Biodynamic Production on the Farm – May 12, 2016

One-Day University at S&S Homestead on Lopez Island, WA in May

 

“Our specialty is health; our product is people.” With these words, Henning Sehmsdorf opened the One-Day University held at S&S Homestead on Lopez Island. Sixteen farmers gathered from as far south as Olympia, drawn by the successes of Henning and his partner Elizabeth Simpson in envisioning and maintaining a highly integrated and internally self-sufficient whole farm operation. As an added bonus, Dr. Brook Brouwer, a Lopez Island native and newly hired director of San Juan County WSU Extension, shared his work with the Mount Vernon Research Station regarding grain and pulse variety selection and their use in integrated crop rotations.

After a fresh-cooked pizza lunch, the taste of which was enhanced by the fact that all ingredients—from the fermented sourdough crust to the mozzarella on top—was produced on farm, participants gathered in the barn to get down to business. Henning started with an overview of the history and economics of S&S Homestead. In 1967, before the farm came into existence, it all started with a 50-year plan. Purchasing the first 10 acres of S&S Homestead in 1970, S&S Homestead is now in its 46th year of production with 55 acres, and at year 50 of that first long-term plan.

Two keys to success, according to Henning: staying in one place and not accumulating debt. Without the burden of debt, his operation is fully self-sufficient in providing food, housing, and energy for the six people living on the farm while paying all the farm bills, intern stipends, capital investments and infrastructure improvements. As an integrated system, his operation includes vegetable production that supports farm residents and a small CSA, a microdairy, sheep, and beef cattle. Equally important are the grain and bean crops Henning uses in a whole farm rotation.

Not only do these crops diversify farm production, CSA offerings, and the on-farm diet, they are also essential to Henning’s soil and pest management plan by rotating production and adding organic matter to the soil. The farm tour, under the blue skies of a brilliant spring day, allowed participants to see firsthand what it looks like when all aspects of a farm work together. The tour started at the micro-dairy, the first certified in San Juan County since WWII . Henning stressed that the micro-dairy is a foundational component of S&S Homestead’s sustainable operation because the “biodynamic cow” converts grass into protein, while improving the soil. Touring the vegetable production garden highlighted the benefits of human-powered tools like the broadfork, diversified rotations that include grains and beans, and compost amendments that increased soil organic matter from 3 to 12% over the last decades. Walking through the pasture demonstrated a diverse and vigorous species guild—an impressive mix of grasses, forbs, and legumes exhibiting health Henning ascribes to high density strip-grazing.

Back in the classroom, Dr. Brook Brouwer brought in a fresh perspective on grain and pulse production and the advantages of growing and maintaining your own seedstock. From a whole farm and self-sufficiency viewpoint, growing farm seed has the advantage of saving cost, adding a potential enterprise, and propagating varieties important to your operation. Participants delved into issues to consider from a practical production standpoint, including how to plan rotations to avoid seed contamination, how to identify and avoid the spread of seedborne disease, and how to develop or access appropriate-sized equipment for harvest and processing.

The university ended with a lively discussion of enterprise budgets. Henning shared the enterprise budgets from S&S Homestead and his unique approach to valuing non-cash farm income. S&S sells only 10-15% of what it produces, enough to pay the bills and put money aside for future infrastructure purchases. The rest of production is consumed on-farm. The non-cash value of energy, labor, and compost reinvested in the farm is also included in S&S budgets. As a self-sufficient operation, Henning sees this as an important way to truly evaluate the success and profitability of the whole farm.

Unique among many producers, Henning’s approach and the 50-year plan success of S&S Homestead works because, in his words, “[We are] not looking to increase our production; we’re looking for balance. [We’re] not looking to increase our profit; we’re looking for financial soundness.”


Elizabeth Murphy, Seattle Tilth Farm Programs Director.

This workshop funded was in part by a grant from the WSDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.