Farm Choreography

Our culture has always had a fascination with group performances. There is synergy—even magic—in the collective movement of a dance troupe, or an orchestra playing music together. When it’s done well, it is a visual and auditory feast. But if someone is having a bad day and gets off rhythm or misses a cue, the whole routine can come unraveled.

Never did it occur to me before I got into agriculture that the primary role of a farmer on a diversified operation is that of choreographer or conductor, trying to create a seamless function and beauty from many disparate parts.

Even if I didn’t have young children or an off-farm job, the logistics of the farm are enough to keep my mind boggled. Our goals include diversity: of enterprises, of wildlife, of income streams. Diversity is beautiful, and helps build resiliency into our farm, so that a failure of any one enterprise does not (hopefully) sink the whole business.

With diversity come challenges. We have fruit trees, berry bushes, veggies in a high tunnel, honeybees, livestock guardian dogs, cattle, ducks, and sheep. This year we will add a farmstay enterprise, where we will be hosting overnight guests on the farm. These choices aren’t random; they all fill a niche and most of them work together: The cattle eat the parasites that would infect the sheep. The ducks eat the insects that would infect the trees. The dogs theoretically protect the sheep, calves and ducks, and are supposed to make sure no one eats the trees. Hosting guests on the farm meets our desire for farm education and will provide needed cash flow during the season. But these things only happen with careful orchestration. Get it wrong, and we have unhappy guests, nibbled shrubs, dead ducks, parasite-infested sheep, and/or overgrazed pasture. Get it right, and it’s a symphony of abundance for all species involved.

Every crop we raise has very specific needs, usually at very specific times. The hoophouse tomatoes and ginger need pruning, weeding, fertilizing and hilling, and controlled temperatures. The sheep need to be vaccinated, examined for parasites every few weeks, and fed properly for their life stage; the ducks like everything to be the same every day, and if you change that, they drop their production. The fruit trees are on a strict spray schedule of compost tea, neem oil, fish oil, clay and kelp throughout the Spring to prevent outbreaks of scab and other pests and diseases.

But you can’t do anything strictly on schedule because of course Weather is the Wild Card that guides everything. A string of rainy days in the Spring, like we had last year, can set you back weeks!

So, while many of you reading this may be anxious for Spring’s arrival, I am thankful for the blast of Winter weather we’re having as I write this. And I am frantically finishing up the plans for all of our farm enterprises so that our season will be harmonious and in tune, rather than a distressing cacophony!

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