Our farm recently decided to thin trees to allow more sunshine and to create a more varied, open and historically typical landscape near the river. Here’s why:
1. Our vision has long included an accessible, edible and diverse ecosystem along the river that better reflects how the land would have looked 500+ years ago and allows trail-goers a view into a regenerative dairy farm.
2. While our eyes are used to seeing a limited range of predictable landscapes — forests, fenced livestock, cropland, housing developments or shopping malls — there is an ecosystem that is far more imaginative and inviting: silvopasture — think of a cultivated savannah with more frequent rainfall.
3. Silvopastures are perhaps the most productive agricultural system and may be the only proven way of sequestering carbon while feeding large numbers of people.
4. Silvopastures create microclimates for forage species and animals that modulate the extremes of seasons and provides natural air conditioning for the cows during our hot summers and an extended growing season for plants.
5. Finding ways to create inclusive and productive food systems in the same contexts where we live and work is the only hope we have to restore balance to a planet that is showing many troubling signs of a declining ability to sustain life.
Our mission: to eat and transact in harmony with natural systems
The core philosophy of our farm is how we eat is inextricably tied to our ability to live in health and in harmony with each other and the larger community of species with whom we dwell amongst. It’s why we have built a 100-percent grass-fed, 50-cow dairy from scratch, with chickens, pigs, turkeys and sheep as co-laborers. And it’s why we deeded a dozen acres a few years ago to the Haw River Trail so that the community could begin to enjoy the fruits of our labors. (In a few years we hope to share some actual fruit: mulberries, persimmons, pawpaws, huckleberries, blueberries, muscadine grapes that we are planting both along the HRT and also on trails we are building on the farm.)
Everyday we work to rewed what has been estranged: animals and plants, farmers and eaters, living ecosystems and places of commerce. We all eat every day if we are blessed enough to do so. How we do that determines — more than any other single choice — what our world looks like.
The Native Americans that proceeded us on the Haw River had a lot of things right: they harvested their food and took in all of the sensory nourishment from their environment in the same place. Imagine a grocery store that was also your gym and your therapist and your social media feed. Imagine you didn’t need a grocery store, gym, therapist or social media feed… and all of your creaturely needs for beauty, nourishment, exercise, communion with the divine, healing and connection with all creatures (bi-peds, four-leggeds and hundred-leggeds), were all part of the same life-affirming experience.
We often see beautiful landscapes as something separate from ourselves, what Wendell Berry calls the “terrarium view” of ecology (do yourself a favor and stop reading this post and just read Wendell Berry instead). We protect parks but the places where our daily sustenance comes from have turned to wastelands. This segregated view of ecology doesn’t take into account our role as stewards. And it denies a core fact: if we eat something that we didn’t grow ourselves or connect with a person who did, somewhere a habit was likely destroyed.
At 1,000 miles away, we don’t have to reconcile ourselves with those choices. The corn and soy products that are the foundation of all the packaged “foods” we eat result in man-made deserts that stretch for thousands if not tens of thousands of acres at a time. When we eat in our backyard, we can’t escape the consequences. There is no more broccoli in Iowa — the nation’s breadbasket by and large grows feed for cattle and cars. The resulting loss of soil is perhaps the biggest non-topic affecting our nation’s future (amazing and readable and hopeful book on this subject: Perilous Bounty).
A more integrated path forward means we participate in living food-scapes
We believe that the social contract works best when we create places where people can interact in a meaningful way with the landscapes that provide our sustenance. Other than two small areas on the farm that have long been kept cleared because of the now-abandoned power lines and the still-active natural gas line, the 180 acres that comprise the creaturely habitat for our milk cows and their calves is otherwise not visible from the river trail. (The 120 acres on the other side of Hobby Creek, pictured above, is home to our young stock and sheep.)
We are proud of how we raise calves on cows, sharing milk with their rightful offspring — and the sight of cows and their frolicking babes, who grow up in a biologically normal and intact matriarchy — is something that is almost non-existent on dairy farms in modernized cultures. We get calls and letters every week from people all over the country who want to emulate these “back-to-the-future” practices. It seemed silly to us that our own neighbors weren’t able to easily see something so simple and joyful.
We believe animals, particularly large animals, belong in savannah as they would have been in this region for thousands of years — and those savannahs would have likely been to the river’s edge. We are leaving a 165′ to 215′ buffer from the river for riparian habitat (more on that in our next post).
We know that buffalo, panther, wolf and elk were along the Haw River in the 1700s. Journals of an early European settler, John Powell, enumerate buffalo sightings in the area, as close as Mebane, and as late as 1737. The last buffalo was killed in North Carolina in 1799, almost a century before these magnificent beasts — so vital to the sequestration of atmospheric carbon in the ground in the form of soil fertility — were wiped out of the American West.
Although most artifacts in the area point to deer and rabbit being the most likely source of protein for Native Americans along our section of the Haw, and some people doubt that there were bison near present-day Saxapahaw, the large ruminants are certainly native to the region. Large, grass-eating animals certainly were here before we were, including the mastodon, and they would have kept the areas near rivers more open than we are accustomed to seeing today. John Lawson described the riverbanks in the early 1700s as full of deer, raccoons, turkey, and even bears. In order to sustain life for herbivores, the plant community along the river would have almost certainly included many more grasses.
Using modern bison (a.k.a., cattle) to keep grasslands sequestering carbon
A savannah is an open or semi-open landscape dotted with trees and is primarily a grassland ecology that can support a diverse mix of animals. We have been working for years to open up our woods to more sunlight. Large grazing animals depend on a landscape prolific with grasses, forbes and legumes, and all of those species can exist in a treed understory, provided that sun can reach the soil surface.
Indeed, there’s tons of evidence that grasses under trees make both the grasses and the trees more productive, especially in low-fertility environments such as the Southeast (where the soil respires much of the year, thus making carbon less likely to stay in the soil without active management).
Silvopasture is the most proven agricultural system in the world for sequestering carbon. We also create it in our open pastures by planting native trees. The trees and understory grasses are symbiotic and together produce far more biomass than either alone. Furthermore, silvopastures seem to sequester carbon in the soil more permanently than even tropical rainforests, which give up the carbon they capture when the leaves decompose on the forest floor. By contrast, grasses store carbon in the soil, where it remains, if undisturbed.
“Unlike tropical forests, where the majority of the carbon is stored in the vegetation, as much as 90% of the carbon pools in grazing-land ecosystems are located in the soil, hence, it can be readily transferred into more permanent storage in the soil. Because carbon stored below ground is more permanent than plant biomass, soil carbon sequestration in grazing lands provides a long-term alternative to mitigate atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions.” [emphasis added]Assessment of the Carbon Sequestration Potential of Common Agricultural Systems on Benchmark Soils Across the Southern Region of Climate Gradient, M. Silveira
Life-affirming landscapes and turning sunshine into milk…
We believe how we choose to eat is an extension of who we are and preserving and restoring life-affirming landscapes has far more to do with what rests at the end of our forks than how much we banter online about the abominations that abound in the world. Many landscapes will not exist into perpetuity without at least some stewardship, and grasslands cannot remain without ruminant animals. We are doing our best to steward the land on our farm. And we are cooperating with the four-footed wonderwoman, the humble cow, in order to do so.
Why? Because ruminants make more life than they take. And 100% grassfed milk, which we share with all of the calves, while producing enough milk to justify having a barn and a parlor to milk them in, requires the land to be blessed with sunshine in order to grow forage. The economics of dairy are nigh impossible, but we are doing our best to help restore family dairy to the rightful center of a whole community. Alamance county used to have 100 dairies (Charles’ dairy was one of them; and several of our neighbors from whom we now purchase hay used to run still others).
Only 5% of Alamance County dairies remain …
We are down to five dairies in our county — a couple of years ago it was down to three. To my knowledge, we are the only 100% grass-fed, “commerical-size” dairy in the region. The upside-down economics of family-scale dairy nationally and the prohibition of the sale of raw milk for human consumption in N.C. couple to make new dairy ventures highly unlikely. Corporate obliteration of small farms through non-scalable sanitation laws has been destroying real food for a century, which Wendell Berry talks about in this link that I’m going to encourage you again to read. Those same realities also prevent me from selling the above-pictured butter to you. If you want to live in a beautiful world, work to legalize food.
North Carolina is now a net importer of milk, and we used to be a dairy state. We cannot separate our eating from our living. The false notion of specialization that “preserves” small, isolated patches of wild surrounded by concrete, shopping malls and housing developments is not sufficient to save other species or ourselves. We are going to have to learn to eat and dwell in the same community if we are going to survive.
Doing so amidst brokenness — of relationships, ancestral knowledge, a degraded soil resource base that precedes our lifetimes — isn’t simple nor easy, and defies quippy solutions. One of the things that has been estranged since the Industrial Revolution is our living and working in the same landscapes. There has been a lot of talk in the past few decades about women working outside the home, but the truth is that the men for the most part left homestead economies first — to work in town.
Historically, people lived, worked and ate and found community in the same place. We believe there is great value in doing so, and it’s why it was so important to me from the very beginning of my homesteading-turned-farming dreams that agriculture be deeply imbedded in enlightened commerce and remaking the proverbial and brick-and-mortar village. (To that end, this open letter from the president of the Sierra Club is worth reading. He invites us to move beyond “traditional wilderness protection, land conservation, and outings” to engagement with issues related to agriculture, sprawl and transportation and how those issues are inextricably tied to issues of race and economic justice.)
“Most people lived so far from it, they thought you could just choose, carnivore or vegetarian, without knowing that the chemicals on grain and cotton killed for more butterflies and bees and bluebirds and whippoorwills than the mortal cost of a steak or a leather jacket.
“Even if you never touch meat, you’re costing something its blood”, she said. “Don’t patronize me. I know that. Living takes life.”Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer
So the question is, how can we interact with life, while recognizing that we need to eat three times a day, in a way that creates more life than it takes? It’s a big question. Would you join us in answering it together?
You can help by buying your meat from us, your vegetables from Eat Dirt Farm (Jake has milked cows at Reverence for five years, and he’s delightfully obsessed with soil health), sundries from the Saxapahaw General Store and donate to the Haw River Trail. We are working on a community project to remove invasive privet down by the river; stay tuned for details.
It’ll all be more beautiful with your participation… So, how are you going to eat? Can you make beauty the byproduct of a thrice-daily communion with the divine?