A farm, by definition, is a departure from nature — it is land taken from its wild state and turned to human ends. But it is possible for a farm to learn from natural systems, to work with mother nature and integrate her patterns. This is the soul of organic agriculture; it is also a practical way to produce high quality food while building soil and conserving the habitat and biodiversity that come with well-managed open land. No farm will ever approach the ecological sophistication of nature, because the balance of activity is focused on the needs of our one species. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take good care — and a little better care every year, as we learn, and learn. This is organics at its best — good stewardship of the various communities that overlap to create a farm.
At Sidehill Farm, we are constantly improving our systems, so that they flow more directly from the examples we see in nature. We resist quick fixes like antibiotics and organically approved pesticides that ameliorate short-term problems while hiding or creating deeper issues. We select for plants and animals that balance productivity with ruggedness and adaptability. We work with and foster the various microclimates found on our farm. We are mildly obsessed with soil and the density of life within it. We select and develop technologies that respect natural systems and use energy efficiently. And we are amazed at how much better we can always do, how much we have to learn.
What about Organic Certification?
For a long time, we joked that we would never certify the food we produce because the National Organic Program isn‘t strict enough to acknowledge how we farm. More seriously, we believe that farming organically is a management decision; but certifying organic is a marketing decision. We are blessed with local customers who enjoy our food and know us by name and face. They know they are welcome to stop by the farm anytime, and observe our management practices. They have given us one of the most precious things a farm can earn from it‘s customers: their trust.
But now that we have grown, and sell our yogurt all over the state of Massachusetts, we find that we have no longer met most of our customers face-to-face. Food labeling is confusing and complicated, and it is hard to know what to believe, and who to trust. For that reason, all of the land that we manage for the dairy is certified organic. Everything that the cows eat is certified organic - meaning they graze exclusively on organic pastures during the growing season, and eat certified organic hay and baleage (those giant marshmallow bales) in the winter. We also feed a small amount of organic grain as a treat at milking time. If a cow has health issues, she is treated with herbal and homeopathic remedies, and a lot of TLC, and we find the girls respond best to those treatments.
Pasture is so much at the heart of Sidehill Farm Dairy that we often think of ourselves primarily as grass farmers. We work with the cows to manage the growth of the pastures. The pastures provide a balanced diet for the cows, which then provide us with milk high in Omega-3's and CLA. At the same time, the grass is actually building soil. How? After each grazing, the plants shed some older root material, before putting on a new flush of growth in both their tops and roots. The discarded roots (and manure!) become a food source for earthworms, insects, nematodes, and a great diversity of bacteria, which digest it into rich new soil, ready for use by the plants. This process requires no tilling or mechanical harvesting, and therefore requires no fossil fuels and results in no runoff or waste of any sort. It is powered by the sun and rain and millions of mouths, eating their way around the carbon cycle.
Our role in this system is mostly as managers. We move the cows to fresh grazing twice a day. This keeps the cows happy, as they always have enough fresh feed, and it keeps the milk flowing. But we are also managing the distribution of cow manure, and the growth rate of the grass. If it is allowed to grow too tall and mature, feed quality and palatability decrease. If it is grazed too short, regrowth slows, soil biological activity slows, solar energy goes unused, and less desirable plant species are favored. We constantly vary paddock sizes and stocking rates to maintain the quality of the grass.
We also test our soils every year, adding lime, minerals, and composted manure as needed to balance the diet of the system. And we pay a lot of attention to the mix of species that make up the sward. Our grass is much more than just grass — a botanist walking through our pastures would find more than 100 species of grasses, legumes, forbs, and other sundry seedlings of trees, shrubs, and annuals. This diversity allows the cows to balance their diets by seeking out the trace nutrients and botanicals needed to maintain their health. As needed, we overseed pastures and hayfields with clovers, to maintain diversity and a balance of species.