The Holistic Homestead?

snowfall birds nest garden farm
An early snowfall blankets the perennial garden.

Review last year’s ups and downs?

I just feel like tossing last season in the bin and not looking back.

It was a summer of digging deep. We were met by challenges both planned and unplanned. Some were so hard, it was impossible to write about them–not a great way to meet my goal of blogging twice a week.

The Challenge We Expected


Introducing lambs to our farm ecosystem was in the plan. Peter beat the bushes researching mobile livestock housing, watering and fencing. He bought and built the necessary infrastructure. He read up on lamb husbandry and persistently pestered our friends for their pasture management wisdom.

Finally the day came when seven lambs arrived, and there was no going back.

lambs birds nest garden farm
Lambs arrive at Bird’s Nest Garden Farm. Let the games begin!

Even though we knew in our heads that being shepherds would be a steep learning curve, I don’t think we really got it. It’s kind of like realizing that being a new parent will change your life, but you really have no idea until you are in the thick of it. No going back.

Several posts could be dedicated to the daily dance of raising pastured lambs on our degraded hayfield. And perhaps they will be. I’ll leave that up to Peter.

Birds Nest Garden Farm lambs pasture mobile shed
Moving the lambs and chickens onto fresh pasture required daily fence shifting.

I’m grateful there were no accidental losses in the lamb flock. The chickens reluctantly worked out a peaceful co-existence with their new neighbours. We arrived at a somewhat standard daily pattern of  care with only occasional “family-bonding” events as needed for big moves and capturing escapees.

The Challenge We Didn’t Expect


We received one-third our usual rainfall on the farm this summer. I know there are many places in the world where that rainfall would be a godsend. Here in the Great Lakes, we were not prepared.

drooping swiss chard drought
Swiss chard baking in the relentless heat.

It was hot, dry and depressing. Really depressing. The rain barrels were empty. The well was sluggish. After the humans and animals were looked after, the vegetables received just enough water to keep them alive.

My beautiful crop plan had to be shelved. There wasn’t enough water to keep all the established and future plants growing. Garden beds lay empty as no cover crops would germinate. The hoop house was an oven. Vegetation shrivelled in the field (notice that dry field in the above picture with the lambs.)

As I told one friend, “It is not so much a summer of growing, as a summer of keeping things from dying.” Frustratingly, I had to miss four market days due to lack of produce. I felt like a major failure.

Silver Linings

chicory flower birds nest garden farm
Chicory blooms in the meadow at Bird’s Nest Garden Farm

Having the lambs on the landscape was an unexpected, “Ahha!” moment for us. It felt like the piece of the biodiversity puzzle we’ve been missing for years. Having taken the plunge, we are now convinced that grazing animals are key to restoring health to our soil. We read that the holistic pasture management techniques we were following would theoretically build topsoil and sequester carbon. As we learn more about the role of mycorrhizal fungi and soil microbes in building topsoil, we are more intrigued than ever.

Holistic management.

There’s that phrase. We’ve been trying to get our head around it for years, beginning with a weekend workshop over ten years ago, introducing the concepts. Managing your pasture holistically is one application, another is managing your life.

Holistic Management is a decision-making framework that ensures our decisions are economically, environmentally and socially sound i.e. the triple bottom line. Holistic Management enables you to develop a clear vision of the future you want.

Even though I would not have chosen that time off from the farmers’ market, it forced me to reassess my farming goals. I had to grapple with:

  • When did growing for market become more important than our stewardship goals for this place?
  • How much of my limited focus and energy was going into growing annual vegetables as compared to long term projects like designing a resilient landscape?
  • How does the intense nature of market gardening benefit our family’s desires for quality time together?
  • How can we be a better resource for our neighbours?

These are all questions our family will continue to work through this winter as we revamp our holistic plan for Bird’s Nest Garden Farm. I know there will still be unexpected challenges, such is the nature of life. But at least we have a framework to make decisions about the expected challenges together.

winter scene birds nest garden farm
It’s an excellent time to snuggle inside and prepare for the next season.

2 Replies to “The Holistic Homestead?”

  1. Not boring! Growing up on a farm, I remember those years where there was not enough rain, too much rain, hail, aphids, blight, Dad with a leg cast, too many flies in the chicken house; and then there were those times that we were singing or reciting poems (mostly Jeff) in the beanfield, sitting in the back of the truck waiting for Dad to circle around and then helping to refill the planter, singing while we gathered eggs. I wouldn’t change a thing.

    1. What beautiful memories, Kate. I always loved coming out to your farm as a kid (and eating your mom’s yummy cooking.) Thanks for sharing.

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