Posted May 11, 2007: Drop a basket full
of eggs and you’ll get nothing but a big, goopy mess.
No product to sell. Not even a decent breakfast. If the basket
also contains bread, cheese, bacon and a packet of dried tomatoes
with herbs, you’ve still got a mess—but one tremendous
breakfast and probably something you can clean up and sell.
Diversification—the lesson behind that old cliché
warning us all to split our efforts among many baskets to
avoid catastrophe—is a useful strategy for anyone, but
perhaps especially for farmers committed to economic and ecological
Agroecology is an academic discipline, now a major at a handful
of universities around the country, in which ecological science
informs farm design and management. These farms, or “agro-ecosystems,”
do it all: produce food and fiber, stay in business, reflect
the local culture, conserve natural resources and are socially
Sounds like old-fashioned, pre-industrial farming, just backed
by environmental science? Yes, in a nutshell, says Miguel
Altieri, an agricultural researcher on staff at the University
of California at Berkeley.
For thousands of years, farmers developed their agricultural
systems on a foundation of ecological diversity because that
was how they avoided risk and adapted to environmental change,
says Altieri. Academics and proponents of sustainable agriculture
“discovered” the concept of biodiversity, he says,
but farmers have instinctively done it for a long time.
Altieri explains the biological reasons why biodiversity
brings health and resiliency to a system. He focuses on the
“big picture” of biodiversity in natural systems
for farmers and others looking for more sustainable options.
Talk of diversity—crop and genetic diversity as well
as biodiversity to manage pests without insecticides—is
prevalent in discussion of “agro-ecosystems,”
or farms that have created their own ecosystem interactions
to raise crops and livestock in harmony with the surrounding
environment. The discipline doesn’t recommend best practices.
Rather, it teaches the ecological principles so farmers and
ecologists can design techniques tailored to their locations.
Many farmers in the developing world, representing about
10 to 15 percent of the 960 million hectares of land under
cultivation there, are small-scale, diversified and use indigenous
agricultural methods, wrote Altieri in a 2004 review for The
Ecological Society of America:
“These microcosms of traditional
agriculture offer promising models for other areas as they
promote biodiversity, thrive without agrochemicals and sustain
year-round yields. An examination of the ways these farmers
use biodiversity can speed the emergence of the principles
needed to develop more sustainable systems.”
In a separate paper published in Biodynamics, Altieri
and lead author Clara Ines Nicholls describe “planned
biodiversity” as the crops and livestock the farmer
includes in an agro-ecosystem. “Associated biodiversity”
is the soil flora and fauna, herbivores, carnivores and decomposers
that colonize the agro-ecosystem from the surrounding environment.
They can thrive, depending on how the farm is managed.
One specific way diversity pays off is in pest control. “Studies
show farmers can indeed bring pests and natural enemies into
balance on bio-diverse farms,” write Nicholls and Altieri.
An effective and long-lasting way to prevent money losses
from pest damage on the farm is to find out what eats those
pests and give those beneficial organisms (like predators,
parasites and pest-sickening pathogens) habitat and alternative
Diverse farms using fewer pesticides typically have greater
populations of beneficial organisms compared with monocultures
or fields routinely treated with pesticides. Generally, these
diverse farms have small fields surrounded by natural vegetation,
perennials and flowering plants, are managed organically or
with minimal synthetic agrichemicals, have soils high in organic
matter and biological activity, and their soil is covered
with mulch or vegetation in the off-season.
A farming couple’s 5.5-acre spread in Browntown, Wisconsin,
shows the practical potential of developing related enterprises
on the farm. John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist talked at this
winter’s conference of the Pennsylvania Association
of Sustainable Agriculture (PASA)
on diversifying the revenues, money-savers and profits that
makeup the business side of farming.
Ivanko and Kivirist fled corporate life at a Chicago ad agency
for modern homesteading and are now organic growers, innkeepers
and authors living about 135 miles from the Windy City.
They encourage other farmers to think strategically and creatively
to stitch a patchwork of revenue sources that works for their
operation and lifestyle. They share examples from their own
farm and other farms they’ve encountered in working
with Renewing the Countryside (www.renewingthecountryside.org),
a non-profit organization that searches for sustainable ways
to strengthen rural communities.
In nearly all those discussions with farmers “diversification
was a key element in allowing the farm to be economically
viable,” says Ivanko. “Lots of small enterprises
and income streams, especially if they can be managed at different
times of the year to facilitate better cash flow, can add
up to a more balanced business that doesn’t burn out
Some of their ideas include:
- Operate a bed and breakfast or retreat center at the farm.
- Produce your own specialty food items like salsas.
- Host educational programs like internships and workshops.
- “Teach what you know” by speaking publicly
or self-publishing a cookbook or practical memoir.
You don’t have to be full-time and operate on a big
scale to make an enterprise work, says Ivanko. The Inn Serendipity
that he and Kivirist run consists of two rooms, is open May
through October and brings in about $1,700 per month. For
them, it’s a good fit.
They urge other farmers to consider agri-entertainment. The
tourism industry is changing, they say. “People are
looking for an authentic experience. This is a real opportunity
for us as organic, sustainable farmers.”
Agri-entertainment includes giving farm tours for school
or other groups, running a pick-your-own operation, creating
a corn maze or labyrinth (and selling tickets and refreshments),
running hay/sleigh rides or renting out space for weddings.
It’s important to take the lifestyle you want for yourself
into account, says Ivanko. “All of these things [we
do] add up to an aggregate whole that allows us to have a
pretty darn good quality of life,” he says. “The
actual work is sharing what we already enjoy doing on the
farm,” adds Kivirist.
Ivanko and Kivirist take an eco-/agri-tourism approach to
their farm-based B&B. That means growing organic ingredients
for breakfasts about 100 feet from their back door and running
their farm on 100-percent renewable energy. “While being
wind farmers is not a huge profit center—we have a surplus
value of electricity of about $100 to $200 per year—generating
our own wind and some solar energy allows us to have no electricity
cost. And it has proved to be a strong marketing element for
the B&B. So diversification can also be how farms operate
more efficiently, and therefore, more profitably.”
Too much of a good thing
But diversity has its dark side. By definition, diversification
adds complexity. If all the pieces don’t fit together
right, they can be tough to manage. Too much diversification
can lead to chaos, says Lyn Garling, who raises chickens,
turkeys, beef, and pork at Over the Moon Farm, in Rebersburg,
For this reason, she says, some farmers aren’t interested
in juggling a large diversity of activities.
For small farmers, the goal is to piece a puzzle of income
together to have consistent cash flow over 12 months, says
She has a variety of income streams to even out the big-revenue
months like the November turkey bonanza and slower winter
months, when she sells hay. In the spring, she takes on a
nearby dairy farmer’s heifers, providing pasture and
caring for them until fall in exchange for a fee per-head
per-day. It’s all part of assembling the income puzzle,
“It’s got to work together with your whole management
system or else it’s not going to work with you,”
says Garling. “You can’t be spread so thin you’re
not doing anything well.” So some things you just don’t
do, even though they could be great ideas for someone else.
In her case, that would be sheep and goats, two animals she’s
not set up to raise.
The key, she says, is to have a cornerstone piece—in
her case, chickens—that helps you prioritize. Every
other activity is chosen to work well with that operation.
If your farm is short on income, you are way short on time,
or you want to complement something that’s working well,
you can, perhaps, pull back from over-commitment that is leading
to a big, sloppy mess, while finding products and services
that can contribute to a desirable lifestyle. Explore economic
and ecological connections that fit the special conditions
of you and your farm and make your operation smoother and
more profitable. Take time to review how your “eggs”
are divvied among your farm's various baskets.