Diversity and efficiency go hand-in-hand in nature, health, and on the farm
Diversity simply means “a range of different things.” It was not long ago when our Wisconsin farms, while largely centered on dairy production, were typically also home to chickens, hogs, and sheep. These other enterprises may have been minor, but they provided a level of insurance when dairy proved less than profitable. Besides that, the farm provided milk, eggs, and meat to friends and family who enjoyed the value of knowing where their food came from. Farm-fresh eggs were well known by most city dwellers!
Current wisdom implies that diversity is inefficient. Specialization is more efficient. Focusing your knowledge on a single enterprise, we are often told, is the road to improved profitability. Yet, casual observation of the farm economy suggests that something may be amiss in this thinking. Perhaps it is time to revisit our assumptions of efficiency and diversity.
When considering the question of inefficiency in diversity, it might be helpful to ask the question “How does nature value diversity?” It seems that any natural system always moves to increase diversity.
Nature sometimes will cover bare ground using what seems to be a monoculture (think of a patch of thistle or lambsquarter), but left alone nature will quickly add diversity. We might not like nature’s desire for diversity (think of a lawn, or a pasture, or a field of corn) but let’s consider for a minute diversity from nature’s perspective.
A simple internet search on efficiency and diversity will uncover a plethora of research on anything from our human gut microorganisms, to ocean phytoplankton, to natural plant and animal communities in prairies or forests. In each of these cases, we are told that diversity it important, even essential, to the stability and productivity of that natural system.
In the natural world diversity is a most efficient strategy. Many who have been around the soil health movement have seen pictures of the diversity of rooting depth and above ground growth in a natural prairie setting. In that case, diversity allows different plants to capture nutrients from different locations in the soil profile that a single crop would simply not be able to.
Farmers in Europe and Canada have begun to duplicate a more natural system by planting two or three different crops in the same field, at the same time. These farmers have found is that weeds, pests, and diseases are reduced, and yields are significantly increased compared to growing these crops as monocultures.
But how do you harvest a field of mixed crops? The mixtures are carefully selected so that they can be harvested together, and differences in grain size allow innovative equipment to sort the harvest into their respective crops.
Without specialized equipment, what are some approaches to add diversity to a farm? The simplest way is to add another crop (or more) to the normal rotation. Or add a grass species to the alfalfa.
For those that pasture livestock, consider adding a different species, for example pasturing sheep and cattle together. Research has shown that multiple species use pasture more efficiently, and can have positive effects on reducing parasites or diseases.
Another way to think of adding diversity to a farm is “vertically”. For example, a typical way of vertical diversity is growing instead of buying feed for your livestock. In this way you capture the “profit” of the feed and use it in the next step of the value chain, that is, by feeding your cattle.
Another way to vertically diversify your operation is to add on-farm processing of a commodity product. For example, new technologies allow small farms to pasteurize and bottle milk or make cheese on a “micro” scale. While there are challenges in gaining expertise and marketing for this type of diversity, the local food movement suggests great potential for the farmer who is ready for a paradigm shift.
Diversity and efficiency go hand-in-hand in nature, in health, and on the farm. As you consider your direction for the coming year, let me encourage you to add diversity as a key component to your farm plan.
Travis is the Agriculture & Natural Resources Educator for Pepin and Pierce Counties