One big part of a sustainable lifestyle is food. Providing the food for each person in North America requires something like half of an acre of land and typically produces more than 2 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. We have decided to take as much of our food production as possible into our own hands. We should reap many benefits in that our food will be sustainable, local, organic, pesticide free, and it will encourage us to spend more time outdoors in a beautiful space while teaching our kids about where their food comes from. Our ambitious goal is to try to get to as much as half of our family’s food from our farm in the coming years. We don’t want to give up restaurants, or citrus, or even goldfish crackers for the kids, but would like to grow most of our own vegetables, fruits and meat.
At the same time growing and processing one’s own food is not for everyone, nor should it be. One has to have quite a lot of time and energy to devote to it, and dealing with the heat, cold, rain, biting insects and mud isn’t the way that many people want to spend their time. Further, the efficiency of home scale production is low when compared to big industrial farming. Instead, growing one’s own food is a labor of love, something that you wish to be a priority from spring through fall. For us, we would rather be spending a lot of our time outside at the farm anyway, and with growing food we are doing something rewarding and useful while we are there.
To say just a few words about our approach, we are trying to follow principles of regenerative agriculture. This philosophy is one that tries to look at a broader picture than conventional agriculture, looking not only at crop yields, but also at improving soil health and reducing erosion, reducing inputs like fertilizers and pesticides, increasing biodiversity, and even improving the farming communities themselves. In essence, it is trying to account for the externalities of agriculture, all of the negative impacts that can come along with the growing of our food. Every land use that we choose has impacts on humanity and ecosystems, but we do need to eat. So the trick is to find those pathways that are sustainable, those that could be continued forever without using up the natural capital that we find around us. In practice what we will be doing is similar to the diversified family farms of the 1800s and early 1900s (such as the one that one of our fathers grew up on in northern Minnesota), but updated with the knowledge and tools of today.
We gained a great deal of inspiration from the orchard work of Stefan Sobkowiak of Miracle Farm, who has a ‘permaculture orchard’ just a three hour drive from our own site. Stefan has very good production while using nearly no pesticides or fertilizers by setting up a much more diverse orchard than usual, intermixing many different types of trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals while also providing space for all of the birds and insects that prey upon orchard pests. He has even created a film that outlines his methods. We are using his techniques as a springboard in the development of our own site.
The line of trees behind their fences just after planting.
In the spring of 2018, we planted the beginnings of our own orchard, 32 fruit trees. This initial planting included 12 apple, 9 pear, 9 plum, and even 2 peach trees, using about twenty total cultivars (varieties) of trees. We did our best to pick trees that would be cold hardy and those that would be more resistant to disease and pests, though only time will tell as to how well these trees do at our site. The orchard has been planted as a single long row of trees through a hay field along the gravel laneway that leads across our property. Each tree is individually caged to protect it against the very high local deer population. As time permits, we will fill in the spaces between the trees with a hedge of other edible and useful plants, as Stefan does at Miracle Farm.
The first flower blooms in the orchard.
In the fall of 2018 we are installing the infrastructure for a large garden, with 8′ tall deer fencing around a space of 80’x160′, about 1/3 of an acre. Here we will grow a large vegetable garden, a variety of perennials that need protection from the local wildlife, as well as a nursery where we will grow more trees and other plants that will later be planted out into the orchard. As the garden develops, we will provide steady updates.
For the time being our 20 acres of hay fields are cut each year for one of the local beef cattle farmers. We intend to add our own livestock into the mix starting in 2019.