Diversify, diversify, diversify.  That’s all us small farmers are told to do.  And really it’s great advice, but maybe it’s bad advice too?

Monoculture farming

Throughout the country, there are giant farms with thousands and thousands of acres of ONE crop.  Thousands of acres of corn or wheat or soy bean or alfalfa or almonds or whatever.  But it’s ONE crop by itself.

monoculture wheat field

Thousands of acres of one crop requires lots of pesticides and herbicides

Monoculture farming is a bad word amongst sustainable farmers.  When you only raise one crop or one livestock, you mess up the ecological cycle of animals fertilizing the soil and crops feeding the animals.  Monoculture crop farms end up having to bring in fertilizer (usually chemical because that’s cheaper and more easily purchased) and they also tend to have tons of pests as there is no diversity of plants to fight them off or distract them.  Livestock farms tend to have huge manure/urine problems as their ‘output’ is now a waste product rather than a valued fertilizer.

A photograph of the anaerobic lagoon at the Cal Poly, SLO Dairy.

Manure lagoons–yes those are ponds and ponds of animal nastiness

Diversified farming

A diversified farm takes full advantage of the ecological cycle and provides cheaper input of fertilizer and feed for the livestock (such as weeds from the garden or the plants when they’re pulled out at the end of the season).  Because of the diversification, there tends to be less disease and less pests.

Additionally, a small farm can sell products more efficiently because one customer may purchase multiple products instead of needing lots of customers to buy one product.  For instance, a customer may buy a thanksgiving turkey as well as a christmas ham and a box of produce from the garden.

Diversified farm

Diversified farming can be overwhelming

There is a downside to diversified farming—multiple downsides actually.  The biggest is that it can be so overwhelming for the farmer.  You have to have extensive knowledge of how to care for each operation.  You can’t just know a little, you have to be an expert. In monoculture farming, you can become an expert in your one area.  In diversified farming, you are an expert in many areas.  On our ranch for instance, we at one point raised chickens, goats, sheep, cows, horses, turkeys, ducks, pigs and guineas—for meat, eggs, feathers, wool and live babies.  We also had a garden, orchard and vineyard where we sold canned jam, etc.  I also made caramels with the goat milk.

It.  Was.  Insane.

I was totally overwhelmed.  I hated what I was doing and was exhausted all the time.  We ended up losing livestock because there was just too much to do. If I had to leave, something died. I couldn’t leave anybody else in charge because there were so many aspects of care to be covered that anyone besides me was incapable.  That only added to the feeling of burnout.

The Goose Girl by Edith Anna Œnone Somerville, [1888]

Sometimes you just need a break

I also didn’t have all the equipment I needed.  Equipment is expensive and farmers usually collect what they need over a period of time, but in a fairly small amount of time have what they need for the next ten generations lol.  I can tell you from experience though!  If you have a huge amount of diversity on your farm, it will take years and years and years to get all the equipment you need for an efficient and effective farm operation.  Every animal and every crop needs different things.  Sigh. I’m feeling overwhelmed just typing this up.

To diversify or not to diversify

That is the question.   Diversity on a farm leads to sustainability.  But you have to be able to sustain the diversity!  How much you can diversify is based on how much work you can personally handle and how much help you have.  It also depends on how much knowledge you have about the various areas and if you feel like you’ve pretty much topped up with your knowledge in the areas you already have going.

There’s also marketing and selling, assuming you’re planning on going this way with your farm.  Can you sell these animals or produce? Can you make a profit?

Also, do you ENJOY having the animal or plant?  If you aren’t enjoying it, get rid of it!

 

What do you think?  Would you go for diversity or do you prefer monoculture farming?