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 sustainability.
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 just.
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
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
“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
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 food sources.
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
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
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 the owners.”
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 B&B
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,
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
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, Pa. (www.overthemoonfarm.com).
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 Garling.
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, she says.
“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