Pasture raised life
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good
By Jason Gray
Urban and suburban residents who move out to the country have specific visions of how they want to set up their homestead, and why those things are important to them. Some are “preppers”who want to make sure they’re ready for whatever disaster scenario may come along. Others are tired of eating from “industrial agriculture” and hope to grow natural organic food for their families. Still more want to reduce their environmental footprint or get away from the urban rat race.
For each of these types of homesteaders, there is a stunning number of online communities, books and podcasts. With so much information available, it’s easy for someone starting on a new piece of land to get caught in ‘analysis paralysis.’ Just look at the homestead garden. Do you use ‘Square Foot Gardening,’ ‘Gaia’s Garden,’ or row cropping? Will you use any hybrid seed, or will you only use heirloom varieties?
Every method has vocal advocates and detractors. On the Internet forums, the controversies inevitably come down to a particular homestead or small farm being “holier than thou,” or perhaps “greener than thou.” A homesteader may feel superior because they have no fences at all for their free range, pastured chickens, letting them “express their chicken-ness.” But the coop-and-run grower doesn’t lose as many hens to death by coyote.
A new homesteader or someone expanding into new species of livestock may end up putting off expansion far too long because they want to make sure what they do is just right. But in homesteading and country life, the phrase “the perfect is the enemy of the good” become words to live by. Otherwise you’ll spend all the money in your account to make sure your pigs have the best shelters, feeders and waterers. But still you’ll have to go to the store to buy bacon. You can go broke bringing in the fanciest kelp-based vegan fertilizers to grow your “beyond organic” heirloom tomatoes, but grasshoppers don’t respect your values.
But doing ‘good’ work and making any steps at all towards food liberty and regenerating soils is a good thing, right? After all, the regenerative agriculture community is all in this together, right? And part of living in the country is knowing your neighbors have your back if livestock get out or you have a calf bit by a rattlesnake, isn’t it?
Sometimes, it doesn’t seem like it.
The most painful insult in organic small scale agriculture is the term “greenwashing.” It’s a word that implies the company or farm is spending more time and effort claiming to be environmentally responsible in its advertising and social marketing than actually implementing the practices. It’s a term that’s been hurled at hard working small farms in the region with often disastrous results. In some cases around the country, the war of words have escalated to people reporting other farms to departments of health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or most catastrophically for a farm here in Colorado, the Department of Water Resources.
Here in El Paso County, these “greener than thou” wars were partly responsible for significant legal fees for at least one popular small farm after an anonymous complaint was filed about them with the DWR. Trolling attacks on the speakers and planners for the Regenerative Agriculture Conference partially led to the planned Calhan event being postponed a year.
These conflicts within the community come during what several established farms have called “the worst year for market gardens and micro-farms in decades” due to the combination of a cold late spring, huge hail storms, hot summer temperatures and unusually high pest insect pressure.
With the atmospheric and emotional storm clouds gathering over the small farms in the region, the normally happy – perhaps ‘hippy’ – attitude of the local organic farmers has taken a dark turn in the past couple months. Venetucci Farm was suddenly closed in July due to water pollution concerns in the Fountain Creek watershed. “Is it worth complaining about the hail if everything is already a disaster?” asks Yosef Camire of Peyton’s Ahavah Farm, which had their crops destroyed by storms four times so far this year. “We’re giving up on the market garden this year,” wrote Katie Belle Miller of Heritage Belle Farm on Facebook, signing off with the hashtag “#FarmingIsHard.”
Other promising new micro-farms are closing entirely, and at least one family which was planning to start a small farm in El Paso County told me they are now looking to move out of Colorado. Here at the Gray Area Farm homestead, we’ve been spared most of the hail (so far), but continue to struggle coaxing veggies out of the now too-hot soil after the long too-cold spring. And as hard as it is to believe with constant 100 degree temperatures, the first killing frosts are bearing down on us all too quickly.
It makes you understand why the Anasazi cliff dwelling builders of Mesa Verde literally walked away from this region so many years ago. How can a small farm, or their customers and supporters, avoid getting too discouraged? Get away for a week to a beach? Nope.
While suburban office workers can take summer vacations, this is the peak busy time for homesteaders and small farms. Fall crops are going in the ground, flocks of spring chicks are about to start laying, and the growing feeder pigs need to be kept cool, fed and watered. A suburban neighbor’s kid can come over and feed a dog or a cat, but it’s a rare person indeed who can be trusted to feed and care for expensive livestock even for a day or two.
Instead, the key is to try to look forward. “The best garden you ever had is the one you’re planning for next year,” is a common line in hobby farming. Maybe the atmosphere is getting all its hail out of its system for the next five years. Maybe you really are more stubborn than the grasshoppers. Maybe water law will change some day and you’ll be able to legally sell your veggies.
Even in the best of years, ‘maybe’ is what farmers and ranchers have to hang on to during the tough days. In this worst of years, ‘maybe’ maybe won’t be enough. So let’s get the term “greenwashing” out of our vocabulary for the rest of the year. Let’s stop badmouthing each other’s not-green-enough practices on the forums. And…. maybe… the regenerative agriculture and organic farm movement in Colorado will survive to next year. Maybe.