Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 22, 2007
Farm couple embraces stewardship . . . and God saw that it was good
Sowing the seeds of stewardship with God's land saved this family's farm
By DON RUZICKA
- Photo supplied by Don Ruzicka
Don Ruzicka plants the tree seedlings surrounding them with plastic mulch.
Leopold speaks about the existence of an ecological conscience that is based on a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. If we take notice of nature, we can actually develop an ecological conscience. Nature grows on us.
By 1995 we had managed to dig ourselves a fairly deep financial hole by farming conventionally and were thinking about leaving the farm. A flyer arrived in the mail advertising a concept called Holistic Management. The flyer posed the question, "Would you like to get off the agribusiness treadmill?" This was the hook. Marie and I signed up for the eight-day course.
Holistic Management taught us that our farm was made up of many parts and all of the parts had to work in harmony for the farm to run efficiently. Clean water, healthy soils and wildlife habitat were just a few of the things that we had to focus on. If the land is not environmentally sustainable, it can never be economically sustainable.
HM is profoundly simple: decide what you want in life, link it to your production model, open your mind to new thinking and use that as a simple framework to bring in new tools and make decisions in a socially and environmentally sound way.
It has changed our life, the way we farm and most importantly, how we have come to view the land. It is also the "catalyst" that Wilson speaks about. It ignited that stewardship flame for us. When the snow melted in the spring of 1996, I saw the farm in a totally different light.
Our native pasture was overgrazed. There was an abundance of sage and yarrow, a sign that things were out of balance. Too many trees had been cleared in previous years as well as too many wetlands drained. The agribusiness model had taught me to look at the farm as a business. The more I complied, the more damage I did to the land.
Over the next two years, we seeded the entire farm to grass and legumes. Our land base is 200 acres of native pasture and 600 acres of tame pasture. We custom graze yearlings and own 25 cows. We raise hogs, chickens, laying hens and turkeys, all on pasture. We also have a large garden with fruit trees, strawberries and raspberries.
In 1997, I fenced off our creeks. One of our goals is to have the water coming down the creek to be as clean or cleaner when it leaves. We bought a portable solar powered pumping system to pump water to the cattle so that they wouldn't mess in the creek.
In January 1998, the Cows and Fish people came to our county and gave a presentation on riparian health. Earlier, I mentioned Aldo Leopold and the concept of an "ecological conscience." After this presentation, I started to connect the dots and my ecological conscience began developing.
- Photo supplied by Don Ruzicka
Wildlife finds safe refuge at the Ruzicka farm.
The fences did more than keep the cattle out of the water; they helped to protect and rebuild sensitive riverbank areas that are so valuable to wildlife.
Ducks Unlimited built a project on our creek in 1991. This was not an act of stewardship on my part. I needed water for our livestock on this quarter section. With a dam in place, we would have ample water.
Six years after the project was completed, I asked DU to come back and explain what I could do to encourage habitat on this project and on the rest of our farm.
I was surprised when they told me that by deferring grazing on my native pasture, I could encourage upland game to nest. Now we don't graze our native pasture until after Sept. 15. Wildlife has the undisturbed use of this land for habitat from spring until fall.
We have planted trees almost every year since 1983. Planting trees helped us to set a landscape goal for the farm of planting two rows of trees around the perimeter of every quarter and in some cases down the centre.
Leopold mentions that berry bushes attract birds. I thought that when these bushes bore fruit the birds would show up. Rather, it is when the berry bushes flower that they attract insects and the birds come for the insects. Wildlife also use these treed corridors to move around our farm.
Last year we planted six one-acre plots of 16 different species of trees including conifers, deciduous and berry bushes - 800 trees in each plot. It is our hope that these new bushes will attract more wildlife.
Another part of our landscape goal was to put birdhouses around the farm. In 2001, I built 150 birdhouses and put 30 on each of our five quarter sections. The occupancy rate was 27 per cent the first year and rose steadily to 84 per cent in 2005. We now have 200 birdhouses.
Some interesting things are happening. When the grasshopper population got out of control in 2002 and 2003, we didn't have a problem on our farm. A lot of our birdhouse residents were feasting on the larvae as well as the hoppers.
Some insects that hang out around our shelterbelt trees also pollinate the various plants, grasses and legumes in the pastures. We have 10 dugouts that are fenced off from livestock access. The grass growing up around the water provides excellent habitat for dragonflies. Mosquitoes hassle our livestock. Dragonflies eat mosquitoes and small grasshoppers.
I recently met an ornithologist who claims that there is a decline in swallow populations. We raise our poultry in pens out on the pasture. Every morning I move the pens 12 feet ahead. As soon as the pens are moved, there is a frenzy of swallows that swoop in and pick up feathers from behind the pens.
The swallows take the feathers to the birdhouses and tree cavities to build nests and we have an abundance of swallows.
When we took the HM course, we were desperate. We realized that we could no longer survive by farming conventionally. Our farm is now a niche market farm. All of our land is certified organic and everything that we sell is certified organic with the exception of our hogs.
- Photo supplied by Don Ruzicka
The Ruzickas want people to buy their food locally – like these pigs that they raise on their farm – and come to know the producer.
We direct market almost everything as it gives us the opportunity to show people how we raise and grow our food. We want to connect the consumer back to the land through the food that they purchase from us. This organic niche has allowed us to make money and give something back to the land.
For the first few years, I thought we would be able to carry on farming this way forever. However, the large food corporations have gotten into organics much faster than I thought. Although we have loyal customers, I am not sure they will continue to support us with the increasing price spread.
We have been working hard on Plan B for about six years and this is where we will make our last stand. Plan B is stewardship.
In observing people who have visited our farm over the last six years, I have noticed that some have a yearning that is aching to be filled. When they come in contact with nature being cared for, it seems to give them some peace and contentment.
Next on their list, they want great tasting food. They want to have a story behind their food. And they want to be romanced. We think that our farm can offer all of the above.
The urban family out on a Sunday drive to see how their food is raised and grown isn't going to find it in this age of industrialized, corporatized, supersized and vertically integrated agribusiness.
They can come to our farm and see chickens, turkeys, laying hens and hogs all being raised in a free range model. They can see calves being born in June. And they can witness stewardship that is happening.
When they sit down at their dining room table back in the city to dine on one of our chickens, they can be content that they are supporting a third generation farm, practising sustainability and stewardship. In this age of increasing concern about the environment, I believe that this "stewardship friendly farming model" can make a difference. But hey, I'm biased.
I am also concerned. Apparently we have about 30 per cent of our wetlands left and perhaps eight to 10 per cent of our native prairie left in this province. From what I see on our farm, these areas, along with riparian areas, are bastions of biodiversity.
If my doctor told me that I only had 30 per cent of my kidney function left and 10 per cent of my lung capacity left, I would be gravely concerned.
Why aren't more farmers caring for these vital areas? The explanation is quite simple - they are not making a living. The hard lesson that I learned is that when I wasn't making money, trees were cleared, wetlands were drained and riparian areas were overgrazed.
When I started to make a living, I was able to care for the land and then to develop that ecological conscience.
I have one large "unfair advantage" over most farmers and ranchers.
I know how long it took me to destroy a riparian area - 12 years.
- Photo supplied by Don Ruzicka
Don built 200 birdhouses to attract swallows.
I know how long it took to bring it back to a score of 84 per cent, which is healthy. It took 12 years.
It took me six years of overgrazing to destroy habitat for meadowlarks on our farm. It took six years of careful grazing management to bring them back. Meadowlarks and Spraggs Pipits are barometers that let me know how well I am managing my pastures.
The second year that we were on the farm I cleared 20 acres of native prairie and bush that was a nesting ground for sharp tail grouse.
They have been gone for 24 years now and they still aren't back. Sometimes we go too far in destroying habitat, and this may be one of those cases, although I haven't given up yet.
Two years ago I plowed down three plots of pasture and planted them to a mix of wheat, barley, oats, peas, corn and sunflower seeds. Each plot is about half an acre. One plot is by a large treed area, another is by a wetland and the third is on the edge of a pasture out in the open.
I hope that this experiment will provide food for the fall and winter months to birds who may consider taking up residence or who need a convenience store along their migration path.
In the last six years we have planted 25,235 trees - an average of 4,206 trees per year.
This year, we planted another 4,200 trees, some of them in another one-acre wildlife plot.
I have also started planting 2,000 white spruce seedlings in the poplar bush areas around the farm where most of the poplars have died.
Our trees are fenced off from livestock. The grass on each side and in between the rows is left for wildlife. This adds up to 51 acres for wildlife. It gives us pleasure to see nature at its best.
Mule deer and white tail deer follow these two row shelterbelts throughout the winter, breaking the snow crust and foraging on the grass.
Wendell Berry, Aldo Leopold and the Amish people all speak about community. They tell us that community is not just people around us, but also nature, environment or the land.
Many movies are about a relationship between two people that goes bad. In some cases, after a long period of time, one of these people realizes that it was his or her fault that the relationship failed. They work very hard for a long time to make amends and heal the relationship. This is exactly what happened between myself and the land.
After a number of years I realized that I had made some serious mistakes and the stewardship that is now taking place on our farm is a result of that realization.
I finally got it - I am a part of that community and I have responsibilities to that community.
Otto Leopold states: "A farm is a portrait of the farmer." I would like to revise this just a touch. "A farm is a portrait of the farmer and those who have so graciously had the patience to influence and mentor him." I continue to hope that more people will realize that we all have the ability to influence others to make a difference.
The land needs more stewards.
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