Biodiversity on the Farm

We went through our seed order and our planting schedule the other day and counted up the crops. Turns out we’ll be growing about 50 different crops this season, and 150 different varieties of those crops. Quite a contrast with conventional farmers, here in Pepin County and all over the Corn Belt, who often grow only three crops (corn, soybeans, and alfalfa), and may or may not grow more than one variety of any of those crops. We started farming because we love food, and commodity corn and soy are even lower than alfalfa hay on the list of things we like to eat, so it’s not too surprising we’re not growing those three crops. Even as vegetable farmers, though, we could make a good living specializing in six or eight crops. So why do we want to grow fifty? Aren’t we just making a whole lot more work for ourselves?

Well, sure. We are. But when we sat down this winter to decide what to grow, we didn’t discuss which vegetables would be most profitable. We talked about what vegetables we like to eat, and we wrote them down. Of the fifty crops we’re growing, about forty-seven are things we eat on a regular basis. (And the other three? Well, there’s always something new and interesting in the seed catalogs.)

So the main reason we’re growing such a diverse range of crops is that we eat a diverse range of food, and we want to share that diversity with our members. However, diversity has benefits on the farm too. Nature abhors a monoculture (or anything approaching a monoculture) just as much as a vacuum: if we only grew a handful of crops, it would only be a few years until our farm was overrun with the pests and diseases that affect those crops. Or in Martha’s words, “If we grew nothing but salad mix, we’d have nothing but slugs.” By planting lots of things, and mixing them up and moving them around every year, we can stay one step ahead of pests and diseases by constantly interupting their lifecycles.

I’ve explained the 50 crops. What about the 150 varieties? On average, we’re planting three varieties of everything we grow–but averages can be misleading. What’s really going on is that we’re growing one variety of most things; three or four varieties of some things; and ten or more varieties of a few things. How do we decide how many varieties to plant? First, by how many varieties there are: certain crops only come in a few versions. (How many seed catalogs do you know of that devote a four page spread to bok choy?)  Second, by how different the varieties are from each other. We’re pretty sure one variety of collard greens looks and tastes a lot like another, so we picked the kind we think will do best on our soil, and that’s what we’re growing. Tomatoes, on the other hand, come in dozens of shapes, sizes, and colors, not to mention flavors (though you wouldn’t know it from the round, red, bland tomatoes in most grocery stores)—so we’re growing twenty-four varieties. Third and finally, our decisions are skewed by how much we enjoy each crop. Let me be clear, we like every vegetable we grow, but everyone has favorites. Both of us (especially Martha) are crazy for winter squash, so we’re growing thirteen varieties (plus a pie pumpkin, which is really a winter squash by any other name). That doesn’t mean we expect our customers to eat their weight in squash; we’re only planting a little of each kind, and we’ll eat most of it ourselves. But we do want our customers to experience the amazing diversity of flavors in the squash family.

And that’s only the diversity among the crops we grow—I haven’t even talked about the plants and animals that live in the woods, wetlands and meadows on the farm, or the microbes, fungi, and earthworms in our soil. Some of those species cause trouble for us, of course—sometimes we wish there were less deer and woodchucks living in our forest, and less quack grass growing in our fields. But we’d rather be surrounded by a forest full of deer than a thousand acres of GMO corn, and we’d rather spend our time pulling weeds than spraying them with toxic chemicals. Here at Avodah Farm, biodiversity isn’t just a buzz-word, and it isn’t just an idea. It’s something we can see and taste, and it tastes good, and we foster it because we love it, not just because it’s good for yields or helps with pest control.

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