The secret to good health, environment conservation and regional economic stimulation is dirt, say ecologically conscious farmers.
CUERO - The secret to good health, environment conservation and regional economic stimulation is dirt, say ecologically conscious farmers.
It’s not glamorous, but well-cared-for earth is the foundation in which sustainable farming is rooted.
By working with nature, Gary Henneke, 58, says he keeps soil happy and healthy by moving animals around his 250-acre farm in Cuero.
Healthy soil leads to healthy plants and animals; healthy plants and animals lead to healthy food, which leads to healthy humans, he says.
His intent is to mimic their naturally migratory behavior.
For example, Henneke moves his 50 head of cattle almost daily so they do not overgraze a pasture. Overgrazing could deplete the variety of plants in a pasture and affect his herd’s diet. Also, the cattle are not standing in their manure, breathing in toxins. Every one to two weeks, Henneke rotates his egg-laying hens into the resting pasture. They scratch at leftover manure in search of insects. This disperses the natural fertilizer helping his cattle’s favorite grasses recuperate.
“We don’t see these things in the soil that are taking place, but when they’re not there, it shows up in lack of growth and good health,” Henneke says.
He says that with industrial farming techniques such as confining animals to a single space and using commercial chemicals and fertilizers, natural resources are quickly depleted, the soil becomes imbalanced and the quality of the product is reduced.
“Nature is sustainable. Nature does what it does, but humans want to control certain things. I want to control less, learn how to utilize the place to where the animals can improve the property, use it and not deplete it,” Henneke says.
In the documentary film “Polyfaces,” Virginia farmer Joel Salatin says if every farmer practices the nature-mimicking system of sustainable livestock farming, within 10 years, all carbon emitted since the Industrial Revolution would be isolated.
Henneke attempts to pattern his farm off Salatin’s “let the animals do the work” method of farming.
The Cuero farmer says, “letting the animals do the work” is actually more labor-intensive than industrial farming methods. Cattle, chickens and pigs are constantly moved across large parcels, and the electric fence defining their pasture is moved with them. Since Henneke avoids artificial chemicals, invasive plant species are uprooted with a hoe.
The chores are physically exhausting and abundant. Henneke is not quite a one-man show. His wife and a teenage daughter help.
His sustainable and humane approach to farming is what drew longtime costumer Debra Chronister, 54, to his products. For health reasons, the Victoria College art associate professor and yoga instructor started eating fresh, local, antibiotic- and chemical-free produce. She is a veteran of organic eating.
“We are what we eat,” Chronister says. “If you eat mass-produced, antibiotic-raised, factory-farmed, mushy food, that’s what you become. If you eat smart animals that are out there hunting, eating their forage and selecting their food and are walking and running, being energetic in their life, that’s the way you’re going to be. That makes so much sense to me.”
Chronister buys meat from Henneke at the Victoria Farmers’ Market. She says it is healthier and tastes better than mass-produced products, and she believes it’s important to support regional farmers.
Henneke attends the Saturday market almost every week. At his stall, shoppers can buy large eggs at $4.50 a dozen, beef T-bone steaks at $14 a pound, pork chops at $7.25 a pound and more. He says it’s not the same price you pay at the grocery store because it’s not the same product.
Chronister agrees, “It is worth your time, worth the years on your life to spend the extra effort to find clean food, to eat food closer to the source, closer to the land, more pure and to spend the time cooking it.”
At his stall, the unpretentious farmer is willing to share the knowledge he’s been gleaning since before 2002 with those interested in sustainable farming.
“What I would like to see is younger people to get into it and be able to make a decent profit from it, but that’s going to take a lot of education for consumers.”
Chronister also encourages consumers to educate themselves in permaculture and sustainable farming.
“We have natural laws that we can only flunk so many years,” he said.
Because nature is ever-changing, the education process for Henneke is continual and he can only devote evenings and weekends to his farm. He is also a full-time gas and pipeline corrosion technician. Eventually, Henneke would like to support his family and lifestyle with the farm.