At our farm, the air is alive with sound. Hardworking bees buzz among burnt-orange squash blossoms. A cow calls to her calf. A hawk rises into the sky on a breeze, the same breeze that rustles a mulberry tree until a handful of fruit falls to the ground. Sweet berries rest on the soil, which gives off a rich, clean scent of its own, and is home to billions of microbes, working hard like the bees to support a nuanced natural system.
Nature is beautiful, bounteous, and diverse. Here at Spoon Full Farm, and at other ecological farms around the world, farmers and designers mimic nature’s ecosystems to create an agriculture that matches this beauty, bounty, and diversity with added productivity. In an age when most agriculture sickens our planet, our climate, and our people, ecological farming is a delicious alternative.
The typical landscape of industrial agriculture is neither beautiful, nor musical, nor fragrant. Perhaps you’ve driven through the endless rows of corn or soybeans in “farm country,” where the monocrop pattern is broken only by a combine spewing exhaust. The people who operate these farms will tell you that we can’t have both a biodiverse, healthy landscape and a productive farm on the same plot of land. We have to make sacrifices to “feed the world.” We must till soil; we must apply herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers to miles and miles of genetically uniform crops: that’s the only way to feed humanity’s fast growing population.
Industrial agriculture efficiently creates calories, but those calories come with steep deferred costs. Pesticides kill pollinators; synthetic nitrogen fertilizers leach into groundwater, rivers, and oceans, creating huge marine dead zones; and soil tillage releases gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
How long can the Earth bear these costs? Must we mine our soil and pollute our planet? Or can we use thoughtful design, based on ecological principles, to create a long-term solution?
Nature has fed herself for millions of years. However, natural ecosystems don’t produce enough calories to support modern populations. We need high crop yields every year. Our farms must both support themselves like ecosystems and also produce enough food.
Thus our design philosophy for farms must not only mimic but also augment nature to outcompete industrial agriculture. We design in response to the specific characteristics of each piece of land, choosing and arranging each detail to create larger patterns of interrelationships that resemble those of an ecosystem. While we can’t replicate the infinite complexity of nature, we can design a farm that is both self-sustaining and highly productive.
We start from the ground up, focusing on the health of our soil. We create a constant cycle of decomposing plants and manure to feed a vibrant food chain of soil microbes. Bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and protozoans work together to recycle organic matter, store water, and make nutrients available for plants. We keep this microecosystem intact by never tilling our earth. Agriculture is extractive: harvesting crops, we pull energy out of the ground and ship it elsewhere to be eaten. Keeping our soil whole helps to replenish this energy.
Up from this healthy soil grows a biodiverse range of crops, dense in life-giving nutrients. Along with potatoes, squash, and other annual produce, our garden grows lavender bushes and nettle hedges. These perennial plants provide consistent habitat for pollinators and predator bugs that eat pest insects, making pesticides obsolete.
Next year, our cows’ composted winter manure will add more fertility to our garden. As in every ecosystem, animals are crucial. We rotate our cows from one lush paddock to the next, every day, to stimulate grass regrowth. That’s the way bison moved for millennia, grazing and fleeing wolves in a cycle that built up the rich prairie soils. And as our grass grows up, its roots grow down, storing solid carbon underground.
Each element in our farm design supports the others, and therefore the whole. Rather than directly feed our crops, we maintain a system that builds our soil, which feeds the crops for us. We grow an abundance of healthy food, rivaling the productivity of industrial agriculture with a system that is not just sustainable but actually regenerative and communicative: everybody can understand an incredibly delicious carrot grown in a natural system beautiful enough to inspire.