Pastures and Prairies
The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.
Most of our land is pasture. Much of the pasture is made up of introduced species such as brome grass, alfalfa, fescue, timothy, and red clover. This makes for good grazing and erosion control, but the diversity is low and its overall ecological value is limited. There are, however, several very nice areas where steep terrain or other factors prevented intense farming and grazing, and in these areas many native prairie plants can be found. We have been studying the methods of grazing, and learning that carefully managed grazing can greatly improve the health and diversity of the land. It is our intention to manage our grazing animals – sheep, cows, goats, poultry, and someday perhaps horses – to maximize plant diversity and land health along with good meat production.
When we first bought the land, our desire was to restore the entire 80 acres to native prairie. Raising sheep and cattle was nowhere in the vision. Since then, we have realized that besides being difficult and expensive, historical restoration is not the best use of our land. We have decided that, with respect to this 80 acres, the greatest good for the earth will come from creating a modern landscape where the soil is protected and natural diversity is maximized, where we can produce a significant amount of food, and where guests can come to learn about sustainability and enjoy Mother Earth.
We strive for a place where:
- The soil is cherished and protected.
- The plant and fungus communities on the land are diverse and healthy, if not purely native. No species dominates or takes over.
- The land teems with wildlife large and small.
- Farm animals can express their nature-given talents and desires: Cows graze, pigs root, chickens scratch. All animals live with plenty of space, fresh air, sunshine, rain, and natural earth beneath them.
- People–adults and children–can come to get their food, connect to the source of their food, learn about how food is produced, participate in that production, and enjoy themselves.
As mentioned before, our original goal was to restore the land to native prairie, period. This is no longer our desire. We want to have a balanced and healthy place, but we will not be unhappy to see various non-native species here and there, as long as they behave themselves and contribute to the overall health of the land. This will be the guiding principle going forward on the Taproot Farm. For example, introduced smooth brome grass is the dominant plant species on the majority of our land. It is very aggressive and persistent, and in many areas it’s the only plant growing. That’s a no-no. However, brome is great forage for grazing animals, decent wildlife cover, and is excellent for keeping soil in place, so we don’t want to eradicate it, just bring it more in balance. Through well-timed burning and managed grazing, we plan to handicap the brome and give other plants a chance to establish themselves.
The ecological restoration effort is some of the most pleasing and rewarding work we do here. There are few things that compare to the joy of watching a grassy, brushy field go up in a wall of flame, the smell of grass fire smoke, and the sight of a blackened, smoldering earth – knowing the stirring that goes on beneath the soil and the awakening of deep, long-hidden prairie roots. The shimmering green-grass-on-black-ashes two weeks after a fire is absolutely beautiful, and the anticipation of what long-absent prairie species might show back up is always exciting.
Our land has a wealth of beauty and diversity but sadly, has had no shortage of abuse and injury at the hands of humans. There are prairie skink lizards and smooth green snakes, bobolinks, grasshopper and henslow’s sparrows, morel mushrooms, butterfly milkweed, big bluestem grass, round-headed bush clover, wild turkeys, and other living things that hint at the land’s richness and potential. There are also several old trash dumps, piles of tires, and erosion gullies. We will improve the health of this land. It will be an open-ended and dynamic process that will not be completed in our lifetimes, or ever for that matter. We look forward to working hard on it, seeing the changes, and sharing our effort and experience with others.