I can’t count the number of times that I have been looking at land and been told, “this area has been in hay forever.” The implication was that since hay is a relatively low impact crop, the land would be rich and fertile. Frequently, the representative of the land comments, this has been pasture since we bought the place. Slightly less often, I have heard the comment, this land has lain fallow for years, pretty much meaning the same thing. “At least we have not been plowing it up.” Since we are living at a time, and in a culture that thrives on our disconnection with the natural order of things, I can’t hold these predilections against those who believe them, but it brings me to a point that needs to be reconed with. Pasture is one thing, fallow is another, but a hayfield is quite different from either one of them. In some respects, each of these management strategies can yeild benefits, but the costs and benefits that make up the balance sheet for each has many more factors to consider.
Topography is one of the undeniable factors that influence which management strategies will work best for one piece of land or another. Whether the field turns to a large muddy swamp after a rain or not, whether or not it is wind swept, even the amount and direction of the slope of the land will have a lot to do with how it will respond under different types of pressure. Even a pasture can be irevocably damaged if the number of critters living there exceed the land’s carrying capacity. I have seen damage done to fields that has not healed after twenty years of “laying fallow” and muddy wallows that may never support a healthy ecosystem without extreme remediation. Taking the hay from a field for generations, without giving something back will ruin it as surely as overgrazing or planting cash crop corn. Inputs are usually thought of as N,P & K. that was what “science” taught us. In permaculture, reductionist philosophy has it’s place, but only as a point of reference. We make choices based on as many data points as possible when we begin to understand the Earth and her language for communicating with us. Just as our diet is made up of liquids, nutrients, fiber, fats and carbohydrates, the organisms living in our soils must have similar factors to build their “bodies”, sate their “thirsts” and sustain them. Ignoring the balance can only lead to sickness and damage that may not be detectable until it is too late to heal.
Feeding the Earth requires a slow pace, lots of looking and trying to get a handle on what we really remove with each tomato, goat or bale of hay. Just as you would not shear your sheep just before the dark days of winter, you begin to think about how your land will respond to each potential management decision that you are thinking of making. This approach is not for the timid, certainly not for the impatient and most often not about running with the herd. free thinkers and intellectuals could be as challenged by this complex equation as they would be at the helm of a sailboat. Change is the only constant and balancing what we want, or where we want to go, with what we can get,or what nature will allow, is often a source of great joy. The irony in the name permaculture is that nature is not static and if we emulate natural systems, our treatment of the land needs to be responsive to change.
I have told the story, for many years, of the woman I met who bought a farm in later life. She was committed to raising grass fed beef, humanely treated and compassionately killed. The first three years, she couldn’t even grow grass. Her fields grew dandelions in abundance, burdock and several other medicinal herbs, but nothing to the degree that would be needed to sustain critters. She had what looked more like a broken clay pot than dirt and for three years she did the best that she knew, plowing whatever grew under as green manure. Slowly, the dirt began to look more like soil. Tilth improved, water holding capacity got better and she kept putting seeds in the ground which were like a concentrated form of compost for all the good they did. Without knowing it, she was bringing more and more to the table, feeding the Earth what it needed. Since those first three years, her land has continued to improve, but not without sustained inputs of compost, organic sources of feed and additional soil amendments as needed. Caring for the land is a lifelong commitment, especially when we want to remove biomass from it consistently.