By Ellie Honan, Animal Husbandry and Compost Coordinator
Raising animals and soils is a humbling experience. The intricacies of each practice and the mysterious interplay between the two remind me time and again that we are tiny participants in a complex system. I believe that to exist is to create disturbance. Ancient Jewish sages recognized this as a need for structured laws around food production and care of our land, animals, and people. In harnessing the power of our environment for human benefit, we accept the responsibility to remain observant and to do everything in our power to create natural environments for the animals, plants, and land under our purview. While this obligation can feel daunting, I’ve found inspiration in the blossoming regenerative agriculture movement, particularly in the agroforestry models I’ve had the opportunity to explore at Coastal Roots Farm.
In my time working at Coastal Roots Farm, I’ve often found myself in awe at the interplay between the various facets of the ecosystem in which we farm. As a child, the lines between land, plants, and animals appeared stark. Plants grow in soil and animals eat plants (and other animals). From a purely economic standpoint, it is also easy to see how these realms were cleanly sliced apart for the sake of efficiency. Delving into the complexities of regenerative agriculture, however, the borders between soil, plant, and animal blur; everything exists in a state of codependency with its surroundings. Farming has opened my eyes to the spaces in which animals, plants, and land are not only co-beneficial, but are literally inseparable. Eliminating or adding a single species to an area will create cascading effects throughout the ecosystem.
In order for us to responsibly steward our ecosystems, it is important to observe and educate ourselves about the interactions taking place around us. I’ve found that forests—which comprise some of the most biodiverse ecosystems—have many lessons to teach, particularly around the theme of coexistence. Trees absorb the very same carbon dioxide that humans exhale and utilize light energy, not available to humans as carbohydrates, to transform that carbon dioxide back into breathable oxygen. Human existence is dependent on tree life. People and trees exchange molecules that were at one point integrated into each of our separate bodies.
Trees interact not only with people and animals, but also with their surrounding soil. As leaves and branches from trees pile on the ground, they create a thick mulch, slowly transforming into topsoil. The basic requirements for this process of leaf decay are oxygen, water, carbon, and nitrogen. Combining these ingredients, however, is merely setting the stage for the intricate community of bacteria, fungi, actenomycetes, arthopods, and earthworms, which work together to produce compost and soil. This network of microbes is not merely a tool for converting food waste into soil; the microbes also act as critical translators between plants and soil constituents. A soil might have the appropriate levels of nitrogen, for example, but without the necessary bacteria to process it, the nitrogen may not be readily available to plants.
While we can create the conditions for microbial breakdown of purely vegetative scraps (see our blog post on composting for more!), farmers have recognized for millennia that animal manure is its own powerful fertilizer. Ruminants in particular, like sheep and cattle, have the ability to process cellulose in plants not edible to humans, through an intricate digestive system comprising billions of microbes. Manure from these animals provides a nutrient-rich, fermented probiotic for the soil—a resource undervalued by siloed feedlots that raise animals for a single byproduct outside the holistic context of a diversified farm.
Coming back to our forest setting, when we combine the manure of wild animals with the leaf matter and porous branches of the forest floor, the microbes will create rich humus—the aspiration of all compost makers! Unlike most soils, which constantly morph through microbial processing and ion exchanges, humus remains in a state of stability (a rarity in nature).
Many agroforestry models mimic these biodiverse ecosystems and soils by densely intercropping trees, with smaller annual plants, pasture, and animals. “Silvopasture” is a concept combining a forest setting (“sylvan”) with pasture. The pasture provides feed for animals, often sheep, goats, or cattle, who in turn contribute fertilizer for the trees and intercropped plant roots. These systems offer potential as an alternative path forward in agriculture, although it will it will take generations to navigate the nuances involved in mimicking nature. It is no coincidence that humus is the origin of the word humility.
As a society we are increasingly out of touch with our food and with nature, but I see the challenge of sustainably producing food as a beautiful opportunity for us to learn from and engage with our environments. While many regenerative agricultural practices do not offer the highest economic efficiency, it is both our responsibility and our opportunity as participants in a diverse environment to rebuild the soils from which we are nourished. As farmers, we extract nutrients from the soil and I see rebuilding humus as an obligatory form of Tikkun Olam: repairing the world. “From the soil of the earth you were made, and to the soil you shall return” (Bereishit 3:19).