Sustainable food and farming part III: Lets get practical!

Praxis (noun) ; translating an idea into action; the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted or practiced, embodied and/or realized.


A few weeks ago I asked my Sustainable Agriculture class to define the word praxis.  They struggled with this question, so this blog will give my class (and all of you readers) an example of praxis as applied to sustainable agriculture.

I began to explore the concept of sustainable agriculture in two previous blog posts, both a bit “heady.”   I’m encouraged however by American psychologist, Kurt Lewin’s most famous quote “there is nothing more practical than a good theory.”

In my first post, Sustainable Food and Farming Part I: Is sustainable agriculture sustainable?, I explored the difference between mechanistic and ecological approaches to farming and science. I wrote “I will address this topic using both theory and practice….”

In my second post, Sustainable Food and Farming Part II: symbols and perspectives matter! I compared various ways of looking at sustainability. I asked “….what if we tried to understand how natural ecosystems function, and then design managed ecosystems like farms using principles of ecology?”

In this post I will attempt to translate these ideas into practice – yup, that’s praxis.

So lets ask “are there any real world examples of farms that are managed using ecological principles?”  Certainly there is research exploring the relationship between farming and ecology, the most famous is probably Wes Jackson’s work at The Land Institute in Kansas.  Other examples can be found among the Permaculture Community, mostly on small plots.    But most of the agroecological research is being conducted by farmers themselves.  Farmers who associate with the sustainability movement conduct practical experiments each year trying to discover what works best in their specific ecosystem.  We might all learn from them….. for example;

…here is a video from a workshop called “Farming is Ecology.”

In this video we see examples of how thinking of a farm as an agroecosystem can help generate sustainable farming practices at the Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts.

In the video, we see examples of  three ecological principles (can you identify them?):

  1. Use current solar income whenever possible.
  2. Recycle everything (waste = food).
  3. Encourage biological diversity.

My next post will explore these ideas more fully, but for now I’ll ask you…..

1. Do you know of any farms that are managed using ecological principles?


2. Can you identify ways in which these ecological principles are working in your own life?

Please share your thoughts in the comments box below!


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

21 thoughts on “Sustainable food and farming part III: Lets get practical!”

  1. "Encourage biological diversity"

    I had a conversation with Bill McDonough about diversity once. His ecological design principles state the idea as "respect diversity." I asked him why he didn't say "increase diversity." He replied that there are some situations when increasing diversity, adding new species to an ecological system, can be disruptive and result in lower diversity over the longer term. That's why he says "respect diversity" instead.

    Makes sense to me.

  2. These three ecological principals were demonstrated at the Montview Neighborhood farm in Northampton, MA. The farm has created a composting system that takes large amounts of food waste from the area via the Pedal People and turns it into viable organic matter for use on the farm. They utilize chickens to help enrich the process and add in plants full of nutrients to create a fertile mix. This composting practice diverts 1 ton of waste every 2 weeks from landfill. While they didn't use solar power to generate electricity, the total usage of power on the farm was very minimal. They used to machines to till or plow, and all work was done my hands or animal power. The sun's energy however was beig utilized by the variety of plants growing on the permaculture farm. There was a diverse set of plants and organisms being supported by the farm. There was no one area where one crop dominated, but rather many species were planted intermingled and mixed to form a dynamic, working, living system.

  3. There are many ecological principals working in my life. Simple things like recycling, trying to unplug electronics, using less water, and composting are all beneficial to ecology. I am learning so much about how to give back to the earth in this class. By viewing the sustainable practices on different farms i can explore how to run a farm with ecological principals. I have seen solar power, animal power, natural fertilization by animals and cover crops. I have also met so many people that are striving to make the world a better place to live which takes ecology into great consideration. I hope to one day to make all of these my praxis on my own farm.

  4. In the video Farming IS Ecology Dave Tepfer from Simple Gifts Farm briefly mentions they have two oxen in training, and this was true as of this past September when our Sustainable Ag. class visited that farm. This idea (of using animal power for tilling, hauling, and other farm needs) is turning into practice through the training of these two oxen to do farm work. This is a very ecological practice because it is preparing this farm for when fossil fuels are no longer available to use in a tractor or car. Although it seems kind of crazy, our agriculture system is going to have to be de-industrialized to some extent because of the impending fuel shortages. These oxen also contribute to the soil's fertility since the oxen will be grazing and spreading manure with the rest of the cows and animals they have. Using animal power also reduces the amount of compaction that happens to the soil from tractors, meaning less tilling needed overall. To help "close the loop" and make a farm more of an ecological system, the addition of animals to bring in fertility and healthy byproducts like meat and eggs seems necessary.

  5. I would love to being utilizing solar power but as a college student who can only convince my parents of so much and can't really contribute much money wise, that's a hard ecological principle in my life. While I try to be sure to recycle as much as I possibly can, my family still isn't too thrilled on the idea of composting things and I'm only at home for the summer and school breaks. My roommate would probably kill me if i even attempted composting anything in the dorm, but then again, I'm eating in the dining halls which are composting. As Max said, I would love to encourage a city wide composting program similar to what pedal people is offering. I remember hearing about something along those lines going on in Portland, Oregon but I'm not super familiar with the system but it's definitely a model we should aim to put into use everywhere!

  6. I visited Natural Roots Farm in Conway where amazed me with the concept of ecological management in the farm. They reverence the life of all living things that they give the optimal health and vitality to their plants and animals. Eventually, they nourish their land with “composts and animal manures, mineral amendments, inoculants, green-manure crops and grazing animals”. Natural Roots Farm implement the ecological principles mostly as the farm uses horse-power to operate farming equipments to accomplish various farm tasks, such as seeding, irrigating, spraying, and fertilizing vegetable. Horses, instead of machines, are help operating the farm every day. Their horses are used to reduce the compaction of soil with the light weights of their footprints. They also consider that the insects and diseases can be carried by machines to the crops, so they use their horses which have certain levels of disease resistance. In addition, their horses, as lived stocks, are adding green manures to the soil and increase the soil fertility in the land. Their Horses can harvest the wheat and hey to feed themselves. Natural Roots Farm tries to raise the potential of the land and environment with their ecological principles.

  7. I haven't seen many farms that implement what I would think of as good ecological principles. One exception though, is Town Farm we visited recently. They showed examples of creating solar energy feedback into the grid. Gathering rain water, recycling all that was feasible back into their production.

    That said, WHEN POSSIBLE I take steps to utilize various methods. At home, we have a rain catch feeding two flat, green rain barrels. We use this small, but extra supply to cut down on our garden and lawn water use. All the food we ate and applicable paper we composted for the rose bushes, hydrangeas and toms. My idea, cause my mom likes to water, a lot. I limit my use of plastics to almost nothing. I am a firm believer that to begin changes in this free market economy I have to speak with my money in addition to taking ecologically friendly steps. I had been thinking about solar installations at my house but It does seem like an overwhelming venture to me. I don't know how I would get started.

    Any Suggestions?

  8. I think almost every farm we have visited in this class uses at least one of these ecological principles. Obviously "Simple Gifts Farm", they had just put up solar panels, they had high biodiversity and the way they incorporated there animals into the system with the vegetables was really impressive. "Sunset Farm" also had high biodiversity and that helped them not spray chemicals. "Stone Soup" also had high bio diversity and Jarrett seemed to have a good plan for crop rotation which helped we've keeping down pests and diseases which in turn made it so he did have to spray much if at all. He also used a chicken tractor to help prepare soil to be planted at the same time feeding his chickens. I have to say that my favorite farm visit was last Tuesday when we visited the farms in Northampton. "Town Farm" uses solar panels for some of there electricity, they also used a water catching system that helped with a no waste policy. They also had a high diversity of plants to help prevent pests and diseases. They use a waste = food system with the goats, pigs, and chickens they help prepare the soil for planting by clearing and fertilizing the soil. "Montview Farm" was incredible, the farmer explained that everything there was doing at least five things to help the garden. The had a great idea that is used in permaculture that there are no problems you just aren't looking at it in the right way. For instance they are going to make rice paddies with fish in them in an area that floods. I had no idea you could do rice paddies here at all. Everything that they were doing at this farm was productive and there is little input with a huge output. I thought that it was really great that the farm works with pedal people and they collect compost from people in the town to be able to use for their farm. I think that in the valley there is a huge consciousness in ecological farming and many farmers as I have seen are following ecological principles and I think that if they had more money they would be able to do even more.

  9. In our last field trip we visited Northampton Town Farm and Monvtiew Farm. This was my favorite trip so far because these were clear examples of local permaculture. The farmers take the approach of being an early successional species. Just as the lichens and plants that are the first to colonize, or recolonize an area, they facilitate the growth and eventual succession of species. I liked the emphasis on turning a problem into a solution by adapting their designs to better suit the situation. If a weed persists, find something that eats it. Other examples of what I saw and hope to do myself one day include swales, predatory insect habitat, bee forage, and chicken habitat (free range, with natural shelter plants). Part of what made those farms so intriguing was their proximity to a fairly dense human population. Where the farm ended, the suburbs immediately began. The fact that they can steer the natural processes of nature so successfully with that many people living around them makes me wonder how much potential permaculture has in urban environments.

  10. I personally do not know of any farm that is totally relying on ecological principles. Many of the places I have visited are working very hard to incorporate these principles but still their business model relies on some very non ecological practices.

    These principles are working in my own life in various ways. I tend to be the voice of ecological practices in my home. Most of my house mates do not even care about recycling and throw away many aluminum cans a week. I have taken steps to supply recycling bins and place some gentle reminders around the trashcans about where recyclables should go. In my personal life I try to follow guidelines set forth by people who call themselves compacters. Its basically the practice of re-using as much as possible and saving as much as possible to make the least impact on your environment.

  11. The Montview neighborhood farm was clearly ecologically based. Instead of trying to encorporate ecological principals into an otherwise conventional system, they are fully dependent on these powerful result that cooperative biological interactions create. In the end the human life on this farm merely acts as a counselor, who attempts to understand these relationships, and then find low-disturbance methods to manipulate these interactions for the benefit of all. Another principle of ecology is also present on this farm. This farm represents how restrictions actually fueled these thriving relationships. Because they were not able to build any structures on this land, they were unable to create permanent structures that would otherwise hold heavy machinery, and imported nutrient amendments. This implies the necessity for a 'closed circuit', regenerative system, that is dependent on high numbers of 'functional' bio-diversity. The element of 'restriction' is present in every ecological system on this planet. When resources (eg. soluble nitrogen, or fast food) are high, life forms rely on competitive advantage to consume and reproduce. But once that resource diminishes, the only option is to cooperate and recycle.
    Montview farm represents a transition in the paradigm of human society. Attempting to 'counsel' the Earth, and in the process study these phenomena, and hopefully thrive off of, I shall encorporate these principles into my life's work.

  12. Farms that practice all three of these ecological principles are hard to come by, but the general enthusiasm towards eco-friendly agriculture is becoming more common. One farm that encourages biological diversity in the Pioneer Valley is the Montview Neighborhood Farm. Through the use of permaculture this farm is keeping soil fertility high through the diversity of plants grown in the same bed. This farm composts not only all of it's own waste, but also the waste of many homes and businesses in Northampton. This business even takes ecological practices a step further by collecting this compostable waste without the use of fossil fuels. They use bikes! The Neighborhood Farm is well on its way to a completely ecologically sustainable system.

  13. Wow, "ecological principles" is an unfortunately daunting term for me to try and address. I think of Natural Roots farm in Conway using animal power to grow crops and make their own hay to feed the animals (to grow more crops and make more hay…). I know that they compost and use pigs to churn the compost as well. But I guess I feel like my analysis here is pretty superficial. In most small farms in the area, including the one I work on, deficiencies in these ecological principles are made up for (and encouraged) by monetary motives. I am encouraged by area farms adopting some ecological methods in a piece-meal fashion, which I guess is more practical than diving in completely (from their point of view.)

    Unfortunately, in my own life at the moment I'm not seeing many of these principles in place. I commute to school via my own car, don't have a composting system in place, and don't capture solar energy. Living with my parents certainly hurts some of this potential (don't get me wrong, they're interested), and I hope to work on it when I'm out on my own. But then again, and I don't know if this is a cheap cop-out, I guess putting these non-ecologically acquired energies to use pursuing sustainable agricultural knowledge is better than nothing.

  14. I agree with Jason that trying to address or categorize certain specific farms in accordance to whether or not they follow "ecological principles" is quite a daunting and complicated matter. I also think that the need for monetary gains, by even the best educated, well-intentioned farmers, does come into play as a deterrent to being able to follow all the ecological principles they might like. Sure they farm and obtain lots of food for themselves but there are other needs such as rent/mortgage, bills, children, school, doctors, etc. Unless you are not farming for income, it is difficult to achieve an ecologically balanced operation.

  15. (continued…) I WWOOFed once at a very awesome and very eco-friendly educational piece of land, in Wicklow Ireland, for growing and learning about utilizing nature's systems to grow food "organically" or without synthetic inputs of any sort. They have no electricity (completely off the grid), save rain water for washing dishes, sleep in tents and Mongolian yurts with fireplaces, foster community and permaculture, use willow fencing and pieces of grass sod to build garden walls/raised beds/composting areas, drink from a local water source, and have a deep compostable outhouse! Although they don't have animals on the farm, they can obtain manure as needed (and coastal seaweed) from nearby when needed. They produce a decent amount of food (and honey) of different types, on a small plot and work very close to a forest. Instead of trying to overtake the forest for more farming or income they can work around it and utilize its presence as a teaching tool for life-skills (hiking, gathering/foraging, fire & shelter building), as they do not have an economic incentive to grow more than they do now. Here's Carraig Dulra's website:

  16. The ecological principal that I identify closely with in my life is the issue surrounding waste. I have found that the more I learn about current systems the more difficult it is for me to exist in our society in a conventional manner and still uphold my ideals. It pains me to buy supermarket food, Bestbuy electronics, Staples paper, and Walmart anything-you-can-imagine; and having to make constant compromise of values leads to the deadening of moral conscious. Recently, I have found deep moral and material satisfaction in consuming waste and second hand items from thrift stores. There is a steady stream of quality consumer products being hauled from homes to landfills as identical ones are being manufactured across the globe and sold in stores near you. I can think of no action more sustainable than interrupting this flow. The simple act of acquiring a coffee table from the curb instead of buying a new one not only prevents somebody from hauling that “trash” to a landfill but it also prevents a multitude of people from having to harvest, manufacture, transport, and vend that item. Granted, the creation of food and goods is essential, but until the national paradigm of unlimited increasing consumption is revaluated there can be little hope for the sustainability ideal. Once in the mindset that most products you need can be obtained at little or no cost you are likely to return from your shopping spree at Target with only salt, toilet paper, and a moral conscious white as driven snow. So instead of going to Ikea, take a walk in the wealthy section of town on trash day, and instead of Stop and Shop, hang out by Trader Joe’s dumpster after closing.

    Living in the States it is easy to disconnect from this fact: every food item, consumer product, or personal liberty (aside from free will) that I call my own is created, provided, or ensured by another person on earth sacrificing his or her time. The inescapable reality is that all waste represents the loss or misuse of some person’s time, energy, or liberty. I believe that one of the supreme benchmarks of personal or national sustainability is the question: What are we producing in relation to what we are consuming?

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