by Steve Hanson
2012 is our eighth year of small scale farming in France and has seen us move from income dependence to financial security and independence. Looking back over the last eight years at our mistakes and our successes in getting to this point demonstrates the value of an integrated approach.
When we arrived in France we had a single idea to provide us with income; that of breeding pigs and selling high quality organic free range pork and pork products. This worked well for three years but in our fourth year, 2008, a poor global grain harvest sent the price of grain skyward almost doubling the price from our local farmer. This gave us cause to rethink our future dependency on outside sources for anything which the global market could affect — this is of course everything!
So how do we remove ourselves as far from external influences and gain self-reliance at the same time?
Our strategy has been to invest ourselves and our holding in a totally integrated design which draws on multiple income streams. No one stream gives us our living, instead each one provides us with only part of our income. We have also moved away from annual crops and toward perennial crops. Pigs’ diets are heavily dependent on grain, an annual crop, where as cows, sheep, rabbits, duck and geese can all survive on pasture, tree forage and hay — all perennial crops. All of these animals and crops can be raised on the same ground in an integrated system with each animal and plant benefiting the other animals and plants. This system has become our most successful endeavour on the land to date.
So how does the system work and what does success mean?
First let’s look at how conventional farming approaches raising beef; a cow needs feed, water and medication. The feed can be just grass but today’s conventional farmers feed them grain too. The grain is to speed up the growth of calves to get them to market as early as possible. Water use is considerable, especially in the heat of summer when they can consume 30 to 50 litres a day. The medication consists of inoculations, some of which are obligatory and vermifuge to protect them from intestinal parasites. These are the minimum.
Now imagine a cow fed in small pastures, moved frequently and provided with appropriate plants to self medicate whilst given access to fresh water in each pasture as well as trees and hedges to forage on. The autumn will see the grass growth slow down but now the trees drop their harvest of acorns and chestnuts allowing us to leave the cows in the field for longer without feeding them the hay which was cut earlier in the year. Now consider sheep following the cows one day behind; the cows having taken the tops from the long grass and herbs which they prefer leaving the sheep the shorter stalks that they prefer. The sheep will forage lower on the hedges and there will still be enough of the herbs to help them stay parasite free and healthy. The next day ducks or geese could follow to finish the pasture forage. Then, three days after the cows, chickens can be moved in to the pasture. They will eat some of the forage available but more importantly they will scratch through the dung from the other animals for grubs and larvae, a high protein food ideal for chickens. This serves to reduce pest which bother both cows and sheep and spreads the nutrients in the dung over a wider area which is highly beneficial to the pasture plants.
Some of our pastures have dwarf fruit and nut trees which are too small to allow cows into as they would forage leaves and fruit from the lower branches, affecting our harvest. We are still able to under-graze these pastures with sheep so long as we protect the tree trunks. We also tractor rabbits in small movable cages and free-range chickens on a rotational basis, as with the other pastures. The chickens also benefit from an autumn harvest of seeds from black locust trees which are planted in some of the hedges. These trees are still being expanded into parts of the system along with more oaks and chestnuts.
The rotation of multiple species of domestic stock on the same pasture has many advantages, not least the diversity of nutrients in the different types of excrement; this gives the plants growing there a balanced soil structure. The different grazing habits and preferences mean all forage is utilised and persistent weeds are all kept in balance. The pasture has an intense period of foraging followed by an extended period of rest to recuperate beyond equilibrium, which means the plants have not just recovered but are thriving before they are re-grazed. This has led to constant improvement of plant species and health. The extended rest period also means the livestock return to pasture which contains little, if any, surviving internal parasite eggs, thus breaking the life cycle of the parasites; this in turn has lead to improved health and weight gain of the livestock.
The integration of trees in the pasture also has many advantages. The trees give the livestock shade from the sun and shelter from the rain and wind. The root systems of the trees and pasture plants occupy different depths of soil and subsequently access different soil nutrients. During the foraging and leaf dropping habits of the trees these different nutrients are exchanged for the benefit of all the hedges, trees and plants and subsequently enriches the diet of the livestock and wildlife. This constant cycle of nutrient exchange increases the soil’s biological matter, improving soil structure and soil life. This is in direct contrast to most conventional farming methods which actually cause soil erosion and kills soil life.
None of this came to pass overnight and the system is still in its infancy, but ten years from now when all the trees are more mature the potential harvest will be far greater than we first imagined.
So what are the successes? This coming winter will be the last year we do any more fencing; this has been the biggest investment of time and money. Two more years and all the trees and hedges will have been planted. To date we have 110 fruit and nut trees to provide for human consumption, hundreds of oak and chestnut trees for animal forage and human consumption and thousands of hedging plants. The real success comes from reduced inputs year on year with increased output year on year. Reduced inputs include time, money, materials, medication and vet bills. Increased outputs include more and healthier livestock, more fruit and nuts, increased biodiversity, better environment for the livestock with more protection from wind and sun, visible increase in wildlife including birds, bees and hedgehogs and a reduction in pests throughout the farm including areas the domestic livestock do not have access to. This gives us more income with fewer overheads. The initial investment was higher, but so are the returns and the returns are far more than financial.
Success in our society is often seen as financial benefit and security. Financial return for our work on the five hectares of land we care for is only 20% of our combined previous slave wages. So have we succeeded as small scale farmers? Fiona and I see the success in living a life in balance with our environment while living with a higher quality of life experience. We both now have more time to do the things that are important to us, this starts from the beginning of our day, waking naturally most of the year with time to enjoy each other’s company followed by a simple round of opening cages and feeding our livestock if necessary and milking a cow or two depending on the season. Each day is different. We then enjoy a simple leisurely breakfast and decide what we ‘need’ to do during the day and what we ‘want’ to do. ‘Need’ is what we have to do to ensure our farm functions and our livestock and plants thrive. ‘Want’ is what we do to fulfil us in our lives — for me this is woodwork, whether I am teaching in exchange for money or constructing a Windsor chair to sell or for a gift, or turning a bowl or similar, again for sale or pleasure. Fiona finds pleasure in preserving food or drinks, spinning wool and knitting, dress making and generally making things from cloth. We both enjoy cycling; walking, reading and learning, watching a film in the evening cuddled up on the sofa or sitting outside a café on market day watching the world go by. This is our personal vision of success and it’s not for everyone but having the time to do the things you ‘want’ to do is everyone’s underlying idea of success.
Financially we thrive on the 20% of our previous earning because we buy very little from supermarkets and we have no debt of any kind. This means we actually have more spendable income. When we serviced the interest on a mortgage, car loans and credit cards, this alone sucked up two thirds our wages, like a sponge, leaving us only enough to pay bills and feed ourselves. While our lifestyle actually depleted the world’s resources and damaged the environment, just like most of the developed world, our daily grind used more than it produced and left us dissatisfied with our life. Now without any perceived daily grind we produce more than we need, improve the environment both for us and future generations, provide an exemplary example of animal husbandry and improved productivity, build biodiversity and increase wildlife habitat and food systems — all while enjoying and increasing our quality of life. This is our success.