There are lots of reasons to feel discouraged these days. We get it. Things can look pretty bleak sometimes. But here’s the thing: if we wanted to make things worse, we could. That means if we want to make things better, we still can.
Our area of focus is farming and food. At Singing Pastures, we’ve come to believe that no food is inherently good or bad, it is how it is produced. For us, the foundation of how to improve the land, water quality, and wildlife habitat starts with the soil. It is tempting to think that soil isn’t interesting or relevant to your life. That’s why this story isn’t just about soil. It is also about poop. And birds. And perspectives.
We arrived in Maine in July 2018 to start our new life on an ex-dairy farm. (John and I are not dairy farmers.) The farm came with a giant sign on the road that says “Cow Shit Corner” and a picture of a cartoon-like dairy cow with unusually large lips. As far as we know, the first “Cowshit Corner” sign was written by hand back in the 1940’s, and there has been some iteration of it ever since. The story of how it got its name (that we have heard) comes from a car accident. There used to be a dairy shed above a T-intersection. Cow manure would sometimes wash into the road and create a slippery surface right by the intersection. One day, a new letter carrier drove to the intersection too fast. When he applied the brakes, he slid through the intersection into a field and hit a utility pole. Back at the post office, he was asked where the accident took place. He responded in anger, "Cowshit Corner," and the name stuck.
When we started the farm was overgrazed in some places, undergrazed in other places. If you follow agricultural news at all, you know that small scale dairy farms have been on the decline for years. There is a ton of pressure to increase production and reduce costs. This pressure, along with the fact that most dairy farms do not practice any form of rotational grazing, had taken a toll on the land. We had a grazing specialist come to walk the land shortly after we arrived, and he said it was, “the worst pasture (he) had ever seen” and he didn’t expect it to ever become very productive. (This is not the news you want to hear when you first buy a farm.)
However, we knew what we were getting into when we bought the farm, and had high hopes that the land could improve by utilizing regenerative agriculture practices. Our plan was to use multi-species grazing to move animals (cows and pigs) around the farm from pasture to pasture, utilizing electric fencing. By keeping animals bunched and moving (similar to how the Bison would have traveled through the Great Plains) a cascade of changes begins to happen and improves land. Livestock graze and trample the grasses, effectively making a layer of mulch covering the ground. This creates a comfortable habitat for the microbiome (bacteria, fungi, insects, nematodes, and more) that live in the soil. The animals’ urine and poop lands on the ground where it can decompose and feed the soil before they move onto their next pasture. This is followed by a period of rest, where the plants regrow until the next grazing cycle. (More information on regenerative farming can be found at Savory Institute and Soil Health Academy.)
With this as our starting point, we embarked upon a path to manage the farm regeneratively with soil health as a top priority. What started as fields filled with invasives (Multiflora Rose, Canada Thistle, Burdock) started to progress to grasses over time. We helped that process along by using a no-till drill to seed diverse grasses and legumes into our permanent pasture. After only 2 full years (7 grazing cycles), our fields have tremendously improved.
Not only that, our pastures are getting louder.
There are many ways to tell if your land is changing. One of them is to listen. At the start of our regenerative farming project, there were not very many birds. There has been a decline of grassland birds throughout New England for the past several decades. One of the primary reasons is that many farmers hay the land in the early Spring, while grassland birds are nesting. However, life has a way of rebounding when it is given a chance.
We were lucky enough to be visited recently by Laura Lecker, a soil scientist with Somerset County Soil and Water Conservation District. She is also part of Ag Allies, a project that works with landowners and farmers across the state to better manage open lands for grassland bird nesting. She had heard from a colleague that visited our farm that he was “pretty impressed with the number of Bobolinks,” so she came to check it out for herself. Bobolinks are beautiful, grassland birds. You can listen to one sing here. This plucky little bird migrates from Canada and the Northern US all the way down South America to winter, an impressive 6,000 mile journey.
As Laura walked into one of our pastures, approximately 40-50 Bobolinks flew up and away. She believes our farm now has a robust populations of Bobolinks, which have been listed on the Watchlist since 2014. (The Watchlist targets species that are most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats.) She quickly agreed to start tracking our Bobolink population in Spring 2021.
Birds are biological indicators of the health of the land. They rely on seeds and insects, which rely on the plant life, which relies on the soil. Like the sentiment of John Muir: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
We are all accustomed to the idea that things can go into a downward spiral. Bad news begets more bad news. But here is a point of inspiration: the opposite is also true. Improve the soil and the land will store more water, mitigating the risk of both flooding and drought. Improve the soil and the land will sequester more carbon. Improve the soil and grasslands become a rich habitat for Bobolinks, insects, pollinators, foxes, coyotes, and on and on and on.
Before you take your first step on a farm, you have to decide what you see as a problem, and what you view as an opportunity. Do we choose to manage our land for killing pests or do we choose to manage for life? Do we choose to see animal manure as “shit” or do we choose to see it as food that can nurture plant life and the microbiome? Because when you change the way you perceive it, you also change how you will ultimately manage land.
By working with nature, rather than fighting against it, we altered the plant life and soil substantially. This created the unforeseen consequence of a dramatic increase in our Bobolink population. It only took two years for this population to rebound. If that can happen in such a short period of time, it raises the question: “What else is possible when we open our hearts, listen to the land, and are willing to change the way we think about agriculture?”
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