Farm­ing from the heart

NZ Lifestyle Block - - NOTEBOOK -

He’s a charis­matic Amer­i­can, a world-renowned farmer who calls him­self a “Chris­tian lib­er­tar­ian, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist, cap­i­tal­ist, lu­natic farmer” and once wrote a book called

Greg and Rachel Hart farm Man­garara Sta­tion in the Hawkes Bay. It’s 13,000km and a world away from Joel Salatin’s 200ha (500 acre) or­ganic farm in the Shenan­doah Val­ley of West Vir­ginia.

But to the Harts, Salatin’s way of farm­ing is so in­spi­ra­tional, they are mod­el­ling their prop­erty on his phi­los­o­phy which is why there are now less sheep, more cat­tle, and pigs and poul­try have joined their flock.

“To say he is in­spi­ra­tional is a mas­sive un­der­state­ment,” says Greg. “Joel has not only rev­o­lu­tionised be­yond or­ganic agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion, he has an in­cred­i­ble abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate his ex­pe­ri­ence and the rea­sons why more peo­ple need to adopt sim­i­lar sys­tems adapted to their lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment.

“I have trea­sured the hours I have spent driv­ing around the coun­try with Joel as my pas­sen­ger talk­ing about all sorts of things, but al­though he is prob­a­bly the best known farmer in the world – and isn’t a sus­tain­able food pro­ducer and land stew­ard more im­por­tant than movie stars, politi­cians or sports stars? – he is an in­cred­i­bly hum­ble, sup­port­ive and car­ing man.”

The Salatin way of farm­ing is a big change for a man brought up with con­ven­tional NZ meth­ods. Greg got an agri­cul­ture de­gree at Massey Uni­ver­sity, then worked as a farm con­sul­tant, in live­stock ex­ports and as a grain mar­keter, be­fore buy­ing into his par­ent’s farm in 1996.

Rachel grew up in Hawkes Bay and holds the show to­gether with her ad­min­is­tra­tive and man­age­ment skills, run­ning the fam­ily and the day-to-day oper­a­tional ac­tiv­i­ties of the farm.

Then there are their chil­dren, Ge­orge, Bill and Emma. Ge­orge is an avid reader, but he’s also keen to get out and en­gage with farm vis­i­tors. Bill has a dry sense of hu­mour and en­joys a good board game. Emma is the bud­ding artist and chef of the fam­ily, but she also loves get­ting stuck into farm work when­ever she can.

Oh, and I for­got Pipi the dog. Pipi loves help­ing out around the farm and is al­ways ready for a day out on the quad with Greg.

On most con­ven­tional farms, re­sources such as wa­ter, land and an­i­mals are com­modi­ties to be con­verted and ex­ploited for fi­nan­cial profit. In con­trast, the Harts see rev­er­ence for the land and all that goes with it. They feel there is an un­fold­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phe that is cur­rently tak­ing place around the globe and it needs to stop.

“Species ex­tinc­tion, cli­mate change and re­source de­ple­tion are all ma­jor is­sues erod­ing the eco­log­i­cal fab­ric of the planet,” says Greg. “Hu­man­ity is on the precipice of an un­fold­ing tragedy which is ul­ti­mately an evo­lu­tion­ary step. These events are giv­ing us the op­por­tu­nity to take an evo­lu­tion­ary leap in con­scious­ness and be­come aware of the in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness of all life which will lead to us live in har­mony with our en­vi­ron­ment and each other.”

Greg and Rachel’s jour­ney has been in­spired by books, ar­ti­cles and doc­u­men­taries. They’ve drawn in­spi­ra­tion from Salatin, but also Ron­ald Wright, Paul Hawken, Lester Brown, Charles Eisen­stein, Eck­hart Tolle, and many oth­ers.

They took classes at the lo­cal high school, learn­ing about per­ma­cul­ture and sus­tain­able sys­tems de­sign. They joined the Sus­tain­ing Hawke’s Bay Trust and the Hast­ings En­vi­ron­ment Cen­tre, which runs classes in en­vi­ron­men­tal aware­ness (Greg is now a trustee). Lo­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives of gov­ern­ment from the green move­ment also helped ed­u­cate and in­spire the Harts to move to­ward more sus­tain­able sys­tems. Greg has since or­gan­ised a series of com­mu­nity meet­ings on cli­mate change, peak oil, and the Transition Net­work that pro­poses ways in which towns can tackle these prob­lems.

He says un­like many other con­ven­tional farm­ers, he is aware of the re­liance of modern agri­cul­ture on fos­sil fu­els, specif­i­cally oil.

“Oil is a fi­nite re­source and has funded the ex­pan­sion of economies over re­cent decades. While na­tional Govern­ments pur­sue a ‘busi­ness as usual’ ap­proach and hur­tle to­ward the brick wall at full speed, I am cau­tious of the rhetoric of politi­cians and econ­o­mists who fore­cast a boom in food de­mand that will drive New Zealand agri­cul­ture into the fu­ture.

“While the stan­dard of liv­ing is ris­ing in China and In­dia, as well as the rapidly in­creas­ing global pop­u­la­tion, food avail­abil­ity is go­ing to be a mas­sive is­sue this cen­tury. The global in­dus­trial food sys­tem is to­tally de­pen­dent on cheap abun­dant en­ergy which, ei­ther due to re­duced avail­abil­ity from sup­ply and de­mand pres­sure or sim­ply be­cause we wake up to the fact that fos­sil fu­els must re­main in the ground to mit­i­gate cli­mate change, this en­ergy bo­nanza seems un­likely to con­tinue for much longer.”

Greg freely ad­mits he too is ad­dicted to oil.

“We are try­ing to wean our­selves off oil by mak­ing changes to the way we farm. We are re­ally in­ter­ested in and fo­cused on se­ques­ter­ing car­bon into the soils by holis­tic and bi­o­log­i­cal fer­til­ity man­age­ment. We have stopped us­ing air­craft to ap­ply fer­tiliser and are work­ing on try­ing to per­fect holis­tic graz­ing man­age­ment tech­niques.”

Holis­tic graz­ing is where pas­tures are left to grow long be­fore they are grazed ( Joel Salatin rec­om­mends waist high), then grazed and tram­pled by densely stocked mobs of cat­tle.

“The process mim­ics the nat­u­ral graz­ing pat­terns of ru­mi­nant an­i­mals that once roamed the great plains of the earth, which over time built deep rich soils, work­ing to be­come largely self-suf­fi­cient in nu­tri­ent in­puts, us­ing worm farms and other lo­cally sourced min­er­als.”

That’s where Joel Salatin comes into the pic­ture. Through ex­ten­sive re­search and

read­ing, Greg and Rachel came to the re­al­i­sa­tion that what hu­mans are do­ing is com­pletely against the nat­u­ral sys­tems which sup­port them, some­thing Salatin has been writ­ing and speak­ing about for years.

On Poly­face Farms, noth­ing is done con­ven­tion­ally, but it all works beau­ti­fully. Salatin says they haven’t spread chem­i­cal fer­tiliser in 50 years, they don’t plant seeds, and they don’t own a plough, disc or silo. The food they pro­duce – beef, pork and poul­try – is only sold to fam­i­lies, restau­rants and re­tail chains within a four hour driv­ing time of his farm so that it is fresh and sus­tain­able. In­stead of fer­tiliser, grass grows to about 1m high, and is then in­ten­sively grazed, only twice a year. Cows take up large amounts of starch, then pro­duce ‘pumpkin pie’ con­sis­tency ma­nure which helps to raise fer­til­ity, es­pe­cially on ar­eas like hills. It’s a very dif­fer­ent way of run­ning a farm com­pared to NZ, as Salatin told Nz­farmer back in 2010.

“Ba­si­cally we’re graz­ing hay. I call it mob-stock­ing-her­biv­o­rous­so­lar-con­ver­sion-lig­ni­fied-car­bon­se­ques­tra­tion-fer­til­i­sa­tion.”

The Harts are busy mak­ing this sys­tem come to life on their own farm. The cou­ple now run around 1000 sheep, plus lambs – around half what the farm used to run – 600 head of cat­tle, 18 milk­ing cows, 25 Berk­shire pigs, and a few hun­dred chick­ens. The chick­ens are housed in an ‘egg mo­bile’ which is moved around the farm, pro­vid­ing the chooks ac­cess to the best pos­si­ble range of pas­ture and for­age.

“The lessons we ap­ply on Man­garara are stack­ing lay­ers of com­ple­men­tary an­i­mal pro­duc­tion sys­tems onto the land­scape,” says Greg. “We now have a small dairy herd that sup­plies milk to not only the peo­ple on the farm, but also raise 60 ex­tra calves, as well as pro­duc­ing milk to feed to pigs and hens. Milk­ing the dairy cows is pop­u­lar with vis­i­tors who stay in the lodge ac­com­mo­da­tion on the farm and it is also ed­u­ca­tional for the many school chil­dren that visit.”

Any ma­nure that is ex­creted in the dairy is scooped up and put into worm farms, which pro­duce nu­tri­ents to be ap­plied back onto the land.

“We have cre­ated more pro­duc­tiv­ity, prof­itabil­ity and work op­por­tu­ni­ties than would have been pos­si­ble if we stuck to just sheep and beef,” says Greg. “And it cre­ates a whole lot more in­ter­est and fun, hav­ing the di­ver­sity of an­i­mals and the peo­ple we now get to meet be­cause of this more holis­tic ap­proach to farm­ing.

The Harts are now in the process of tran­si­tion­ing to a re­gen­er­a­tive farm­ing sys­tem and a big part of that is plant­ing large ar­eas with trees. Salatin’s own prop­erty is 40ha of graz­ing pas­ture, with the other 160ha in per­ma­nent tree plant­ings.

“This sys­tem uses na­ture as the guide, with peren­nial tree crops in­te­grated with shrubs and pas­ture and di­verse an­i­mal species,” says Greg. “It will pro­duce abun­dant healthy food with­out the need for im­ported ad­di­tives, while se­ques­ter­ing car­bon into the soil which is a ma­jor so­lu­tion to cli­mate change.

The Air New Zealand En­vi­ron­ment Trust has helped to fund the plant­ing of 85,000 na­tive trees, and the Harts are busy each year plant­ing thou­sands more. The farm has also re­ceived fund­ing from the Mil­lion Me­tres Streams Project (see page 41) to plant more trees around Horse­shoe Lake which is lo­cated on the prop­erty. The area is now also covenanted, to help pro­tect the lake and its wa­ter qual­ity for­ever.

“We have to transition away from a dis­rup­tive model of agri­cul­ture to­wards a re­gen­er­a­tive model of farm­ing, mov­ing

to­wards a model which re­stores the nat­u­ral bal­ance back to the land and ecosys­tems while de­vel­op­ing di­verse in­te­grated re­gen­er­a­tive farm­ing sys­tems has been our pri­mary goal over re­cent years.”

The cou­ple have been busy with the prac­ti­cal as­pects, like chang­ing over to or­ganic fer­tiliser, but just as im­por­tant for them is spread­ing the mes­sage of sus­tain­abil­ity through­out their com­mu­nity. They’ve been im­ple­ment­ing Re­gen­er­a­tive Agri­cul­ture prin­ci­ples and host­ing Re­ge­nag events and cour­ses each year.

“We are big on shar­ing our ex­pe­ri­ences and learn­ing with oth­ers and of­ten open the farm to the pub­lic to en­able oth­ers to re­con­nect to the earth.”

The Hart fam­ily’s phi­los­o­phy is all about build­ing healthy soils, re­gen­er­at­ing ecosys­tems, build­ing a strong re­silient com­mu­nity, car­ing for all an­i­mals with re­spect, fol­low­ing the per­ma­cul­ture prin­ci­ples of earth care, peo­ple care, and fair share. They also see them­selves as be­ing in a priv­i­leged po­si­tion.

“With this priv­i­lege comes the re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­vide a sus­tain­able fu­ture for gen­er­a­tions to come. To fur­ther progress this transition to sus­tain­able abun­dance, we are ex­plor­ing al­ter­na­tives to re­struc­ture ‘own­er­ship’ to ‘stew­ard­ship’. We are do­ing this by ex­plor­ing var­i­ous com­mu­nity land trusts mod­els from around the world.”

While Greg un­der­stands the chal­lenges ahead, he is an eter­nal op­ti­mist.

“Hu­mans can still choose the al­ter­na­tive road, but the in­ter­sec­tion is ap­proach­ing fast. The so­lu­tions are al­ready here and the key to make it hap­pen is in­side our hearts.”

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