6 Questions to Ask Farmers
We all like knowing where our food
comes from and how it's grown and raised. I hear a lot of people
say "the best way to do that is to get to know your farmer."
find that not everyone has the time let alone knows what questions to
ask. Here are a few suggestions to get started down the path of
understanding the philosophy and practices of a farm.
What pesticides and herbicides do you use on your farm?
How do you encourage biodiversity on your farm?
Have you adopted indigenous principles in your farming practices?
What do you do to promote animal welfare?
What are you doing to help capture carbon on your farm?
Where were you made and assembled?
You're liable to get a few blank
stares if you ask all these questions at a conventionally managed
farm, but the questions will hopefully help open a broader discussion
of what healthy farming is. Question 6 is a bit of fun to help you
learn your farmers background and history. Keep reading to learn our
answers and how we Graze Against The Machine.
1. What pesticides and herbicides do
you use on your farm?
None. The plants and insects that we label
"weeds" and "pests" are an integral part of the
- We used to dig up all the thistles in our pasture, but after
observing goldfinches feeding on them, we began to let some of them
stand. Thistles can be invasive if you let them all go to seed but
leaving a few has not been a problem for us.
Kudzu is similar
to thistles in that if uncontrolled it can smother native trees and
shrubs. Fortunately, Pineywoods Cattle love kudzu! When we moved her
in 2014, the woods were almost impenetrable in places, the Pineywoods
have helped control kudzu, brambles, greenbriar and privet that had
grown unchecked for years. We can now walk upright through many parts
of the woods and are seeing new species of plants on the forest floor
like the Atamasco Lily.
Many of these so called "weeds"
are a healthy source of medicine. Our growing apothecary contains
curly dock, poke root and wild lettuce to name a few.
- North Carolina has a lot of insects! They eat vegetables and
fruit and guess what, they also eat "weeds". For that reason, we
don't weed the garden incessantly. We let horse nettle grow amongst
the tomatoes, and there are some bugs (yet to be identified) that
will devour the horse nettle and barely touch the tomatoes. Horse
nettle is in the nightshade family (Solanaceae) like
Another strategy has been to encourage predator
insects, i.e. the ones that prey on the insects that eat our food, by
planting more flowering plants for nectar and pollen, their food. We
have seen a reduction in tomato hornworms in the past 5 years due in
part to the increase of parasitoid wasp population. They lay the eggs
by injecting them under the skin of the worm. The larvae eat the
caterpillar from the inside out as the cocoons grow.
In addition, we also
interplant crops with plants that can help repel insects. For example
interplanting onions with carrots helps repel carrot flies and chives
and/or garlic grown in the orchard can help deter aphids and Japanese
beetles. We've made our own garlic/cayenne spray to use on various
plants to help keep insects from eating them, but the verdict is
still out on how effective it is for us.
And finally, there is
no substitute for hand-picking. There is a 3-5 week window each year
where we hand pick Japanese beetles into jars from the grapes, apples
and other plants every morning. They are easy to pick in the mornings
because they don't fly off and we often have chickens following us
around because the consider them a tasty treat.
2. How do you encourage biodiversity
on your farm?
Using the iNaturalist app from National Geographic,
we have identified over 450 species of plants, mammals, insects,
birds, reptiles, amphibians and fungi at Ozark Akerz since April
2019. Biodiversity is a broad measure of a healthy ecosystem, we have
sown over 40 varieties of wildflowers and planted 69, mainly native,
varieties of shrubs and trees to give animals food, shelter and
We have revived several native stands
of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in the pastures as well as
sowing butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) to help encourage
population growth. In 2020 we saw many more monarch butterflies.
Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed leaves and the flowers provide
an important source of nectar for butterflies.
3. Have you adopted indigenous
principles in your farming practices?
Ozark Akerz is located
on Skaruhreh/Tuscarora land that was stolen from the nations
centuries ago. Indigenous practice of Honorable Harvest has firmly
grounded our approach to regenerative farming. We take slow and
deliberate steps in our adoption of this ancient principle, honoring
the wisdom through understanding, practice and unlearning of other
Plants and animals all have
their gifts whether they be medicine, food, insect repellent,
predator alarm system, pollinator or living mulch. What gift do we
provide in return? Being thankful or grateful for the gifts plants
and animals provide is important as are acts of reciprocity which can
take many forms. Some are easy to identify, they help sustain the
ones who sustain us. This can be the gift of organic hay for
Pineywoods Cattle in winter or gifting the chickens, guineas and
turkeys a predator proof place to roost at night or gifting water to
plants during a drought. Other gifts are not so evident. What gifts
can we provide black walnut trees that have lived here for many years
in return for the harvest they gift us? The answer came to me in the
book Braiding Sweetgrass by scientist and member of Citizen
Potawatomi Nation Robin
Wall Kimmerer, which was recommended by a friend in Saponi
What I discovered was that we had unknowingly honored
Black Walnut with gifts in the past. The first couple years we lived
on the farm I made ornaments from Black Walnut shells. I cut the
walnuts into thin slices to display their inner beauty. I was drawn
to do it. While reading a particular chapter in Braiding
Sweetgrass, I learned that creating art or crafts to honor the
gifts we receive is widely practiced by indigenous nations. Kimmerer
has helped me discover why I was drawn to create the art, a hidden
place of honor and reciprocity for Black Walnut gifts. The day after
reading that chapter I felt inspired to create something to honor
Black Walnut people again, this time with intention, to thank them
for the gifts they continue to provide. The inner sanctum of the
walnut reminds me very much of ancient Scandinavian art, a connection
with ancestors in my new land. View
my gift to Black Walnut on Instagram
Robin Wall Kimmerer explains the
"The canon of indigenous principles that
govern the exchange of life for life is known as the Honorable
Harvest. They are "rules" of sorts that govern our taking, so
that the world is as rich for the seventh generation as it is for
The Honorable Harvest, a practice both
ancient and urgent, applies to every exchange between people and the
Earth. Its protocol is not written down, but if it were, it would
look something like this:
Ask permission of the ones whose lives you seek. Abide by the
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Take only what you need and leave some for others.
Use everything that you take.
Take only that which is given to you.
Share it, as the Earth has shared with you.
Reciprocate the gift.
Sustain the ones who sustain you, and the Earth will last
We have adopted the 7th Generation
Principle of indigenous nations around the world. "In our every
deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the
next seven generations."
The old farmhouse we live in was built
around an old log cabin in 1920. There was a tradition in the mid
1800's for newlyweds to plant 2 pecan trees when they moved into
their first home. The 2 pecan trees near the house are about 175
years old so we think the cabin was built around 1850, there are no
records to confirm this. Although we are unlikely to see many pecans
in our lifetime, we planted new pecan trees in 2019 to help feed
people who live here for the next 175+ years.
These Pecan elders continue
to feed us and our community and in 2020 we began sharing their pecan
seeds with non-profit Utopian
Seed Project and Project
Pando to ensure the genetics of these elders are preserved and
shared with future genrations.
In addition, we have applied the 7th
Generation Principle to our approach to managing our Pineywoods
Cattle. Sue and I struggled initially with our approach to
vaccinating the Pineywoods herd. We got a lot of advice from local
farmers and our extension office, but it was mainly based on
commercial breeds like Angus and Holstein which included a strict
vaccination regimen. We were very selective about the advice we chose
to follow. We both agreed that we didn't have to vaccinate for
everything, Pineywoods are, after all, renowned for being disease and
parasite resistant. When we pushed back on the many vaccinations the
vet recommended, we moved the discussion to one of risk management
instead of indiscriminate vaccinations. The vet finally, and with
much reservation, strongly recommend that at a minimum we vaccinate
for blackleg, leptospirosis and pink eye. Sue and I did not agree
about how to proceed. I was fearful of losing animals to blackleg
which is fatal. The farmers we spoke to in our area encouraged us to
vaccinate for it. Sue believed that any regular vaccinations would do
the breed a disservice and would breed the innate disease resistant
out of our herd in a few generations. After a lot of discussion, Sue
finally convinced me that we should not implement a fixed vaccination
regimen. Instead we would monitor individuals in the herd and treat
as necessary. We do vaccinate for tetanus when we castrate animals,
but apart from that, we do not adopt any strict vaccination regimen.
We have had one cow contract pink eye which we treated with
antibiotics and a patch over her eye. The pinkeye cleared up and she
We have since learned that another Pineywoods
breeder in Georgia, who used to raise Angus, vaccinated his Angus
herd for everything to keep them healthy. In the 12 years he has been
raising Pineywoods, however, he has never followed a strict
vaccination regimen and has never lost a head to disease. His
reasoning is like ours, that the breed is known for being healthy and
resistant to diseases. Our opinion (rightly or wrongly) is that the
more we vaccinate Pineywoods, the more vaccinations they will
This approach is not be for
everyone. Although many of our neighbors have lost animals to
blackleg in the past 5 years and we have not, we always outline the
risks of making this decision to all the farmers we sell breeding
stock to. We remind them that Pineywoods are resistant to diseases,
not immune to them and encourage them to gauge their personal risk
tolerance as well as proximity to other herds when making their
decision about vaccinations.
As breeders, we are always
enthusiastic about sharing the 500 year history of Pineywoods. But
it's also our responsibility to consider, and discuss, how our
actions may affect the Pineywoods population 500 years from now. For
us personally, that means being conscious about how the 7th
Generation Principle effects our choices and actions day-to-day,
including difficult decisions about vaccinations.
indigenous inspired journey, like nature, is constantly evolving. If
you are interested in following the guidance of indigenous wisdom,
you must take your own journey. To take a small step, discover the
indigenous land on which you live, at Native
Land then begin your journey through Robin Wall Kimmerer's
4. What do you do to promote animal
One of the reasons we chose to raise Pineywoods Cattle is
that they can thrive on a mix of grass and woodland. They eat
brambles, greenbriar, privet, kudzu and much more. They have not lost
their innate ability to graze for medicine like they did when they
ran wild. We have observed then take a bite of Black Walnut leaves,
branches and bark. Black Walnut contains jugulone, a natural
parasitic. We have stopped rotational grazing, giving them access to
as many forages as possible (food and medicine) so they can eat what
they need when they need it, important for their welfare.
the chickens, guineas and Romeo our guard-turkey are free to roam the
farm as they please for a healthy diet of grass and insects. We
supplement their diet with non-soy organic chicken feed from Reedy
Fork Organic Farm. During winter we only feed the Pineywoods
organic hay and they get an occasional treat of organic alfalfa
Weaning calves from their mothers can be very
stressful when you separate them. We allow the calves to naturally
wean off their mother's milk reducing that stress. They naturally
transition to 100% forage at about 10 months of age.
addition, we always sell 2 or more heifers or cows to other farms,
never a lone Pineywoods. The animals form strong bonds and having a
sister makes at your new home makes it less stressful and lonely. In
one case, a farmer who bought two cows and their calves from us could
only pick up a cow and calf on each trip. A week passed between the
trips. When the second cow was let out on the farm, the first cow
came running and mooing loudly and rubbed against her. The emotion
she showed to her sister was palpable and she proceeded to follow her
closely, mooing while her sister explored her new home. She had
clearly missed her. It was amazing to witness this on the video the
farmer shared with us, especially because this particular cow was a
bit mean spirited to other cows.
5. What are you doing to help
capture carbon on your farm?
Although we are constantly learning
new methods of capturing carbon in our soil, the trees that share the
land with us do most of the heavy lifting. By using the iTree
Canopy tool, we plotted over 2000 survey points to help us
identify the total amount of carbon that trees sequester annually.
Each year the trees sequester 817,200 lbs of CO2.
According to Carbon
Footprint, the annual average carbon footprint of American residents
is 36,350 lbs, in the EU it is 14,110. By using their carbon
footprint calculator we discovered that our footprint in 2019 was
Many people are arguing that methane from cattle
contributes enormously to climate change. It's important to
recognize that methane from cattle warms the climate differently than
CO2 from fossil fuels. Methane from cattle is considered biogenic, or
part of a
natural carbon cycle, whereas CO2 from fossil fuels continually
adds new carbon to the atmosphere. Methane stays in our atmosphere
about 12 years, carbon dioxide stays in our atmosphere for 1000
years, they contribute to warming very differently.
to Dr. Frank Mitloehner at UC Davis, beef cattle raised in the US are
responsible for 2%
of direct emissions. There are efforts to reduce overall methane
emission from cattle to actively pull carbon out of the atmosphere
and help with atmospheric cooling. A study published in 2019
indicates that seaweed added to feed reduces
methane in dairy cows by up to 60%. The Pineywoods have free
access to kelp year-round and although not the same species as the
one studied, we are hoping that studies on kelp will be
Please take our one
question survey about carbon capture
6. Where were you made and
I was made in Denmark, assembled on Faroe Islands,
Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Canada. I was imported to US from UK in
2008. This may not seem immediately important to farming until you
recognize where I first felt a connection with land.
introduced to how Mother Earth could provide for us through an
Ndebele gardener as a kid in Rhodesia.Musa grew carrots, peppers and
maize on a plot of land my parents rented. When he told me the
carrots were ready to eat, I'd pull one from the ground. "Leave
some dirt Michael, it is good for you." Musa would advise, and I
did exactly that. He made sadza, a maize based porridge. Musa would
make it the consistency of firm mashed potatoes so it could easily be
scooped and dipped into the pot of savory beef stew. He cooked both
over an open fire. Sadza and stew is one of my first food memories.
The smell of fire still evokes memories of this delicious meal and
the small shack (kaya) Musa lived, where an open fire always burned.
During my first visit to the kaya, Musa admonished me in his lovely
expressive accent, as I reached for my first scoop of sadza with my
right hand, "Eh Ayyy! You eat with your left hand only Michael! Use
your right hand to wipe your bottom." Millet
was the original ingredient of sadza but colonization changed
that. Some Zimbabwean communities have reintroduced millet which is a
lot more drought tolerant than maize. It's wonderful that some of
my Shona and Ndebele brothers and sisters are regaining their food
I don't have a North Carolina accent and people
often ask me where I'm from. I usually just give them the short
version and I designed the t-shirt above to wear as my personal
"country of origin" label. It's also a statement against the
fact that the United States does not have a law on the books forcing
beef to be marked with "country of origin". Unlike vegetables and
fruit this makes it impossible to know how the animals were raised,
the food they were fed or how they were treated.
This is just
one more reason to connect with and get to know your local
"Regenerative Farming is at it's
core, an indigenous practice" - Mike Hansen
Mike Hansen lives and works at
Ozark Akerz Regenerative Farm near Coleridge, North Carolina with his
nomadic wife Sue Meyer who has adopted North Carolina as her home.
Graze Against The Machine with them at ozarkakerz.com.