By Tom Read
Here's our field. Would you choose clearing it by hand for planting new crops?
We’ve got access to about four acres of good, arable land here at Slow Farm on Texada Island. This land has a farming history going back about a century, but it’s been fallow for the last 40 years or so. Here’s the problem: What’s the best way to remove the grasses and other “weeds” now growing in profusion on this old farm field in preparation for planting new crops, without damaging the soil?
Before discussing our tentative answer, which you might guess from the title of this post, I’d like to mention a few of the considerations we use for land-use decisions.
First, we view ourselves as land stewards, whether the land in question is officially “owned” by us or not. Our minimal standard is to do no harm, and ideally we’d like to leave the place better than we found it. Thus, we don’t just rush in and change things. We take our time to think about our actions in some detail before actually doing anything to the land.
Second, we strive for frugality. This requires living within our means and making full use of resources already at hand. We must avoid the temptation of buying our way out of problems. Thus, if the “problem” is how to remove grasses and weeds on a field without damaging the field’s fertility, then we will have to solve this problem affordably.
Third, our goal is to create a sustainable and resilient food supply from this land. Therefore, we must solve our land-clearing problem without creating more problems in the future, which means recognizing that everything is connected to everything else. This will become clearer below.
So let’s look at some alternatives we’ve been considering for solving our problem:
Option 1: Use well-sharpened hand tools to mow and kill the grass, then to loosen the soil, a little at a time each day. This method is detailed in Steve Solomon’s (must-read) 2005 book Gardening When It Counts, and it’s by far the simplest and least expensive approach. We already own the tools. I could use the exercise. Most days I could afford some time for this effort. And this solution can be sustained as long as I’m in good health. But four acres? One acre is 200 feet x 200 feet, or about 40,000 square feet – then times four. That’s a lot of digging for a middle-aged guy with office-worker hands and a shovel. We don’t need to clear it all at the same time, of course, but the scope of our clearing effort at any given time is still a lot bigger than the typical backyard garden.
Option 2: Borrow or barter a gasoline-powered rototiller from a neighbor and start tilling. I discovered that renting such a machine from Powell River is out of the question due to the $15/hour cost and same-day return policy. But if we could find one on Texada then we might complete the clearing job in a week. Solomon also discusses this approach, including its flaws. The obvious ones: fuel cost, noise, breathing fumes, transport of a heavy machine, and “if you break it you’ll buy me a new one.” Less obvious: plow pan compaction, strained muscles and possible back injury, vibration damage to capillaries and nerves in hands, fossil fuel dependency and excess carbon emissions. Plus, we would have to borrow/barter the machine every season.
Option 3: Buy a walking tractor, by far the best machine for solving our problem. Unlike rototillers, which they superficially resemble, walking tractors are made with precision engineering and can last a lifetime. They’re widely used on small-scale farms in Europe and Asia, and they’re much more durable, comfortable and versatile than rototillers. Walking tractors come with a power-take-off, which allows you to choose from among an amazing variety of special-purpose attachments. One such attachment, the Berta rotary plow, would be quite nice for solving our soil-working problem. The Berta operates like a horizontal auger, churning through the soil without leaving a plow pan. It can easily incorporate standing cover crops into the soil.
I’m not a boys-with-toys kinda guy, but I want this machine. Alas, we can’t afford it – the purchase would be about $5,000+ up front, then add ongoing fuel and maintenance costs. As a fossil-fuel burner, the walking tractor has some of the same drawbacks as the rototiller, too. These include noise, having to breathe fumes, planet-warming emissions and keeping us dependent on the oil companies.
What to do?
Option 4: Pigs. When we mentioned our soil-working problem to An, our chicken mentor, she said “pigs can do that.” It turns out she’s right. I phoned the BC Ministry of Agriculture office in Courtenay, where the very knowledgeable Jill Hatfield confirmed that, under the right conditions and management, pigs can indeed clear grass and weeds from a field without damaging its fertility. Indeed, pigs can do this while simultaneously loosening the soil, fertilizing the land and feeding themselves. Pigs have other virtues: they’re self-reproducing, we can grow their food right here on Slow Farm, of course they’re good food for omnivorous humans and there’s even a market for “weaner” piglets for people who want to raise their own pork. They might even be fun to watch, too.
Pastured pigs are easier to keep confined with electric fencing equipment, which we already own from our horse-keeping days. Linda and I enjoy animal husbandry. We can see ourselves patiently caring for a few pigs, letting them do the work of land-clearing while we look after their health and well-being – right up to the moment when they become our food. Flaws? They’ll probably leave the field a bumpy mess, so we’ll have to drag a harrow (which we already own) with our quad (ATV) to smooth things out before planting. That’s a bit of fossil fuel use, but if necessary I could use a hand rake instead without any great sacrifice. And neither of us knows how to slaughter and butcher pigs, so we’ll have to pay someone for that work, at least initially.
Of the four options we’ve considered thus far, options 1 and 4 seem to make the most sense for us. A combination of me working with hand tools and a few pigs having a rooting-in-the-grass fiesta should meet our decision criteria: protect and improve the land, frugal, and sustainable without causing future problems. So that’s why, after a few hours of research, we finally found a couple on Vancouver Island who are following much the same logic on their acreage and who are willing to sell us a few weaners. We promptly placed our order earlier this week. If their sow is actually pregnant, as suspected, we should take delivery after her delivery sometime in July. In the meantime I’ll keep digging.