“The earth gets tried of being exploited. A country wears out quickly unless man puts back in it all his residue and that of all his animals. When he quits using beasts and uses machines, the earth defeats him quickly. The machine can’t reproduce, nor does it fertilize the soil, and it eats what we cannot raise.”
- Ernest Hemingway, 1935
Thompson Small Farm was launched in 2008 out of the belief that a return to a healthy, localized system of mixed farming using natural inputs and conducted on a human scale is one of the fundamental steps we must take if we are to restore the health of human and natural communities on this planet and live sustainably.
Modern Agribusiness took off in the years following World War II. Driven and soon controlled by the banks and the chemical and implement industries, the new agriculture spelled the doom of a system of sustenance that had nurtured and enabled the best of mankind for millennia. The consequences have been severe not just for the traditional farmer and the rest of the human community, but for the entire biosphere, with loss of topsoil, decrease in soil fertility, surface and ground water contamination, and enormous loss of genetic diversity in both the natural and the domestic animal communities being the hallmarks of postwar agriculture. Safeguarded by big money, this is still predominantly the way of the present. There is, however, no future in this for any of us.
We are attempting nothing new here on our small farm. We don’t believe there is wisdom in embarking upon another risky and prohibitively expensive technological fix to solve the mistakes of previous ones. Alternatively, we believe there were moments on this planet when humankind had reached the ideal equations for comfortable sustainability of our species and others, but that we passed through these moments of endeavor mostly without notice. We now have the knowledge gained by hindsight, and with this knowledge lies the power re-adopt the abandoned elements that worked. To re-embrace and to put back into practice the simple yet elegant systems with their track records of centuries. In essence, Thompson Small Farm is an attempt to return to the days when farming was conducted for the benefit of the immediate community and the farmer himself, with as little reliance as possible on financial or industrial institutions.
Our goal is not to “get big”. Rather, we wish to grow only large enough to do something positive for others and for the planet while sustaining ourselves in autonomous, modest comfort. In other words, to engage in “right livelihood,” and – very important to us – to hopefully be able to one day serve as an example to others of an alternative way to live, a way that sustains the global community as well as it does the family unit.
Our Solar Powered “Tractors”…
We use animal power for as many tasks as possible here. This is not an attempt to “turn back the clock” nor a vote of non-confidence in technology. It is rather a reflection of a basic truth: the horse and the ox are, to date, the only “solar-powered tractors” we have. While there is much faith in “miracle technologies” coming available just beyond some increasingly hazy horizon, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the current situation is in reality not about to change. Any replacement for the modern tractor would have to pass the test of not only being sustainable to operate, but also to manufacture. It is doubtful any machine requiring a magnitude of scale to be profitable to build could ever meet the latter requirement, even if it met the first. The horse meets both requirements admirably, however. Their fuel comes from the land, from the sun. Their wastes go back into nurturing that land. They don’t come from a strip mine or an assembly line. In this way, they are a “technology” that not only can be entirely supported on-farm, they return this support on a biological, as well as on an economic level. They enable the farm to function as it once did and as we believe it was meant to: as a largely self-contained ecosystem. This concept of farm-as-ecosystem is the foundation of what is popularly known as “Biodynamic Agriculture”.
There are other advantages of using animal power, too:
- Draft animals tread lightly on the land. Compared to machinery used for farming and woodlot management, they do minuscule damage;
- They cost vastly less than mechanized equipment (both to purchase and to maintain), they don’t depreciate as rapidly, and they don’t break down as often, and are often “self-repairing” when they do;
- The machinery used with draft animals is also far less expensive than mechanized machinery, and in many cases you don’t need to be a technician to fix it;
- They can work soil that’s wet enough to bog down machinery;
- Their slower pace gives you plenty of time to think while you work, making you less likely to get hurt in an accident compared to operating fast, noisy, powerful equipment;
- They offer companionship. No one develops the rapport with a rototiller or a tractor that a teamster inevitably has with a team;
- They don’t create global environmental and social turmoil as does the burning of hydrocarbons. (It is common for an agribusiness operation in Alberta today to burn $50,000 or more worth of diesel fuel in a single growing season at last year’s prices. In fact, it has been estimated that if all the world’s farmers conducted agriculture like we do in North America, we would run out of oil in about another 15 years.)
We train our own draft animals here using primarily natural, gentle, gradual methods. In supporting our farm, you are thus helping preserve not only rare breeds, but “endangered skills” as well! Skills we are eager to pass on to others.
There are few places in our culture where transitioning back to animal power would be practical today, but the mixed farm remains one. It is our belief that no farm – regardless of how they may be certified – can consider themselves serious about sustainability if they rely on the tractor or some other internal combustion machine or combination of machines as their primary on-farm power source. A failure on the part of any mixed farmer concerned with sustainability to consider and embrace animal power for their farm may not necessarily be a failure of ethics, but if not, then it is certainly one of cognition.
More on the Animals…
Animals are essential on a healthy farm. One of the many advantages of traditional mixed-farming is that the farmer can afford to focus some energy on raising breeds of livestock that have become rare in the race to create animals where the only requirement is maximum productivity. Ancestral breeds are generally healthier in many aspects than their modern counterparts, and somewhat like wildlife, have adapted over many generations to differing conditions. They need our support.
Ameraucana chickens are rare breeds here that lay blue eggs. We also choose to cross-breed some chickens, which results in hybrid vigor, and other colours, in the eggs as well as chickens! They are true free-range, going where they like and eating what they like, as well as the rations we feed them. This results in eggs that recent studies say are six times more nutritious than what you get in the grocery store.
Clydesdale horses are under global observation as a rare breed. They are considered the most graceful and elegant of the draft-horses – the “best movers”. We currently have two purebred Clydesdale mares (“Emma” and “Gwyneth”) and one purebred filly (“Sarah”), as well as a massive Clydesdale/Percheron cross mare (“Raven”). Raven, Emma and Gwyneth are our current working horses and Sarah is coming along in training.
Yaks are a species (not a breed) of cattle from high-elevation Asia. They have wild and very similar domestic counterparts. They are excellent for our climate, and have many advantages over cows. They are much hardier and healthier, eat about 1/3 as much as an equivalent cow, provide healthier meat and milk, and grow a fine fiber for spinning like a sheep. They can also be used as a pack-animal. We have just sold most of our yaks out of concern for our grass (last year was dry) but we still have a token few!
Again, welcome, and…
Thank-you for your interest!