At first glance, you might think you’re going to be reading a story about music… that is, unless you already know what symbiosis is all about. If we take a look at Webster’s textbook definition of the term, we might simply believe that it applies to only some critters living together. Around here, though, we see it as the foundation of our farm's food production model.
Textbooks are good and all, but they generally only describe a small portion of what we can really experience in the real world. I like to think of complex principles in simple terms. I get through my day a whole lot easier if I try not to wrap my head around too many complex things at once. The easiest way I can relate to the real-world benefits of a symbiotic relationship is to apply some fuzzy math. To me, symbiosis means 1+1=5! You read that correctly, it’s wrong math but in the real world it makes sense. Sure, peanut butter is great. Strawberry jam is yummy too. Slather them together on a piece of bread and voila – it’s better together! Let’s see how this relates to farm animals though.
Our farm is what’s known as a multi-species, or diversified operation. That means we have many different things going on at the same place and usually at the same time. We’re not just “cattle farmers” or “chicken farmers”. The opposite of diversified is specialized. The opposite of a multi-species crop is a mono-crop. As a general rule of thumb, Mother Nature despises sameness. Let’s put that another way, she loves diversity. I’m sure most are aware of the term biodiversity, but how many of us really know WHY this is important? There’s more to it than just the nice thought of “all the pretty little birdies” are just more colorful! Natural systems are highly complex and highly ordered. Everything has a function and provides a service for the overall well-being of an ecosystem. Mother nature doesn’t use tractors, sprayers, seeders and harvesting machines to accomplish the tasks needed for a well-balanced, highly productive ecosystem. The right species are in the right place at the right time performing the right functions for the whole system to function smoothly. One could say it’s a “well-oiled machine”.
When you look at a beautiful forest, have you ever wondered how it survives without fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation? It just works, doesn't it? Can we apply the lessons learned in this ecosystem to a farm? Oh my word – if we are to believe the doctrine coming from the high priests of our modern industrialized agriculture system, we can’t possibly imagine a highly productive farming enterprise without the latest techno-glam, genetically modified, GPS precision-placed seeds and sprays. Who planted that forest? Who applies the fertilizers and pesticides? How in the world has it survived all these thousands of years without our tinkering? I highly recommend pondering that for a moment.
We’ve asked ourselves these questions in our pursuit of an efficient, scalable food production operation. Rather than finding answers from all of the agricultural scientists with fancy titles, or fertilizer salesmen with the latest cides-concoctions (herbicides, pesticides…) we've listened to Mother Nature. Be careful however. Don't write this off as some whimsical, hippy-dippy tree-hugger strumming koombaya around a campfire with expectation of hearing nature’s secrets whispered through the tree leaves. Not hardly.
Here at our farm, we study how these highly productive ecosystems actually work in nature, then set the stage for it to work on our farm with the end result being human food production. We study the types of animals in these natural systems performing major ecological functions, then try to mimic their actions with a commercially suitable analog (similar critter). Here’s an example. A well-managed herd of cows (herbivores) can be used in a savanna environment in Ohio much the same way a wild herd of wildebeests functions in the Serengeti. A population of yellow-throated-sandgrouse serves the herbivores of the Serengeti by scraping through their dung piles to eat parasitic (harmful) larva. We use a flock of hens (chickens) to perform the same function in our pastures. What’s best is that they give us an egg every day! Think about it - they actually pay us for doing a job we would otherwise need to spend money to accomplish! 1 + 1 = 5!
By closely studying symbiotic relationships in natural settings and mimicking those in our own production operation, we are able to operate a highly productive whole system. We don’t have to use toxic fly sprays on our cows because the chickens ate all the fly larva before they could hatch. We don’t have to fertilize our pastures or even spread manure because the cattle naturally do it every day as we move them through the system. The end result of it all is a food product raised in a way most closely mimicking its natural design. Just like the beautiful forest ecosystem, we can do it with zero chemicals of any kind… not even the “organically approved” ones.
Our experience with this type of operational mindset has proven to work quite well. To be honest, it’s performing better than we originally thought it would. Many of our traditional farmer friends (yes - we don’t demonize our friends growing GMO corn. They are our neighbors and we love them) still think we’re hippy-dippy tree-huggers, but we’re fine with that. They’re amazed we don’t vaccinate our cattle or inject them with de-wormer. We’re OK with being the odd-balls on the block. To us, it’s far easier to just line up the right animals at the right time for the right job than it is to make a monthly payment on a quarter million-dollar machine.
With all our talk about "eco" this and "mimic" that, what’s the real bottom line? Eat an egg, a pork chop or a rib-eye steak from a critter that’s lived its life in a setting doing exactly what it’s designed to do and you’ll taste the difference immediately. It’s the nutrient-dense, wholesome, amazing taste that can only come from a well-conducted symphony of symbiosis.