A mountain of hog fuel, about twice as tall as I am, sits just out of view from my home-office window. I can’t see it but I know that the cool, rainy spring morning is making it steam. Hog fuel is a lumberyard byproduct comprised of sawdust, wood chips, shavings and bark. There are no actual hogs involved and it doesn’t stink. It does, however, have a smell — a redolence of earth, with a hint of ocean salt.
Once I’ve logged off from my desk job for the day, I’ll have to move this heaping pile of hog fuel into our vegetable gardens and chicken coop. My newbie-farmer’s instincts estimate that it’s 100 wheelbarrow loads. Followed immediately by another 50 wheelbarrow loads of accumulated (and steaming) compost we’ve been tending to for the past year and is now ready. Then comes a sprinkling of vermicompost — nutrient-dense worm poop (or castings if you want to be more technical), also known as black gold. This will be followed by ongoing soil amendments and cover crops and — voila — in three-years time, we’ll have created healthy sustainable no-till gardens.
What on God’s green Earth am I talking about? If I’m being honest, I hardly even know. At best, I’m the farmer-equivalent of a pseudo-intellectual with cocktail-party knowledge of soils and gardening. My thumbs aren’t green, they’re pale and more accustomed to the hard labour of typing 100s of emails a day.
But we do live on a farm (instagram @hardyfeatherfarm). And after our fourth summer here, with back-to-back mediocre crops the past two, it’s time to either figure this out or move back to an apartment in the city with patio tomatoes and indoor ferns (not that there’s anything wrong with patio gardens and ferns).
The wild weather swings of summer heat and winter freezes, as well as drier-than-usual soil thanks to erratic rain distribution of recent months (and years), have been hard on many gardens, ours included. The solution is either baste our garden with an amalgam of chemical fertilisers and weed killers. Or we could figure out how to help our ground be weather resilient. In other words, we could heal our soil and develop ecosystems, right here on our farm, that didn’t require fertilisers and pesticides.
After our first year on the farm, I wrote a blog titled What we Learned, which in hindsight, was more Instagram poser than Farmer’s Almanac. Truth be told, we would, more or less, still be floundering in the dirt if it wasn’t for Vanessa at May Blooms Acreage and Dan at Local Harvest helping us understand how to build garden ecosystems. It all starts with soil.
Amit Kalanti said, “To a farmer, dirt is not a waste, it is wealth.” I get it. I watched the documentaries, Kiss the Ground and My Biggest Little Farm, and felt mighty good about myself for saying we needed to heal our soil through no-till Regenerative Farming (now Resilient Farming).
Healthy soil is the foundation of our food system. The vast majority of the food we eat, 95% to be exact, is produced directly or indirectly in topsoil, but the soil that below the top is increasingly degraded from overuse and chemicals kills micro nutrients and the mycelium. I could watch documentaries until the cows came home, which would be quite a long time considering we don’t yet have any cows on our farm, but I didn’t realise just how bad soil health was until I looked in our own backyard…
Roughly 500 acres of corn or hay crops surround our little farm. Every inch of that ground is either owned or leased by one local dairy farm. All the crops are grown for cow feed, and the soil is all but dead through constant tilling; it’s never allowed to lie fallow. Because vast amounts of nutrients have been lost, a new crop couldn’t grow without chemical enhancement and/or genetically modified seeds. What happens with the soil in our neck of the woods happens all over the world, and not just in crops for cows! Which means, just like the cows, our food ends up without the nutrients we need to stay healthy.
One of the solutions is Resilient Agriculture — creating a food production system that nurtures and restores soil health, protects the climate through the sequestering of carbon, water resources and biodiversity, and enhances farms’ productivity and profitability.
But to borrow an old farming locution, to fix your soil and have a regenerative farm is “a hard row to hoe.”
Think more shovel, less combine! Practices include composting, cover cropping, growing leguminous green manures, crop rotation, mixed farming, shallow and reduced cultivation, and enhanced biodiversity. And the most important and costly component is time.
“Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic diseases of the twentieth century.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
As I mentioned at the beginning of the blog, once we’ve established our new gardens, it’ll be a full three years before its regenerative ecosystem yields great results.
That being said, we’re actually starting to get our hands dirty now; here’s what we’re doing and why.
Building an Ecosystem of No Waste for Our Gardens
We’ve gathered up the tree branches, twigs and sticks that have fallen as a result of the winter storms that passed through. These become the base for our garden beds and also fuel for our fire.
On top of these branches, we put the hog fuel, followed by compost and worm castings.
Our compost consists of the wood chips and dropping from our chicken coop, extra food scraps, as well as leaves and grasses.
We also use ashes from our fires (inside and out) as well as bones (called biochar) that have been cooked in the fire and ground down. These include chicken bones, dinner steak bones and even dog bones.
It’s worth noting that when we harvest wild game, we use almost every part of the animal including the bones and organs. The same applies when we harvest our male chickens; we eat the meat, and the feet and innards go to the dog. The rest of the chicken, including the blood, goes into the compost.
As we plant, maintain, and harvest our garden, we continue to amend the topsoil with our compost and cover crops (or hay from the coop or fallen leaves) to ensure the soil doesn’t lose its nutrients due to weather erosion through wind and drainage. Still, it is underneath the surface that the real magic happens. The branches and hog fuel slowly decay, creating ecosystems with a rich microbiome that contains millions of individual microorganisms — including bacteria, fungi and archaea — representing tens of thousands of different microbial species. According to the experts, each microbe is vital in the overall interaction between the microbiome and the plant roots; together they create a symbiotic relationship. The soil microbiome lives off of the exudates — organic substances secreted by the roots, including sugars, enzymes, and other compounds. The microbiome is then able to produce the nutrients that the plant needs, such as nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus.
In a nutshell, the paper and wood we use to heat and cook, as well as the food we don’t eat, becomes the soil that grows the food and continues the cycle.
Of course, it’s only just spring as I type this, so there is no harvest; so posting this blog may be a bit like what Richard Adams says, “You’re trying to eat grass that isn’t there. Why don’t you give it a chance to grow?”
This is a new season for us on Hardy Feather Farm, trying to cultivate a sustainable balance with the land, even if the fruits of the labour remain unknown. This makes shutting off this screen and going out to that steaming pile of Hog Fuel feel worth it.
Muir and Thoreau put it well, “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world” and “Resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”
Thanks for reading!