Meet The Farmer: Brambleberry Permaculture Farm

Brambleberry Permaculture Farm

Darren Bender-Beauregard talks about the need for small farmers to experiment, his own adventures in mob grazing and gives some tips on how to find responsibly produced local food, with or without the labels.

Darren describes himself as an ecological farmer.  Brambleberry is an example of a small, family run farm that is not certified organic, yet whose owners often go beyond what is required for organic certification as they pursue their own holistic vision of ethical and regenerative agriculture. One example is Brambleberry’s decision to adopt no-till methods of cultivation.  Over-ploughing, or tilling the soil, causes a great deal of ecological damage.  The practice kills the microorganisms that inhabit the top layer of soil, particularly fungi.  These tiny living soil inhabitants are the workers who break down organic matter, digest it and turn it into nutrient rich soil.  Without them, soil quickly becomes barren. Around the world, valuable top soil is being blown and washed away 40 times faster than it is being replenished. Tilling results in nutrients being washed from the soil into nearby water supplies.  Those nutrients—which when retained in the soil produce luxurious and abundant plant life—are actually pollutants when they are swept into local streams and waterways because they upset the natural balance of those systems. Organic certification does not require farmers to use low-till or no-till methods.  In fact, many certified farms rely on tillage to control weeds, as they are not allowed to use chemical herbicides for this purpose.  In this, and many other ways, farmers whose practices reflect a deep personal commitment to responsible farming are going beyond he minimum threshold of organic certification. It’s just another reason for people to get to know their local producers.

The farm

Esprí and Darren Bender-Beauregard’s enchanting permaculture farm began as a small market garden, supplying locals with non-certified organic vegetables, fruits and herbs through a CSA program. In 2003, Darren and his wife, Esprí, built a no-till mulch garden around a mobile home in Paoli, Indiana.  They put a passive solar greenhouse on the south side to heat the house and start seedlings.  For water they used a rainwater harvesting and storage system. They soon grew out of their original space.  Recently, they completed a 1350 square foot straw bale house, where they live with their daughter, Viola. Darren and Esprí have since shifted focus from the market garden to prioritize their nursery, mixed orchard, handmade wooden utensil crafting and a fledgling herd of cattle—which they will mob graze over several pastures. Darren has spent seven years experimenting with nut, fruit and berry strains—ever searching for ones that are best suited to humid midwestern climates and disease resistant.  Growing crops that are best suited for the local conditions is a key factor in the success of using organic methods.  

How is a permaculture farm different from a certified organic farm?

Permaculture, though often applied to farming and homesteading, is at its heart a systemic design protocol that seeks to create self-sustainability in whatever enterprise it is applied to.  In our context, permaculture guides us to think outside the box for creative solutions to problems we encounter in the growing of food and stock.  It also brings us right back to more conventional methods of agriculture when that makes sense too. Permaculture farming is radically different than certified organic farming in that it has no hard and fast rules.  It blurs the boundaries between organic and conventional, and seeks sustainability at a much deeper level than the “this substance is bad, this one good” mentality that certified organic has become. That said, there are many permaculture-based farms today that are certified organic as well.  Confused yet? Permaculture thinking sees certified organic as one more tool in the box to be used when it makes sense—in these farms’ cases, they like the market style that certified organic makes possible.

You use no-till methods of cultivation at Brambleberry. How do you accomplish this, and what is the significance of using this method over conventional tilling?

We believe that anywhere you look in nature, soil fertility is a top-down phenomenon.  Basically, nutrients in many different shapes and forms are laid down on the soil surface and the soil life incorporates these into the soil at their own pace. Conventional agriculture, however, has mostly taken a “mix-it-in” approach—using plow and rototiller to mechanically blend in manures and other nutrient sources uniformly into the soil. Thoroughly aerating the soil every year with a rototiller encourages soil bacteria to burn up most of the organic matter carbon compounds that may be created from good soil-building practices like cover cropping, mulches, and animal manures. Instead of tilling, we mimic nature by laying down a sheet of thick mulch every year on our garden beds—usually spoiled hay that we get for free or cheap from cattle farms in our area.  This mulch keeps weed seeds from establishing themselves, wicks excess water in wet times, and also keeps soil moisture in the soil longer during dry times.  Over the course of a year, it breaks down almost completely and becomes a layer of rich black humus on top of our soil. Now, while I believe strongly in mulches as a way to build amazing soil in very little time, I am also starting to see them as a tool that has its limits.  There are a number of farmers who take the top-down approach to soil fertility, but still do limited or very surface tillage. I admit that having to lay down a thick mulch of hay every year is pretty labor-intensive, and I can see why larger farms use cultivation to keep their crops tended. I have a lot of respect for these farmers who are balancing the perspective of mulch gardening with the practicality of cultivation.

What is a food forest, and what kind of food forest have you created?

A food forest, also called a forest garden, is essentially a human-created forest where most of the trees are food-bearing.  There are often many different layers or levels of plants, just as in a real forest. Think of an orchard with more than just trees and mown grass.  There may be berry shrubs located strategically amongst the trees, grape or kiwi vines climbing some of the trees, culinary mushrooms growing in mulches or on logs. We like to add food-producing animals to the food forest.  The main idea of a food forest is that perennial food plants are a little more stable than annual crops that have to be planted year after year after year.  Plant them once, they get bigger each year, bear more food each year.  A food forest can be less work to manage than a comparatively-sized orchard or farm field, but it can also be much, much more work. It is essential to plan access for yourself to manage it easily once everything is grown to its mature size. Also, planning vigorous ground cover plants that can keep weeds at bay is important if you don’t want to be weeding or hoeing the rest of your life!  Adding grazing animals to the food forest is another great way to keep the vegetation managed, but make sure to keep them from stripping bark from all of your trees and berries! Food forests do attract many species of wildlife—especially birds—partly because they provide lots of vertical structure to the landscape (versus a mown lawn or cultivated field).

You believe the success of organic farming is choosing the right plant varieties. How does one choose the right varieties and what are the benefits of doing so?

We believe very strongly that specific varieties of plants—be it a tomato or an apple tree—perform great in some locations and poorly in others.  It is only by trial and error in a certain region that we can find the ones that do well. Some plants were developed in arid hot climates, and they may fare poorly in a wet cool one.  If a farmer plants these varieties where they perform poorly, they are going to be battling disease, pests, and low yields until they drop that variety and switch to one that does well.  Our fruit, nut and berry nursery seeks to help overcome some of this trial and error work for folks in our region who seek to grow fruits and nuts organically.  We try our best to offer plants that do well in clay soils and do well in the hot, humid and sometimes droughty summers we have in our area. Compare this to buying a ‘Red Delicious’ apple tree on M7 rootstock at a big box store.  The customer is so excited to be planting an apple tree, but most likely the apples will be shredded by scab and insect damage, and the tree will probably blow over or die in a drought from the shallow roots of the M7 rootstock.

What are the benefits of rotating mixed species of livestock?

One benefit is reduced parasite loads: many internal parasites are species-specific—they can only survive and reproduce in the species they are associated with. When a sheep grazes on a field, any parasite eggs in its manure will hatch and larvae will crawl up onto the grass stems awaiting another sheep to eat them with the grass, thus reproducing and adding more parasites to that sheep. If, however, a cow or pig chomps that grass instead, the parasites simply die since they cannot survive in that host.  This is called a dead-end host. A second benefit to multi-species grazing is efficient pasture utilization—different livestock species prefer to eat different plants and different parts of the pasture. Cattle largely prefer grasses and they chomp big clumps at a time.  Sheep and goats tend to nibble just the tips of grasses and often prefer woody plants like brambles and honeysuckle, which cattle may ignore.  If your system has only one species, there may be many plants in the pasture going ungrazed and unused—introduce another species and you can make use of those plants as well, and maybe lower parasite loads in the process! Rotational grazing adds even more efficiency to pasture usage.  Many farms let their stock graze on a single field for the entire year.  The animals go around and eat their favorite plants and avoid less desirable ones.  Since the favored plants are never allowed to rest and recover from the grazing, they eventually die out.  The less-desirable plants, however, get lots of rest and animal manures to fertilize them, so they grow tall and set lots of seed. Eventually there is only weeds left that the stock do not want to eat. This phenomenon has caused a tradition of renovating pastures (with herbicide or plows) every 5-7 years just to get good plants back in the pasture.  However, with rotational grazing, animals are only allowed to graze on a particular paddock for a limited time and then they are moved to a fresh paddock, allowing the grazed one to rest and recover before it is grazed again. The paddock size is tailored to fit the herd’s feed requirements for the allotted grazing time.  By doing this, animals are forced to eat their favorite plants but also graze some of the less desirable ones as well.  This results in a more evenly grazed pasture and better use of the plants that are in it.  The plants are also very happy because they are allowed plenty of time to recover.  Rotationally grazed farms simply get better and better quality pastures that do not need renovating.

How long did it take to establish your mixed orchard? It sounds like a beautiful orchard to take a walk through.

It is indeed a beautiful orchard, especially right now with everything in bloom!  We planted most of the fruit trees in this orchard/food forest our very first spring on our farm, which was 2004. While we have been able to harvest small quantities of fruit from most of our trees after 3 years, it has only been in the last 2 years that the harvests have been large enough to sell quantity to a few outlets.  One particular ‘Reliance’ peach loaded us down with over 400 lbs of beautiful peaches two years ago! We planted a mix of traditional fruit trees:  apples, peaches, pears, sweet and sour cherries, apricots.  Knowing the challenges we would face in our climate with growing organic tree fruits, we focused on planting disease-resistant varieties whenever possible, and also avoided planting any plums since they are particularly prone to insect and fungal damage in the midwest.

Is it more of a challenge to harvest a mixed orchard?

It is not any more difficult for us to harvest a mixed orchard since we do all the work by hand with orchard ladders and fruit bags.  However, if we were larger in scale, it would be a nightmare to manage trees that are ripening at different rates all over the place instead of keeping them in blocks of similar harvest time One advantage is that we get better pollination with all the different varieties so close together.  Most apple orchards are forced to plant pollinator trees every so often in their single variety blocks to get proper fruit set. We have planted a larger orchard in a 3.5 acre pasture we are establishing.  Knowing the management that will be involved with those trees, we chose to keep them in single species rows and also to keep the rows straight to make it easier to access with equipment if need be.

Can animals, just following their own inherent natures, do work that we commonly use machinery, labor or chemicals to accomplish?

Right now we only have 15 laying hens up at our place in addition to the beef herd down the road.  In the past we have had sheep, pigs, geese and ducks.  Goats very briefly. We definitely harnessed as much work out of the livestock as we reasonably could, but it requires a lot of creativity and learning from mistakes to have it all function properly.  The main task of our livestock is mowing—most farm animals will readily eat grass and weeds.  You can cut out the lawnmower, almost. Most animals eat pasture or lawn very unevenly unless forced to via small paddock or pen size.  Also, the lawn height we are all used to is way too short for healthy grass growth.  All of this means that we do have to use mechanical mowers or a scythe to maintain pathways on our farm even if we are grazing them as well.  Our sheep did do a good job of trimming under the electric fence wires for us as long as we kept the bottom wire up high enough (we used to weed eat regularly under the wires). Back to animal work projects though.  Pigs are probably the best animal for replacing a rototiller.  We would dig up overgrown garden beds or clear sod to make garden beds simply by keeping a few pigs in a 5′ x 10′ open-bottomed pen.  They usually had things thoroughly upturned within 2 days, and then we’d slide the pen to the next patch. Our laying hens are kept in a chicken tractor, which is an easily moveable coop that has feed, water, and nest boxes and an open bottom.  The chickens will also dig things up, but they act as more surface tillage and take much longer to clear an area than do pigs. The chickens do a great job of picking out tiny weed seeds and insects from the soil surface that the pigs might miss. So properly applied, chickens can replace a cultivator and pigs can replace a rototiller or moldboard plow (in fact, a pigs’ head looks just like a plow!).  Chickens and ducks can help replace the herbicide and insecticide sprayers.  All livestock can replace the fertilizer buggy simply through their manures that drop wherever they go.  Ducks and chickens also do well at picking insects off of plant leaves in the garden if they are allowed to free range.  However, chickens will do a lot of damage to young plants as well if left unsupervised. In the end, all animals (including humans!) are chaotic elements in a farmscape and their behaviors must be shaped with management in order to do productive work instead of destructive work. brambleberryfarmers600

You’re experimenting with Mob Grazing.  What does a typical day on the pasture look like with your new herd.

Mob Grazing is about using cattle fenced in very high density (with portable electric fence) as a tool to stomp down tall pasture growth onto the soil surface, manuring and urinating it all the while. Often cattle are moved twice a day with mob grazing since they must be kept very tight if you want them to truly stomp down the vegetation.  This is what attracted me so much to grass-fed beef, namely because it mimics on a large scale the mulch gardening we’ve been doing to improve our own soils. We’ve seen firsthand how quickly good soil builds when you lay down old hay on top of a garden bed.  However, it is a lot of work to procure the mulch and also to spread it out.  I’ve always loved the idea of growing mulch in place with cover crops, but have not taken the time to focus on figuring it out (some folks already have though—search for roll-killed cover crops and you’ll find an amazing phenomenon). When I read about farmers using cattle to tromp down pasture growth —in essence, laying down hay where it stands—with only electrified twine and step-in posts, I was enchanted.  I can finally dream about ‘mulching’ over 100 acres, even without use of heavy machinery! Unless you consider cattle to be heavy machinery. This type of mulch-in-place fertilizing is supposedly how the deep organic soils of the tallgrass prairie were built.  Bison were doing what the cattle do in mob grazing, and predators like wolves were doing what the electric fencing does—keeping hundreds of huge animals in a tight herd that had to keep moving, even throughout the day, to evade predation. Everywhere this huge amoebic herd organism went left a bed of trampled vegetation and fertility gifts of manure and urine.  Do the math and you can see how this made good soil over time.  The same phenomenon happens in grasslands all over the world, just with different predator and grazer species. Mob grazing, then, is a form of biomimicry. Now with all that said, I have not had a single day of mob grazing under my belt yet.  Why?  Simply because there is a season to use this tool and a season when it can do harm to the soil. Mob grazing is most often done in late summer when the soil is not as wet and prone to pugging (compaction). Also, it takes a certain amount of time for the pasture to grow enough biomass (height) to make the extra management of mob grazing worth the effort. So I don’t know what a typical day of mob grazing looks like yet. Right now—April—we are laying out huge paddocks and moving the cattle every 2-4 days.  They are allowed to skim only the tips of the grasses off, largely because tips have the best nutrition for them right now—but also because grazing the whole plant down at this stage would hurt it for the rest of the season.  Grasses need time to put enough growth on to start replenishing their root and crown energy stores after dormancy all winter. Cattle often drop in body condition over the winter and need to start gaining condition back before calving and breed-back time comes in summer.  A typical day for me with the cattle happens only every 2-3 days right now, and it consists of biking down to the property, hopping on the 4-wheeler and moving fence if they are ready for it.  I do try to take significant time just watching the cows and observing the pasture when I am down there—this is the best way to learn in my book.

You’ve chosen to manage your herd with human scale tools. What does that mean? And what is the significance?

It means that most of the tools we use day-to-day to work with the cattle are things that don’t require any tractors or even a four-wheeler. We can and do use a four-wheeler to speed up the process since we’re working on 250 acres and happen to value our time. But I can, and have, walked to the pasture, gathered up posts, reeled in electric fenceline, and set up a new paddock for the herd with just myself and the clothes on my back. That’s human-scale. I love it. If the tractor or four-wheeler breaks, I can still move the cows. I can use the portable fencing to open lanes up to water even if I don’t have the equipment to move the trough. The cows are so trained to the electric fence that even if the solar fencer stopped working, I know I could rely on the white twine as a psychological fence for at least a week. This all feels a lot like a modern version of herding, except that we don’t move our home with the animals!

Brambleberry is not certified organic, yet you don’t use chemicals or synthetic fertilizers. Why did you elect not to get certified?

Simply because we don’t expect to have enough volume of product to warrant wholesaling to a major supplier. In my mind, that is the main value of certified organic right now, and I respect those who choose that path. But the time and expense of organic certification is simply a waste if you are using truly local markets (unless you sense that those local markets are demanding certification). I also feel like the dogma inherent in certified organic right now really cramps the creative use of materials that may not be purely organic but are way more sustainable from a broad perspective. We did not want to be locked in to a narrow definition of sustainability.

What do you do if one of your animals falls ill?

Unless it is obvious what is happening and we are able to treat it ourselves, we call the vet.  Cattle are such a large investment that it is not worth losing them simply as a learning mistake.  We try to focus on preventative health by providing the animals with everything they need to be in good condition. If an animal simply doesn’t perform well when all the other animals are doing great, we will start to think about culling those genetics from the herd.  Sick-prone genetics simply have no place in a good commercial herd. However, if an otherwise good brood cow or bull were to go down, we would not hesitate to use antibiotics or other medications as a one-time treatment.  If it were a steer or heifer destined to become meat, we would still treat it, but make note of it and sell it on the commodity market (not market it as natural).  We would never even consider using subtherapeutic antibiotics (constant dosing of antibiotics in feed rations or water) on any of our animals and plan on avoiding synthetic wormers as well. I believe that overuse of medications simply masks poor-performing individuals and has led to more parasite- and sick-prone animals staying in the breeding gene pool of today’s herds.  We want our herd to have strong resistance to these problems and this will require hard decisions about culling animals that performed extremely well but showed continual susceptibility to parasites or disease.

There are so many labels out there, and plenty of misinformation. What should people look for, what factors should they consider when evaluating what to buy?

I agree that there is plenty of snake-oil floating around right now in the sustainable food scene. Acknowledging that it is not possible for everyone, I do think the best advice is to actually go out and visit a farm you like to buy things from. You will know in your gut whether what is going on there is good or bad. Also, don’t automatically snub your nose at veggies or fruit that isn’t picture perfect—it may be way more challenging than you realize to grow that crop to be blemish-free. I see certified organic as a great tool when you have to shop at a large retail outlet. It is a step in the right direction for sure, even if it’s produced by a huge conglomerate farm somewhere far away. Find a face to go with your food whenever possible—it will make your meals that much more incredible to eat. If you are on a tight budget, check out farmers markets near the end of the morning and make offers on what’s left at the stands. Usually farmers love to give a big discount on items that would otherwise spoil instead of taking them home and feeding them to the pigs or compost pile. There is no way to map all the good info and bad info except to dive in and find out for yourself. Usually farmers can help guide your way. Find one and make a new friend!

If you could change one thing today that would make it easier to farm sustainably, what would that be?

One thing that would change almost everything with sustainable farming today is if Americans would be willing to spend more of their money on food. Our culture is so used to artificially low prices on food (due to subsidized agriculture) that it almost hurts to pay more for sustainably-produced food. We need to get our priorities straight—food is an essential life need; the latest smartphones are not. See things from that perspective and you can budget your spending appropriately. Buying and enjoying good food is about as close as you can get to buying happiness. The biggest challenge to small sustainable farmers today is balancing the needed experimentation with risky but sustainable solutions and the tried-and-true methods that work and make enough money. If the balance goes too far in one direction, farmers fail because half the time the experimental stuff fails and you lose money. Too far in the other direction though and farming just stays in stasis with no progression towards sustainability. Small-scale farming is always hinging on how to make enough money to live on. photo credits: Brambleberry Farm