole year without animal access.
3. Pooping. Of course! The manure doesn’t create any extra carbon besides what the cattle ingested from the grasses, but what is special about manure is that it is biologically enhanced plant matter. It lands on the ground finely digested, fermented, and mixed with enzymes and bacterial inoculants. It sounds unappealing to us, but a plant sees this as a delicious smoothie! In our pastures during the summer most of the manure pats disappear within a couple of weeks. Between combined activities of plants, bacteria, fungi, insects, earthworms, and birds, large cow pies quickly are crumbled into tiny bits of organic matter that are then incorporated into the soil.
More Cows Needed
So after a decade of practicing regenerative agriculture, we’re seeing the results in the grass under our feet. It is growing so fast that the cattle can’t keep up with it. I estimate that we could support 40% more cattle on our farm. If we could grow our customer base enough, we would gladly add the extra cattle. It has been harder to grow the sales side of the farm than it has to grow the soil fertility. But if we ever get there, I’ll be interested to find out what will happen when we are fully stocked. My guess is that we’ll find that fertility will make another jump. We won’t be able to add cattle indefinitely, but I believe that we’re just beginning to tap into the capacities of our soils as we rebuild them into a healthier, more biologically active state.
What’s not to love about a regeneratively grown grass fed beef burger? It checks all of the boxes that are important to me. It provides essential nutrition. It is food locally grown. It supports a farming family. It improves soil and water resources. And, of course, it tastes great.
Wednesday July 21st, 7PM until Dark
Wrong Direction Farm
431 Seebers Ln, Canajoharie, NY 13317
Upcoming farmer-to-farmer event here at Wrong Direction Farm. On Wednesday, July 21st we’ll be hosting a pasture walk, focusing primarily on pasture management in our context for our chickens and turkeys. We raise Certified Organic, pasture raised poultry on our farm, along with grazing a herd of grass fed beef cattle. We sell a portion of our meat directly to customers, and a growing portion of our business is partnering with other farms to provide them chicken and turkey to resell.
The walk begins at 7pm and we’ll go until dark, or as long as you’d like to hang around talking about birds and pasture! We’ll discuss brooding, feeding, labor productivity, season extension, and whatever topics interest the group. Join us for a chance to make connections with other farmers. Let’s learn from each other.
All are welcome, whether you currently have poultry on your farm or not.
[Here’s the link to Part One.]
I don’t intend to harp on lab-grown meat and meat substitutes indefinitely, but if you’ll indulge another week’s posting on this, I think it is important to look at the food system that these food technologies require and promote.
We can start off by acknowledging that commodity meat is a mess, particularly because of the relentless pace of consolidation. Most of the meat industry (indeed the entire food industry) is run as an oligopoly. Each industry segment is concentrated to just four enormous companies owning the majority of production in that category. I covered this in some detail this winter, so I won’t rehash the whole thing. These concentrations have eroded local control and depressed incomes at the farmer level. In order for farmers to remain competitive, they must constantly increase their size as neighbors go out of business. The market is unsustainably expansion-oriented.
Plant-based meat and lab-grown meat both perpetuate this problem and actually double down on it. In listening again to the podcast interviews I highlighted last week, I noticed the meat replacement technology advocates were proud to explain that their backers are companies like JBS, Smithfield, Cargill, and Tyson, the companies who currently have a stranglehold on the meat industry. Further, the soybeans and peas that are processed and treated to become the protein isolates used in the simulated meat products are almost all processed by three companies in the US (Bunge, ADM, and Cargill). In many regions of the country, because of the location of processing plants, there is only one local buyer for farm products, allowing these companies to exercise a monopsony in the supply chain. The future of agriculture envisioned is one that will collapse farming to a purely extractive model, where monocultures of corn, soy, and peas are grown with synthetic fertilizers (because, hey, there won’t be animal manure to use as fertilizer anymore) and shipped to distant fermentation and fractionating factories. Farmers will have fewer options for marketing their production and buyers will have greater ability to manipulate prices.
Who Takes the Hit?
As the production processes are scaled up and prices for plant-based meat substitutes and lab-grown meat drop, the farmers at the greatest disadvantage will be the ones that are most disadvantaged today. We’ve seen how these multinational companies operate: when they can do it, they love to dump cheap products into a developing market, causing the collapse of the indigenous product and replacing it with an import. The pattern has created a worldwide population destabilization, as farming becomes impossible and families lose their land, are uprooted and migrate to urban slums, and then the smallholding farms are snatched up in land grabs by wealthy real estate investors to convert the land into monocropped plantations. Throughout Africa and Asia, wherever meat production is still largely sourced from small farms, these will be the early casualties.
Despite the rhetoric about this being the end of factory farming, cheap food production is first going to knock out smaller, poorer farmers. The companies leading the alt-meat charge are heavily dependent on the continued profitability of their factory farms, so they aren’t going to rush to cut their own legs off. They first will expand their markets, creating cascades of human displacement. Let’s not kid ourselves. It is noteworthy that with all the high toned ethics evinced by the spokespeople for this technology approach toward meat, there is no talk about the effects on all the people displaced in the process.
Eventually, if the prices continue to drop below the production costs of factory farming, the corporate owners will shut down their US-based meat processing as well. That would involve some lost investment for them, but the way they’ve structured their businesses will hang most of the cost on their farmer suppliers. Chicken and pig farmers, for instance, pay the mortgages on millions of dollars of housing. If the contract is cancelled, they are left with a mortgage and no option for finding a new buyer. In the event of a dramatic contraction of the livestock business due to a change in food production models, our rural counties would be stripped of millions of jobs in farming, feed milling, fencing, construction, veterinary services, etc. As we’ve seen with other technology revolutions, we are eager to jump to something new but rarely do we stop and think about what happens with the people left behind. For urban and suburban consumers, this may be easy enough to ignore, except perhaps in election years.
Spitting in the Wind?
With the combined forces of a manipulated agricultural system on one side and public misunderstanding about the powerfully positive possibilities for animals to contribute to food and ecology, is resistance futile? The future of food is being engineered by the biggest corporations in the world and invested in by people with outsized control of billions of dollars of wealth. Regardless of the way meat alternatives develop, the forces directing the entire food production system will continue to select against small producers like us. In talking with other farmers, and just by counting all the farms I’ve seen shuttering their operations, it does seem like it is becoming more difficult to sell to a local marketplace than it was a decade ago. Candidly, there are times when I wonder if this is just spitting in the wind.
On a farm like ours, the compelling story is already in place. We can demonstrate the regenerative effects of animals in making a landscape more robust and resilient. I can grab a shovel and show you on the farm how pasture raised, grass fed, and organic approaches have improved the carbon cycle by increasing my soil organic matter. Or how they have improved the water cycle with new springs opening up as our land has increased its subsoil water holding capacity. All of this happens on hilly terrain that is unsuited for grain and crop production, so we are producing food on acreage that would not otherwise be providing for human nutrition. We could produce and sell food right through a pandemic when large meat producers couldn’t keep up. And as we distribute this meat, the sales support our family and the various small businesses and butchers we work with, not the big four meat packers. I think we have a great story to tell. I hope there will be people to hear it.
As a livestock farmer, I’ve been listening with interest to interviews with influential investors and activists representing plant-based and lab-grown meat replacement businesses. With their stated goals of collapsing the meat industry, of course I have a vested interest in the topic that puts me opposite them. If you’d like some samples, I’d suggest Pat Brown from Impossible foods interviewed by Guy Raz, Sam Harris interviewing Bruce Friedrich and Liz Specht from Good Food Institute, or another Bruce Friedrich interview with Steve Levitt. These three podcasts are all well-articulated discussions, providing sufficient dialog to develop the case against natural meat and for meat replacement technology
The basic premise is that meat production is destroying the world’s climate, overtaxing its resources, creating antibiotic resistant diseases, and as a technology, is incapable of feeding an indefinitely expanding population. Meat replacement technologies are presented as solutions to all these problems. There are two approaches being pursued. The more common one commercially available today involves texturized plant-based ingredients, typically supplemented with bacterial- or fungal-derived additives, arriving at an approximation of ground meat’s taste. The other approach produces more or less identical animal meat from muscle groups that are grown directly from cell cultures.
I have disagreements with many of the buttressing arguments cited in these interviews, as I find that their statistics and research findings are dubiously sourced and craftily stated for maximum rhetorical effect. Like any advocate, their interests are served by finding presentations that sound sincere and convincing, so this story sculpting isn’t surprising. Every well funded PR effort engages in it.
Fear not: I won’t battle with my facts versus their facts. This isn’t a cable news show with voluble “experts” snidely lobbing fact grenades over the wall at each other. I hate that approach.
I’m suspicious of the way most arguments are marshalled no matter the topic, how a narrative constellation is picked out of a cluster of conflicting data. I spent enough years before farming working at jobs involving numerical forecasting and statistical modelling to know that even the most “just the facts ma’am” scientific approaches are typically swayed more by initial expectations of the person running the model (and especially by the executive signing off on their work) than by the data in the model. And for a topic as difficult to measure and as multidimensional as animal agriculture and its global impact, there are no end of opportunities for grooming and nudging the facts.
The Root Issue
My fundamental disagreement with the technology-based plans for a meatless future is philosophical, regardless of whatever quibbles I have with their arguments. I don’t have a problem with someone making a better veggie burger, or with anyone who decides they won’t ever eat meat. I do have deep reservations with the zeitgeist underpinning the corporations and lobbyists working to supplant meat with their technologies. Their vision for the future continuously links back to a fundamental bias for a brittle concentration of proprietary, patented food production versus an open, robust, human-centered food network. As events of the last year have amply illustrated, this is exactly the wrong approach to take in an unstable world.
I’ll discuss this more in the upcoming weeks and lay out my vision for a better future for food. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts on what a future of abundant, nutritious food might look like.
This week we set up a new feed storage bin. As interest in pasture raised poultry has increased, our flocks have grown and we found we needed a bigger bin for all the organic chicken feed we’re using. Having a second bin also allows us to keep two different feed mixes on hand so we’re better able to adjust the diet as the chickens and turkeys age. (Don’t tell the turkeys this because they might be offended, but after we start them on a turkey-specific feed, they transition to eating chicken feed too).
We needed some help getting the top section in place. We were able to assemble the legs and cross-bracing and then to set the lower twelve feet of the bin ourselves, but the upper half was out of reach. Varnum, our local pole barn builder, had a free moment in his schedule and brought his crane truck over to assist in flying the top section into position. I was going to rent a telescopic lift for the job, but I’m glad to have been able to hire a neighbor instead.
Zia and I are just finishing up the details, assembling the pneumatic fill pipes and the auger. Getting the auger in place is another job that would be easier with a crane or telehandler, but I’ve managed to contrive a cradle in the past using the tractor forks, so I think I can make that arrangement work again.
The turkeys and chickens are doing well this spring, so it has been gratifying to see how this year’s infrastructure improvements are helping us keep the birds in top form.
This week marks ten years for WDF. We moved to this farm in June 2011 full of ambition and eager to work.
As I look back, I can trace a meandering path of trial and error that has gradually led us to the place we occupy today as a functional, self-sustaining farm. While many of our specific ideas turned out to be imperfect, the general principles behind those plans have proven to be a solid foundation. We have managed to integrate family life into the life of the farm. We’ve been able to stay true to our goals of grass fed, pasture raised, and organic. We have connected ourselves to the life of a place and to the lives of many people.
July 2012 (I couldn’t find anything from 2011)
The children have grown and become competent in their own right at various aspects of farming. The land on our farm has become vastly more fertile as we’ve transitioned it away from a more extractive model of agriculture to be a regenerative grazing farm.
But I don’t think the narrative is complete by talking solely about what our family has accomplished here. I want you to know that if you are a person who buys and eats WDF products month after month, you have been building this farm. The choices you have made with your food dollars have anchored this farm, providing the cash to keep it going and growing. And over the years you have been there to bring encouragement and joy. We have only been able to make this work because of all the people who value this food and this way of farming.
Thank you for shaping Wrong Direction Farm into what it is. We are delighted to be your family’s farmers.
When I learned about the Syracuse Salt Company and their story, I knew I had to find a way to offer their products on our website. They are exactly the kind of family business we love to support, as they are committed to artisanal production right here in our area. And since their seasonings are a natural culinary pairing with our farm’s meats, the connection makes perfect sense.
David Iannicello and Libby Croom are a father and daughter team behind the Syracuse Salt Company. Scattered throughout our part of Central New York one can find salt springs, places where brine surfaces from ancient underground salt deposits. The Syracuse area is known for especially productive and pristine salt deposits.
After getting their start selling specialty sea salts, David and Libby discovered that they could get their own salt well drilled to tap into this salt deposit right under their feet. Here’s how they describe their process:
“In order to produce this beautiful flake, we evaporate the water slowly, leaving behind a pure, snow white flake loaded with minerals. It is sifted to a uniform size and hand packed for your use. As an added benefit, because the salt comes from a well, there is no risk of micro-plastics as with some sea salts.”
The result of their work is a fantastic finishing salt, versatile enough to rim your cocktail glass or to season your steak. They also produce some excellent seasoned salts. We’re offering their Black Garlic Flake Salt (made with fermented garlic grown by another farm in our area), Rosemary Flake Salt, and Chili Black Lime Flake Salt. Everyone in our family likes the Rosemary salt; it is a real crowd-pleaser. Rachel enjoys the Chili Black Lime salt on wedges of avocado. I think the Black Garlic salt is perfect when I sprinkle it on my morning plate of fried eggs.
Try it and let me know what foods you’re using it on.
A popular and insistent narrative is that we need more herbicides for humanity to survive. The argument is framed in predictable ways. Typically we are presented first with grim statistics and the utilitarian moral argument that the world will run out of food for a growing population unless we radically increase our dependence on crops grown with toxic chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, and gene edited plants. The moral argument is followed with a technology perspective that these chemicals are safe, necessary, and fully understood based on rigorous science. Given the urgent need and the consequences of inaction, we’d be fools or monsters to stand in the way of feeding a hungry child.
The EPA has conducted a review of its own decision to permit the widespread use of the herbicide Dicamba in 2018. And what it found was not surprising to me. Instead of reviewing actual research findings, internal peer review was curtailed. Political appointees with industry connections pushed the scales over to acceptance without regard for the research work.
The companies that stood to gain from the use of Dicamba include Bayer (formerly Monsanto) and BASF. The same companies that created the need for more potent herbicides because of over-use of their previous wonder herbicide Roundup are now positioning themselves as the ones holding the next solution to the problem. At the same time that their products were being fast-tracked for approval by the EPA without regard for science, they were producing paternalistic, feel-good ads about how their genetically modified seeds and herbicides were bettering the lives of marginalized smallholder farmers throughout the world. Who knew the soundtrack to the era of corporate colonialism would be delicate, looping piano music?
Maybe the EPA will surprise me, but US Agricultural policy has remained pretty consistent during the Trump, Obama, W Bush, and Clinton administrations, really going back all the way back to Eisenhower. I expect that this particular regulatory issue will only be a temporary setback as there are still too many forces pressuring the agencies to approve use of Dicamba and other herbicides. Perhaps the institutions can be reformed, but clearly they aren’t protecting us at present.
The industrial food system isn’t feeding us the kind of food we want to eat and the regulatory system isn’t protecting us from danger. Outrage at the failure is understandable, but action is better. If we want something better, we’ll all have to build it on our own, together. This is a great time of year to plant that backyard garden you’ve always been thinking of, even if it is just three potted bell pepper plants on your porch steps. For whatever you can’t grow, find farmers who represent your values in their practices. Be involved in and support the production of good food.