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Waste Not, Want Not: Recycling on the Farm

By Emily Donegan
September 12, 2014
FarmOrganicHealthy Living

Recycling on Stonyfield farm

If you knew me as a child, you may still be scratching your head over my career as a dairy farmer. I don’t think anyone saw it coming, including me. However, there’s one aspect of organic farming that has always been an important part of my life, and that is recycling.

When I was a kid, recycling wasn’t a normal part of waste management as it is today. Rather, it was a new and novel concept. I remember the day that my town started a recycling program at the town hall. On Saturdays, motivated and conscientious citizens could bring their bottles and cans to the center and sort them for recycling. My mom made the front page of the local newspaper for patronizing the center on the first day it opened. A year or so later, I joined the “Clean Up Club,” essentially a group of 8-year olds who spent their weekends picking up trash. In high school, I started a paper recycling program at my school. It’s always been an issue near and dear to my heart.

Given the passion I have for recycling, then, my career choice really isn’t so surprising, because organic farming is all about recycling nutrients. Instead of mining the soil and adding synthetic fertilizers to create food products, as conventional farming tends to do, organic farming methods preserve nutrients and increase them using the basic tenants of nature.

In our system, cows graze the pastures. As each grass plant is grazed, the roots underground prune themselves, which – under careful management – can build topsoil rapidly. The cows also enrich the soil and replace nutrients with their manure. If hay spoils, we compost it. On the infrequent occasion that a cow dies on the farm, we compost her body. When we take hay off the farm and feed it back to the cows, we recycle it back through the system. The only way in which nutrients leave the farm is in the form of delicious, nutritious milk—the sale of which allows us to maintain our livelihood.

I try to keep the basic concept of nutrient recycling at the forefront when making decisions on the farm, and this approach serves me well.

I recently found myself scratching my head over a pallet of unused cow grain that’s been sitting in the barn for the past few months. We ordered the grain to feed to our dry cows: it helps to get their bodies in balance before calving. We mistakenly ordered a bit too much, though, to the tune of $500 or so – not exactly small change around here. Since the minerals in the grain are specifically balanced for non-lactating cows, we can’t feed them to our cows now, who are all milking. And by the time we have dry cows again, the grain will be stale.

My usual recycling-minded solution for unused feed is to compost it, but the idea of dumping such expensive stuff amongst cow manure and rotting hay just doesn’t seem right. So much to my children’s’ delight, we decided to add a new species of animal to the farm for this fall: pigs!

Pigs are the natural recycling agents of the farm. It’s no wonder that farmers have kept them around for centuries: they turn the farm’s waste products into nourishing meat. Pigs have gotten a bad rap in the past 30 years or so, mostly due to non-ideal conditions in the industry. But even the FDA is now recognizing that meat from free-ranging pigs—especially those fed organically—is a healthful source of many nutrients (particularly vitamin D, which is sadly difficult to glean from our modern diets).

Though I can always feel good about composting our garden waste and sour milk (as well as the unappetizing concoctions that my children tend to create when left alone in the kitchen for too long), I’m going to feel even better about turning it directly into meat to feed my family. It’s hard not to be blissful about bacon, but bacon from an organic system that can grow and feed our family, grow our herd, and build our soils—that’s the kind of bacon I’ll take any day. Recycling has never tasted so good.