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In their book, Farming on the Wild Side, dedicated regenerative farming couple Nancy and John Hayden recount the story of how and why they turned a northern Vermont conventional dairy farm into ’The Farm Between,’ a biodiversity-based regenerative organic farm. The couple’s preface says, “It is the story about our practices and building a relationship with the land and all its inhabitants. It describes the work that heals and restores us, the work of farming as cocreators with nature.
“Society’s current trajectory is leading the world to a period of increasing instability and suffering,” they continue, “Business as usual is clearly taking us to an evolutionary dead end. We like to think of ourselves as a pocket of resistance and an alternative success story to modern agricultural systems that degrade ecosystems and society. We know we are not alone in our desire for a regenerative, mindful approach to stewarding the land.
“We hope to encourage more land managers—whether farmers, gardeners, suburbanites, or urbanites with a patio or houseplants—to cultivate a renewed sense of purpose, by reconnecting, rewilding, and regenerating the land and the life it supports,” they vow, “Right now we can all make changes, both in ourselves and our communities, to adapt to and help mitigate the environmental, economic, social, and spiritual crises we face.
“Maybe we can’t stop runaway climate change, loss of biodiversity, and overconsumption,” they add, “but we can learn to adapt to and affect these issues and ourselves with small positive acts—every day. The antidote is action in behalf of Life. Shout, protest, get arrested, make corporations inconsequential by not buying their crap—we are all for that. But more important, conserve or plant something! By nurturing and growing it, you and the planet will benefit from these healing actions.”
In chapter 4, it’s all about the soil, they reveal the reason for their success. “Healthy soil is, and has always been, the foundation of our organic, regenerative farm,” they say, “Healthy and biodiverse soil regenerates itself through the interactions among the microbes, other soil inhabitants, and the root zone to create healthy plants and healthy food, while also storing carbon and cleaning water.
“That is one reason why allowing the organic labeling of hydroponic tomatoes or other hydroponic crops makes no sense to us,” they note, “That is why using fungicides, herbicides, or pesticides (even organically-approved ones) that get into the soil and kill untargeted organisms makes no sense to us. These chemical tools are best thought of as ecological sledgehammers that have detrimental effects on non-target insects, soil fungi, and other beneficial organisms.”
The Haydens emphatically state their goal—“At our farm, we want to be purveyors of life, not death, and purveyors of biodiversity, not the sterility of the monoculture mind-set. The founding principle for organic has been to ‘feed the soil.’ While special interests and Big Food may have usurped the term ‘organic’ and are eroding its fundamental tenets, we will continue to march to the beat of ecological, regenerative, and biodiverse agriculture with special care for taking care of the living soil that we are a part of, and that is a part of us.”
They challenge us all when they say, ”We need to adopt a ‘living soil’ cultural mind-set, one that acknowledges soil, the skim-layer biofilm resting on top of the parent material, as the support for all terrestrial life on the planet. Soil is the key to resilience and human survival!
“In fact, humans and other organisms are all living manifestations of soil,” they conclude, “We are the recycled carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other stardust elements that came together to form this planet Earth over four billion years ago. We are connected and a part of everything and everyone else that has existed through this common origin and pathway of the soil. … To be disconnected from the soil is unthinkable. We shall return to the soil and eventually become parts of new organisms as they take their turn in the dance.”
In their epilogue, the Haydens say it’s the small things that count, noting, “History has borne out the power and importance of small farms and home gardens in providing nutritious food for communities, especially in times of stress. While we’d like to see the current monoculture farms become biodiverse regenerative systems, we think it’s better to have more small-scale regenerative practitioners than just a few large-scale ones. Small farms can be the economic engines in rural environments and revitalize local economies.
“Money and good intentions circulate in our small towns like nutrients in a farm system,” they say, “Buying from the local hardware and feed stores, supporting other entrepreneurs, wholesaling to local grocers, and supporting local employees are all ways farms close the money loop and regenerate rural communities. Sharing, teaching and building alliances also create social networks and community. Producing healthy food, purpose and meaning, and a connection to the natural world is a priceless contribution that biodiverse farms and gardens can make to our communities, no matter where they are.
“One of the speakers at a recent talk we attended about surviving the future said that ‘the next big thing is a bunch of small things’” they added, “Small acts creating pockets of persistence and resistance to environmental and social degradation multiplied by millions of people will fuel the revolution we need to heal the planet and ourselves. We can all effect change.”
“Nancy J. Hayden is a writer, farmer, artist, and former environmental engineering professor. She’s earned degrees in biology and ecology, environmental engineering, English, studio art, and creative writing. Her writing website is www.nancyjhayden.com.”
“John P. Hayden has been working to design and implement agricultural systems with positive environmental and social outcomes for over 35 years as a researcher, extension agent, university educator, international consultant, and practicing regenerative organic farmer. His farming and business experience include organic livestock, vegetables, fruit and nursery production. He has an MS in entomology with a focus on ecological pest management and has served on Vermont’s Pollinator Protection Committee and several non-profit boards. Their farm website is www.thefarmbetween.com.”