I’ve met some great people running smart and sustainable farms, but in Silk Hope, NC, Bobby Tucker of Okfuskee Farm (Oh-FUSS-key; the first k is silent) takes an ecological systems-based approach to the next level. He’s using innovative and novel techniques that I’ve only ever seen in books and documentaries. He’s such a fountain of both theoretical and practical knowledge that I wish I could follow him around all day with a notebook. His intelligence isn’t limited to just raw science or on-the-job experience, but also deep wisdom about how we can apply these principles in society as well as our individual lives. For some slightly outdated information on Okfuskee and the Tuckers (their second child wasn’t born yet), see https://www.carolinafarmstewards.org/okfuskee-farm-young-farmers-use-holistic-management-as-innovation/.
The first thing Bobby did was show me a farm map, printed on a whiteboard. He took out an Expo marker and described, using highly technical terms, the way water flows around the property. He had diagrammed where small ponds are strategically placed to store water during dry periods and where crops are planted to optimally use the natural flow of water. He referenced both surface and groundwater movement, using many terms I didn’t know. Across much of his 20 acres I didn’t see irrigation hoses for watering plants — with property this carefully optimized, extra irrigation simply isn’t needed.
The science and engineering behind the water layout was so advanced I could barely follow what he said — I found out later that both he and his wife have Master’s degrees. I’m probably going to need a few more run-throughs to understand all the water management behind the scenes, but I didn’t want to bog him down with too many questions so we went off to feed pigs.
One of the fascinating and intricate ideas Bobby uses is “animals as tools.” Pigs are like shovels— they dig up ground looking for roots, and then excrete waste as a bonus. After a few days, using portable electric fencing, he can move the animals, leaving the dirt healthily turned over and churned up with organic matter. We didn’t deal a lot with them this particular day, but I still had more fun than I probably should have, tromping around in the mud surrounded by excited pigs. For some reason I’d thought of pigs as relatively quiet animals, but at full volume their snorts were so loud Bobby and I could barely hear each other speak.
If pigs are shovels, sheep are lawn mowers. Rotational grazing is a fundamental principle in ecological agriculture. Animals are packed tight on thick, healthy grass where they eat for a day or so (sometimes even a fraction of a day), then moved to a new patch of grass. This high-frequency eat-move-repeat pattern mimics the way herd animals eat in the wild. Forcing animals to stay in one spot continuously will result in them eating more of the grass, eventually all the way to the ground, and then it’s much harder for the grass to regrow. It’s much better to let the animals eat a bite or two out of their favorite grasses, then move them after they’ve eaten their fill and fertilized the area. Rotational grazing is incredibly beneficial and deeply fascinating, but a full description wouldn’t fit here. For a more in-depth treatment, check out this TED talk by Allan Savory: https://youtu.be/vpTHi7O66pI.
Sheep have instincts to help protect themselves from predators. One of those instincts is to stick together and be wary, especially around strangers — in this case, me. They would all stare at me whenever I moved, and run whenever I came close. It was pretty funny.
With the sheep was a donkey in place of a guard dog. Donkeys will actually kill predators that try to eat the sheep. Luckily, although the sheep were terrified of me, the donkey didn’t consider me a threat and its protective instincts didn’t kick in (literally).
I was also very lucky to see two newborn lambs that had been born that morning. They were shaky and awkward on their feet — so new to the world that they were still damp. Though the main flock of sheep was already quite wary, the new mother was borderline paranoid, so the picture is blurry because I couldn’t get closer without zoom.
Bronwyn and their two kids came out to help move electric fences after the baby woke up, so the whole family was out working together for a while, which I thought was heart-touchingly wholesome. Bobby took out a chainsaw to thin smaller trees out of the forest edge by the pasture while I piled up the pieces. There were complicated reasons for doing this that I don’t fully understand, but it had to do with opening up light for the pasture grass, maximizing productivity of the forest by avoiding overgrowth, and something about pigs and carbon. The plan when I come back in a few weeks is to use the biggest logs as permanent fence posts and shred the rest to wood chips, composting them in piles around the pasture.
After a fantastic home-cooked lunch, we went out to plant trees. We collected the saplings from a hoop-house, loaded them up on a trailer, and hauled them to the back of the property (the one-year-old baby rode with me in the trailer, laughing all the way). Planting trees went something like this: (1) dig hole. (2) Throw phosphorous supplement in and around hole. (3) Stick tree in hole. (4) Pat in dirt around base of tree, removing air bubbles. (5) Drive stake close to tree. (6) Put plastic sleeve over entire tree to protect it from deer (the sleeve breaks off when the tree gets big enough). Even with Bronwyn helping, this job took the remainder of the day. The trees were planted in rows, intermixed with shrubbery and smaller plants, with grass throughout so animals can be grazed there. This is known as “agroforestry” or “silvopasture,” fantastic subjects I’ll get to in future posts.
One of the takeaways I got was how critical it is to design everything around water. Gravity affects the way water flows, and different types of dirt hold different amounts of water. Evaporation happens quicker in uncovered soils than covered. Put small ponds in high-elevation places so it will flow down over a season. Since you can’t change the rainfall, this has to be the most fundamental feature around which the rest of the farm is planned.
Another critical point is nature’s rest cycle. Putting an animal in a paddock for 365 days a year, never letting the grass rest, is a recipe for disaster. Better to pack in animals tightly, but move them often.
The most intricate and beautiful idea is using natural processes so everybody wins. Pigs like digging — we can use that. Sheep like herding together and eating grass — let’s use that. Insects and fungi break down waste — let’s use that, too.
In this post I’ve barely scratched the surface with what I learned at Okfuskee, and I’m excited to go back again in a few weeks to continue working with Bobby and Bronwyn.