Not sure where you stand on meat? Turning Meatless Mondays to Meatless Months just because it's hard to keep track of where your meat is coming from? We feel you -- and so do a lot of farmers out there. Which is why we're quite pleased at how en vogue closed loop farming is becoming.
A closed-loop system is one that essentially generates no waste, which usually means that from start-to-finish, everything is controlled by the same farmers. This means not only that diners have more visibility as to what they're eating, but you also know about the ecological principals of the farm you're supporting. We spoke with representatives of three very different organizations that have put a closed-loop system into place to see what this farming philosophy means to them.
Moving Towards Zero Waste
Some ways of keeping waste out of the farming cycle as much as possible seem as though they should be obvious. In fact, some are comparing this trend of a move back in time, at least to a certain extent, to when farming practices were simpler and not nearly as large-scale or industrial.
Such is the case for Grown and Gathered, a unique two-person team based in Australia that's quite hard to define -- even for them! On their site, of their activities, they say, "We tried to think of a clever way to say we grow and forage food and flowers and then give them to people. But we couldn't."
Co-founder Lentil explains, "We do not create waste, instead we feed it to our farm – collecting it, composting it and returning it to our soil. We fill our van with organic vegetables and flowers that we grow to deliver to Melbourne each week, and on the return trip we fill it with waste from people, restaurants and cafes that would otherwise go to landfill."
We also spoke with Portia McKnight of Chapel Hill Creamery, a dairy farm that produces not only milk and cheese but also meat. "We did not decide overtly to raise cows for slaughter," she says, "But that is part of the cycle of a dairy cow." On the farm, manure is continually produced and processed as fertilizer as well, completing the cycle and closing the loop.
But other ways of using farming byproducts may not seem as obvious at first. Chapel Hill Creamery found a way to use up supplemental whey, which is a natural cheesemaking byproduct and, according to Portia, "can be a problem to dispose of. It does make good supplemental feed for pigs."
White Oak Pastures is a multigenerational farm in Bluffton, Georgia, raising cows, hogs, sheep, goats, rabbits and a variety of fowl with quite a few ingenious ways of using up waste. Will Harris, the owner of the farm and a fourth-generation cattleman, explains just some of the many techniques he's put into place:
"Animal fat makes biodiesel. Blood makes liquid organic fertilizer. Lard is rendered. Soap is made. Meat and bone waste is composted. Vegetable wastes are fed to rabbits. Packing plant waste feeds black soldier fly larvae. Cracked eggs are fed to pigs. Hides are tanned. Stocks are made. Vegetables are canned. Sausage is made. Fruits are jellied."
It seems as though the possibilities are endless -- if you dream it, you can make it happen, and White Oak now has achieved a zero-waste status for their humane abattoirs.
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“Every day, we are learning more and more about how to manage our by-products,” says Will. “We recently learned how to render down our grass-fed beef fat to make tallow soap. It’s an ongoing commitment to do the right things for both our land and our animals.”
Lentil and Matt of Grown and Gathered are looking into adding a traditional yet unusual element into their loop. "Traditionally, human excrement was composted for at least 2 years and returned to the soil as fertility," Lentil says. "It's the ultimate of the closed loop. But, we understand this isn't for everyone."
Other Ways of Closing the Loop
It's not just a matter of waste, however. At White Oak Pastures, the Serengeti Rotational Grazing Model is put to use, where large ruminants graze first, followed by small ruminants and birds. This process is inspired by the East African ecosystem and allows for clean, safe grazing for all animals as well as natural fertilization of the grazing land.
Lentil and Matt do most of their work by foraging and gathering rather than planting and growing like more traditional farms. Lentil says, "We focus on growing a variety of both flowers and vegetables in season, creating an ecosystem within the farm, rather than 'monoculture.' All together there's over 500 varieties of plants that we grow, plus foraging."
But that's not all. Lentil and Matt also have a dairy cow on their property, and so after picking and planting, Lentil says, "The rest of the day is generally balanced between maintaining the garden beds, planting seeds/seedlings, preserving or pickling excess produce and making food (butter, cheese, sourdough bread etc)) for us all to eat- as we don't buy anything packaged, it's all made from scratch." Their loop is therefore almost entirely closed, seeing as while they do give away or sell some of their products, they consume most of them and trade what they don't consume for things they can't produce.
Why Close the Loop?
The motivations to move to such a farming model are multiple. Will Harris, who was formerly a more conventional cattleman, explains his reasoning. "There was a growing disgust with the industrial system that caused me to start down the path," he says. "I never intended to travel so far from the centralized agriculture that I was a part of, but one step led to the next. It just felt right to continue the transition. It still does."
As for Grown and Gathered, who decided to leave office work for their new life, Lentil says, "To be honest, we made the choice to be 100% happy. It was difficult at times, but we “jumped” together. The importance here isn't life on the land, it's following your heart. Everyone can contribute and everyone has their part to play."
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Images: Angie Mosier