On a surface level, diversity at Featherstone Farm can be most easily seen in the farm’s workforce (multiple languages spoken, huge range of backgrounds, beliefs and reasons for working in organic agriculture), and in its crop mix (from cover crops to 30+ different vegetable and small fruit cultivars… more below). Both are enough to make my head spin, sometimes.
But I’m going to focus on 2 larger framings of diversity in this post, 2 framings which I think suggest a great deal about what Featherstone is and aspires to be at the start of its 3rd decade of life. These concepts are:
- Diversity as a description of all the “balls we have to juggle” in the course of a day, a week or a vegetable season; all the diverse activities and skills we have to master, to make the Featherstone Farm succeed. and
- Diversity as in biological or ecological diversity- as foundation level components of environmental sustainability- ideals that I find more elusive and difficult to achieve than ever, 20 years into my life’s work.
Featherstone Farm is at some level, a collection of links in a chain, from field rotation plan to greenhouse, from planting through harvest, from warehousing and storage, through delivery to CSA and wholesale customers. These links are incredibly diverse, in terms of the expertise and scope of management that they require. And a break in any link can mean that the chain fails to serve some critical function (keeping foliar disease in check in the tomatoes, for example, or delivering the right CSA box to the right member on the right day).
A few years ago we had an insurance adjuster out here, asking me all sorts of questions about Featherstone Farm and its operations. After a solid hour of discussion this guy commented “Wow, what you have here is an old school vertically integrated company. Not many of those out there anymore, in this day of specialization…” Wow, talk about a “light bulb” moment; of course this is what makes Featherstone Farm so uniquely exciting… and so darned difficult at times!
It’s taken me fully these 20 years- and what feels like a lifetime of lessons learned the hard way- to understand this challenge, and to calibrate my expectations accordingly (read: more realistically!). To learn humility at its most fundamental level. And quite honestly, scaling back on both the scope and diversity of what we’re attempting to accomplish here has been one result of this growing humility.
As I wrote last week, the idea that we could (a) scale up to feed the entire upper Midwest good organic vegetables (I’m exaggerating, of course!) while (b) achieving high order personal and environmental sustainability and (c) paying all the bills and even saving a few dimes to rub together for retirement… what an exercise in hubris, particularly because of the huge diversity of skills required to succeed at any one of these goals. We just can’t keep all those balls in the air at once, I’ve finally accepted after 20 years. Yahoo! What a relief, that we don’t have to keep the lights on and save the world at the same time!! (again, I’m being facetious!).
Seen in the light of management capacity and links in a small business chain, the second framing of diversity I’m interested in here- biodiversity- is another ideal that becomes very difficult indeed to achieve in practice.
I take it as an article of faith that the more diversity of living things we are able to promote and sustain in the soil, the field environment, and the whole farm ecosystem- the more we can make Featherstone Farm reflect the awe inspiring diversity of the natural world itself- the more resilient and healthy the Featherstone Farm business will be. Fine. But how much of this is really possible in a modern economy, realistically? And how much of this ideal are we prepared to sacrifice in the service of personal and financial sustainability? This is a challenge that I still struggle with mightily 20 years into my life in organic agriculture.
I believe we do a very good job promoting biodiversity in our soils, as a foundation of fertility and resilience (risk management on so many levels). This is organic practice 101, and I’m very proud of all that we accomplish on it day to day, year to year. But the fact is that we are a fresh market organic vegetable farm, and as we narrow our focus to annual vegetables, we miss many opportunities to achieve an even higher level of sustainability, for economic and practical reasons that I now accept (begrudgingly). Honestly, I wish that we could get beyond these limits over the long term.
So, for example, we have so few perennial crops in our rotation. We rely on neighbors to produce compost for us, rather than produce our own (even better would be having grazing livestock right in the fields… but we own not a single ruminant!). We could be integrating small grains, forage, even field corn and soybeans(!) into our rotation, real practices of agricultural diversity which would make Featherstone Farm more sustainable.
Alas, we have tried some of these things and… well, I’ll just refer back to my earlier comments about “a lifetime of lessons learned the hard way” and the humility that comes with failure… even when we took up a project with the best intentions and highest ideals.
My point in all of this is (my post last week on idealism meets reality, and the present writing), is that Featherstone Farm simply attempted to do too much in its first 20 years. And, hopefully, that with the wisdom born of success and failure, both, that our next 20 years will be more narrowly focused, and even more “successful” from a conventional standpoint. If that means less diversity- not just forgoing livestock, but onions and potatoes too (darn, how do you get scab free potatoes in soil with such high organic matter…?)- then I suppose this is a compromise that I am willing to make. Protecting my own sanity- as well as that of my family and all the diverse employees of Featherstone Farm- seems as important as feeding (or saving!) the world, at this point of my professional career.
Perhaps at some point we’ll get so good at growing 50 different vegetable crops, that we no longer need to worry about the perfect (high level biodiversity, or big picture sustainability) being the enemy of the good (simply growing a good crop, with sound organic practices). We’ll have orchards, a flock of sheep grazing down crop residue (and providing wool for Featherstone sweatshirts!), and everything from local honey to dried apples to wheat flour in CSA boxes. But I’m not holding my breath anymore!