We all like knowing where our food comes from and how it’s grown and raised. I hear a lot of people say “the best way to do that is to get to know your farmer.”
We find that not everyone has the time let alone knows what questions to ask. Here are a few suggestions to get started down the path of understanding the philosophy and practices of a farm.
You’re liable to get a few blank stares if you ask all these questions at a conventionally managed farm, but the questions will hopefully help open a broader discussion of what healthy farming is. Question 6 is a bit of fun to help you learn your farmers background and history. Keep reading to learn our answers and how we Graze Against The Machine.
1. What pesticides and herbicides do you use on your farm?
None. The plants and insects that we label "weeds" and "pests" are an integral part of the farm ecosystem.
a) Plants - We used to dig up all the thistles in our pasture, but after observing goldfinches feeding on them, we began to let some of them stand. Thistles can be invasive if you let them all go to seed but leaving a few has not been a problem for us.
Kudzu is similar to thistles in that if uncontrolled it can smother native trees and shrubs. Fortunately, Pineywoods Cattle love kudzu! When we moved her in 2014, the woods were almost impenetrable in places, the Pineywoods have helped control kudzu, brambles, greenbriar and privet that had grown unchecked for years. We can now walk upright through many parts of the woods and are seeing new species of plants on the forest floor like the Atamasco Lily.
Many of these so called "weeds" are a healthy source of medicine. Our growing apothecary contains curly dock, poke root and wild lettuce to name a few.
b) Animals – North Carolina has a lot of insects! They eat vegetables and fruit and guess what, they also eat “weeds”. For that reason, we don’t weed the garden incessantly. We let horse nettle grow amongst the tomatoes, and there are some bugs (yet to be identified) that will devour the horse nettle and barely touch the tomatoes. Horse nettle is in the nightshade family (Solanaceae) like tomatoes.
Another strategy has been to encourage predator insects, i.e. the ones that prey on the insects that eat our food, by planting more flowering plants for nectar and pollen, their food. We have seen a reduction in tomato hornworms in the past 5 years due in part to the increase of parasitoid wasp population. They lay the eggs by injecting them under the skin of the worm. The larvae eat the caterpillar from the inside out as the cocoons grow.
In addition, we also interplant crops with plants that can help repel insects. For example interplanting onions with carrots helps repel carrot flies and chives and/or garlic grown in the orchard can help deter aphids and Japanese beetles. We’ve made our own garlic/cayenne spray to use on various plants to help keep insects from eating them, but the verdict is still out on how effective it is for us.
And finally, there is no substitute for hand-picking. There is a 3-5 week window each year where we hand pick Japanese beetles into jars from the grapes, apples and other plants every morning. They are easy to pick in the mornings because they don’t fly off and we often have chickens following us around because the consider them a tasty treat.
2. How do you encourage biodiversity on your farm?
Using the iNaturalist app from National Geographic, we have identified over 450 species of plants, mammals, insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fungi at Ozark Akerz since April 2019. Biodiversity is a broad measure of a healthy ecosystem, we have sown over 40 varieties of wildflowers and planted 69, mainly native, varieties of shrubs and trees to give animals food, shelter and breeding habitat.
We have revived several native stands of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in the pastures as well as sowing butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) to help encourage population growth. In 2020 we saw many more monarch butterflies. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed leaves and the flowers provide an important source of nectar for butterflies.
3. Have you adopted indigenous principles in your farming practices?
Ozark Akerz is located on Skaruhreh/Tuscarora land that was stolen from the nations centuries ago. Indigenous practice of Honorable Harvest has firmly grounded our approach to regenerative farming. We take slow and deliberate steps in our adoption of this ancient principle, honoring the wisdom through understanding, practice and unlearning of other practices.
Plants and animals all have their gifts whether they be medicine, food, insect repellent, predator alarm system, pollinator or living mulch. What gift do we provide in return? Being thankful or grateful for the gifts plants and animals provide is important as are acts of reciprocity which can take many forms. Some are easy to identify, they help sustain the ones who sustain us. This can be the gift of organic hay for Pineywoods Cattle in winter or gifting the chickens, guineas and turkeys a predator proof place to roost at night or gifting water to plants during a drought. Other gifts are not so evident. What gifts can we provide black walnut trees that have lived here for many years in return for the harvest they gift us? The answer came to me in the book Braiding Sweetgrass by scientist and member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer, which was recommended by a friend in Saponi Nation.
What I discovered was that we had unknowingly honored Black Walnut with gifts in the past. The first couple years we lived on the farm I made ornaments from Black Walnut shells. I cut the walnuts into thin slices to display their inner beauty. I was drawn to do it. While reading a particular chapter in Braiding Sweetgrass, I learned that creating art or crafts to honor the gifts we receive is widely practiced by indigenous nations. Kimmerer has helped me discover why I was drawn to create the art, a hidden place of honor and reciprocity for Black Walnut gifts. The day after reading that chapter I felt inspired to create something to honor Black Walnut people again, this time with intention, to thank them for the gifts they continue to provide. The inner sanctum of the walnut reminds me very much of ancient Scandinavian art, a connection with ancestors in my new land. View my gift to Black Walnut on Instagram
Robin Wall Kimmerer explains the Honorable Harvest:
“The canon of indigenous principles that govern the exchange of life for life is known as the Honorable Harvest. They are “rules” of sorts that govern our taking, so that the world is as rich for the seventh generation as it is for us.
The Honorable Harvest, a practice both ancient and urgent, applies to every exchange between people and the Earth. Its protocol is not written down, but if it were, it would look something like this:
We have adopted the 7th Generation Principle of indigenous nations around the world. “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
The old farmhouse we live in was built around an old log cabin in 1920. There was a tradition in the mid 1800’s for newlyweds to plant 2 pecan trees when they moved into their first home. The 2 pecan trees near the house are about 175 years old so we think the cabin was built around 1850, there are no records to confirm this. Although we are unlikely to see many pecans in our lifetime, we planted new pecan trees in 2019 to help feed people who live here for the next 175+ years.
These Pecan elders continue to feed us and our community and in 2020 we began sharing their pecan seeds with non-profit Utopian Seed Project and Project Pando to ensure the genetics of these elders are preserved and shared with future genrations.
In addition, we have applied the 7th Generation Principle to our approach to managing our Pineywoods Cattle. Sue and I struggled initially with our approach to vaccinating the Pineywoods herd. We got a lot of advice from local farmers and our extension office, but it was mainly based on commercial breeds like Angus and Holstein which included a strict vaccination regimen. We were very selective about the advice we chose to follow. We both agreed that we didn’t have to vaccinate for everything, Pineywoods are, after all, renowned for being disease and parasite resistant. When we pushed back on the many vaccinations the vet recommended, we moved the discussion to one of risk management instead of indiscriminate vaccinations. The vet finally, and with much reservation, strongly recommend that at a minimum we vaccinate for blackleg, leptospirosis and pink eye. Sue and I did not agree about how to proceed. I was fearful of losing animals to blackleg which is fatal. The farmers we spoke to in our area encouraged us to vaccinate for it. Sue believed that any regular vaccinations would do the breed a disservice and would breed the innate disease resistant out of our herd in a few generations. After a lot of discussion, Sue finally convinced me that we should not implement a fixed vaccination regimen. Instead we would monitor individuals in the herd and treat as necessary. We do vaccinate for tetanus when we castrate animals, but apart from that, we do not adopt any strict vaccination regimen. We have had one cow contract pink eye which we treated with antibiotics and a patch over her eye. The pinkeye cleared up and she is fine.
We have since learned that another Pineywoods breeder in Georgia, who used to raise Angus, vaccinated his Angus herd for everything to keep them healthy. In the 12 years he has been raising Pineywoods, however, he has never followed a strict vaccination regimen and has never lost a head to disease. His reasoning is like ours, that the breed is known for being healthy and resistant to diseases. Our opinion (rightly or wrongly) is that the more we vaccinate Pineywoods, the more vaccinations they will require.
This approach is not be for everyone. Although many of our neighbors have lost animals to blackleg in the past 5 years and we have not, we always outline the risks of making this decision to all the farmers we sell breeding stock to. We remind them that Pineywoods are resistant to diseases, not immune to them and encourage them to gauge their personal risk tolerance as well as proximity to other herds when making their decision about vaccinations.
As breeders, we are always enthusiastic about sharing the 500 year history of Pineywoods. But it’s also our responsibility to consider, and discuss, how our actions may affect the Pineywoods population 500 years from now. For us personally, that means being conscious about how the 7th Generation Principle effects our choices and actions day-to-day, including difficult decisions about vaccinations.
Our indigenous inspired journey, like nature, is constantly evolving. If you are interested in following the guidance of indigenous wisdom, you must take your own journey. To take a small step, discover the indigenous land on which you live, at Native Land then begin your journey through Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass.
4. What do you do to promote animal welfare?
One of the reasons we chose to raise Pineywoods Cattle is that they can thrive on a mix of grass and woodland. They eat brambles, greenbriar, privet, kudzu and much more. They have not lost their innate ability to graze for medicine like they did when they ran wild. We have observed then take a bite of Black Walnut leaves, branches and bark. Black Walnut contains jugulone, a natural parasitic. We have stopped rotational grazing, giving them access to as many forages as possible (food and medicine) so they can eat what they need when they need it, important for their welfare.
All the chickens, guineas and Romeo our guard-turkey are free to roam the farm as they please for a healthy diet of grass and insects. We supplement their diet with non-soy organic chicken feed from Reedy Fork Organic Farm. During winter we only feed the Pineywoods organic hay and they get an occasional treat of organic alfalfa pellets.
Weaning calves from their mothers can be very stressful when you separate them. We allow the calves to naturally wean off their mother’s milk reducing that stress. They naturally transition to 100% forage at about 10 months of age.
In addition, we always sell 2 or more heifers or cows to other farms, never a lone Pineywoods. The animals form strong bonds and having a sister makes at your new home makes it less stressful and lonely. In one case, a farmer who bought two cows and their calves from us could only pick up a cow and calf on each trip. A week passed between the trips. When the second cow was let out on the farm, the first cow came running and mooing loudly and rubbed against her. The emotion she showed to her sister was palpable and she proceeded to follow her closely, mooing while her sister explored her new home. She had clearly missed her. It was amazing to witness this on the video the farmer shared with us, especially because this particular cow was a bit mean spirited to other cows.
5. What are you doing to help capture carbon on your farm?
Although we are constantly learning new methods of capturing carbon in our soil, the trees that share the land with us do most of the heavy lifting. By using the iTree Canopy tool, we plotted over 2000 survey points to help us identify the total amount of carbon that trees sequester annually. Each year the trees sequester 817,200 lbs of CO2.
According to Carbon Footprint, the annual average carbon footprint of American residents is 36,350 lbs, in the EU it is 14,110. By using their carbon footprint calculator we discovered that our footprint in 2019 was 10,650 lbs.
Many people are arguing that methane from cattle contributes enormously to climate change. It’s important to recognize that methane from cattle warms the climate differently than CO2 from fossil fuels. Methane from cattle is considered biogenic, or part of a natural carbon cycle, whereas CO2 from fossil fuels continually adds new carbon to the atmosphere. Methane stays in our atmosphere about 12 years, carbon dioxide stays in our atmosphere for 1000 years, they contribute to warming very differently.
According to Dr. Frank Mitloehner at UC Davis, beef cattle raised in the US are responsible for 2% of direct emissions. There are efforts to reduce overall methane emission from cattle to actively pull carbon out of the atmosphere and help with atmospheric cooling. A study published in 2019 indicates that seaweed added to feed reduces methane in dairy cows by up to 60%. The Pineywoods have free access to kelp year-round and although not the same species as the one studied, we are hoping that studies on kelp will be upcoming.
Please take our one question survey about carbon capture
6. Where were you made and assembled?
I was made in Denmark, assembled on Faroe Islands, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Canada. I was imported to US from UK in 2008. This may not seem immediately important to farming until you recognize where I first felt a connection with land.
I was introduced to how Mother Earth could provide for us through an Ndebele gardener as a kid in Rhodesia.Musa grew carrots, peppers and maize on a plot of land my parents rented. When he told me the carrots were ready to eat, I’d pull one from the ground. “Leave some dirt Michael, it is good for you.” Musa would advise, and I did exactly that. He made sadza, a maize based porridge. Musa would make it the consistency of firm mashed potatoes so it could easily be scooped and dipped into the pot of savory beef stew. He cooked both over an open fire. Sadza and stew is one of my first food memories. The smell of fire still evokes memories of this delicious meal and the small shack (kaya) Musa lived, where an open fire always burned. During my first visit to the kaya, Musa admonished me in his lovely expressive accent, as I reached for my first scoop of sadza with my right hand, “Eh Ayyy! You eat with your left hand only Michael! Use your right hand to wipe your bottom.” Millet was the original ingredient of sadza but colonization changed that. Some Zimbabwean communities have reintroduced millet which is a lot more drought tolerant than maize. It’s wonderful that some of my Shona and Ndebele brothers and sisters are regaining their food sovereignty.
I don’t have a North Carolina accent and people often ask me where I’m from. I usually just give them the short version and I designed the t-shirt above to wear as my personal “country of origin” label. It’s also a statement against the fact that the United States does not have a law on the books forcing beef to be marked with “country of origin”. Unlike vegetables and fruit this makes it impossible to know how the animals were raised, the food they were fed or how they were treated.
This is just one more reason to connect with and get to know your local farmers.
Regenerative Farming is at it's core, an indigenous practice - Mike Hansen
Mike Hansen lives and works at Ozark Akerz Regenerative Farm near Coleridge, North Carolina with his nomadic wife Sue Meyer who has adopted North Carolina as her home. Graze Against The Machine with them at ozarkakerz.com.