Eyes on the Land: A Small, Diversified Farm Slowly, Steadily Builds Soil

  • Liz Guenther plunges a tube of yogurt into the mouth of Edward, a steer being raised for beef in her small herd of 11, at her farm in Corinth, Vt., Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. Guenther was administering her homemade yogurt as a probiotic to help Edward's case of digestive upset. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Liz Guenther moves a fence post to expose a strip of fresh grass and clover for her cows in a Corinth, Vt., hay field owned by Anne and Doug Jenisch Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. Guenther is using her Devon and Jersey cows to improve the hay field by fertilizing the ground with their manure as they graze. She takes a diversified approach to managing the small diversified farm, making cheese, raising beef, pork and chickens. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Liz Guenther races ahead of her two pigs Wilbur, back, and Stewart, front, with part of their lunch, a bucket of milk from a retired cow in Corinth, Vt., Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. Guenther is rotating the pigs across pastures she is reclaiming so they can till up the soil, loosening the sod, roots and stumps before chickens rotate in behind to begin smoothing out the surface with their scratching. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Wednesday, September 12, 2018

During these beautiful late summer days, the farm is momentarily quiet. The animals are farther afield and not visible from my kitchen windows or the back steps, where I now take a few minutes here and there to sit and enjoy the stillness and listen to the crickets’ singing. I can see the ripening Cortland apples below the house, and the oak tree set with acorns that I will gather and feed to our pigs this fall.

In these few reflective moments, I take stock of the progress we have made this year, and the next farming steps to make. Although not necessarily by design, what is evolving on our small farm in Corinth is a diversified operation. What we grow and produce is abundant and varied. It is generated by an equally diverse community of animals, and suggested by the richness and natural variety of the land itself.

“Diversity,” like “sustainability,” is a much-used, if not over-used, term these days. What does it really mean, and how is it important, in a concrete sense, for this particular farm?

Our farm is very small, with low animal numbers determined by our limited pasture acreage. Our production ebbs and flows with the weather, with seasonal activities, and with the fertility and life cycles of the animals. Health and quality, not constant quantity of production, is our goal. If we sometimes produce less milk, and therefore less cheese, we also have beef, pork, eggs and lumber.

We recently raised up a magnificent bull who failed to breed the cows. On our diversified farm he is still very valuable for beef, and even for his social role. A cow too old to supply the creamery? On almost any conventional dairy farm, she would be on the beef truck in a snap, in the unusual event she ever got to grow old in the first place. Here, she is still valuable as a good mother of excellent calves, and to feed our pigs richly. When I make lemon curd with our hens’ fresh eggs for lemon curd tarts, I rinse the bowl and add the lemony water to the pigs’ supper. Tiny beef trimmings from baking and cracklings from rendering our own lard? They delight the chickens at breakfast.

In other words, each kind of animal here contributes generously to the fresh, homegrown food we consume, share with friends, and sell at market, and they do so on more than one level. Diversity means complexity. It also means less gets wasted, and more can be directly, usefully recycled, right here on the farm. Last but not least, it wins our animals longer and more healthful, peaceful lives.

As importantly, every animal here also plays an integral part in building the farm, from the ground up. Coordinating the direction, order and cadence of grazing rotations for our various creatures so that they are building soil, not breaking it down, is a challenge, and demands constant attention and adjustment. Spooling out wire and quickly placing fence posts under the expectant gaze of cows ready for greener grazing, while noticing over my shoulder that the pigs have pushed dirt up onto their electric fence and are ready to move, and the horses need to be led off their plot and into the woods for a day or two, I sometimes feel like an orchestra conductor, furiously waving her baton, all the time striving to keep the woodwinds in time with the string section — the milkers, the young herd, the horses, the pigs, the chickens — all in harmonious rhythm with each other, in symphony with the land.

The cows lead the grazing rotations, heading in first to graze the best grass, which is too lush for horses. Our small band of 11 cattle includes cows, bulls, steers and heifers, and is kept in two groups. The four milk cows, mature steer and yearling bull currently are grazing in the hay field Anne and Doug Jenisch have offered to us for years. The milkers supply enough milk to provide the house with yogurt, and the farmers market with aged English-style cheeses and soft-ripened French cheeses. We raise our bull calves up as steers, for grass-fed beef. When the conformation, temperament and lineage of a bull calf make him suitable for the role, we raise him up to be a breeding bull for our herd. Occasionally we have a youngster to sell, and we work hard to find excellent homes, and to send animals to new homes in pairs, whenever possible. No animals leave the farm on a truck for market or auction.

The two small work horses follow the cows in rotation, grazing over the same areas but for a considerably briefer period of time, and fenced onto slightly different areas that include more woods. Here they thrive on sparser grasses and low-hanging browse. I winced this spring when I moved them, a day late, from a thinner section of pasture. They had snipped it down to barely an inch.

For years I have noticed overgrazed horse pastures, including my own, and accepted the conventional wisdom that horses are hard on the earth. But that close-cropped section bounced back beautifully after a few weeks, and we are pleased to discover that by moving the horses much more quickly across the pastures than the other animals, they are leaving surprisingly deep green and healthy swaths behind them now.

Our two pigs, Stewart and Wilbur, are currently pastured at the farthest end of the “home” field where we are reclaiming and expanding our pasture. They enjoy the light shade and scratchy branches of a group of young maples, as well as the deeper shadows and coolness where pasture meets woods.

They devour the ferns and thrive on the whey from the creamery. To that I add cooked barley and vegetable scraps in winter and extra vegetables in summer. Apples and acorns in fall make for delicious pork chops. In their never ending, nose-to-the-ground search for tasty roots and other mysterious earthen snacks, they helpfully rototill up the brambles, brush and stumps of rougher areas. Because they eat grain, they add much-needed phosphorus to our soils, which grow healthier grasses for the cows.

Once the pigs are moved onto fresh ground, the chickens come in to scratch, smoothing the pigs’ ruts and furrows somewhat. They spread the pigs’ manure, consuming undesirable insect larvae where these are present, and broadcasting undigested oats or barley. Our small flock of chickens gives us plenty of eggs for breakfast, for cooking and for friends. Good setters, our hens usually hatch out one or two batches of chicks each year, so there are pullets to join our flock and for sale, and roosters for coq au vin.

Every other year we raise about 20 meat chickens, which we teach to scratch as day-old chicks, and then raise in a completely unconfined, free-range manner, offering them whey to drink, and closing them up only at night for safety. Doing this saves on organic chicken feed, and augments their grain diet with bugs and plants they find around the barnyard. They grow more slowly and comfortably this way, and are usually around to feast on the last of the butchering scraps I bring home late in the fall.

After the chickens are moved along, we smooth remaining hummocks with a rock rake, a quick pass with the brush hog, or by hand, and then lightly sow orchard grass. We sometimes mix in a bit of clover and oats, particularly where the soil was somewhat barren to begin with. A month later you’d hardly guess such lively company had passed across this patch of ground, as sprouting new growth looks so vigorous and green. We’ve had to get used to some initial soil disruption, and sometimes, sustained improvement isn’t obvious until the following year. But we have been patient, and are repeatedly seeing good results by practicing this sequence of pasturing rotations.

Our rough pastures began to improve 20 years ago, when we returned cows to our overgrown fields. When we began managing grazing rotations, the results were dramatic. And since we’ve brought different animals into more effective rotational patterns over the past three years, the increase in forage quantity and quality has been exponential.

Keeping a diverse, interacting animal population requires extra time and effort, vigilance, flexibility and a constant willingness to improvise. But in return we reap extra rewards, though they may be less obvious than the startling green grass of a field dressed with high nitrogen fertilizers or liquid manure slurries. Unconfined and on pasture, different species of livestock attract different species of dung beetles, for example, and the more of these almost invisible laborers you have in your fields, the better off you are, in time.

About 10 years ago, we applied lime to eight acres of scrappy pasture. And within the next few weeks we will spread wood ash (fly ash, a product of the combustion of clean wood and bark to produce electricity) that will raise our soil pH, and provide a welcome source of phosphorus here, where our soils are low in this nutrient. These are the only trucked-in imports here in the last 30 years.

While we laud “Slow Food,” strangely no one seems to tolerate “slow fertility,” as I tend to think of it. Farms are encouraged to spread manure in various forms, some pleasant, some noxious, some local, plenty from miles and miles away to increase production for market. Such steps can increase productivity quickly, helping us turn a dollar sooner. And certainly many of these moves can improve soil fertility.

But there are costs, some easily measured, some less obvious, but significant, in digging these various materials out of the earth, near and sometimes far from here, and in transporting them over long distances. And there’s another kind of cost to driving heavy equipment all over the fields being treated. This is something we have thought a lot about, since all of our pastures are side hill, and fragile in their soils. At Nature’s Pace is the title of a favorite agriculture essay of mine (Gene Logsdon is the author), and this gradual progress is always on my mind.

Looking up along the row of maples lining the edge of the graceful field that now sweeps up from the house along the driveway, I can see our five younger cows chewing their cud in the shade of the grand old trees, and lying in grass we can finally describe as lush. We have worked for 30 years to clear this field back to the old stone walls that mark its earlier boundaries.

Just last weekend, my older son, Sam, and I cleaned up along the new perimeter fence, and chainsawed flat the last few stumps still in the way. Something I envisioned for years, and sometimes wondered if I ever would see, this peaceful sight of cows, content and well nourished by their own home ground, affirms our long hours and years of work. This, our blossoming herd, is the real crop on our small farm. On a deeper, more enduring level, the health of the grasses and the soil is our bottom line.

Liz Guenther lives and farms in Corinth with her sons Silas and Sam.