Sustainable Small-Scale Grain Raising

Final Report for FW01-081

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2001: $2,040.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
Henning Sehmsdorf
S&S Homestead Farm
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Project Information


The goal of the project is to demonstrate the technical and economic feasibility of growing organic grain, in this case barley, on small acreage using appropriately scaled equipment. Until this project, no organic grain was grown in San Juan County. Meanwhile, the number of small farms on Lopez Island has grown in recent years, and many need organic grain and straw to produce livestock. The isolation of the San Juan Islands, an hour by ferry from the mainland, makes importing feed grain and straw prohibitively expensive.

In the long run, S&S Homestead Farmers aims to produce 2 tons of organic barley a year in rotation with soil-building crops to supply the farm with animal feed for up to two years. The farm will demonstrate that it can produce organic grain on a small scale to meet the needs of local farmers, at the same time increasing local food security and furthering S&S Homestead's goal of farm-level self-sufficiency and outreach to the community.

During the summer of 2002, barley planted on a 2-acre leased paddock yielded nearly 2 tons of organic grain and 80 50-pound bales of straw. The loan of equipment from a collaborating farm failed to materialize, so the field was not plowed as intended but left to fallow. A small herd of beef cattle was wintered on the paddock to break the sod and fertilize the soil.

In May 2002, the field was rotovated with equipment rented from a neighbor and the barley planted with a hand-held organ seeder. About a month after germination, residual thistles were removed by hand. From then, the rapidly growing barley outperformed the weeds, precluding cultivation. No herbicides or synthetic fertilizer were applied.

The experimental threshing equipment available through Washington State University turned out to be larger, and expensive to transport, than a vintage 8-foot combine available on the island. Despite the relatively high cost of hiring harvesting equipment, the net out-of-pocket expense for producing organic barley and straw remained well below market value, demonstrating the economic feasibility of raising grain on a small scale to meet the farm goals of feed self-sufficiency, biodiversity and soil health. Indeed, soil tests taken in spring 2002 showed available potassium and phosphorus were in the high range in the barley field compared with low to medium levels in neighboring pastures, and total nitrogen was 10-20% higher, demonstrating the effectiveness of replenishing the soil fertility through winter feeding cattle. Growing grain in the same area recycled the accumulated soil nutrients in the form of animal feed, forestalling potential groundwater pollution.

Preparing the soil of the barley field using animals instead of plowing and disking provided an unexpected opportunity to adjust the practice of wintering cattle on a designated sacrifice site. Previously, animals - usually one bull, six cows, six yearlings and six calves - were held on the smallest area possible, usually 2 acres, during the rainy season of about four months. The animals soon became mired in mud and wasted hay. The idea had been to sacrifice as little land as possible, saving the pasture and hayfields from soil compaction.

With the farm's focus shifted to using animals to fertilize and break sod, the practice was made more efficient by subdividing pastures using electric cross-fencing to concentrate animals in smaller paddocks for shorter periods. The animals were fed daily by distributing a narrow strip of fresh hay across the entire paddock. When moved, the animals left behind several inches of hay covered with a fresh layer of excrement. The sod was broken with no deep mud.

Within days, large flocks of birds, including robins, juncos, sparrows, crows and ravens, moved in to distribute the manure and work it into the ground. Night-crawling earthworms, Lumbricus terrestris, incorporated the hay residues into the soil. The ground was left open for about four weeks when the cattle were moved in again. Altogether, estimates project coordinator Henning Sehmsdorf, 50 tons of manure was incorporated into the two-acre field, leaving about 300 pounds of nitrogen, 100 pounds of phosphorus and 250 pounds of potassium per acre, considerably more than needed to produce 2 tons of barley.

Because of the excess nutrients, Sehmsdorf embarked on a rotational cycle of three 2-acre sites instead of one. In November and December 2002, the animals were fed hay on a 2-acre portion of summer pasture for four weeks. The animals grazed the remaining grass, did not break the sod and left behind a sold layer of hay and manure. Four weeks later, the pasture was re-growing with new grass sprouting from the residual seeds in the hay. After Christmas 2002, the cattle were moved to a new 2-acre field, the site of the 2003 barley field, where they wintered for two months, enough time to break the sod. At the end of February, the cattle were moved to next year's barley field, where they were to spend the rest of the winter, after which it was to be seeded to alfalfa and a nurse crop of oats, which will be harvested and fed to the farm's milk cow. Next year's rotations will involve new sites, the goal to eventually replenish soil fertility on a continuing basis.

"With the production of both barley and alfalfa-oat hay, in addition to summer forage, S&S Homestead Farm will have accomplished its larger goal of self-sufficiency in producing organic, additive-free feed for all its animals sustainably," says Sehmsdorf.

Since its inception 30 years ago, S&S Homestead has been managed on the holistic principle of quality of life. From less than 1 acre of vegetable and fruit production, with a few chickens to supply food for the family, the farm now also produces beef, pork, lamb, chickens, eggs and dairy products on 50 acres, supplying 50 islands families with much of their food.

"Over time," says Sehmsdorf, "we have learned to minimize purchased inputs, producing animal feeds and natural fertilizer on the farm as needed to support a farm organism in which human, plant and animal life support each other in a symbiotic whole that progressively derives more of its energy from the sun and less from fossil fuels. We believe that national food security begins at the local level in rural communities, and that society as a whole benefits from the ability of families and communities to support and feed themselves."

During 2002-03, three other small producers on Lopez Island, Brent Charnley, Peter Ludwig and Kenny Giacomo, experimented growing winter wheat, oats and barley using methods similar to those demonstrated in this SARE project. Their goal is to provide for their own needs.

The flexibility built into this project allowed pursuit of an alternate path - field cultivation with animal impacts instead of machinery - that proved to be more beneficial. Based on that experience, Sehmsdorf recommends that other similar SARE-funded projects build that type of goal-oriented flexibility into their own projects.

During various phases of the project, the findings were communicated to a variety of audiences, emphasizing these topics:

· The technical and economic feasibility of growing organic grain on small acreage while minimizing off-farm inputs
· The feasibility of small-scale production to support local food systems and food security
· The potential to rotate collaborative small-scale grain production on several island farms
· The sustainability of small-scale grain production at S&S Homestead Farm

S&S Homestead considers its interns - usually graduate students working on degrees in ag-related fields - as its most important audience. In 2002, the farm employed four interns from Washington State, Texas, Sweden and India. One, Andrew Haden, was recruited for a six-month stay to assess the ecological sustainability of production, including grain. His completed study is "Energy analysis of food production at S&S Homestead Farm." The interns were not only involved in all phases of the grain project they also prepared and discussed its various aspects during weekly farm seminars. Visitors to the on-farm workshops and demonstrations included 25 students in sustainable agriculture from Evergreen State College in Olympia; 16 livestock advisors from San Juan, Skagit and Snohomish counties participating in annual training offered by Washington State University; 15 high school ag science students; and a group of middle school students from Seattle.

Others visiting the farm or learning about its activities included the Earth Ministry, a faith-based organization from Seattle committed to simplified living, environmental stewardship and social justice; Seed Savers, a group of 40 or so gardeners on Lopez Island; Michael Karp, president, A World Institute for Sustainable Humanity in Bellingham; and a group of professional conservationists including Gus Hughbanks, NRCS state conservationist, and Lynn Brown, chairman of the Conservation Commission.

David Muehleisen, research and outreach coordinator for WSU's Small Farms Program, worked with the interns on nutrient recycling. Andy Bary, a scientist at WSU's Puyallup Research and Extension Center, helped the interns develop soil tests. Dick Carkner, WSU agricultural economist, helped the interns develop a model for economic analysis of the farm and its grain project. And Tim Seifert, executive director of the San Juan County Preservation Trust, visited the farm to discuss local food security and the role of the trust in preserving farm land.

Sehmsdorf presented information about the grain project in June 2002 to 250 cattle producers at the American Highland National Convention in Mount Vernon, Wash., and in December 2002, he and intern Haden spoke and presented posters to about 40 researchers from WSU, OSU and other regional universities and 300 producers attending the annual conference of the Tilth Producers.


Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.