Sunday, January 30, 2011

S&S Homestead Farm

Last Friday my Agroecology class ventured out to Lopez Island to visit a Biodynamic farm - S&S Homestead, run by Henning and Elizabeth Sehmsdorf.

Henning was absolutely rivoting to listen to. His 74+ years (not that you can tell!) are filled with not only a Ph.D., but a wealth of experience and wisdom.

A biodynamic (BD) farm is considered one living unit, an organism in and of itself, and all parts are dependent upon one another. That being said, a BD farm must have both plants and animals. The plants provide sustenance for the animals, and the animals provide fertility for the plants, and both support the farmers who supports them in return. In addition, BD farming is based on a spiritual science, or anthroposophy. Once again working the land is connected to spirit and faith, which struck this morning while singing the hymn Lord of All Hopefullness with the verse:

Lord of all eagerness, Lord of all faith,

Whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe,

Be there at our labors, and give us, we pray,
Your strength in our hearts, Lord, at the noon of the day.

The secret to success of a BD (or any farm for that matter) is in the soil. That was out first topic of discussion - Henning showed us a chunk of soil he pulled out of a field in the Skagit Valley.

You can see a tiny little plant trying to make it - yet there is something not quite right with this soil. Soil typically is about 25% water, 25% air, 35% minerals, 3% organic matter or humus and some other stuff. This didn't seem to have any water or air in it at all - nor organic matter.

In contrast, here is Henning's soil, with 13% organic mater.

See the worms? ORGANIC MATTER in action!

Things that affect soil fertility:
1. Planting the same crop time and time again, depleting the soil of nutrients.
2. Erosion which wipes away topsoil.
3. Compaction from heavy equipment such as tractors.
4. Chemicals and nutrient imbalances.
5. Tilling - which breaks up the fungal structure (which can extend quite a distance!)

So, in lieu of tilling and tractors, Henning uses this to aerate the soils:

Since it is January, perhaps the least beautiful time of the year, there wasn't too much going on in the vegetable  garden, but there were brussel sprouts!

Henning talked about the farm also as a place of beauty and aesthetic pleasure, and proclaimed that if you didn't think his hay loft was beautiful then you didn't have eyes. So I climbed up into the hay loft, and it didn't matter what it looked like, it was so pleasant and fragrant; reminded me of family reunions in Minnesota when I was young.

The buildings were truly beautiful - made from natural wood and not messy and full of rusting old tractors that had broken down (since he only has one small tractor!)

Then we moved on to meet Abby, their one dairy cow. She gets a comfy bed for the nights, after all, she is expecting, and open pasture during the day. On a BD farm there is no Artificial Insemination - so a combination of cows, heifers, steers and bulls live together. Henning has 11 total cattle.

Abby produces about 2 gallons of milk a day - plenty for their family to have milk and cheese. She will produce milk for about 16 years - which is astonishing, considering Eldridge hopes to get 6-8 years, and a typically conventional dairy hopes for 2-3. I thought the organic dairy did a fine job of managing, but after seeing a BD, the interconnectedness and beautiful simplicity, it makes you rethink it all.

Abby was so gentle, she saw us walking into her pasture and immediately came over and nuzzled right up to us. I was not ever concerned about being hurt or trampled. These two cows are also expecting down below. Notice that they do not have their horns removed, which BD farmers believe this takes a certain life force away from the cows. Also, when you have so few cows that are so well taken care of, why should you be concerned about them trampling you? Also, not a single animal had any tags pierced through their ears. They were as natural as can be.

Henning also has developed quite the composting system. When he was telling us about his composting practices, he did not once refer to manure as a waste-management problem. He called it a gift. He places the gift along with straw underneath a tarp during the winter, and he had us place our hands on it - and you could feel the heat the bacteria were producing!

The farm also has sheep, chickens, and sometimes pigs as well.

Henning's family eats entirely from what his farm produces - the only things they purchase are coffee and tea. And what a treat - Henning made soup for us!

Beans and barley in a beef broth.

 There is so much more I could talk about - for instance, the soup took 5 days to make. Talk about Slow Food! The broth was make from a beef bone, the beans were fermented in whey, and then cooked slowly at a low temperature to maintain the nutritional content. It was delicious.

It really made me think about why I eat mostly vegetarian - and that is because I don't support industrial meats. If I were to become a BD farmer, I would have no qualms about eating meat again. And Ross is excited about that prospect too... =) The meat, the subsentence, the nutrition, would be a blessing and a gift. 

There is so much more I could share, but I don't want to overwhelm you, so check out biodynamic preps, the Demeter certification (the BD version of certified organic), and the history and founder, Rudolf Steiner

And just because it was funny: on our ferry ride back we got into a tight spot. I drove the rented 12-passenger van, and as we went onto the ferry the spot I was supposed to get into was TIGHT! A truck was in the lane next to us, but was so far over that we had to pull in yet couldn't get out of any of the doors. So most people climbed out the back doors, while Megan and I went out the passenger side window. 

Even funnier: the truck's passenger door was broken! So the owners had to wait for us to drive away before the could get in. Ah life is comical. 

Classmates on the ferry!

Had you ever heard of Biodynamic farming before?