Saturday, February 14, 2015

Sowing the land with hope: Sunrise Farm

Gate sign at Don and Marie Ruzicka's farm--for the Ruzicka's, the meadowlark is a symbol of the land's recovery

This week I am posting a story from a friend who reads Grass Notes from time to time. Don Ruzicka is a farmer who has found ways to make a living growing food while keeping the ecosystems on his land healthy and alive. Sunrise Farm, his 800 acres of prairie parkland near Killam, Alberta grows pasture-fed chickens, laying hens, turkeys, beef cattle, and hogs, but it also grows some native prairie, badgers, Mountain bluebirds, Sprague’s pipits, and a long list of other birds including 18 kinds of waterfowl.

a Mountain Bluebird nesting in one of 240 nest boxes Don has erected

I remember once Don telling me that he believes our agriculture is compromising who we are as a "prairie people". He believes that, while it is important to be financially sustainable, those who switch to more ecologically sustainable models experience a change, a "peace and contentment” that comes from rebuilding and restoring the integrity to the land that industrial agriculture eventually destroys.

I invited Don to write a guest post for Grass Notes, describing that shift he and his wife Marie made away from conventional high-yield farming toward peace of mind.

Here is his story, along with a string of photos at the end--all provided by Don:

A question that I have long pondered regards the definition of “success” when it comes to farming. I read many agriculture publications and the picture that comes to mind is that it is based on the number of acres owned and rented; the size and how new the tractor, combine, air seeder, sprayer, grain hauler and grain storage system are. The latest SUV and pick-up also appear to be key indicators as well as a condo or home in some “away” place where the mercury favours the top end of the thermometer.

When we moved to the farm in 1983, many of the above were on my radar of possible achievements. We grew grain and raised cattle for the commodities market. Our debt load spiraled out of control. To stop the bloodletting, I began to clear trees, work up wetlands and sloughs and turn native prairie upside down in order to grow more grain. The short story regarding this first chapter of our life on the farm is that I failed. I could find many excuses but in all honesty, my management decisions were not sound. I took on too much debt along with expectations of bountiful crop yields and high grain prices.

Our debt load ballooned to where there was no way out other than to sell the farm or change the way we farmed. We signed up for a holistic management course in the fall and winter of 1995-96. This course was quite humbling for me. We learned that those wetlands, sloughs, trees and native prairie that I had found to be expendable, were essential pieces of the prairie ecosystem. When we finished the 8 day course, we were excited because we could see there was a "way" that we could remain on the farm by going in the opposite direction; rebuild the ecosystem and move to an “organic niche market” way of farming. To erase the debt, we sold two quarters of land and all of our grain farming equipment.

We seeded all of the crop land to pasture and began planting trees and restoring the wetlands. Our new grass based model of farming was taken from Joel Salatin’s example where he pastures poultry and hogs and raises cattle on a total forage diet. It is an agrarian way of farming which does not depend on expensive technology and is considerably more labour intensive than conventional agriculture.

According to a study by the World Wildlife Federation, our planet has lost 50% of its wildlife since 1970. I had no idea that these parts of the prairie ecosystem that I had trashed, when we first began farming, were necessary to provide food, clean water and air for essential human wellbeing. I had not consulted what author Wes Jackson refers to as “the genius of place,” or, “what does nature require of me here?” Rather, I had imposed my own will on the land which I call “farmer knows best.”

It is puzzling to some that rather than seek advice from the agri business dealer about what our farm requires, I now consult with riparian specialists, waterfowl biologists, ornithologists, entomologists, agroforesters and ecologists. These folks offer advice on how much to take and more importantly, how much to leave.

Authors Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold have been welcome teachers on the journey. Wendell writes, “when we realize how much is enough; we know how much is too much.” This way of farming has taught us how much is too much. If we want too much, the land pays the price. Leopold’s definition of a land ethic is that “it reflects the existence of an ecological conscience which in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land.”

I have had the conversation more times than I care to remember about which comes first; financially sustainable or environmentally sustainable? I don't win too many debates when I explain that environmental sustainability must come first. I have seen examples of farmers who make the money first and then there seems to be improved technology that needs to be purchased and there is never enough money to restore the ecosystem side of the equation and nature loses--again.

If there is going to be a future of hope for those who come after us, I think we will all have to lower our expectations of what we need to be happy and that is an uncomfortable discussion for many. There is not a meal that we sit down to where we do not give thanks. We feel that we are blessed to be able to enjoy the bounty of the land and often everything but the salt, pepper and milk products are from the farm. Perhaps we have selfishly redefined "success."

Don says that the badgers "have landed immigrant status on our farm. They roam our pastures and keep the gopher populations in check without the use of strychnine"

Female bluebird on the nest

Annual bird surveys turn up more than sixty species on the farm
Hog shelters hooked onto a retired Doepker rod weeder.  Shelters are moved twice daily
Don: "After fencing off our 10 dugouts, dragon flies made a come back as we had unknowingly created habitat for them.  They are policing the grass hopper populations on the farm."
Two row shelter belt with maples on the right row and a variety of berry bushes like sea buckthorn, buffalo berry, hawthorn, chokecherry and pincherry in the other.  These diverse shelterbelts provide habitat for many birds but also native pollinators.  The closer to the shelterbelt, the more prolific the alfalfa grows. The snow trapped by these trees also provides moisture for the pasture
cattle grazing along electric fence with new wildlife plantings (Don has planted hundreds of thousands of bushes and trees on the farm)

An "eco-buffer" planting made with support and consultation of the PFRA shelterbelt system before the Harper government gutted the program


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