Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Monday, March 28, 2011

Weeds and the Scarcity Model

Looking out at the pasture this morning I couldn't help but think how big a waste it seemed to only have 2 animals out there to utilize that 6+ acres of great forage. And two animals that aren't feeding us at that. Just Mick the quarter horse and Sgt Pepper the donkey. We have these grand plans to eventually move back to "horse pace," plans to go foraging with the donkey carrying loaded panniers, but for the moment they just seem like they're hanging out eating our groceries.

At appropriate stocking rates, large animals are beneficial components of their pasture ecosystem, not parasites on its health and productivity.
 But then, how ridiculous is it to think like that? Two large animals grazing on nearly 7 acres of high-quality pasture aren't hurting anything. Matter of fact they're helping! In effect, by eating grass and pooping all over the place, they are speeding up the soil building process, converting solar energy into valuable humus, which improves soil structure and water-holding capacity, which makes the pasture increasingly mineral-rich, lush, and drought-tolerant. Valuable, deeper rooted forage species will then be able to colonize the pasture, creating more reliable winter and dry season forage. Which will in turn make the pasture better able to support more, and more productive, animals. The pasture has benefitted from its animal symbionts, not suffered because of them.

It's a complex system, and its appropriate use benefits every member of that system. Taken to either extreme the system suffers. Remove the animals and the soil-building cycle is drawn out through time considerably, relying on the annual rhythm of vegetative growth, death, and decay. It'll improve in time, but time is something we may not have the luxury of taking these days. Conversely, if I put too many grazing animals out on that land they will tilt the waste to growth ratio too far in the wrong direction. The growth rate of the forage won't be able to keep up with demand, the soil biota won't be able to cycle the manure fast enough, and the pasture ecosystem will collapse. We've all seen it, a half acre dirt lot with two horses standing in the corner nibbling at a lonely clump of weeds. Pretty sad. But systems out of balance generally are.

One solution to this overstocking problem is to reduce the consumption pressure, perhaps altering the type of animal on that half acre. Obviously the caloric needs of two horses are just too much for such a small resource base, but two goats might do just fine. Now we have two useful animals on the available land that can establish an equilibrium with it. The forage can now support the caloric needs of its animal symbionts, and their manure won't overwhelm the system's ability to cycle it. Now the animals have become a boon to the system instead of a parasite, for all the reasons we just discussed in the last two paragraphs. And, with the goats, the system is now producing milk and meat in a sustainable way, instead of just desperately racing to keep up with what has almost exclusively become a pleasure animal.

I've heard it said that Americans could trim 80% of their energy use without taking a serious hit to their lifestyle. Case in point, my family now lives on about 20% of the energy budget we did 4 years ago, and there are two children now that weren't there then. And lo and behold, people still come to our house for dinner! And enjoy themselves! Behavioral innovation alone, without the need for new technologies, new miracle crops, or new energy sources, can turn the resource killers into cooperative members of a self-improving system. But, just like the horse example, we have to abandon the idea that the human ecosystem can support anything we throw at it.


Not ennui. The concept of "weed" in our culture is beyond broken. Ever notice what happens to a patch of bare earth when left alone? Within a week or so little bits of green start to show up. In a month or so the bare patch is sporting a fine green coat - covering the soil, shading it from the sun, its roots hosting new colonies of soil microbes, the root channels of the pioneer plants helping water infiltrate the crusty soil. "Weeds" are Nature's way of repairing damaged soil. Cultivate your farm land, give it a month, and see what happens. From an ecological perspective, cultivation basically sets ecosystem succession back to the beginning. Nature's natural drive is to colonize that disturbed soil, first with herbs, then shrubs, and finally with trees (in most cases). Tilling, spraying with herbicides, and weeding are all regular energy inputs into a system that wants to do something else. Making it conform to the classical agrarian ideal of a proper food production system requires massive amounts of energy - organic or conventional - because we are fighting Nature's innate drive to mature. By removing the "weeds," we are forcing the system to remain in its infancy, in its most desperate and energetic state.

Now don't misunderstand me, I'm not suggesting that we let our farms and gardens run rampant with crabgrass and clivers. I'm simply suggesting that we change the way we think about ecosystem succession in the garden. After all, the weeds are there to help improve soil structure and the system's ability to maintain itself, without the constant input of energy from the gardener. In essence, they aren't competing for a limited resource pool, they are attempting to make the system self-sufficient, by improving soil tilth and texture, mineral loading, cation exchange, and water holding capacity. Left to their own devices, weeds would eventually turn a bare cultivated garden into a mature productive forest. And you'd be hard-pressed to find one of them still lurking under the mixed canopy a decade later.

So in my way of thinking, the trick to working with weeds instead of against them (which is awfully tiring), is two-fold. First we need to learn what the weeds are trying to tell us. Think about the physiology of the particular weed in question. For example, dandelions have a long strong taproot; anyone who has tried to pull one up can verify this. There is even a handtool on the market made specifically for reaching down into the soil around the dandelion root and extracting it. But by extracting the dandelion, we're not letting it do its job. Which is to take that strong deep taproot and bust up compacted soil. Another thing a dandelion's presence might tell us is that the soil is calcium deficient. That long hardpan-crushing taproot is also drawing subsoil calcium up into its foliage and dropping it off as topsoil (through the decay of its aerial biomass every winter) to be utilized by the next wave of succession. If we don't let them do their job, they will keep coming back to do it. They are very dedicated servants, as we all know too well!

Every weed has a job to do. None of them are there just to annoy us. The part that annoys us is simply our perception of "weed." Instead of fighting weeds constantly, mulch your beds down tight to accomplish some of what the weeds are there to do. This protects the soil from the harsh sun, disperses the impact of rain and irrigation and helps channel water gently to the soil, and provides a carbon bank on the surface where the soil biota can utilize it as needed. Placed on the surface, high-carbon mulch doesn't "eat up the nitrogen" as some folks will tell you. This is how Nature supplies carbon mass to her ecosystems, on the surface as detritus and windfall. Tilled in, carbon biomass will eat up the nitrogen, because it supercharges the soil biota, but not if its laid on the surface. This way it slowly feeds the microbes as nitrogen becomes available, maintaining the optimal 25:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio. Use the weeds to your benefit by learning to understand why they're there, and pick up some of their jobs to reduce their numbers where it's feasible.

Second, we need to rethink the end goal of our food production system. If nature wants to make your garden a forest, the lowest energy option would be to let it! Nature's fecundity is a very powerful force. Just consider the sheer capitalization of the world's big pesticide and power equipment companies! That energy and monetary investment put into squashing the competition of our favorite food crops is directly proportional to the energy Nature invests in repairing our damage. And judging by the increase in that budget, she is getting more insistent by the year!

But we don't have to watch our lovely little garden plot become a maple and privet grove. Instead, guide the succession toward species that are useful to humans. They function the same ecologically, if you pay attention to what you plant and how you plant it (that's where permaculture comes in), but instead of maples and privet, we can guide the system toward peaches and blueberries. And instead of crabgrass and clivers, we might set groundcovers of sweet potatoes and pumpkins. And the coolest part is, a food production system built on sound ecological principles functions just like a natural ecosystem! Reducing the gardener's energy input each season, and changing our most common tools from shovels and hoses to pruners and bushel baskets, as the system finds its own stride. Pest control. Check. Fertilizer. Check. Vitamin and mineral density. Always rising. And human labor inputs? Less each year.

This is how we garden in an energy descent world. By intelligently harnessing Nature's natural drive to mature instead of fighting her to produce only the high-energy annual crops we've become accustomed to. By understanding that working within background energy budgets, and properly balancing the system, we humans become an enhancement to our food production systems, and wider nature, instead of leeches on the landscape. No longer will our food production systems be dualistic, distinct and separate from nature, but they will actually become a support for, and an integral part of it. And we will find our rightful place within Nature's abundance once again. Paradoxically, scarcity is a product of growth. Our insistence on perpetuating growth at all costs, supposedly to avoid scarcity, is powerful testimony to how it has warped our perception of Nature's abundance. And weeds aren't our competition in a contractionary world, they are our allies. It's really only our minds that have to change to effectively cope with descent.


  1. Seriously, while powering a laptop using a home solar power is incredibly easy to do you can also power your entire home using a solar source of energy. All you need to know is how to approach the task of making your own green energy source.

  2. Hi Tripp,

    Another great post. About the goat on the 1/2 acre, there's a lot of detail that goes into the ideal stocking rate. That one goat will reduce the continually grazed 1/2 acre just as sure as a horse. We've got 10 acres and 30 goats here, a little less grass than the ratio of your post. In the winter when the Bermuda goes dormant I am bringing in hay. If I let the girls have all the grass they need in the winter it'll be too grievously harmed to come back in the spring.

    And on the other side, two or three times in the summer, I knock down part of my perimeter fence and bring in my neighbors 10 cow/calf pairs to knock down the grass that grows faster than the goats can eat it.

    Ideally, an extremely flexible stocking rate is the best. Grasslands evolved with giant herds of ruminants in a constant state of eating and moving on. The idea of a fence is abhorrent to both the grass and the animal. If I had the time, I could probably make a few bucks buying some stocker calves in the spring and selling them in the fall, rather than put the extra weight on my neighbors cows. But this is just so much easier.

    The best way to mimic the large, constantly roving herds that were successful in nature is to use mobile electric fences and adopt a MIG grazing system. Five years into goat farming professionally and I am still taking baby steps with MIG. This shit's difficult. I know you probably know most of this but I wanted to throw it in for your readers.

  3. Christian, thank you for bringing up the subject of mob grazing. Although I'm afraid we could dedicate another whole blog to that subject alone. (If you know of one I'd be glad to link it.) The length of this article was already on the longish side without getting into that most important of discussions. With this piece I was mostly just suggesting that industrial humans should check their own stocking rates, and transition from being a horse-type consumer to something more like a goat. That the planet's resources can't keep up with our appetite, and that will eventually lead to our own "pasture collapse."

    And Hann, solar power for everyone isn't going to change that. Cradle-to-grave, I'm not even sure solar represents a net energy gain. If we could add in some redundancy, with solar et al, to some of our critical functions in society, like hospitals and food markets, that would be a pretty appropriate use of that technology, IMO. Adding in a small panel on the homestead as a back up well pump energy source, to keep an efficient refrigerator running, things like that, I could see too. But this idea that we're going to just keep doing what we're doing, after a brief equipment change, really needs to be discarded. Just my .02

  4. Ah the weeds. We do no till anymore, just aerate with a broadfork. Then plant and feed and once they are up good we mulch with compost we made and then straw. Apprentices are the normal anti-weed device of choice at RedHawk.

  5. Nathan, where can I buy me some of these so-called apprentices? And do you lay them side-by-side to cover the ground, or stack them on top of each other?

  6. We get them from NOFA


    Must be some similar organization in GA huh?
    You can stack the Euro ones theyre used to it. The local ones all want their own row of course.