Book Review Farming on the Wild Side, The Evolution of a Regenerative Organic Farm and Nursery, Nancy and John Hayden, Chelsea Green, 2019. 258 pages, $29.95.
This is a lovely, thoughtful, well-illustrated book, telling how Nancy and John Hayden changed their farm (formerly a conventional dairy farm) over three decades into a regenerative farm, now specializing in perennial fruit trees. Their focus has been on stewarding the land mindfully, restoring and increasing biodiversity. In these uncertain times, there is much we can’t do alone, and we worry if enough people will make enough of the necessary changes. We can, instead, focus on positive changes we can make to improve our world. Growing and nurturing plants will benefit you, the plants and the planet.
The Haydens have an 18-acre farm in northern Vermont with undulating land, and a wide range of soil types. Very different from central Virginia, where I live! Both moved to Syracuse, NY to study biology and ecology, and after meeting at university, they worked in the Peace Corps on opposite sides of the African continent. Nancy worked in Kenya, supporting small farmers installing fishponds. John was in Mali, helping market gardeners and farmers, especially in dealing with millet pests. They both grew intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, with broader worldviews, awareness of white privilege, and deeper understanding of solitude and loneliness.
After Peace Corps, they reunited, married and began graduate school at Michigan State U, studying entomology (John) and environmental engineering (Nancy). John hankered to start a farm, so when Nancy was offered a post at the University of Vermont, they packed up the family and moved. A few months later, they bought their farm. It was a well-manicured conventional dairy farm with a cathedral-like barn built in 1900. The lawns are now orchards, and the stream banks host fruit bushes and small trees. The focus these days is on biodiversity and a regenerative food system, not on “pretty”. You can see before and after photos, and sketch maps of their farm (The Farm Between).
The book includes a valuable chart summarizing their practices and events during each of the three decades of their farm life so far. This shows how changes can be made as interests and focus shift. Long-term sustainability for aging farmers!
In the initial years their goals were to feed their family high quality food (hard to find to buy in the 1990’s), treat livestock humanely, regenerate the land for long-term health, and generate income from farming. They grew organic annual vegetables and raised grass-fed poultry, rabbits, sheep and pigs for a meat CSA. They also raised young children, and a family cow. The farm hosted field trips from local elementary schools, and Nancy became an associate professor.
John and Nancy got inspiration from Holistic Resource Management, as well as many small-farming pioneers. HRM led them to learn and practice management intensive grazing. This involves carefully matching stocking density with the health of the pastures, leading to continuous improvement. Paddocks just large enough, and no bigger, encourage livestock to graze all the plants down, leading to lush and nutritious regrowth. Initially their pastures were overrun with reed canary grass, and just one year of intensive grazing management with sheep started to bring improvements.
They also raised chickens and rabbits in moveable pens (chicken tractors), and quickly devised improvements to the pen design and the choice of breed. They trained all their livestock to come running when they heard grain shaken in a bucket. This good habit saved them from problems when livestock got loose onto the busy state road.
In the middle decade (roughly the 2000’s), the children grew up and left home, John became a lecturer on Plant and Soil Science, the field trips included special needs children and summer camps for middle-schoolers. They became more focused on resilience, biodiversity and pollinators. Keeping livestock makes it hard for a farming couple or family to vacation at the same time, and well-trained farm sitters are worth a lot!
Raising animals in confined spaces, feeding mostly corn and soy and antibiotics, while exploiting workers and degrading the environment is a disgrace to our society. Slaughtering animals is tough, and where possible, the Haydens opted for on-farm slaughter, as less stressful and more humane. The Haydens cut back on meat production and expanded perennial and annual food crops.
After 20 years of learning and practicing with draft horses during visits to working horse farms, and after 10 years at The Farm Between, John bought his own team of two Clydesdales. This helped them successfully expand their vegetable and small fruit production. From 2004-2011, they put up five hoophouses, initially for tomatoes and other valuable vegetables. They could pay for the structures and the wages in one year by growing cherry tomatoes in each new hoophouse. This increased their resilience in the face of extreme weather of various kinds, and in 2009, they planted a few rows of fall raspberries in one of the hoophouses. These did so well that the next year they planted one whole hoophouse full.
The third decade (after serious flooding from Hurricane Irene in 2011) brought a forceful introduction to the reality of climate change. Their focus on improving the soil has included a major composting operation. The Haydens have succeeded in doubling the organic matter in their soils from 2.5 to 6% over the years. Initially John collected food scraps to feed their chickens and then compost. But the heavy lifting and the rats got to him.
It takes 500 years or more to grow an inch of soil, which is all too easily lost to wind and water erosion. Growing cover crops holds the soil in place while adding organic matter. While they grew mostly annual vegetables, the Haydens used at least one-third of their land for growing cover crops, usually including legumes, to add nitrogen to the soil. Growing annual vegetables is stressful. Everything is urgent and important, all season! Perennials allow more flexibility, for example in the timing of weeding and pruning.
They committed more to perennial polyculture, retired the horses and bought a tractor. Fruit planting had expanded every year, with perennial vegetables and annual hemp in the alleys between the rows. Other alleys are left unmowed to encourage milkweed (selling seeds and floss). All the while, the edges and hedges have provided biological diversity for insects, birds and other creatures.
They repurposed all their hoophouses to grow fruit, protected from the elements as well as pests and diseases. They have dwarf apple trees (blemish-free no-spray organic apples!), cherries, peaches, plums, apricots and raspberries. Outdoors they grow hazelberts, elderberries, aronia, honeyberry, gooseberries, blackcurrants, red and white currents, and many blueberries. The increased fruit production led them to work with cider producers and market other fruit products including selling at the Burlington Farmers’ Market. They started a retail nursey of fruit trees on the farm, alongside fruit sales. Operating a fruit tree nursey at the farm enables the farmers to attract customers who are very interested in what they are doing, and will encourage and support them in growing their own fruit. Nancy retired from UVM. They expanded on-farm workshops, field trips and classes for all ages.
They were able to provide free housing for their employees and pay them above minimum wage. Despite the obvious success of their farm stand, farmers’ market, meat and produce CSAs, restaurant and grocery accounts, they were not quite satisfied. The family were eating well, and Nancy’s off-farm income kept them afloat and allowed them to build up the farm infrastructure. John was working 60-80 hours a week on the farm, but not producing much net income for the four-child family they were now raising. John calculated he was earning half minimum wage, and the only way that was being “successful” was that the 80 hour weeks made two half-minimum wages! Their aging bodies had also become a factor to consider. Also, Nancy and John developed interests that vied for their attention, much as they were still committed to the farm.
They had noticed their soil structure was deteriorating, even though the organic matter content was increasing. They studied approaches to deal with soil loss and degradation, climate disruption, water and air pollution, declining food quality and loss of biodiversity. The book includes a valuable chart listing stressors in the categories of environmental, social, economic and personal stresses, and resilience strategies to tackle each.
The Haydens committed to be more proactive in benefiting the land, and becoming more economically resilient. Their approach was a synthesis of:
- resilience (ability to bounce back from stresses and shocks),
- organic farming (nurture healthy soil to grow healthy crops and healthy people: it’s about the soil, not about the certificate),
- regenerative organic (rebuild soil organic matter, increase biodiversity, improve water quality and slow the pace of climate change),
- agroecology (approaching agriculture by combining ecology, biology, agronomy, plant physiology and more, improving soils and water, biodiversity, species conservation, carbon sequestration),
- permaculture (“permanent agriculture”, integrative perennial-based systems, working with the natural environment, providing for the needs of people locally),
- agroforestry (intentionally incorporating trees and shrubs into farming systems for the benefit of the environment, the community and the farm,)
- biodynamics (considering each farm as a unique integrated organism, raising crops and livestock synergistically)
- wabi sabi (finding beauty and value in the impermanent, the natural cycles of growth, death and decay.)
- rewilding (letting banks, ditches, shrubs and trees grow back, providing shelter and food for many more insects and birds; planting orchards in place of lawns,
- personal spiritual traditions (focusing on nature and natural cycles)
As a result of considering all these approaches, Nancy and John found themselves drawn to wholesaling fruit, particularly to local wineries. They wanted no-spray organic fruit, pointing out that organic fungicides and broad-spectrum insecticides are toxic to pollinators and other beneficial insects, as well as the pest species.
In August 1995, a few years after John and Nancy moved to the farm, the summer drought was broken by three days of rain upstream of the farm. The river overflowed, flooding the low fields and the barn three feet deep. The water level receded the next day, leaving a big mess, including dead chicks and destroyed equipment. The house was on higher ground, and was not affected.
In 2011, they got a 500-year flood in April and a repeat with Hurricane Irene in August. They lost their potato and corn crops, and noticed that the perennial fruit bushes and conservation shrubs recovered just fine when the water receded. They decided not to grow annual crops in the low-lying Field Six any more, but instead plant elderberries and aronia, which tolerate some flooding.
As they transitioned to growing mostly perennials, they also stopped tilling. They sheet mulch around newly planted fruit trees and berry bushes, with either cardboard and woodchips, or with landscape fabric rolls with “seam-lines” along the planting rows. This means they can open the overlapping pieces in spring or fall to add soil amendments. They’ve also used this technique to grow pumpkins, sunflowers and CBD hemp in the alleys between young fruit trees. They also employ a “grow, mow and blow” in the alleys to deposit home-grown mulch around the trees.
Transitioning to more perennials in polyculture orchards led them to incorporate agroforestry practices such as hedges, biomass trees, and riparian forest zones (next to streams). Hedgerows act as windbreaks, as well as enhancing biodiversity, and reducing soil erosion and offering sanctuary to many kinds of wildlife.
The apple orchards provide scion wood for selling and for grafting to make new trees. Between new fruit trees, in the rows, they plant blackcurrants and other fruit bushes, nitrogen-fixing small trees and perennial wildflowers. These infill plants will be chopped or lopped for mulch when the apple trees need the space.
Perennial vegetables also have a place on the farm. Asparagus and rhubarb have been there for over 20 years. Sea kale and Jerusalem artichokes are more recent additions, in the alleys between apple trees. Remember this book is written in Vermont, where rhubarb ripens in June, blueberries in July and elderberries in late summer. Follow the concepts, not the details, if you are in a very different climate zone.
Climate change in Vermont has, so far, meant warmer, earlier springs, which can cause trees to break bud, risking crop death by frosts in May. Using hoophouses for fruit can reduce risk. Leave the hoophouse open all winter, but if a spring frost threatens during or after bloom, close the house up for the night. “Fruit trees can break your heart,” the authors warn.
The section on rootstocks, scion wood and grafting explains how to propagate trees. Growing polycultural orchards reduces dependency on any particular variety or type, and makes organic production much more viable, as pest or disease outbreaks are rarer and other crops compensate for whichever is taken down. There’s a nice list of the ten best apple varieties at the farm, and one of stone fruit cultivars. Again, remember this is Vermont, zone 4a.
The farm also grows many less common cold-hardy berries. Blackcurrants do well in Vermont, but I know from experience that they do poorly in the South. The yield is plentiful, but the harvest slow. Their target rate is ten pounds an hour. The variety Tatania is their highest-yielding, at 4.7 pounds per bush. A useful tip is to stand still and move the branches towards you, rather than moving yourself a lot. There are tips on good varieties of berries too.
Elderberries and Aronia have already been mentioned as flood-tolerant. Both also require full sun. they are high in anti-oxidants, and attract wildlife, unfortunately including Spotted Wing Drosophila, which cause the berries to drop before the whole panicle is ripe. The solution is to pick every few days, removing the ripe parts of the clusters. Note that American elderberries need to be cooked or fermented before eating, as they contain cyanide-inducing compounds.
The farm has an area of boxed propagation beds where they raise hardwood cuttings to grow bushes for sale. They have a space where customers can see full-size plants in a natural setting. This area supports many pollinators, as does their willow labyrinth. There is a mowed walking path around the pollinator sanctuary, where visitors love to observe plants, insects, birds, and other wildlife. The riparian zone is part of a contiguous wildlife corridor connecting the woods and the farm, and providing edges with meadows and cropland. Common milkweed in the orchard alleys is promoted by mowing the grass early, before the milkweed emerges.
The chapter on pests and diseases invites us to rethink these life-forms. Weed management is necessary. Birds can be “pests” on fruit crops during the harvest period. Netting the berries at this time and then removing the nets to let the birds in to clean up the dropped berries helps reduce other pest problems, such as SWD. At the time the book was written, their way of dealing with the SWD was to net individual panicles of elderberries using nylon “footies.” Crop diversity reduces potential crop losses and pest outbreaks.
The Haydens dispute the myth that pests on a plant show the plant is unhealthy or that the soil conditions are wrong. Having a diversity of insects shows a natural balance. If the number of pests increases to the point of causing economic damage, that’s a pest outbreak, and needs action. Having a low level of pest insects keeps predators and parasites provided for! Always look for parasites, such as the white fly eggs on the thorax of the Japanese beetles. Everything may be being taken care of! Wiping everyone out with pesticides causes imbalance, and the pest populations can come back faster than their predators. The true parasites are the pesticide companies, say the authors!
Attention is also paid to pollinators, providing nesting habitat as well as pollen and nectar sources. Native bees are perhaps in greater peril than (imported) honeybees. They just don’t have as good PR, despite flying earlier in the year and in colder, rainier, windier weather! There are 275 native bee species in Vermont (4,000 in the US). Most of us didn’t know that! There is a table of when various pollinator flowers start blooming in Vermont, to help anyone seeking to provide bee forage more of the season.
As Nancy and John produced more value-added fruit products for sale, they noticed an interesting thing: people would pay for the jam or syrup-topped snow cones, but balk at the price of the actual fruit! It’s time to move away from our expectation of cheap food (which likely derives from the history of enslaved people doing most of the farm-work in the US in the past).
Another change for the farm is to selling fruit wholesale, to wineries, breweries, cideries and soda makers. They like the big “over-and-done” sales, although selling retail direct from the farm is important for staying in touch with the public and diversifying income streams. Nancy and John point out that they could not have done all they’ve done without off-the-farm income. This is the reality for most farmers, particularly small-scale farmers. Nancy and John were fortunate in finding off the farm work that they enjoyed.
The book wraps up with an appendix of common and scientific names of plants and arthropods mentioned in the book, and an impressive twelve-page, triple-columned index. This is a book by people who really want to help us navigate our path through farming for the long haul.