Farming For the Future
Happy Dancing Turtle is taking on a new and exciting role in pursuit of a local, sustainable food system. We will be working directly with farmers and ranchers to accelerate adoption of adaptive grazing practices. Building on our past work of consumer education, promoting market driven conservation, and advocating for local meat processing and distribution, we are now a certified Technical Service Provider for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. This will allow us to assist producers in developing adaptive grazing and other conservation plans for their farm or ranch.
Why this new facet of work for HDT? The development of individualized plans that meet and support the needs of producers in reaching their goals is a natural extension of the strong focus we’ve had on soil health and sustainable and regenerative agriculture. We also believe our region is well suited for this type of place-based agriculture.
Our local ecoregion or (ECS), defined by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as the Pine Moraines and Outwash Plains subsection, is dominated by coarse sandy soils. Many of the soils are excessively drained and, prior to European settlement, much of the subsection was susceptible to fire, burning on an average of every 10 to 40 years. This kept the landscape in an early pioneer successional growth stage of Jack pine barrens and aspen- birch forest. Some areas were protected from wildfire by topography, wetlands and large lakes. These areas were dominated by mixed hardwoods and pine forests, mainly in the eastern and northern regions of the subsection.
Image: MN DNR
The utilization of ecological classification systems (ECS) that use soil, vegetation, and other landscape variables is not new. Ecologically based, natural classification systems, such as habitat types (Daubenmire 1952) and plant community types (Hall 1973) are used by the US Forest Service Regions and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). The MN Department of Natural Resources has conducted forestry management activities using an ECS on state managed lands since 2000. Foresters and other land managers are finding it improves their understanding of forest ecology and the outcome of their management prescriptions. But what role does ecological classification play in agriculture?
Missing in these classification systems is the historical role grazing ruminants played in impacting these plant communities.
We know from historical records that the Indigenous Americans were using fire as a tool to maintain early succession landscapes. A quick internet search for “Indigenous American use of fire” comes up with some 141,000,000 hits. Early succession ecosystems are rich in diversity and promote fruit and nut bearing species of plants. The use of fire also promoted grasses and “forb” species utilized by grazing ruminants. In the presentation “Why We Need to Graze”, Ecologist Steven Thomforde speaks to the many roles keystone species such as bison and elk played in maintaining the richness of our most abundant natural ecosystems, the savannas and grasslands that once dominated much of the Midwest landscape, including the outwash plains in the Pine River, MN region. He explains how the removal of fire and grazing ruminants has diminished the plant communities ability to function, the capacity to store and effectively cycle nutrients and water. Once these impacts were removed, vast savanna ecosystems (those that didn’t go the way of the plow) turned to woodlands. The woodlands that evolved became more homogeneous with less plant diversity in the understory and were susceptible to invasive species. These “new” woodlands provided little food in the way of mast crops and forage for wildlife.
The most productive natural ecosystems we know of were lost.
To regain these we must look at the role foraging animals played in these systems and utilize this understanding.
Historically, predators kept herds tightly packed and they moved constantly, maybe not returning to the same ground for a year or more. They found safety in numbers and large herds would eat the best parts of the plants and trample the rest, leaving behind a biological treasure trove of cellulose, lignin, urine, manure, saliva, hair, and disturbance. All this disturbance fueled the soil biology, with dung beetles rolling up balls of manure and bringing them underground for their young. This is how a six foot deep topsoil was built and how these rich ecosystems thrived.
To help mimic the way the wild herds moved we now have technology; high tensile and electric polywire fencing, step-in fence posts, ATV’s, and adaptable watering systems. Farmers and ranchers are increasingly doing this because it saves time and money vs. bailing hay, hauling manure, and purchasing inputs. By building the health of the soil they find they can grow more grass and run more livestock on the same amount of land. They are integrating livestock into cropping systems to graze on cover crops, fueling soil fertility and reducing, or eliminating the need for synthetic fertilizers that leach into our lakes, rivers and groundwater. Public land managers are teaming up with farmers to use livestock to control invasive species and restore native habitats. Increasingly people are beginning to understand the vital role grazing animals play in restoring and maintaining soil health and ecological integrity.
Most farm tours that highlight rotational grazing involve a paddock change, where livestock are moved from one area of a pasture to a fresh one that has had adequate rest, regrown tall and lush. The vigour and excitement the animals have for moving to new ground emanates from the animals to the people watching. They move like migrating wildebeest on the Serengeti (on a much smaller scale), as the onlookers pull out cell phones and shoot pictures and videos. After more than two decades of managing animals on the land, I still get joy out of their excitement in moving to a new piece of ground.
It is a troubling time in agriculture. We believe it doesn’t have to be. By developing local markets and properly managing animals on the land, we believe farmers and ranchers can once again build financial independence and restore agriculture’s reputation, one that has been degraded by society’s desire for convenience and cheap food. We believe we can build new economic opportunities and support existing businesses in our community. We believe our agricultural landscape can be rich, our water clean, and our community’s future bright.