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A Small Medium at Large

“In Coming decades, as the world looks for ever more powerful mitigation strategies, the silvopasture could and should take center stage in ruminant production wherever rainfall permits tree growth.  Mexico is already paying ranchers to shift from degradation to intensive silvopasture- and finding that, once the initial establishment costs are made, these ranchers (which had been subsidized for decades) become profitable on their own.”  – Steve Gabriel

Silvopasture – the Economic Wave of Future Farming

Small farm culture in America never recovered from the wipeout of the 1930’s, back in the day when the majority of people still fed themselves, and our large city populations.  Economic and societal collapse is not a conspiracy theory, not an effete academic discussion.  In today’s world, the effects of drought, global war and /or financial disarray will leave no wiggle room for improvisation in the aftermath.  Now is the time to jump-start an actual pulse in our elected leaders. 

Today, I’m examining our societal vulnerabilities from a solutions angle.  Our civic leaders should be thinking: “What steps can I take in advance for our community to survive, perhaps even thrive, following a major systems collapse?”  The big questions for voters might include “How can we get results from officeholders?  How can we get action?   Who has a plan that will make sense in dicey times?”  

The basis for continued social, economic, and marketplace normalcy is to be found, I believe, in the two greatest – and under-appreciated – communities on hand today.  These are, respectively, the cattle and dairy ranchers, and the (as yet) unorganized power of Ozark women.  Today, I’ll glance at the potential for silvopasture.  After a Christmas in Dora series, I’ll return to the idea of women-led partnership circles built upon the collection, distribution, and sale of heirloom seeds, fruit trees, and grain stocks.  These communities provide a logical basis for a revived and resilient economy.  

Silvopasture is defined as the intentional combination of trees, domesticated animals, and forages as a multilayered system where each category benefits in relationship to the others, with multiple yields harvested from the same piece of land.  The future of food forests is on the farm.  Silvopasture is a specific application of the broader science of Agroforestry, a set of practices which help landowners diversify products, markets and farm income.  Along the way, future generations (and the planet) are served by the improvement of soil and water quality, and where erosion, flood damage, and non-point source pollution is reduced.

Readers may remember the articles I wrote back in those scorching, rainless days of July.  In How to Spend a Billion Dollar Crop of Gravel, parts I and II (July 5th and 12th), I introduced the idea of seven layer food forests, the concept of extensive nutrient and water collection terraces, and the emerging field of permaculture.  The theme of building long-term food security systems for watershed communities then turned to the three phases of agricultural succession in the Ozarks, the devastation of drought in the 1930’s, and a liquid drilling technique for fixing depleted topsoil areas in a field (July 26th, August 2,nd and 9th). 

The integrated practices that I’m introducing only indicate the scope of the subject.  Beyond the commercial and community resilience aspects, there is also an increase in biodiversity and the improvement of habitat for fish and wildlife- all of which comport nicely with the native Ozarker’s love and respect for the land. 

The seven main components of silvopasture are:

1. Silvopasture can be established in existing woodlands or trees can be brought into pasture.  

As Ozark woodlands fall to the bulldozer, and the cost of clearing dominates current thinking, it begs to be pointed out that, for lack of information, misplaced priorities and an absence of long-term planning may be costing us plenty.

The severe divide between field and forest, between where food and animals are raised and where trees and hunting are good, need not continue in opposition.  These divisions are often arbitrary and limit livestock potential.  Many farms have as much as 20-50% in under-managed forests, scrub or marginal landscapes.  There are many ecological and other benefits to breaking down, or blurring these divisions; it is exactly in these places that silvopasture can increase short and long-term revenues, as well as regenerate the ecosystem. 

2. Animals are matched to land type and successional stage.  

Multi-species grazing is becoming more common.  I think the informed reader will delight in these great books written by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms:  Salad Beef Bar; Your Successful Farm Business; Folks, This Ain’t Normal.  Another entry for the small acreage homesteader is Small-Scale Livestock Farming by Carol Ekarius.

There is a lot of literature now available covering the basics of a new approach, and widened context, to pasturing animals.  We can bring meat into the trees mix, bring trees into the pasture, and explore what new market patterns could follow. 

3. Animals are always on rotation.  

Beef cattle and dairy grazing requirements vary, and they comprise the majority of animals in our area, but goat, sheep and pig numbers seem to be increasing.     

4. Trees should match the soil type, microclimate and have multiple functions. 

Mulberry is a permaculure favorite because it is a quick grower, big producer of high protein leaves, works in a multitude of climate zones, and can be pruned as a chop-and-drop mulch or animal fodder.  Goji (Lycium Bararum), or wolf berry, has highly nutritious leaves and berries, a true superfood.  Basswood (Linden) is one of the few large trees with leaves that are not tough, toxic or disgusting and very good for foragers.  Hawthorn, the state tree of Missouri, has edible leaves, and is referred to “pepper and salt” by folksy old foragers in England, where it is commonly tossed into salads.  Nut trees can also help feed humans in hard times.

5. Forage and fodder should be diverse and support a resilient food supply for animals.  We don’t need to look towards Texas for hay in times of drought. 

6. The system is ideally optimized to stack inputs and outputs in both space and time.

7. A long-term plan and accounting system must be implemented.

Some benefits to the farmer and land:  Increased use of farmland for production; Increased carrying capacity and stacking rate; Improved animal comfort equals improved performance; Improved animal health through diverse diets; Most effective vegetation control; More yields from the same acreage;  Climate change mitigation and resilience; Wildlife habitat and forest restoration.  All of these will benefit whole farm viability, as well the larger community, society and culture.

The growing embrace of silvopasture does more than address the need to feed a growing population on less land.  The next wave in the shift from factory farming is coming from rapidly increasing demand for locally grown and marketed foods.  Finally, a shift towards silvopasture practices will bring improvements in human and ecological health through biologically diverse, locally grown food.

“Given that farming paradigms are shifting towards management strategies that integrate, along with the very real prospects of changing climate, there has not been a better time to adopt silvopasture more widely.  Along with these changes, a significant technology has emerged that has really become a game-changer for rotational grazing, and by extension for silvopasture.  This is the invention and refinement of portable fencing, arguably one of the biggest hurdles in raising animals.” – Steve Gabriel

The lead quote, and this one, are taken from Silvopasture:  A guide to Managing Grazing Animals, Forage Crops and Trees in Temperate Farm Ecosystem – it’s the best book I have seen in this genre, approached only by his previous book (co-authored book with Ken Mudge) titled: Farming the Woods:  An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food in Temperate Forests.  

If silvopasture is transforming the lives of farmers in Mexico, one might to be tempted to ask “Why not here?”  The answer is simple:  The Agribiz corporations have no interest in producing research that profits the American public as a whole, such as new open-source, seed and fodder varieties that are well-adapted to organic agriculture, or techniques for rotating cattle and crops on land that improves soil while reducing chemical fertilizer use.

It’s all because corporate cash from giant food and agrichemical industries have co-opted the University of Missouri’s ag research and extension agencies.  Our Land Grant University is now an R&D and marketing apparatus for their industry.  

Our dedicated ag extension agents can’t tell us how to diversify and better develop our fescue desert, export-cattle economy, not because they don’t care, but because they work for the companies that fund the strings-attached research of the University of Missouri.  More details about how this came about will have to wait; it’s not pretty.  The important thing is that we work together towards a resilient future.  Together, we can forestall a bitter harvest.  Stay tuned . . .