June 12, 2020

SSF - Welcome to Cows

Today across America, people struggle alone in hospital beds against a new virus. Today across America, people struggle together in the streets against violence, hatred and oppression that has for too long infested this country. Today, in Vermont, we collect eggs and bring fresh water to sheep. Fulfilling our daily responsibilities to the animals we share the farm with can feel like condemnable inaction against the injustice that plagues society. To some, our farming appears a way to turn away from others’ pain. We are not farming to insulate ourselves from the pain and injustice in society. We are farming because things are wrong. Our work is essential.

Food in this country is often produced in a manner that is unjust to workers, animals, and the environment. Though we strive to do better here, it is easy to be disheartened by the power that props up industrial agriculture. Our days on pasture, however, are not without their moments of joy. Many of those this month have been in the company of our new crowd of bovine grazers. Friends and neighbors have asked if it’s a big transition to be cow farmers now, but at the root we have been and continue to be grass farmers. True, we have been learning to adapt our systems to the needs of cows, but our most basic work is still building soil and growing grass that our animals harvest and convert into food.

We’re excited to have new cow-leagues in our mission to build a resilient farm ecosystem while producing food. In getting accustomed to their work, we’ve spent some time on pasture with them, watching as they graze. Observing their cowish lives is a daily joy. If you find yourself needing a moment of peace this week, we highly recommend a minute's breather in the company of grazing cows. There’s something deeply relaxing in their manner of unhurried munching.

That unhurried grazing is not universal among our animals. Rather than leisurely munch, sheep graze with incessant, almost anxious motion. If you stop to watch, you’ll see that a sheep’s muscular lips are working overtime, nibbling away tender leaves and ignoring the coarse stems. Cows are less discriminant – they’ll use their tongues to round up a bunch of whatever is in reach and munch away. These differences in grazing methods reflect different evolutionary strategies towards making a living off of grass. Grass is superabundant and resilient, but nutritionally poor compared to other plants. Cows, with their massive size and stomachs, make grass work for them by filling up with as much as possible. Sheep, with their smaller stomachs, must focus on getting the most nutritious and digestible parts of plants.






A bovine tongue hard at work, lassoing forage. Princess Fiona turning up her nose at stems.

When we’re managing our pasture we keep our grazing colleagues’ different strategies in mind. We’re glad to welcome cows to the field, not just for what they’ll bring to the farm store come fall, but for the tools they lend us in building soil and resilient plant communities. Picky sheep will devour clover and leave standing grass stems behind, but cows will take the tops off the taller grasses and give clover a fighting chance – adding nitrogen to the soil and growing as a nutritious snack for later in the year. They also throw their weight behind improving soil fertility by trampling those dead stems into the ground where they can compost in place. Every hoof has its place though and the dainty sheep remain our star grazers of wet and fragile land.

Thanks to our new cow-leagues, we’ll have clover in the pastures as well as beef in the farm store. Each day we’re grazing we strive to build soil that absorbs carbon and nurtures a resilient plant community while helping us provide nutritious food that respects animals, workers, and environment. While it’s easy to forget this when we’re checking in on every one of this year’s 106 lambs, we remain a small farm. As our grazers build soil, we hope to build enterprise, so that we can be an example of and, eventually, even an incubator for change towards more just agriculture. Based just south of here, Soul Fire Farm is already a fantastic example of farmers moving powerfully towards justice in food. Our motivation in restoring soil fertility is not simply that it will allow us to raise more animals and produce more food. We are building a resource that sustains a business that can powerfully advocate justice in this system that sustains us all. With hope we look towards a brighter future but in the meantime, we graze on. There’s fence to move and paradigms to upend.

Posted on June 12, 2020 22:16 by pkm pkm | 3 comments | Leave a comment

May 26, 2020

SSF - Frost Seeding

Those first fleeting sunny afternoons in April bring us a particular excitement. At this point, we’ve been lambing for a few weeks, and new moms are still very happy for the cozy barn on wintery nights. But on those warm afternoons we look around and see the snow receding, see the tree buds swelling, feel the sun on our faces, and our thoughts turn to GRASS! Of course, those first days of Spring sunshine are inevitably followed by sobering cold snaps but the season is not without its opportunities.




Sheep grazing between brown canary-grass stems and the dairy barn our pasture once produced bedding for.

As the soil thaws and grass awakens, we reflect on our pasture. We’ve noticed that much of our pasture grass is reed canary-grass. This grass grows well here, but quickly grows tall and stemmy. As our animals graze, they delight in the young leaves, but stems are much more dry and lack nutrition. Each grass has its purpose though. The long stems of reed canary-grass are well suited for bedding – which makes it an unsurprising citizen of these pastures that were once managed to provide bedding for the dairy barn on the ridge.

Rather than producing stems to cut, dry, and transport to a barn, we want a pasture that provides tasty and nutritious food for our grazing animals. To move our pasture from mattress factory to salad bar, we bought a seed mix of ryegrass, white clover and red clover. Ryegrass is a leafy alternative to reed canary-grass’s long stems. The clovers, being legumes, are high in protein and enrich our fertile marine soil with nitrogen so neighboring plants can better access the rich stores of other nutrients. Together they work to provide a balanced diet – tender grasses with carbs and sweet clover packed with protein – all while improving soil fertility.

Our animals and the other plants in our pasture would benefit from these newcomers, but the problem stands: how to get them into the pasture? To germinate, these seeds want to be under ¼ inch of soil. To achieve that, many farmers will use a drill seeder on their tractor to push seeds underground as they drive along their pasture.




Two visions of grassland flora: on left, dead reed canary-grass stems stand. On the right, a rich mix of clover and grass was planted a few years ago when the pasture was disturbed to put in a septic field.

Rather than invest in that expensive equipment and the fossil fuels needed to run it, we let nature do that work for us. When the snow has melted but the ground is still frozen, we simply spread seed over the pasture. Then, as April takes us from midwinter blizzards to balmy sunshine and back again, the freeze-thaw cycles are each day working our seeds into the soil. Drivers in Vermont are intimately familiar with how frost can heave and crack our roads (so too many historic barns), but this action is also, on a much smaller scale, what opens cracks in the soil to create homes for our new clover and ryegrass.

Next time you enjoy a balmy April afternoon with full knowledge that tomorrow will bring snow and polar wind, raise a glass with us to this season’s help with frost seeding.

Posted on May 26, 2020 12:10 by pkm pkm | 0 comments | Leave a comment

May 25, 2020

SSF - Food for Thought

Had these been more precedented times, today I would be sailing the Hudson, bringing the joys of eel petting, estuarine ecology and environmental history to students up and down the river. Alas, as healthcare workers fight to keep us healthy and essential workers struggle for fair compensation and protection while keeping us fed, we all must do our part for society by practicing social distancing. Closing schools, refraining from gathering in large groups and maintaining at least 6 feet of distance in public all preclude typical Clearwater programming, so come March I found myself quarantining in Vermont with some, shall we say, unanticipated professional freedom.

The saying goes though that ya gotta make hay while the sun shines – and though Vermont in March can't rival the dry-season Panama from where I came in terms of insolation, the state is full of opportunity for those with vision and moxie. I have a passion for natural history, and skill in communicating that to diverse groups. All I was missing while the world stayed at home was an audience.

When I came out of post-travel quarantine I began helping my friends at Scuttleship Farm. Between herding cattle, seeding pastures and caring for newborn lambs I was blown away by the depth of ecological knowledge of the farmers. They intensive rotational grazing, where groups of livestock move to fresh pasture daily. This approach focuses on building soil through mimicry of natural grasslands where disturbance adapted grasses and the ungulates that eat them coevolved. To do so, the farmers rely on knowledge of botany, hydrology, chemistry and animal behavior. This is low input agriculture. Absent are synthetic fertilizers and the equipment and fossil fuels necessary to bring food to and waste away from restrained animals in industrial agricultural operations. Instead resources are invested in knowledge and regenerative practices that contribute to ecosystem services.

I can see Scuttleship sequestering carbon in soil. I can see how their practices protect water quality and provide wildlife habitat while ethically producing food. I value these practices. The consumer however does not have the privilege of casually interviewing the shepherd son how their practices mimic and protect natural systems. At local distributors, Scuttleship meat might be sold next to beef from cows who never left a barnyard, cows who were fed corn grown on soil that was supplemented with synthetic nitrogen before being allowed to wash away, uncovered, in spring rains. That nitrogen doped soil is then entering Lake Champlain, where it contributes to beach closings and even threats to drinking water. Industrial agriculture produces artificially cheap food while the public pays for both subsidies and environmental degradation. Though Scuttleship meat carries the "Grassfed" label, that only does so much to elucidate the ecosystem services regenerative practices provide.

For the first time in my professional life I find myself working for a for-profit enterprise, and with that comes a default audience – customers. As education specialist at Scuttleship Farm I'm leveraging experience in education with familiarity with the natural, agricultural and cultural context of Vermont to translate technical farming practices to a general audience. If I succeed, you can expect content to be similar in voice to that I'd prepare for students on the Hudson: deeply informative, hopeful, and committed to our mission. While Scuttleship is for-profit, their work embodies the same devotion to principles I've seen at explicitly mission-driven nonprofits. We keep the agrarian dream that a revolutionary shift in our food system can produce food in a manner that ethically serves farmers, eaters, workers, livestock and the environment.

I'll be writing about ecology in action at Scuttleship – from frost seeding to the hydrologic benefits of dung beetles – on their monthly newsletter. The farmers have fenced off for me a whole section called "Food for Thought". These posts will eventually be hosted, with context lending landing pages, on their website. For now though there are fences to build and paddocks to rotate. I won't keep you waiting though. I'll post articles here as I write them, tagged with "SSF" in the title. Some mornings on the farm the three of us will get entirely carried away by how well ruminants and grasslands work together – I hope some of you here can get carried away with us.

Posted on May 25, 2020 23:09 by pkm pkm | 4 comments | Leave a comment

Archives