When you’re a farmer, you hear a lot about Yield. High-yielding varieties, “buy this product to increase your yield,” Yields of organic vs conventional, “we need to feed the world.”
I’ll start this off by saying that I run a diversified small-scale organic farm that provides my partner Bryan and I with 100% of our household income. Yields matter in our ability to do that.
However not all of our crops yield well every year. We ensure our ability to pay all our bills, make our mortgage payments, keep our cash flow-ing during the winter months when we’re not selling anything, and save for a rainy day by growing a diversity of crops. So, when some crops don’t yield well, others make up for them.
I think about yield fairly often. But as time goes on, my view of what yield means has expanded. I don’t want high yields at the expense of my family life, my health, my happiness. And I don’t want high yields by taking away the yields of others who live on this farm (that I inappropriately refer to often as “my farm”).
I share this farm with quite a few others. Yes, with Bryan. And our cats. And ducks. But also with all kinds of other species – who also depend on the yields they harvest here for their own livelihoods.
This struck me last year, late in the season. I was harvesting green onions and it was peaceful and quiet. As I finished and stood up, I could hear a whole lot of tiny buzzing noises. Not big buzzing like honeybees or bumblebees. It was coming from the bed next to me. The bed we hadn’t done anything with after harvesting from it. To be honest, I would have been embarrassed to show another farmer that bed. It was filled with low-growing weeds, mostly Shepherd’s Purse in flower. And the buzzing was coming from some tiny insects (I didn’t take a photo unfortunately) that were clearly enjoying a great harvest. Nothing buzzing around my green onions – they were only a yield to me. And I felt so glad that we’d left that bed. All of a sudden, I realized that this weedy area had increased the yield of my farm – just not to me (though shepherd’s purse is both edible and medicinal for humans…..it could have been a yield to me too). And that shift in my perspective of yield really excited me.
As an organic farmer, I’m required (and I enjoy) leaving spaces for wildlife habitat and food sources. I’m required to increase biodiversity. But I hadn’t really thought of that as a yield before. And not just for benefits that other species offer me as a human, but because us humans are only one species among millions – why should we be the only ones with a yield?
Last year we planted Swamp Milkweed on our farm, specifically for monarchs whose caterpillars eat only milkweed. This year, it bloomed and almost instantly, we had monarch butterflies laying their eggs on it (how do they find it so quickly!?). And the caterpillars are hungry hippoes – moving and chomping with amazing speed. But the swamp milkweed flowers also had an incredible array of other species enjoying the yield – bumblebees, honeybees, hoverflies, wasps, moths and other butterflies. It was incredible! I had hoped to harvest some of the beautiful dusty pink flowers for the flower bouquets I make at the market, but quickly came to realize that the value to all these other inhabitants of the farm was much higher than the amount I’d make per stem.
We had also planted (way too much) Sacred Basil this year, one of our favourite herbs for making into a refreshing and delicious tea (or iced tea for hot summer days). But we ended up harvesting very little because as it bloomed, it was always covered with pollinators and we couldn’t bear taking it away from them.
This year, for the first time, I started to think about the honeybee hives on our farm (12 currently) and how we might be able to tell whether the yields they’re taking leave enough for the native bees around us. We try to have enough and we can definitely see many different kinds of bees, but is there actually enough yield for all of them to be healthy and prosper? How can we tell? It’s something I’ll be thinking more about and would love to hear the input of others.
I’m also working to expand this to all species, not just the ones I recognize as partners on a farm (like pollinators…although even black flies are pollinators). What about the yields for the tent caterpillars? And the yields of creatures that eat tent caterpillars. Or the yields for mosquitoes (how much blood do I have?!) and for those who eat mosquitoes. Or for the cabbage loopers and flea beetles and cucumber beetles and squash bugs. And fungi and powdery mildew. And everything that eats or lives off those things – both above and below ground, and at various life stages. And then the predators of those predators…..and all along the cycle of life. I mean, when we talk about feeding the world, these are all members of the world too. How many species are getting a good yield from this farm? And can we keep leaving room for them while continuing to have enough yields to support our own health and happiness? I guess then, the primary species not getting a yield from my farm are pest control and pesticide companies.
Shannon wrote this for the November 2017 issue of Rural Delivery magazine.