Nurturing Diversity: A Farmer’s Quest

By Woody Woodruff

I have never regretted any of the work I have done over the years on my farm to increase its biodiversity.  Originally, my goal for returning plant diversity to the prairie was to promote cleaner water by filtering farm chemicals and preventing soil loss. However, what I observed over time was that my nurturing started a snowball effect by re-energizing ecological services.  An ecological service is any positive benefit that wildlife, plants, bacteria or fungi give to an ecosystem, while also providing life to people. These basic services make life possible for all of us.  Plants clean air and filter water, bacteria process wastes, bees pollinate flowers, and roots hold soil in place. Together diverse ecosystems make life on earth sustainable, functional, and resilient to change.

Our role as the human species in each of our own communities should be to nurture that diversity in nature.  For some reason we have the illusion that we are dominant over nature and not just a small part of the natural ecosystem. In a relatively short period of time over the course of history, we humans have disconnected from our role as “nurturers of nature” and instead have become conquerors by destroying rain forest and other natural habitats to gain more cropland. We then continue to oppress diversity by first sterilizing life in the soil through tillage and then replacing it with just one or two types of crops while preventing anything else but those crops from growing. Nature is not given the opportunity to heal itself, and our health and well-being as humans also suffers.

Lindsay Record harvests kernza, a perennial wheat, on Woody’s Mud Prairie Farm. Kernza is one of the many species that grown on the farm in addition to several acres of restored prairie.

Humans are altering, mining, and consuming what the natural system has taken a great length of time to develop, with little regard for its effect on life as a whole. We humans, in an ever-growing number of regional societies across the globe, have adopted the premise that this type of system of less diverse mono-cropping will provide us with food security. Food security is having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food: [more]the ultimate in individual food security is growing your own food. I can think of an extremely small number of farmers I know that have gardens of their own. While it is estimated that 1 in 3 families have a garden, few can sustain life from what is grown in it. The majority of us all rely on food that comes from our modern farming system, much of which is highly processed and devoid of real nutrients. This modern system did make life easier—people could pursue jobs and careers outside of agriculture and just go to the super market for food– and our population has grown from it. But, when the majority of a society is not being connected to the natural system and knows very little about food production, it comes with a hidden price. The burden of food production has fallen on an alarmingly small percentage of individuals. The pressure on these farms to feed a growing population has caused farm size to dramatically increase while also forcing specialization on just a few products. In the name of efficiency these farms became focused on just corn, soybeans, and maybe a little wheat or oats. The food industry has made the best of processing these few choices into most all our food choices. High fructose corn syrup, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrolized soy protein, MSG (monosodium glutamate), and a whole series of preservatives and stabilizers made from soy are a part of nearly every processed product on grocery store shelves.

As a perennial wheat, kernza restores health to soil through it’s vast root system that stays in place year after year, capturing carbon and preventing soil and water runoff while also providing nutrient-dense grain.

Relying on a few high yielding crops grown on the majority of our cropland has come with a hidden cost to our ecological services as well.  In an extremely short period of time we have damaged our food security by depleting available nutrients, available topsoil, available pollinators, available safe drinking water, and stored fossil fuels, while releasing carbon into the atmosphere and destabilizing our climate.

Climate destabilization leads to culture destabilization. I feel strongly that we all need to start nurturing diversity in our lives. Initiate, plant, propagate, and grow diversity in your surroundings right now. Make this your positive contribution back to the Earth. On this farm I have planted over 80 different types of crops, herbs, grasses, forbs, shrubs, and trees. Most of these species are either a food source or a medicine. Every year I have expanded the diversity on this 160 acre farm. From this continuous nurturing of the timber, prairie, wetlands and cropland ecosystems I am seeing the snowball effect of the return of ecological services. I am actually seeing a stabilizing of numbers in each of the different types of animals, plants and insects that live in the different ecosystems. The balance is returning to the health of this natural system. I find the diversity in nature inspiring, nurturing and far, far more productive than I ever could be without it.

Flowers and fruiting trees provide diversity and help create balance in the natural ecosystem on Woody’s farm.