Renewable Farming

Weekend essay: If you grow it, they will come

This Spring a Great Blue heron began fishing in our farm pond for the first time. The huge Ardea herodias is the largest bird we’ve seen among the many dozens of species now migrating to our “20-Acre Eden” near Cedar Falls, Iowa.  Why do you suppose they’re congregating on our little haven? When we moved here 40 years ago, the land had a near-sterile feel, and virtually no wildlife. Something changed on this place the past 15 years, as we transitioned into what we call “Renewable Farming” and unleashed the power of soil biology.

















April 13, 2018  By Jerry Carlson — We’ve transformed our small 20 acres, plus rented acres, steadily toward wildlife-friendly, biologically based farming. Not organic, but as close to organic as we can comfortably grow crops and deal with weed pressures. 

And we’ve seen more and more song birds nesting here each season. Wild turkeys returned. An eagle often takes up vigil in a tall tree at the far end of our farm. Robins lead the migration every spring, feasting on abundant earthworms. Hummingbirds purr among flowers around our back deck and in our daughter-in-law Jeanene’s landscaping. Several kinds of finches flit everywhere. Many birds like bluejays, cardinals and even doves overwinter in our evergreens. When we first arrived, only four bird species dominated: sparrows, starlings, pigeons and crows. Now the pest birds are mostly gone, replaced with song birds.

Of course we also have to endure deer attacks. Patches of our cornfields look like trampled feedlots by September. Every sweetcorn season, we’ve posted four Havaharts to restrain raccoon attacks. But that has led to generations of more trap-resistant ringtails. Also we were forced to invest in skunk-proofing the front deck of our home, where these prolific critters claimed residence and squeezed off every gland at their disposal to drive away encroaching possums, raccoons and groundhogs. 

Several species of ducks are scouting for nest sites here

Mink and muskrat families moved in and established year-round dens in our pond. Our glassed-in southern sunroom offers a live wildlife show equal to the most interesting nature videos on Netflix. I had no idea how passionate — and persistent — minks behave until I saw a pair mating on the shore of our pond just a few feet away. They blissfully ignored me for an amazingly long time.

Beavers have occasionally felled the willows beside the creek which crosses our place, and decimated surrounding cornfields. So far, they haven’t built lodges or dammed the stream.  

But here’s an update as of May 4:  This morning a huge beaver was cruising the full circle of our half-acre pond. After scouting for an hour, it finally emerged near the bank of the pond to begin foraging on fresh willow greens.  Supposedly they don’t pursue fish, but some observers have seen them eat fish which had apparently died. We’ll have to see if this critter stays around, and whether a colony emerges which is fond of the berry bushes which we’re planting all around the pond.  This spring, swarms of four-inch bluegill are snapping at virtually anything they suspect is edible. Empathizing with their obvious hunger, I bought a bag of 30% protein fish-food pellets while picking up some grass seed at Waterloo Mills. I forgot to ask if it was non-GMO, which I realized (after opening the bag) that it almost certainly came from GMO soymeal. The bluegill swarmed around the floating pellets, snapping at them and diving. But in a few seconds, the pellets came floating to the surface again. I watched closely. A bluegill would mouth a pellet, hold it a few seconds — and spit it out. None of the bluegill would swallow the pellets. Anyway, the $22 bag of fish protein might make decent bait for our Havahart box trap, as part of our raccoon relocation program. This service also applies to  groundhogs, skunks and possums attempting to retake their ancestral homes under our front deck. Our limitations on living with wildlife were imposed after raccoons chewed into our attic and began raising litters there.

Somehow the wildlife know: It’s safe here. No Roundup or fungicide has touched our soil, except that which drifts in from neighbors on all four sides. 

And our biologically benign “Eden” is becoming more so, multiplied by the next generation. Grandsons Blake, Terry and Lane — especially Blake — are expressing a passion for restoring Creation’s natural order and reversing the poison-all-pests paradigm of so-called modern farming. 

Some of Blake’s commercial flowers, 2017

Blake has imported some 3,000 truckloads (not a misprint) of mulch and compost, blanketing about 15 acres where he’s planting fruit trees, nut trees, grapevines, berry bushes, and flowers beyond description. Lane, not yet 10 years old, spurred his Dad and Mom to build beehives. Bees thrive on rows of Blake’s flowers. Now we savor Lane’s exquisite honey every day. No glyphosate residue in that.

The second generation on our two-family campus has acquired the acres where I, the Grandpa now, spent many years of plot trials testing WakeUP. We’ve sold the field research equipment including two plot combines. Instead of measuring corn and bean yields, Blake travels nationwide to network with biologically focused growers who’ve learned how to enhance nature and produce nutrient-dense food.

“Soil health” is a new catchword peppering extension service seminars and fertility firms’ promotion. But for three decades, we’ve seen that a soil teeming with “underground wildlife” follows naturally in the wake of a Renewable Farming philosphy for raising crops. For every species of plant included in a cover crop, about 10 species of beneficial bacteria or fungi somehow reappear and repopulate the soil. That’s a finding of USDA/ARS researcher Dr. Bob Kremer, based at the University of Missouri. Where do these beneficials come from? Somehow they revive and grow, like a velvetleaf seed buried for a century. We see a resurgence of wild creatures that fly and run on four legs, and that’s a great reward.

The comeback of your soil food web is even more highly significant for your future in farming. One of our Indiana WakeUP clients who has years of experience in microbiology sums it up: “Everything is everywhere.” If you grow it, your littlest livestock just come back from somewhere. So do earthworms and nightcrawlers, nature’s ideal vertical tillage technology. 

My take-home from this: If you focus on working with nature on your farm, instead of attempting to conquer nature with toxic technology and your checkbook, you can generate a comeback for wildlife, soil life, food quality, and your farm’s financial resilience.

Underscore that term, “financial resilience.” One of my rewards for enduring in agriculture for 85 years is that I have less fear of the facts. Farming as a young tiger in the booming 1970s, I couldn’t accept that the 1980s bust was almost inevitable: I feared that outcome, rejected it, and counted on ag technology.

With far greater perspective now, I accept that today’s unconstrained buildup of global debt, social disintegration and political turmoil create a chaotic threat to every farmer. Those who best thrive will work closely with nature and not be brittle. That means dependence on GMOs and their linked toxins, massive acreages, export markets, thin margins and contamination of soil life with chemical residues.

Ironically, my wife Jill just handed me a reminder of this viewpoint. She found in our library a now out-of-print copy of a USDA booklet entitled Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years by W. C. Lowdermilk. He was an Assistant Chief of the Soil Conservation Service. I referred to this classic in an October 2017 report on this website. Lowdermilk traveled worldwide in 1938-39 studying the global history of land use and abuse. He used an archeologist’s perspective and a soil specialist’s science to comprehend how civilizations rose and fell — almost entirely from their soil stewardship or lack of it.

I encourage you to download the PDF version of his report, which we have preserved at this link.

I’ll quote a closing paragraph from Lowdermilk’s 30-page report:

“If the soil is destroyed, then our liberty of choice and action are gone, condemning this and future generations to needless privations and dangers. So big is this job of saving our good lands from further damage and of reclaiming to some useful purpose vast areas of seriously damaged and ruined lands, that full cooperation of the individual interest of farmers with technical leadership and assistance of the Government is not only desirable, but necessary, if we are to succeed.”

I’m encouraged and enthused that so many Renewable Farming farmers, organic growers and healthy-food enthusiasts are teaming up for what one website calls the “Food Revolution.” They aren’t waiting for Government. They see biological life blooming amid their cover crops, conservation practices, and restoration of crop/livestock diversity. Organic farmers are working hard at this. But others who don’t constrain themselves to the organic rulebook have virtually ended dependence on purchased chemicals and  fertilizer. These families are energized, passionate about their futures, and seeing more renewal of wildlife and soil life every year.

For example, Gabe Brown of Brown’s Ranch near Bismarck, North Dakota, is almost independent of most toxic inputs on 5,000-plus acres. Result: Dramatic comebacks for original prairie species of grasses and wildflowers. When I’ve visited with Gabe, he assures me that the reason he’s willing to make many presentations around the nation every year is that he’s “so passionate about it that I just have to tell the story.”  Gabe’s family ranch is an educational-tour destination for busloads of farmers from across America, and internationally.

We’re elated to work with farmers making the transition from regimented toxic formula farming to Renewable Farming. The usual paradigm shift takes a farmer three years. But that pace is picking up. So is the enthusiasm level. For these growers, 2018 promises to be an enjoyable growing season!

Udate May 6:  Jack Wheeler’s “Half-Full Report” Friday included a link to a dramatic 5-minute video showing how wildlife restoration chain-reacts in many beneficial ways. The story:  Restoration of wolves in Yellowstone rebalanced nature and healed decades of environmental damage from overpopulation of deer and elk. Our premise is that the same kind of benefits could happen in new niches of American farmland with some simple restoration of habitat.  Here’s the link to the wolf video: