The Resilient Farm and Homestead

An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach




The Resilient Farm and Homestead

seems clear enough: We must enjoy and be invigorated by the bulk of the work we perform in life—no destination, just a journey.

Ducks, Chickens, Dogs, and Sheep
In the development of the WSRF, we have thus far used three species of animal consistently: two birds—ducks and chickens—and one grazer—sheep. We tried goats and pigs but decided that the quantity and type of food they require is not a good match for the resource flows of this farm. Animals well fitted to a farm ecosystem must utilize an excess of a resource and transform that into a resource area that is lacking. For us that so far has been two things: (1) browse and forage (leaves and some grass) into soil and more grass, and (2)  slugs, snails, and bugs into eggs and soil. This need for the transformation of one resource into others will always change over time and at some point here will go from seeking soil and more grass alone into seeking other yields such as meat, milk, and fiber. It is the systemestablishment phase and the fact this land is an abused

and abandoned farm that requires that as a foundation we establish healthier soils and a better sward of grass from which to raise future animals. As a whole, when evaluating animal suitability for your systems, keep in mind that the most sensible animals in a homestead geared to be adaptable to a rapidly changing world should be chosen based on the criteria below. And keep in mind that trying various animals is often the only way to find hidden synergies and constraints in a specific animal’s interaction with your unique system. Each site’s conditions are different enough that no solution found on another site will be wholly adaptable to your own. Find the closest examples, and learn from them, then try, tweak, and try some more. In all likelihood it will take a number of years to establish a synergistic animal aspect to your system. Criteria and considerations for selecting animals in a functioning permaculture include: • Input-output ratio: The most outputs, in both quality and quantity, relative to inputs should be a primary determinant of an animal’s suitability. This

Some of the first ducks—Indian runners—at the homestead, taking in the view at sunset from a lush area of late summer pasture

Fertility Harvesting and Cycling


aspect includes time, often forgotten as a crucial input (see below). This aspect is contextual and requires an understanding of how the farm/homestead fits into its surroundings. An output such as meat or fiber, for instance, may have a huge value if your neighbors want it, even if you do not. Or your local community may not want or need any animal products from you, and their outputs are only valuable if they can be used on-site. • Likeability: What animals do you get along with the best, pay most attention to, are naturally inclined to observe and relate to? Those, all other aspects being equal, will always do better on your site than those you feel no connection with—simply for utilitarian reasons: You can’t care for someone you aren’t attentive to as well as someone you are. Domestic animals, like people, thrive based on their connections and the degree to which they are cared for. Care means something different to each animal as well. Care for a beef cow is good grass, lots of room, and good water but does not involve tons of human contact. Care for a milking sheep involves more

human contact as they run into more problems healthwise that require human care. • Infrastructure needs: These range from a dry space for the toughest grazers, which can spend all winter out in deep snow, to goats, which do best with some cover from even mild, warm rainstorms. Pairing your infrastructure with the needs of the animal is key. • Soil needs: Are you starting with good-quality agricultural soil or a beat-up subsoil slope? • Vegetation needs: Do you need to grow the vegetation you already have on site (e.g., good pasture forages), or do you need to change the composition of plants radically (abandoned field or young forest)? The more you need to change composition, the greater animal and human impact you’ll need, the greater the work and time frame involved. • Health needs: This aspect should be considered under “Input-output ratio” above but is so crucial and oft-missed that I’ve listed it separately. I am amazed how many people endeavoring to carry out a self-reliant homestead and farm (even those doing

Kosher King meat birds (a.k.a. “the meaty ones”), along with Ancona ducks, enjoying the newly terraced area beneath a hemlock


The Resilient Farm and Homestead

One of the many “happy accidents” on the farm: The discovery that chickens guard sheep against fly infestation, made by grazing them together. This sheep was found with fly strike two weeks after being separated from these chickens after an entire summer of fly avoidance while cohabitating with the poultry.

full grass-fed and refusing to use grain) think little of the medicinal and veterinary needs of their animals. The need for wormer, vaccines, birthing aid, disease management, and other specialized or timeconsuming medical needs of an animal vary enormously by species. This is a primary reason I view sheep as transitional for my farm and not viable at this scale or even remotely close to this scale— they need too much health maintenance inputs (simply in time alone). This plays especially into the next aspect. . . . • Time needs: This is the most often overlooked selection consideration I run into. How much time is the animal going to need daily, yearly, and in special (or likely) circumstances? Sheep, for instance, don’t need much maintenance if nothing goes wrong, but they are parasite prone, and often things do go wrong from a parasite standpoint. Then the time suck of such an animal really starts to hit home. Time is

your most valuable asset in a functional home/farm system, and it’s limited, so choose to apply it wisely. Nothing in the system short of another human being or infrastructure emergency can suck up the kind of time that a sick, injured, or otherwise problem animal can—not a fruit tree, or a berry bush, or a vegetable bed. Animals are a big commitment, and when they have problems, the devotion needed for that part of the system goes through the roof. Thus there is a certain social robustness needed in the human management of a human ecosystem before animals should be introduced to it. You need a reservoir of time from which to draw when an animal has a problem, and the larger the animal, the more of them you have, the kind of animal, and the health of their home all determine the consequences of such an occurrence. We have experienced a spectacular variation of this as we’ve kept ducks, chickens, and sheep—and their attendant needs in that order.

Fertility Harvesting and Cycling


The Animal Generalization Myth
It’s essential to point out at the outset of this section that making generalizations about animals is about as accurate as it is about people. It’s pervasive, and you read or hear such nonsense as the following: • “Goats eat everything!” (Actually, goats are one of the most selective grazers in the world and more picky than most creatures when given the choice.) • “That heirloom chicken breed is great for pest control.” • “Chickens eat fallen fruit—put them under your fruit trees.” • “That variety is such good foragers.” Why are such statements nonsense? Because they treat an entire species or variety as though they all act the same. Excuse my “French,” but when you actually work with such animals, you see immediately that such ideas are complete bullshit. Animals are individuals, just as you and I are. Let’s get that out of the way immediately because it really retards the conversation about animals and only comes about from too much reading and not enough doing. The point here is to remember that animals act based upon not only their instinct (breeding results) but out of their training, environment, stimulus, what they’ve learned, and many other factors. So we need to think in as nuanced a way about animal behavior as we do about people behavior. The accurate way to think of it is “this individual duck does this” or “this particular sheep does that.” And also, like people they change from year to year. Our ducks never ate mature vegetation during the growing season, just during the winter, for three years. Then in year four they attacked my large cabbage plants. Why? Maybe because it was very dry and the slug population plummeted. Maybe. The point is just because an animal or group of animals tend to have acted in certain ways in the past is no reason to think they will always act that way. They respond to conditions just the way people do, actually probably more. And they learn, too. Birds didn’t touch our rice crop for three years, then in year four they decimated it. When asked during tours of the property, “What do you do about birds?” I’d respond, “They don’t eat the rice.” Then they did. That’s happened a dozen times here in all animal aspects. Take our first chickens a few years ago. We put them under the orchard in June just like a good permaculturist is told to do. “They’ll eat the fallen fruit!” Well, ours didn’t. Why? No idea, but they didn’t, and it wasn’t because they weren’t hungry, because they were—subsisting on almost no grain. Here’s another: “Sheep don’t eat bark, only goats will.” Nope. Ours followed this rule for two years and in the third year took out our oldest pear, a peach, and some other trees. They learned that bark was good. They broke the rule. Given enough time, most animals seem to make similar decisions. Our most recent meat birds, Kosher Kings—were “great for rotational grazing!” I was told. Yeah, well, not ours. They never stayed in the poultry netting. Why? No idea. They didn’t fly out; they just found their way under and through the fence. The birds we had the year before did stay—Cornish giants—and those are supposed to be poor choices for ranging. A clear example of the recommended approach not working at all. That happens a lot, so you will have to experiment countless times with countless approaches to find out what is true for you in your site.

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