Pathways to Resilience
By Nancy and John Hayden
Veteran farmers Nancy and John Hayden have spent the last quarter century transforming their livestock grazing operation into an agroecological, regenerative fruit farm, nursery, and pollinator sanctuary. In their new book, Farming on the Wild Side, they unearth the philosophical and scientific principles that influenced them as they reverted their farm into a biodiverse, semi-wild state, phasing out sheep and potatoes as they embraced apples, pears, stone fruits, and uncommon berry crops. The Hayden’s story charts an evolving relationship with an ecosystem and its inhabitants, grounded in observation, ecological thinking, and the belief that native plants can teach us what we need to know about the land to see it thrive again.
The following excerpt is from Farming on the Wild Side: The Evolution of a Regenerative Organic Farm and Nursery by Nancy and John Hayden (Chelsea Green Publishing, September 2019) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Maybe it was the recognition that the life-support systems on the planet were really showing the wear and tear of human mistreatment, or our own growing restlessness and discontent with modern agriculture—whatever it was, a lot of ideas began to bubble up and catch our attention in the early years of this new millennium. Terms like “resilience,” “agroecology,” and “permaculture” were being touted as approaches to deal with the world’s twenty-first-century agricultural challenges, including soil loss and degradation, climate change, water and air pollution, loss of biodiversity, and nutritional deficiencies and contaminants in our food. We began to immerse ourselves in these topics through reading, researching, and teaching at the university. We’d always seen the farm as an ecological system connected to the surrounding community and ecosystem, but we wanted to be even more proactive in having a beneficial relationship to the land. We wanted our practices to support the movement toward regenerative farming livelihoods and social justice, creating a space where people could learn and renew themselves spiritually while helping to make the world a better place. A challenge to ourselves.
There were also a lot of energetic, young organic vegetable and livestock farmers sprouting up locally, which was exciting but also posed a healthy competition to our livestock and veggie operation. This prompted us to ask how we could achieve more economic resilience. We noticed small entrepreneurial beverage companies were booming, including wineries, breweries, and cideries, some of which were just down the road. Our love of and interest in fruit, from our graduate school years and work in the fruit-growing area of Western Michigan, were still strong. This fruit connection had started even earlier in Nancy’s case. She grew up helping her parents run the family fruit market in Western New York. Fruit was in our past, and we were beginning to realize it was in our future too.
In the following sections, and in our new book Farming on the Wild Side, we outline some of the topics, concepts, and movements that have helped nudge us into our current direction by informing much of our thinking and practices. We see many similarities and overlap in these movements and philosophies in that they envision food-producing systems that are more environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially just than industrialized agriculture (including industrialized organic) as it is now practiced.
Resilience is the ability of a system (including a person) to bounce back from stresses and shocks. In ecosystems, resilience is enhanced by high biological diversity. High biodiversity reflects high numbers of species as well as the abundance of individuals of each species. An attribute of a resilient ecosystem is redundancy, where different types of plants and animals often share similar ecological functions (or niches). No two species have the same exact niche, but there can be lots of overlap or redundancy. If one species struggles due to climate fluctuations or parasites or pests, for example, another species can fulfill the ecological functions of that stressed species. The different plants and animals themselves may also have a wide variety of strategies and adaptations or even genetic variability within a population to make them more resilient in the face of change. One example of stored resilience can be seen in the form of seed banks in the soil from previous years. These seed banks allow plants to come back quickly after a stress or shock that may have hurt the existing population. This is an adaptation every annual veggie farmer has to face when the annual “weeds” come back after cultivation or soil disturbance.
Over the years, we’ve been learning how to deal with stressors such as climate change, new pest dynamics, competition, and changes in the marketplace. Our own aging bodies have also become a factor to consider as this has affected our energy levels and physical productivity, although we also like to think that it has led to increasing our wisdom! These uncontrollable factors have all been important and informed our choices over the years. Being small enough to be opportunistic and flexible has been an important survival strategy for our farm and for us. Resilience is survival.
To be able to cultivate ecosystem resilience, we’ve spent more time learning about the landscape, the soils, the watershed, and other features of the land as well as climate, weather, and the human development changes that impact the land. It’s meant diversifying crops and the farm ecosystem. For us as individuals, it’s meant a transformation in our thinking that led to the development of our perennial polyculture farm.
While we have always understood the importance of community, cultivating social resilience has become an expanding topic of study for social and agroecological researchers worldwide and a new area of emphasis for us. Social resilience applies to individuals and groups such as families, businesses, communities, and even countries. In times of stability, having social resilience might mean thriving and being more productive. In times of disruption or disaster, it relates to the ability of the individuals within a group to adapt, reorganize, and survive or even grow in response to the instability. To us, cultivating social resilience includes a range of strategies, from strengthening community ties to learning from peers to developing new market networks for economic security.
Social issues are invariably tied to food and personal security, environmental and land use issues, and other economic themes. Problems such as climate change, increasing economic disparity between rich and poor, overpopulation, and overconsumption are causing ecological degradation and scarcity-induced wars. The capacity of communities to deal with these stressors and recover, as well as to prepare ways to avert future disasters, may well mean the difference between death and survival for millions of people.
The term “organic farming” arose in the mid-twentieth century, defining an alternative farming approach to the increasing modernization of agriculture with its use of synthetic fertilizers, monocultures, and pesticides. The foundation of the early organic movement focused on the tenet that healthy living soil equals healthy food equals healthy people. For us and many small and medium-sized organic farmers today, this is still our core philosophy. During the 1970s and 1980s, many states in the USA began regulating and certifying organic farming practices. While this was beneficial within a given state, it still meant variable standards and practices across the country. In 2002, the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) came into effect and set uniform nationwide standards for farmers to follow and certifiers to verify.
We have always farmed organically, and have been certified by Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF), which works under the auspices of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) of Vermont. In 2002, when the NOP came into effect, we surrendered our certification in protest and stopped using the term “organic” in our marketing for a few years, although we still farmed according to VOF standards. We felt that the USDA had usurped the term, and that the law resulted in a loss of local control in setting appropriate standards for practices. It also created an easy pathway for the industrialization and commodification of organic agriculture.
While some people argue that the phenomenal growth of organic product consumption in recent years is due to that law making large-scale marketing easier, we think it has also promoted a deviation from the original significance of organic certification. The original movement was informed by small and medium-sized farms. Now it favors large farms and an industrial organic mind-set and corporate greenwashing. Lobbyists and moneyed interests have been able to influence production standards, and corporations have jumped into the marketplace with increasing shareholder profits as their main motivation, a far cry from the intent of the original organic movement.
Because of this, organic farming is now at a crossroads. One path leads toward healing, and the other path toward destructive practices. Large-scale industrial organic stays clear of genetically modified crops and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but the organic standards do allow for certain naturally based broad-spectrum pesticides with human and environmental health costs, soilless-growing hydroponic systems using nutrient solutions, large-scale concentrated livestock operations, and large-scale monocultures. These organic farming systems show the same characteristics as conventional agriculture. They’re not sustainable—and forget about regenerative.
What started out as a philosophy and movement away from conventional agriculture has broadened to include space for mimicry of the hallmarks of conventional agriculture, such as input substitutions, large monoculture plantings, and poor working conditions. Many corporations with both conventional and organic products have moved into organic food production to increase profits and not necessarily because of a foundational belief in the benefits of organic agriculture. We don’t relish bashing industrial organic, but its trajectory is not the regenerative agroecological revolution the world needs, and we believe it should be called out.
We did eventually become certified organic again. We found “organic” could be a magical, feel-good term to the general public, and after getting asked, “Are you organic?” a million times, we eventually softened (or caved). Recertification was also a marketing decision to better serve our wholesale customers, who wanted to be able to put certified organic fruit on their labels. Being certified organic also made it easier to attract direct market sales at farmers markets. If you don’t have the time or inclination to try to explain your production practices to every customer, we found that “Organic Snow Cones” has much better cachet than simply “Snow Cones.”
The Rodale Institute now promotes an add-on label of regenerative organic certification to the regular certified organic label. The requirements to attain this add-on label involve more stringent standards in the areas of soil health, animal welfare, and farmer and worker fairness. We would also like to see a “no spray” practice included in the regenerative standards. Many organic farmers use NOP-approved chemicals that also have detrimental effects on the environment; for example, copper fungicides and broad-spectrum “natural” insecticides are toxic to nontarget insects such as pollinators.
We should mention that there is a parallel movement to regenerative organic, which advocates creating a real organic add-on label, led by a group of disillusioned organic farmers who were initially motivated by the failed fight against the inclusion of hydroponics in the National Organic Program. The USDA also recently relaxed rules requiring organic laying hens to have actual access to the outdoors. This whittling away of organic rules by the USDA and special interests has a lot of people wondering what the future of “organic” is.
While we see the importance of some type of label to differentiate ourselves from industrial organic in the eyes of consumers, in an ideal world, people would take the time and effort to know their farmers and how their food was produced, making labels obsolete. For now, we prefer the term “regenerative organic,” but when marketing our farm and products, we often use even more descriptive terms for our approaches—for example, “no spray,” “pesticide-free,” and “biodiversity-based.”
The Rodale Institute, an educational and research nonprofit based in Pennsylvania, first began using the term “regenerative agriculture” in the 1980s. It was also on the forefront of the organic movement back in the 1940s. “Regenerative agriculture” describes farming practices that can slow climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter. The regenerative agriculture label also promotes biodiversity, improving water quality and enhancing ecosystem services. What’s not to love? We support this term because its meaning goes beyond the current application of the term “sustainability,” which seems to focus more on maintaining the status quo without doing further harm. We need to do more than that! Both the Earth and human society need an agricultural movement that is restorative and promotes healing, thus the term “regenerative.”
In 2014, the Rodale Institute published a paper titled “Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change,” which promoted the idea that wide-scale adoption of practices such as reduced tillage, cover-cropping and crop rotation, and the use of compost for fertility could sequester more than 100 percent of the world’s annual CO2 emissions. Concern over climate change is bringing more attention to the fact that with improved management practices, soil can sequester CO2 and hold more water, therefore mitigating their impacts as greenhouse gases.
Concerns over the loss of biodiversity, such as declines in insect biomass and collapsing wildlife populations, are bringing to light alternatives to pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Agroforestry, no-till planting, perennial polycultures, management intensive grazing, and other regenerative practices are beginning to gain more traction in certain agricultural circles. Issues related to worker fairness—including safe working conditions and fair pay, which need improving in all agricultural sectors across the globe—are also addressed by the regenerative approach.
The term “agroecology” first appeared in the early twentieth century as a scientific discipline, primarily as an application of ecology and ecological approaches in the study of agricultural systems and crop production. This scientific approach combines ecology, biology, microbiology, agronomy, plant physiology, and several other disciplines, making it an integrative study of agriculture. More recently, agroecology is considered as a science, practice, and movement. The term has moved beyond agricultural systems to also include overall food systems with an emphasis on the social component. The basic premises of the movement are that the current food-producing systems are not sustainable for rural communities, and we need to change to adapt to the times we live in.
On the local level, these agroecological movements have become important catalysts for initiating practices and regenerative farming methods that focus on improving water quality and soil health, increasing biodiversity and plant and animal conservation, and sequestering carbon, to name a few. These practices are also concerned with improving farmworker compensation, health, safety, and community food security. “Food sovereignty” is a relatively recent term from the agroecology movement, coined in 1996 by members of La Vía Campesina, a peasant movement organization. La Vía Campesina defines food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” We can’t claim to be peasants. Or maybe we can and proudly so, because the term originally meant “country people.” In any case, we certainly support this sentiment.
In conventional and even many large organic agricultural systems, the ecosystem services for soil fertility and pest management come from purchased inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides. Our agroecological goal is to substitute synthetic and off-farm inputs with biological diversification and intensification on the farm in order to attain the same production benefits while supporting the overall ecosystem. For example, this also benefits our native pollinator, insect, and other wildlife populations. In other words, unleashing the power of biodiversity through biological inputs!
Over the years, we have developed a fantastic relationship with the Agroecology Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC) at UVM. We host classes, student work groups, and international short courses based on agroecology. We are working on long-term projects to measure soil health and biodiversity. These interactions with students and other agroecologists to cocreate knowledge constantly energize and inform us.
Around the time we jumped on the agroecology bandwagon, we also started giving more attention to permaculture. John taught a permaculture class at The University of Vermont. Books like Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway and Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren were informative and inspirational. Permaculture, or “permanent agriculture,” focuses on integrative perennial-based systems that work with nature and the natural landscape to provide food and other products for local needs. This focus on systems, including agroecosystems and communities, overlaps with many of the agroecological practices discussed earlier.
We’ve embraced the core tenets of caring for the Earth and all its inhabitants, including humans, as well as the idea of taking only a fair share. Permaculture’s twelve design principles also aligned with many of our ecological farming practices. For example, the principles dealing with observing and engaging in nature and its patterns, integration of food production with natural systems, and increasing diversity were ones that we were trained to do as ecologists, and continue to practice as farmers. Our farming practices align with the permaculture principles of developing systems that catch and store energy, obtaining a yield for one’s effort, reducing waste, using renewable resources, and adjusting our farming systems so that they continue to function. There is always room for improvement with all of these, especially in terms of biodiversity and taking advantage of edges and the marginal areas on the farm. Both diversity and edges, or marginal lands, have ecological, social, and economic manifestations. The final permaculture principle has probably become the most important for us: creatively responding to change.
Agroforestry is another concept that falls within the realms of agroecology, regenerative agriculture, and permaculture. Agroforestry relates to the intentional incorporation of trees and shrubs into a crop or animal farming system, or both, for the benefit of the environment, the community, and the farm. Examples of agroforestry include establishing hedgerows, growing trees for biomass or food crops, grazing animals in orchards (silvopasture), planting crops within orchard alleys (alley cropping), and enhancing and maintaining riparian forest zones next to streams and rivers.
While agroforestry techniques have been used throughout history and cultures for human benefit, recent emphasis has been placed on the ecological benefits (which also benefit humans in the long run) of preventing desertification and soil loss, reducing deforestation, improving water quality, and enhancing wildlife populations. In addition, recent emphasis on biodiverse food forests and drought-tolerant systems may help in food security issues as a result of climate change.
The biodynamics movement came about through the work of Dr. Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. The basic philosophy is that each farm or garden can be thought of as a unique and integrated organism. Biodynamic principles and practices encourage plants and livestock to be raised together synergistically and for farms to generate their own fertility through composting and cover crops. The emphasis on biodiversity and observation to attain farm-related goals relates well with our own principles. Biodynamic certification requires that the farm meet the requirements of organic certification as well as other biodynamic measures, some of which are based on preparations and practices that are often viewed with skepticism by many in the mainstream scientific community. We still have a lot to learn about biodynamics.
Nancy Hayden has an MFA in creative writing and is a retired environmental engineering professor at the University of Vermont. John Hayden has served as a pest management researcher, extension agent, international consultant, and university educator. The Haydens have been owners of The Farm Between in Jeffersonville, Vermont, since 1992. They are the authors of Farming on the Wild Side: The Evolution of a Regenerative Organic Farm and Nursery (Chelsea Green Publishing, September 2019).