Are all your eggs in one basket?
Diversity in the field and in your business plan is a key strategy for making your farm truly sustainable.

By Lisa Duchene


Photo courtesy of Rewnewing the Countryside www.renewingthecountryside.org.

Bio-designing complexity in Pennsylvania

Ensuring something is always green and growing, whether one of 40 organic vegetable crops or a winter cover crop, is one way husband-wife farmers Michael Ahlert and Charis Lindrooth employ diversity at Red Earth Farm, a 14-acre property they purchased in early 2006 in Orwigsburg, Pa.

Before they bought it, the farm had been fallow for two years after many years of producing corn and soybeans.

Their practices provide a more diversified environment that helps attract insects and small wildlife, says Ahlert. A diverse microbial community means nutrients are more available to plants and leads to healthier, stronger, pest-tolerant and disease-resistant crops.

And already, the strategy is showing signs of paying off in fertility. Soil tests at Red Earth Farm show increases of major nutrients compared with pre-cultivation levels.

Economic and ecological diversity quickly become entwined. Ahlert and Lindrooth use a mobile egg house and moveable fence to give their flock of chickens free range, shelter and constant access to fresh ground and forage. The birds eat a varied diet of feed, weeds, vegetable residue, insects, grass and clover. The variety is good for the birds, adds fertility to the soil and produces eggs with dark yolks and strong shells that reward the farmers with a premium in the marketplace: $2.50 to $3 per dozen.

Red Earth Farms sells its produce and eggs at farmers’ markets and through its Community Supported Agriculture program. When it comes to farm income, diversity is also a key strategy.

(Lindrooth also runs a successful holistic practice, and the two businesses share cross-promotion.)

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.

Biodiversity

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 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 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.

Diversification


Photo courtesy of
Rewnewing the Countryside www.renewingthecountryside.org.
John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist in the Inn Serendipity backyard.

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 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 (www.innserendipity.com) 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, 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 various baskets.

Lisa Duchene runs a diversified writing and editing business, from Bellefonte, Pa., specializing in stories about her passions: food, business and the environment. E-mail Lisa at lisa@ecowriting.com.