The Farm Ecosystem, in Perfect Harmony

By Audrey Barker Plotkin Gazette Contributing Writer

A wrench and an irrigation fitting clatter from a jeans pocket into the washing machine, and I sigh. Being married to a farmer has its price, but most of the time I feel extremely lucky to live on a farm and witness the work and magic that goes into producing food.

I live at Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, and a typical description of the farm would list our products, such as vegetables, strawberries, lamb, eggs, beef and pork. Yet these are merely the exports of the place. Our farm, any farm, is far more than a collection of crops, pastures and livestock. It is a complex system only partly controlled by the farmers. A farm is an ecosystem in which plants, animals and microbes interact with each other and with the soil, rain and sun.

Farm fields are unusual ecosystems, because they are intentionally simplified—by weeding, for example— and because they have unusually large flows of imports (fertilizers and manures) and exports (food for humans). One of the central challenges of farming is finding the right balance of simplification versus complexity, and learning what magnitude of imports and exports can be sustained.

We know that crop fields and pastures function in concert with the soils below, the skies above and the hedgerows and other landscapes all around. Many of our crops rely on native pollinators who in turn rely on the untamed corners of the farm to sustain their lives. Weedy edges, for instance, provide habitat for a variety of plants and animals. I once counted more than 50 plant species along a short stretch of hedgerow at the farm. These areas harbor a diverse community of insects, including pest species and their predators.

And then there’s the soil, a critical part of the ecosystem. Though modified by our nutrient inputs and tillage practices, it’s an immensely multifaceted system in itself, containing entire unseen worlds of organisms and physical processes. Much of the farmer’s work is managing that soil and keeping weeds in check so the crops and pastures thrive. Good farming practice depends on knowing the limits of our power, manipulating and encouraging those ecological processes we can control toward our production ends.

Understanding that the farm is a complete system is key to managing the various parts and desired outcomes (lots of broccoli, say, or fat lambs) in synergistic ways. On our farm we rely on building soil fertility by rotating the land between tillage agriculture and forage crops grazed by our livestock, plowing in cover crops and mulch, and adding compost. The goal is to build the soil’s capacity through on-site production and recycling, attention to cultivation practices and crop fertilization when and where it is needed so nutrients are not lost into the groundwater. Minimizing soil erosion is also critical since doing so enables us to build, rather than spend down, our soil capital over time.

Beyond the farm gate, the farm ecosystem fits into the larger landscape of the area around us. At this time in our regio’’s history, land that is open and undeveloped is increasingly uncommon. In this heavily settled town, the farm ecosystem provides important habitat for wildlife and humans alike. Killdeer nest in the open fields, hawks soar overhead, garden spiders weave their zigzag patterns into webs suspended on pasture grasses and children have the space to notice these other lives among theirs. I love sitting on the back deck on a summer evening, laundry on the line, listening to the song sparrow’s melody and watching neighbors stroll around the farm fields.

So, what to do with the random mechanical bits in the washer? I set them aside to return to the farm shop. I know, as did American ecologist and environmentalist Aldo Leopold, that “to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Each piece has its place in the farm.

Audrey Barker Plotkin is a forest ecologist at the Harvard Forest in Petersham and lives at Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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