How We Farm
The short answer: We never use chemicals, we are always building soil fertility to grow the healthiest plants and animals we can, and we use horses instead of tractors.
The long answer: We are fascinated with what we consider to be the Golden Age of Agriculture — the 1860s through the 1930s. By the mid-1800s, science and industrialization were combining to create a new agriculture. An understanding of nitrogen-fixing plants led to the widespread use of clover and cover-cropping, which simultaneously made farming more productive and more sustainable. And more sophisticated crop and animal breeding resulted in varieties and breeds that were at least twice as productive. Meanwhile, industry was providing efficient, durable, horse-drawn machinery that farmers could afford. These all combined to increase yields and decrease labor, in a truly sustainable way. But by the 1930s and '40s, fossil fuels and the chemicals derived from them were creating modern agriculture. There was a fork in the road and humans went the wrong way.
One hundred years later, a lot of people are taking the other road. The modern world has given us lots of great tools and we just need to choose and use them differently. At Sawyer Farm, we’re trying to take that other road, though it’s not so well-traveled and we have gotten lost here and there.
Soil fertility is at the heart of what we do, and we spend a lot of time pursuing it. It starts with fertile pastures — the sun grows grass, which feeds horses. The horses use some of that energy to pull equipment and help us grow crops, and the rest is deposited in the fields and in the barn as manure, which keeps the fertility cycle going. They make their own hay, which mostly ends up as manure, and then compost, and so on. The grass and hay also feeds cows. That energy goes somewhat into growing, and largely into more manure.
Cover-cropping is another huge part of soil fertility. Cover-cropping is the practice of growing a crop in the vegetable fields with the intention not of eating it, but of plowing back in. The root system of such a crop holds the soil in place, and adds lots of nutrients to the soil. We sow clover underneath growing crops so that it is well-established by time we harvest the crops. The clover resumes growth in spring. We sow oats and peas or rye and vetch in areas that will grow crops next year.
Winter bedding in the barn for chickens, cows and horses, is another engine of fertility. It keeps the animals comfortable and clean, and then, when they’ve gone out to pasture in spring, we heap it all up and compost it for a year before spreading it. Bedding is a mixture of straw we grow in the fields, wood chips from tree tops whose trunks we use for firewood, fall leaves, and any other organic material we can get our hands on.
The horses are a central part of this system. The equipment we have for them is, in some cases, over 100 years old. The things they made during that Golden Age of Agriculture were clever and durable. The equipment does all the things that modern tractor equipment does, but more slowly and more gently. Sitting behind the horses, you have time to think about what you’re doing and you can really get a sense of the soil and how the crops are doing. Because they are living, working, sweating creatures, it makes you more conservative about moving around soil, or taking down trees. And doing less is usually better for long-term soil health.
The diversity is a key piece of this system, too. Growing a whole diet’s worth of food means some annuals, some perennials, some grass, some trees, some cows, some chickens. Just like working with horses, working with diversity is a slower, gentler process. It’s a constant, humbling reminder that our little ecosystem of 40 acres is incomprehensibly and astonishingly complex.
That diversity yields a delicious, rounded diet, all year long. While our diet is limited — by modern standards — it is also super-abundant in flavor and nutrients, and we are connected to it by love and sweat.