The ABCs of Homesteading: O is for Organic and Beyond
I know I am going to disappoint some people with my next statement, but here goes: I am not an organic homesteader.
As far as I am concerned, “organic” is just a stepping-stone toward something that is actually sustainable. Sometimes, getting hung up on being organic is an impediment for real progress toward an even better goal like creating an ecologically-sound, fully-sustainable, closed-loop system.
I don't have the room in this article to go into how little meaning that term “certified organic” has related to sustainability or human and planet welfare. But, I highly recommend that the next time you pick up organic produce from your chain grocery store, do a little research to find out about the company that grew it -- like how they enrich the soil, what they do improve the environment, do they pay their workers a living wage, etc.
Make sure to dig a little deeper than their home page and check secondary sources. If you can't find the information you need...well, by all means give them a call. Any farm worth the implied intent of that word “organic” should be willing to tell you about their practices and invite you to judge for yourself if their food is healthfully grown and good for the planet.
The Closed-Loop Alternative
So, if organic isn't good enough, what is?
In a word...Permaculture.
There are a ton of different ways to think about permaculture. For a short explanation, though, I am going to borrow Geoff Lawton's words. Permaculture is “[a] system of design that provides all of the needs for humanity in a way that benefits the environment.” Some people also use the mantra “Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share” to sum up permaculture.
Rather than a 9 page list of organic approved products and a hefty fee to be certified organic, permaculture has a short list of guidelines you can use to provide food and energy while creating vital, diverse ecosystems and improving the quality of life in for others in your area.
You can check out the full list of permaculture principles here.
Personally, I see permaculture as using what you've got, or can easily access locally, to make something much better and long-lasting. It's about one-time inputs to create perpetual, diversity-promoting, human and wildlife supporting ecosystems that will keep getting better with only minor occasional tweaks.
For example, we had a severe shortage of soil on our land when we bought it. Our property is heavily sloped. The two acres that are cleared were left unplanted for years and became severely eroded as a result. Our land was such a dust bowl that even broom straw wouldn't grow on it.
We started buying bags of organic compost, amending holes for planting, and trying to nurse things to grow. But after lots of failures, we realized we needed organic matter on a scale we simply couldn't afford at organic prices. We also hated bringing home all those one-time use plastic bags that we just kept sending to the landfill.
We did some research about local cow manure. We found a source that could deliver by the 20 yard truck loads. The cattle this manure came from were not living on a feedlot. They were living on good-sized pastures most of the year. In winter and early spring, they were herded into a feed lot twice a day for supplemental feeding and this resulted in accumulations of manure for that part of the year.
These cows did get some antibiotics when they needed them. But as they weren't living in close-confinement, they were not routinely dosed. Their supplemental feed contained GMOs and other toxic stuff. But a good part of their feed came from untreated grass in pasture and minimally (or not) sprayed, baled hay.
Was this manure perfectly organic? No. However, it was locally produced and the price was right. Also, if these cattle farmers don't find uses for all this excess manure by redirecting it to areas that will benefit from the application of this organic matter, then it will just become a pollution problem for all the people downstream from them.
After doing this research, buying organic compost at the price equivalent of $81 a cubic yard that was shipped in by truck from across the country, when we can buy the same volume of manure for $18 locally and be plastic bag free, just didn't make sense to us.
We had truck loads of manure, along with straw, and hard wood mulch delivered. Straw and wood mulch are also by-products of other industries in our area – namely grain farming and logging. We used these three items and lots of cardboard and paper that we rescued from being recycled using more energy intense methods (e.g. shipping it to China to have it turned into more packaging) to sheet mulch our growing areas. We also inoculated our sheet mulch with buckets of soil from our forests to encourage biological life in a hurry.
Here's how we did it:
• We started by soaking the ground, then applying a double layer of cardboard and paper.
• We laid down about 4 inches of loose straw, topped that with two inches of manure and repeated that twice more. (When you put the manure on the straw, the straw flattens out to more like two inches. At the end we had about 12 inches of new organic matter piled over the cardboard.)
• We scattered handfuls of native soil, dug up from under the trees in our wooded areas, on the top layer of manure.
• We soaked all of that until it was wet all the way to the cardboard.
• We topped that off with 4 inches of double-shred hardwood.
• We soaked weekly if rain was insufficient to do the job.
• We waited about three months and started planting in our sheet mulched areas by moving aside the hardwood mulch and digging holes in the mix below.
We've tried lots of formulas and variations of sheet mulching. This iteration has proved the most affordable and effective for us. In my experience, though, if you have air spaces in your sheet mulch layers, such as using straw or dried leaves, and top everything off with double-shred hardwood, it's hard to go wrong. Those air spaces and that insulative woody layer seems to bring on the biological and bacterial decomposers in a hurry.
Being practical and local instead of purely organic gave us the ability to go from this:
Of course, we did other things like dig rain depressions and swales, build hugelkulturs, and make good use of pioneering plants that seemed to want to help us build soil (e.g. taprooted Curly Dock and Hairy Cat's Tongue). We chose appropriate plants for their locations and bombed our place with comfrey and cover crops to use as green manure. We also let ducks roam free to add constant fertility to our landscape. We used pigs, goats, and chickens strategically to work and fertilize our land. We added infrastructure that helped to stabilize our hillsides and create microclimates within our landscape. These things were all part of the permaculture design plan we created to help guide our work and actions and make good productive use of our resources.
This near total transformation of our land happened in under three years and would have been impossible if we'd tried to use strictly organic inputs rather than focus on using local inputs. Sourcing locally also helped us build relationships within our community that have led to access to more resources at lower costs and expedited our progress even more.
Now, our place is so far beyond organic, that the idea of wanting to be organic seems laughable. You don't need to buy some special brand of approved fertilizer that is developed in a factory and shipped around the world when you create a self-renewing, human-supporting ecosystem in your backyard. And honestly, buying products that are packaged in plastic and come by way of fossil fuel driven supply chains isn't my idea of organic at all! Using local materials, produced in transparent ways so I can see for myself how they are produced makes a whole lot more sense to me.
Now, I know some people are still going to be stuck on the idea of organic animal feed. So, I want to address that question head on. Similar to all the arguments made above, I think buying industrial organic feed is more harmful overall than buying not-so-organic feed from your local grain mill.
If we had a local, organic feed mill, then I'd certainly try to support to the extent that my budget would allow. But as it stands now, I'd have to make a six hour trip to get organic feed that is not manufactured in international factories. Since I drive a Honda Fit and can't carry much feed at a time, I'd have to make that trip a lot. And quite frankly, I just can't routinely spend six hours in a car to go get animal feed. That's just not sustainable for me!
Instead I spend all that time I save, on not making organic feed pilgrimages, growing food for my animals to help make deeper cuts into my dependence on supplemental feed. For example we use all those ideas I mentioned in F is for Fodder and E is for Edible Landscapes. We also free-range our animals in our woods and strategically throughout the areas we have planted. We feed our pigs eggs and chicken and duck parts. We feed our chickens pork scraps. We give our pigs and chickens leftover dairy products from our goats. We use the pigs, chickens, and ducks to clear and fertilize more areas of our property for growing high quality, year-round goat and other livestock forage. The more we plant, the more insects and volunteer plants show up on our landscape creating even more food sources for us and our animals.
Our way is not perfect, but each year we get closer to a closed-loop system and the point when supplemental feed won't even be necessary. And we get there faster by spending our time on the homestead and our money where it does the most long-term benefit for us and our community.
Warning on Non-Organic One-time Inputs
Now, not all local sources are equal. I heard a story about someone putting old hay on their edible landscape and having everything die from the herbicide in the hay. I can't say for sure, but my guess would be this either happened because the hay came from a new hay field that was heavily sprayed in preparation for planting or the hay field had been sprayed with Grazon.
Grazon is extremely good at eradicating weeds. But even all the non-organic farmers around here avoid it unless they are about to lose their hay fields to Buttercup infestations. They are also cautious about feeding their own animals Grazon sprayed hay. I only know this because I talk to the farmers who supply our not-quite organic products.
When you work with local suppliers, you can simply ask what chemicals were used and then decide whether those are OK for your one-time inputs or not.
Now that we've talked about going way beyond organic, if you go through the earlier posts in this blog series, I think you'll see that so much of what we have already covered have been rife with loop-closing connections. Even in my last post N is for Nutrition, I mentioned how I use ferments we make from products grown thanks to the manure and service of our animals to then keep our animals healthy.
There so many incredible, workable solutions coming from the permaculture community that you really should spend an immense amount of time checking it all out. But for me, the thing that really sets permaculture apart from other homesteading systems is its emphasis on slowing, spreading, and storing water in the landscape. So, if you want to start to super power your garden pest protection and improve your landscape's hydrological health, then stay tuned for our next installment The ABCS of Homesteading: P is for Ponds!
Tasha Greer spent several years “practicing” homesteading in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina in 2014. Together with her partner Matt Miles, she raises goats, poultry, pigs, herbs, worms, and maintains an extensive edible landscape at the reLuxe Ranch. She is a master gardener volunteer with a focus on helping people grow their own food. Tasha also is also a contributing author for The Grow Network. Find Tasha at The Way Back , reLuxe Renderings, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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