PHOTO: Nicole Bratt/Flickr
Chris Bond
April 25, 2016

Wild farming, aka wilderness farming, is gaining momentum as an alternative to industrial farming. It’s hardly a new idea though. In fact, if presented with the ideologies and methodologies behind “wild farming,” our ancestors would have found it un-novel and quite commonplace.

Wild farming, or “farmscaping,” is simply an approach to food or crop production that seeks to work with the natural environment however it is found, as opposed to seeking to alter it to fit an agricultural need. It includes such principles and farming methods as permaculture, agroforestry and, of course, sustainable agriculture. Crops choices on wild farms are determined based upon what the site can sustain instead of utilizing it until depleted. Before one considers setting up a farm in the wilderness, several considerations need to be addressed

A Farmscaping Plan

No two sites are quite alike when devising a farmscaping plan. The unique properties of each site need to be taken into account. Is there water on site? Does water from neighboring properties flow through the proposed wild farm site? Is it arid and rocky, or lush and humid? All of the climatic and physical land features must be taken into account.

Wetlands

Wetlands serve a vital function in the ecosystem and wild farms need to learn how best to take full advantage of their potential. Wetlands help to prevent flooding, improve water quality and sequester carbon. Wild farms protect this function by either leaving it be as they are or by growing crops in that space that are appropriate for wet environments, such as rice, cranberries and edible grasses.

Non-edible crops can also be considered for wetland areas. Trees and shrubs can be selected for potential lumber harvest, animal habitat or to attract beneficial insects.

Pastureland

Wilderness farms that contain pastureland and intend to graze animals upon it must ensure that they do not overburden the pasture by allowing too many animals to feed there. Calculations should be performed based upon available pasture acreage, as well as the type, size and intent of the animals to be feeding upon it.

A pasture rotation plan should be implemented so that portions of pasture are untouched and preserved for future years, and so that previously grazed areas have ample time to recover before being grazed again.

Wildlife Corridors

Wildlife corridors need to be maintained on wild farms. These are usually pre-existing paths that the wildlife has created to traverse to and from various points. By taking these areas away or significantly altering them, wildlife is forced to find alternative paths, which may lead them to direct contact with other desirable crops. A wild farm co-exists with its wild neighbors.

Other

Other natural features that may be a part of a wild farm include waterfalls, dense forest and rocky areas. In all cases, wild farm plans should account for the myriad topographic features of their site, and if they can’t be utilized without being altered, then they shouldn’t be included in the farmscaping plan.

A Schedule In Sync With Nature

Wilderness farms follow the cycles of nature. They do not seek to “cheat” Mother Nature—they respect her ways. This doesn’t mean that season-extension facilities, such as cold frames or hoop houses, cannot be used, but it means that artificial inputs are kept to a minimum. The power that drives a wild farm is largely derived from the natural sources that are abundant during each respective season.

A No-Till Strategy

Soil is teeming with biological activity and life on the microscopic level. Traditional deep-tilling of the soil disturbs these underground ecological communities and reduces the health of the soil, and thereby its ability to sustain the plant life within it. Wild farming seeks to replicate the natural cycle of the forest floor, which adds nutrient-rich material every year without disturbing the community beneath it.

The additional benefit of no-till farming approaches is that compaction of the soil is greatly reduced. Compacted soil does not drain as well, it can restrict root growth and it doesn’t allow for as free an exchange of nutrients between soil and roots as soil with good tilth does.

This doesn’t mean that no equipment is necessarily used for field preparation on wild farms. A chisel plow or disc may be run along the top of the surface to create furrows for seeds. This only disturbs the top few inches and leaves the microbial soil community largely untouched.

Diversity

Wild farming is about respecting and emulating the natural wild biodiversity that nature provides. Monocultures, such as fields of corn and soy, are dangerous to the ecosystem. By hosting a wide variety of plant species, beneficial insects are attracted, diseases don’t proliferate and total crop failures are unlikely. This is because most diseases and pests are unable to attack all species of plants. Insect pests are also less likely to be attracted to field sites with diverse plantings, or they’re outcompeted by predatory insects—what we’d consider to be “good bugs.”

Reliable Field Guides

Even the most experienced farmer, wild or otherwise, cannot possibly know all species of all flora and fauna. When getting to know your unique site, be sure to consult as many local sources and field guides that are at your disposal. Farming should not be about re-inventing the wheel but about borrowing as many different techniques that work best to a specific site.

Field guides, such as those publish by Peterson, Audobon and other reputable sources, should be consulted to take an accurate inventory of the biological assets of your wild farm.

When it comes to wild farming, Eliot Coleman said it best:

“The only truly dependable production technologies are those that are sustainable over the long term. By that very definition, they must avoid erosion, pollution, environmental degradation and resource waste. Any rational food-production system will emphasize the well-being of the soil-air-water biosphere, the creatures which inhabit it and the human beings who depend upon it.”


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