Better Is Within Our Reach
By Kris Johnson
Farm Manager, MUM Regenerative
Organic Agriculture Farm
Most farmers would agree that many of their practices can be improved. Tillage encourages the erosion of our soils, synthetic fertilizers pollute our waters, pesticides leave our landscape deprived of life, and the mistreatment of animals is a common occurrence. Either from an economic or ecological standpoint, farmers are always looking for better ways to do things.
However, asking farmers to stop cold turkey and immediately try something new simply isn’t a realistic option. They rely on these methods to make a livelihood, support their families, and feed those around them. “Betting the farm” on a new practice is risky at best.
For farmers to truly be able to change their methods, they need new tried and true methods that work. Methods that provide a reasonable financial return, produce healthy food and improve the land as they are practiced. Practices like these are referred to as regenerative agricultural methods. These practices can take many forms but they generally use both plants and animals in an attempt to mimic a natural ecosystem while also producing a marketable yield.
Main Street Project, based out of Northfield Minnesota, has been working to pioneer one such system that is centered around poultry production. This system seeks to mimic an environment in which a chicken would naturally thrive, like a forest or jungle. Thanks to the trees and shrubs, the chickens would be relatively safe from predators, such as eagles and hawks. They would also have access to diverse food sources such as insects, seeds, nuts, berries, and vegetation.
There would also be ample places to lay eggs which become the next generation of chicken. While the chicken benefits from the environment, the environment would also benefit from the chicken. The chicken poop would fertilize the trees and shrubs that protect and feed them, and foraging for seeds and insects would reduce pest pressure on the plants that provide food and shelter.
The Main Street Project’s Poultry Centered Regenerative Agriculture System, or Tree-Range Poultry, harnesses these natural interplays and uses them to obtain a marketable yield. In this system, a hazelnut orchard replaces the forest. The hazelnuts provide a perennial yield of a sought-after food while also protecting the foraging chickens underneath.
Because the chickens are spending their time underneath the hazelnuts, they tend to eat the seeds, weeds, and insects that would otherwise compete with or damage the trees. They also tend to poop at the base of the trees allowing the hazelnut trees to uptake those nutrients, furthering their growth and production, rather than run off into the local watershed. In the Tree-Range Poultry system a building is erected with nesting boxes where the chickens lay their eggs, which makes them easy to collect and sell. By day the chickens are free to roam in the hazelnut orchard, by night they return to the laying building for shelter.
In the winter the chickens roam around a solarium attached to the main laying house. This ensures that no matter what time of the year, the chickens can move freely around their environment. Chicken food for the winter can include diverse grains, hay, or even food scraps. In the spring the building is cleaned out and the litter is applied to other cropping lands, further expanding the beneficial impacts of the system.
Possibly the best part of this system is that it is designed to be scalable. It can be an entry point for a beginning farmer with limited capital resources. The systems could scale up to become a full replacement for the conventional large-scale confinement system of livestock production, or CAFO model, or could be an addition to existing operations. This means the transition to a new regenerative agriculture practice doesn't have to be a leap of faith.
Farmers can try out the methods for themselves, making small low-risk mistakes while learning the ins and outs and testing the concepts to weigh out the benefits for their operation. This could be a powerful first step toward transitioning away from CAFO style production and making ecologically and economically sound methods the norm.
Collaboration between Maharishi University, the Main Street Project, and other interested parties in Jefferson County has begun. The goal is to explore the economic viability, ecological impact, and practical steps necessary to implement an operating production and training site. The facility will provide a working model for any student or farmer who wishes to learn more while it produces healthy, local, economical food for the University and surrounding community.
Regenerative agricultural methods, when done right, encourage everyone involved to live healthier, happier lives both through what they eat and through the communities in which they live. Farmers need communities, and communities need farmers. Together we can all decide to do better.