Perennial Agriculture | What’s Next? | A Look at The Future for Sterling Hill Farm

sterlinghillfarmPerennial Agriculture, Regenerative Farming, Sterling Hill Farm Blog9 Comments

Perennial Agriculture | Sterling Hill Farm

Blog for Sterling Hill Farm Jan 21, 2021
Brad Elford

The last time I spoke to y’all, I talked about some things that have impacted the direction we are taking the farm. I would like to explain in greater detail what exactly those things are and why we think they are important. I am going to start by talking about the most basic resource we have in agriculture, our soil! If you do a google search on “is our soil disappearing”, you will find we are fast approaching disaster across the globe. Scientists think that if we continue farming the way we currently do, we have only 60 harvests left! That means that during your lifetime, certainly in our children’s lifetimes, we will have no dirt left to farm if we haven’t done anything about it! 60 years is not that long. Seems to me this should be at the top of our priority list! Thankfully there are some folks who have been working on a solution to this problem for the last few decades and they have a viable answer to this alarming dilemma.

Before we delve into the answer, let’s define our current farming model that has led us to this point. We currently rely on plants that need to be planted every year called annuals. These staple foods, such as corn and soybeans, are grown in a monocrop system (by themselves) and require the yearly activities associated with traditional farming. We plow the ground, disc it, put on synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, seed it (with seeds coated with chemicals and genetically modified to contain pesticides within the plants cells), spray on some more chemicals to kill weeds, harvest the crop, plow the crop residue under and then let the fields sit bare until next year. All of this is done in the name of producing cheap food (notice I didn’t say nutritious) for the masses to consume.

 Why is this bad you say? I love cheap food you say. Well, let’s see. Instead of our soils being able to store carbon from the atmosphere, to be used by plants and soil biology to grow, we release it back into the air when we plow! After being plowed under at the end of the season, millions of acres of farmland sit bare until the next year’s crop is planted. With no living roots in the ground there is zero photosynthesis taking place. No more carbon sequestration.  No additional organic material being added to the soil for the next crop (hence the need for all those synthetic fertilizers). Nothing to hold the soil in place to protect against erosion. Never mind all the nasty chemicals that we either ingest ourselves or wash into the rivers and oceans to poison those ecosystems as well.  Not to mention, where in nature do we see any kind of monocrop? Nowhere! And yet we continue farming the same way, using up our soil, polluting our waterways and poisoning ourselves. Again, it seems insane.

 That 60 year deadline was forecasted back in at least 2014, which means we now have only 53 years to do something different! How is this the pinnacle of agriculture? It is estimated that this method of farming is eroding our soils ten times faster than it can be replenished. While I’m piling on the bad news, (I’m almost done!), it is estimated that Mother Nature on her own, could take 1000 years to produce 3 inches of topsoil. Yikes! (As I sit here and proofread this is sounds absolutely ridiculous to say out loud that the planet Earth is running out of soil!) I promise this blog isn’t all doom and gloom, my friends. There is something we can do, and now is the time to do it!

The good news is, if we provide the ideal circumstances, we can grow topsoil at a much faster rate. Some farmers have shown this can be done at a rate of inches per year with the proper techniques. Not only can we produce topsoil AND more nutritious food at the same time, but we can help mitigate climate change, reduce erosion, eliminate agricultural runoff,  reduce dependency on cheap fossil fuels, increase crop resilience to both drought and flood as well as revitalize local economies. Whew! What a relief, right?! So how do we do this? The answer is both simple and complex. The answer is Perennial Agriculture.

So how does Perennial Agriculture differ from annual agriculture? Well, for starters, perennials only need to be planted once. Unlike modern day orchards though, we are not planting a perennial monocrop here. We are going to mimic Mother Nature and plant a diverse ecosystem based around Oak, Chestnut, Hazelnut, Apple and the rubus family (think black berries and raspberries). This system is based on the Oak Savannah biome and will work where ever oak trees will grow. There are actually many different biomes, and I think we will actually be able to reproduce more than one on our amazing farm, but this will the main one. Some plants, such as raspberries, are viable for 15-20 years. Others, such as some nut and fruit trees, will produce for centuries!

Right off the bat you can see we can eliminate all that plowing and discing because we only need to plant our crops once. We also solve the problem of erosion by eliminating bare soil. What about drought and flash floods you say? By installing strategically placed ditches, berms and catch basins we can maximize the lands ability to use every drop of water it receives. Instead of running excess water off the farm as quick as possible, we slow it down, spread it out and soak it into the soil to be used in dry times. That is built in resiliency right there and something we need as we face a climate that brings extreme heat, cold, drought and rains. How about those synthetic fertilizers, a lot of which are petroleum based? Don’t need them in a perennial system. Funny thing about a diverse ecosystem is that she tends to take care of herself. Plants photosynthesize and deposit nutrients into the ground where the soil biology trades needed minerals for sugars and on and on it goes. Simple, yet complex. Pesticides? GMO’s? Again, turns out when you have a diverse eco system (instead of that monocrop system) things take care of themselves more often than not. A diverse system has habitat for all manner of creatures, not just the pesky ones. When one pesky bug moves in, it means it is meal time for whatever predatory bug eats the first one. Nature balances itself out. And, if one crop is completely lost or damaged, you have all these stacked enterprises growing literally on top of one another. Resiliency for the farm! And what about all that carbon released back into the atmosphere from plowing? Well, when you have dozens of species photosynthesizing from the top of the food forest canopy, through the understory to the herb layer and down to the forest floor, all working to sequester away copious amounts of carbon and other elements, I think we have that monocrop system beat, hands down.

Right about now you’re probably thinking “Good grief, Elford! We thought you were raising pigs and poultry and here you’ve been rambling on about soil and climate change and food forests! How are you supposed to farm a forest anyway and what about the piggy’s, man?!” Well you’re right, I’m on a breakaway, but it’s all necessary to let you good folks know where this runaway train is headed. So if you can give me another minute, or maybe ten, this should all make a little more sense (I hope!).

Alrighty, so in order be able to farm a forest it has to be accessible. If you can’t harvest your crops efficiently it doesn’t matter how much food you’ve produced. Enter the “savannah” portion of the equation.  A savannah has 10-50% canopy coverage, whereas a forest would have a 50-100% closed canopy. In our Oak Savannah mimic, we have laid the perennials out in rows following the contours of the farm. . This is done because of the whole slow, spread and soak thing I was telling you about. These rows contain oak as the upper canopy, chestnut grown below in the understory, apple below them, hazelnut bushes under the apples and raspberries and herbs on the bottom. Alleyways between the stacked perennials allow access for workers, wagons, harvest equipment and pastured livestock. A variety of livestock will be rotationally grazed in the alleyways (eating perennial grasses and fallen fruit and nuts of course!) where they will stimulate plant growth by grazing and add the ever so precious manure (fertilizer) needed by the plants. This year we hope to add three Highland cows and three Kune Kune pigs for breeding. Goats and sheep will also be important grazers added in the future. These animals will all play a role in making Sterling Hill Farm a truly regenerative farm.  If you are having trouble visualizing what this all will look like, fire up google and search “New Forest Farm”. This farm is Mark Shepard’s perennial baby, some 20+ years in the making! He proves that it can be done at scale, and be profitable too. All of the techniques I’ve talked about have been proven on the ground at New Forest Farm and will work on our farm as well. All we have to do is apply them! I mentioned Mark’s book “Restoration Agriculture” in my last blog too. It is a must read!

Onwards and upwards. So I mentioned replacing our annual staple food crops with perennial staple food crops. What does that mean? Well, for one it means changing how we eat. To borrow an example from Mark’s book, instead of eating nacho cheese flavored corn chips, you’d be eating nacho cheese flavored hazelnut chips! The question is “how do we get there from here?” Well, when shopping at the grocery store, support perennial agriculture. For example, try putting almond or cashew milk on your cheerios next week. Or better yet, stop by the Sterling Hill Farm stand for a butcher box and put some pasture raised bacon on your breakfast plate! (I know, shameless plug!).

So now that we’ve started to change how and what we eat, another change will be in how we harvest and process our crops. For sure there will be some need for new equipment to harvest multiple crops growing in and amongst one another. This is just another opportunity to create local (re: Canadian) jobs. Let’s keep these manufacturing jobs in our own communities, not overseas, eh? I have no doubt that there are some highly skilled Canadian folks out there who are able to design and build new equipment for these specific tasks. With all our technical advancements, surely we can harvest apples amongst hazelnuts, and raspberries amongst cherries. Regardless, harvest time will be colossal and surely will create local jobs too.

Assuming others follow suit (you perhaps?) and start new perennial farms (do we dare not to?) in our area, we will need local sorting and processing facilities for these new farmed goods. In “Restoration Agriculture”, Mark envisions regional farmer owned co-ops that can process these products, provide stable prices for small farmers, increase our buying and selling power and create much needed jobs in small communities. We fully intend on making this a reality, but certainly cannot achieve this by ourselves!

It is a community endeavor we propose here. We need you to eat our pasture raised pork and poultry so the next step of the project can take place. This year’s farm goals are lofty, but we manifest them every morning around the breakfast table! With a lot of hard work, some help and a little bit of luck they just might all come to fruition in 2021. We are adding 250 birds to our poultry program, we have plans to raise 150 heritage pigs on pasture. There is the start-up of the Highland and Kune Kune breeding programs, a Sustainable New Agri-Food Products and Productivity Project to complete, a new barn foundation to complete and we have 15 acres of land to clear so we can begin planting those amazing perennials! And that is only the tip of the iceberg. Yes, we are definitely going to need some help!

This is a lot to process, I realize that. The information I’ve presented to you here barely scratches the surface though. We feel compelled to spread the word about regenerative & perennial agriculture. To lead by example. To step outside our comfort zones, and to challenge you to step outside of yours as well. I cannot sit by and live my life “business as usual” when I know the generations who come after us will be greatly impacted by the choices we make today. There is too much at stake to wait any longer! When our grandchildren talk about our generation I want them to be able to say we made good choices. I can’t bear to think what they will say if we don’t. I really appreciate you reading this. Thank you for your interest in what we are doing here on Sterling Hill Farm, and thank you for your support so far. We wouldn’t be here without you. That being said, I hope to see you at the farm stand on Saturday or “in” our online farm store any day of the week!

You can also follow along in our day to day at the farm on Facebook or Instagram @sterlinghillfarms

9 Comments on “Perennial Agriculture | What’s Next? | A Look at The Future for Sterling Hill Farm”

  1. This makes us really excited about what we can do with our land. Thank you for opening our eyes once again Brad!

  2. Thank you Brad, you have a great writing style. Very informative and I love why you are doing this.

  3. This is very exciting! I’m eager to learn what I can do on my good size city lot to contribute this movement! Thanks for all the food for thought (pun fully intended).
    Thanks for your vision and action (and Lisa’s too) for a better future!

    1. That’s so awesome to hear Ann. I think sometimes people in the city think that change is beyond their control, but there are so many ways everyone can support regenerative agriculture. Excited to hear about your progress!

  4. I really love your philosophy and your products! My family enjoyed one of your turkeys at Christmas, and we just had the most amazing pork roast this week!

    Keep up the great work!

  5. Thanks Brad for sharing your knowledge – and Lisa for pushing it out! It’s scary to see how much lower value(and quality) food actually costs.

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