Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Equilibrium Farming - What is sustainability?

At the Freeranger Farm we have a totally sustainable approach to the way we operate and we often refer to it as Equilibrium Farming. Here's some info I published on the Bassbush website.

Over millions of years a wide variety of life forms and processes have evolved on the earth. We haven't yet discovered them all and some will inevitably disappear before we know what they are. We certainly don't understand them but we humans have developed an agricultural and industrial system which takes little notice of the balance generated by nature. We are control freaks, determined to develop ever-more complex equipment and processes which ignore our natural environment and try to change it.

We produce farm products which require unsustainably high volumes of fresh water, whilst ignoring the methods which nature developed to maintain biodiversity. Is it any wonder that many people are becoming increasingly concerned about our impact on climate change? We seem to have a great need to build machines which rely on the continuity of resources designed to maintain the economic imperative. Of course there are plenty of politicians (and others) who don't accept the effect we are having. They (like tobacco company executives arguing that there was no link between smoking and lung cancer) insist that global warming is just a cycle and there is nothing we can do about it. Perhaps they are right! But perhaps not. Are we all prepared to risk irreversible damage to our atmosphere, our soils and our waterways? We believe that Equilibrium Farming is the way to go - minimum inputs, reduced costs and simple production methods will ensure that a farm can operate sustainably for generations.

Chemical Farming

Industrialisation has allowed our civilisation to develop artificial farming techniques. We are now able to take almost any landscape, destroy what is there and turn it into what we see as important – if we are too dumb to think about the consequences. The deliberate destruction of forests, grasslands and even swamps is just mind-boggling. But we have done it and we are still doing it. We see fertile areas and systematically remove all vestiges of plant and animal life before ploughing the ground, without any thought for the consequences of destroying the microflora and microfauna in the soil.

It's all done in the name of progress – and creating an agricultural monoculture. We replace native species with exotics in the belief that they will perform 'better' (or at least will put more dollars in our pockets). Monocultures often thrive in the short term. It doesn't make much difference if its wheat, potatoes, grapes, olives or just rye grass and clover, the traditional outputs don't keep pace with population growth, and we chase ways to maximise production. This usually means dumping truckloads (or plane loads) of synthetic fertilisers to boost production. Insecticides and herbicides are spread like confetti to try to stop all the little bugs and things from spoiling our fun. There's no doubt it works and makes farmers and governments heaps of money (for a while). But it all comes crashing down when the reality hits that you can't keep doing this!

Agriculture driven by chemical inputs increases short term productivity and nutritional levels to unprecedented levels but the cost is the destruction of our soils.

Our farming practices mean that throughout the world, we use more water than falls naturally as rainfall.

The area of soils which is productive is gradually reducing every year while the population increases exponentially.

In Australia, we have one of the world’s most difficult agricultural environments – semi-arid in most parts, shallow topsoils, low nutrient levels and high salinity levels in subterranean soils. In the first 200 years of European settlement, Australians reduced the fertility of much of the landscape by inappropriate farming practices, increased soil and water salinity to near catastrophic levels and reduced biodiversity.

The levels of carbon in soils was once measured in thousands of years, but apparently now span only 2 to 3 years – a testament to the decreasing levels of life in soils.

It has been shown that chemical fertilisers harm and kill plant micro-organisms, thus eliminating the possibility of natural nutrient cycling. Combined with the application of pesticides and herbicides in an irrigated monocultural environment, the chemicals are aiding the desertification and salinisation of productive lands.

Erosion effects – the elimination of natural flora (not to mention the microflora) has caused enormous damage to the structure of Australian soils. Together with wholesale tilling, our soils are routinely badly eroded, to the point where a major rain season (orhigh winds in a dry season) may result in catastrophic removal of topsoil. Serious erosion can be readily viewed in any dryland area of Australia – ranging from minor to extreme – and the problem is worsening with all major attempts at redressing the problem being largely ineffective.

Our complex political and economic systems have developed so far that often our balance of payments is in negative territory (importing far more than we export).

A significant proportion of that imbalance is the result of importing chemical fertilisers to feed our naturally 'poor' soils. The fertilisers, while allowing for profitable crops in the short term, are contributing to the acidification and salinisation of our soils. Their use produces excess levels of soluble nutrients in soil - which has two effects, increased nutrient stored in subsoils, and increased nutrient loads in waterways. The former is just a waste, the latter is the cause of untold pollution of waterways in a world with an increasing freshwater deficit.

What's the cost to human health?

While we are feeding an unprecedented number of people, there are still significant shortcomings. Ours may be the only generation in recorded human history to not live longer than our parents – a testament to the falling food values of our diet, overeating and obesity-related illnesses in some parts of the world, and malnutrition, starvation in others. How did we get it so wrong?

The natural process

There are no chemical fertilisers or pesticides or herbicides in nature.

Organic wastes in natural forests fall to the ground where they are consumed by a plethora of micro-organisms. No-one has gone close to calculating how many species exist today, let alone what existed before human intervention, but some estimate them to be in the millions.

In a complex and poorly understood web, these species interact with each other and one organism’s byproduct is another’s food. From the competitive melange that makes up our soils, nutrients and energy are constantly and sustainably returned to so-called higher plants where the process of capturing the sunlight and gases from the atmosphere results in even more life – a perfectly sustainable ecosystem, with increasing biomass. Compare this to our man-made system in which biodiversity and biomass are spiralling ever-downwards. Unfortunately our intervention is growing - the clamour for clearing understorey in our native forests in the name of  'fire control' will lead to even greater decline.

There have been numerous studies of practical farming techniques utilising natural systems and it has been demonstrated that the elimination of chemical fertilisers, reductions in the use of pesticides and herbicides, show little or no loss in productivity. The net result – which should be relished by farmers – is that profitability can go up, not down, by using these natural methods. Unfortunately most will keep doing what they have always done. And eventually go broke!

There are no irrigation channels in the natural Australian landscape. Instead, there are chains of ponds – swamps and wetlands, sometimes covering hundreds of square miles – connected only during floods by intermittent streams. Water is retained in the landscape and does not flow 'unused' to the ocean. Plant and animal forms have adapted to this natural sequence, and thrive in what often appears as a barren and inhospitable landscape. As plant biomass increases, the flow of water is slowed, causing water levels in the swamplands to increase, thus providing more opportunity to grow more plants – and on goes the cycle. The result – increased biomass, and increased biodiversity.

In nature, waste is always re-used locally. Everything is inter or co-dependent, and synergies abound. Plants and animals don't live in isolation, instead they are part of complex, diverse and inter-related communities. Monocultures seldom exist, and by-products are processed then consumed where they fall.

An organism's by-products are exuded in a way to maximise the benefit to the organism. Plants, for example, exude simple sugars from their roots to eliminate their “wastes” - and micro-organisms convert these sugars into water soluble nutrients which are then used by the plant.

Everything is cycled and re-used in an upward spiral – increasing biomass and biodiversity. Nothing goes unused.

We are not as smart. In our industrial, chemical model, we create foods and other products, transport them vast distances to markets, in order to participate in a 'market economy'. Then we deal with our waste as a separate commodity, not part of our production cycle. What a con!

More info on Sustainability, Deep Ecology, Brittle Landscapes and heaps more can be found at

Monday, August 16, 2010

This would alert consumers to false 'free range' claims

Here's something that would help identify the cheating egg producers who charge customers a premium for claiming their eggs are 'free range' when they are from intensively managed flocks often endorsed by the Australian Egg Corporation. At least it would alert consumers as long as 'name and shame' provisions are included in the process.

It was posted a while ago on World Poultry Net - a credible industry forum - but so far the major producers have shown no interest in having their practices under such scrutiny. I wonder why?!!!!!!

A New Zealand researcher has developed a technique to identify the difference between eggs from caged hens and those from free-range and organically-raised hens.

It is believed to be the first time that eggs from different farming systems have been distinguished by using isotope analysis.

The system can have potential within the egg industry to avoid mis-labelling.

Karyne Rogers, of Geological and Nuclear Science's National Isotope Centre in Lower Hutt, New Zealand, compared different brands of off-the-shelf eggs from cage, barn, free range and organic farming regimes.

Using isotope analysis, she found almost all the eggs could be differentiated by relating the carbon and nitrogen found in the egg to the hen's diet.

This was possible as diet directly reflected the type of farming environment where the hens were raised, Dr Rogers said.

Different foods

''Free-range and organically farmed hens normally have access to a wider range of food sources than caged hens, such as insects, vegetation or organic feeds, and this changes the isotope fingerprint of their eggs,'' Dr Rogers said.

The findings, recently published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, showed isotope analysis was a potentially useful technique for identifying eggs from different farming regimes.

The research was performed on egg yolk, albumen and egg membrane to see which egg components gave the best information about the hen's diet.

Effective verification tool

Dr Rogers said the technique held considerable promise for the egg industry as an effective verification tool to guard against mis-labelling.

''The next step is to seek industry funding to work directly with egg producers to further refine the technique so it can be fully tested and applied in the industry.''

We can't wait. It could be a great tool to weed out the shonky operators who run large, industrial farming operations and de-beak their birds. And of course things will get even worse for consumers if the Egg Corporation manages to get its planned 'free range'standards up and running.

Friday, August 13, 2010

New sheds and new chooks

Here are some of our latest Isa Brown pullets in their new shed. This flock is 280 birds and will help us to keep up with local demand for genuine free range eggs - not the version the Australian Egg Corporation wants you to have!

And this is their shed - but they will only go in there when they want to. They are shut in today because they have only just arrived and we have found that by keeping them in the shed for 24 hours or so, they get to know that is their home. (If you look closely at the picture on the right you can see some of the pullets under the shed - it has no floor so even when they are inside they have access to grass).  From tomorow they will be out grazing and chasing bugs! We won't ever lock them up again. The shed has nest boxes for them to lay their eggs as well as food and water.
As with all our sheds, it is on skids so we can move it around the paddock to ensure the hens always have access to fresh pasture.
This is one of the two new sheds we have bought to increase our flock numbers in the face of insatiable demand for real free range eggs. We still have no intention of chasing the mass market and we will maintain our food miles policy of only delivering within one hour of the farm.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

More proof of nutritional differences with free range eggs

There is now more evidence that free range eggs have a higher nutritional value than factory farmed eggs.  Recent research by the US Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences compared caged bird eggs with those laid by free range flocks  – and it found that that free range chickens eggs are indeed better for you.

Researchers examined how the levels of omega-3 fatty acids and concentrations of vitamins A and E differed in eggs from actively pastured hens able to eat legumes or mixed grasses compared with eggs from hens in cages.

Lead Investigator Heather Karstan said, “Compared to eggs of the commercial hens, eggs from pastured hens eggs had twice as much vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fats, more than double the total omega-3 fatty acids, and less than half the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids,” she said. “Vitamin A concentration was 38 percent higher in the pastured hens’ eggs than in the commercial hens’ eggs.”

The six week study was compared to caged birds which were fed their usual diet of commercial egg mash.

“The chicken has a short digestive tract and can rapidly assimilate dietary nutrients,” said Paul Patterson, Professor of Poultry Science, who was a co-investigator in the project. “Fat-soluble vitamins in the diet are readily transferred to the liver and then the egg yolk. Egg-nutrient levels are responsive to dietary change.

“Other research has demonstrated that all the fat-soluble vitamins, including A and E, and the unsaturated fats, linoleic and linolenic acids, are egg responsive, and that hen diet has a marked influence on the egg concentration.”

Anyone who keeps chickens with full beaks knows how the birds like to peck on pasture. It's a natural way of getting a vitamin boost.Some plants such as Purslane are high in Omega 3 fatty acids and when the chooks eat them the food values are transferred to the eggs. But of course if the hens are de-beaked they can't forage properly and there is little if any nutritional difference between factory farmed cage eggs and factory farmed 'free range' . Chickens need full beaks and quality fresh pasture with a variety of mixed grasses and other vegetation as well as a balanced ration of grains, to gain all their essential vitamins and nutrients.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Nutritional differences between cage and free range eggs

I still get heaps of enquiries about nutritional diferences between real free range eggs and those laid by caged hens. Unfortunately there has been very little research here in Australia, but the Australian Egg Corporation is always quick to claim that the food values are identical between cage and free range.

They ignore evidence such as that produced by Mother Earth News in the US (see a link above).
The AECL may well be right about the eggs labelled as 'free range' which it endorses because they are mostly the same breeds of birds as found on cage farms, they eat the same feed, they are de-beaked so they can't forage properly and they are kept in intensive conditions.

But if the hens are truly free range and are allowed to roam over pasture where they can eat things like worms, spiders and grasshoppers, as well as leafy greenstuff such as grass and purslane, the eggs have been shown to have a higher nutritional value.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Ethical Food

There were some interesting comments on ethical food by Steve Spencer in this week's Weekly Times
Part of his discussion, which related to supermarket changes to pork supplies, is here:

'Our analysis suggests consumer demand is well ahead of supply. By far the greatest impact of this ethical foods trend has been around animal welfare issues.
The egg category has seen strong gains in shares won by free-range and barn-laid eggs. Pork will follow the same path as consumers respond to market offers.
Crucial to maintaining that consumer support, as demand expands, are production systems that are backed with credible, uniform standards that consumers can recognise, understand and trust.'

This demonstrates the clear problem that the egg industry will face if the Australian Egg Corporation implements its new draft standard for 'free range' egg production. AECL will bring the industry into further disrepute if it endorses a scheme which misleads consumers and destroys what little trust they have left.
Because of the actions of the Egg Corporation in promoting 'minimum' standards, consumers already distrust industry claims because they are not backed by credible standards which can be trusted.

The proposed standard has no credibility in the free range industry and responses to consumer surveys demonstrate clearly that buyers of free range eggs don't want the new standard either.