Story by Kate Petrusa
I first visited Rootdown Organic Farm in June 2010, one month after the farm team took possession of their new land. A modest white farmhouse beside a large tree greeted our cars as we drove up the access road. It was easy to feel small so near to the dramatic, snow capped mountains towering over the farm. Bordered by a creek, the farm was enveloped in an agricultural valley in Pemberton, BC that teemed with birds and greenery. I was visiting Rootdown as part of a UBC Farm Practicum field trip. As our group walked towards the production fields of the property, all I could see was a sea of green. It looked to me just like a large grassy field. It was then I began to realize that the Rootdown farmers, Sarah and Simone, were up against a serious obstacle on their new land: couch grass.
Sarah and Simone, both UBC Farm Practicum graduates (2008), fortunately had access to land of their own, but needed to start from scratch. There were no existing beds on which to grow their crops, just a large grassy field that had had been hayed for years and depleted of nutrients in the process. Couch grass, Elymus repens, (pronounced ‘kooch’ grass) also known as quackgrass, is a very invasive perennial grass. Its rootstalks ‘creep’ horizontally across the soil surface, and prove to be extremely difficult to eradicate even with weeding or tilling with a tractor, because each piece of rootstalk can develop into a new plant.
Early in the season of 2010, when Rootdown farmers were still leasing neighbours’ land, Sarah was working with her neighbour to bring two pigs onto her leased land for their own consumption. Sarah’s inspiration for experimenting with pigs came after reading Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Cookbook. She found “his ethics very much in line with ours regarding farming and treatment of animals … He was talking about raising pigs and I was really interested. I talked to our neighbour, and the two of us decided to raise two pigs that year.”
Before the pigs’ arrival, to their surprise Sarah and Simone found that the land they had been eying for months became available for them to purchase. Although they decided to follow through with the original plan of sharing feed and infrastructure costs with their neighbour, they decided to give up their lease and keep the two pigs on their new land. They decided on Tamworth pigs, a heritage breed, known for good bacon and high quality meat. Tamworths are not well suited to industrial-style production methods and are listed as a “threatened” species in the U.S. “They were just so easy to care for, especially after we figured out our fencing issues! At the end of the season, they were getting out of their pen quite a lot, and they were going for trots down the dyke and would end up a kilometer down the river.”
After a successful experiment with two Tamworth pigs on the farm, Sarah and Simone looked more closely at how to integrate and benefit from pigs in their farming system. “We had a really hard year  with couch grass, and fertility is an issue too. We thought if we have a larger number of pigs, they can work on eliminating the couch grass and we can use their manure on the fields. Also, we all felt pretty strongly about the integration of animals into the fields and our farm system.” Not only can pigs improve soil quality and help with weed management, their meat provides a valuable commodity for the farm at the end of the season.
After working hard to find a breeder in BC with Tamworth pigs, the two farmers arranged to have 12 pigs on the farm for the 2011 growing season. They took another big step by creating a rotational grazing system for the pigs that integrated their 50 chickens. To do this, they had to build movable sheds and fencing for both the chickens and the pigs, and worked out a rotation that they hoped would achieve their goals of fertilizing the soil and eliminating the couch grass.
“We built a shed for the pigs measuring 20 x 10 feet, about 4 feet high and estimated to weigh over 1500 pounds. It’s sturdy!… At the beginning we actually couldn’t move it, and it was just sitting where it was built. It was too heavy for our tractor.” The team needed to make a few modifications in order to make the pig shed mobile. To facilitate sliding the shed along the ground, Sarah and Simone cut two snowboards in half to act as skids. Next, they drilled a large hole in the wall, through which they threaded an industrial-size chain. This was then hooked up to the tractor bucket for pulling. After the modifications, they succeeded in moving it about every 4 weeks. “The last few moves of the year were much harder because it was getting muddy, and there were lots of divots in the ground. We really need to figure out what to do about that this coming year.”
To forage, the pigs would be outside most of the time, so establishing a movable fence to surround the shed was a key part of the infrastructure. “We experimented with solar powered fencing, and it wasn’t strong enough for pigs. They have tough skin and they are pretty headstrong… We ended up going with an electric hard-wire system that was plugged into the wall, and we just rotated with the shed. We were wondering how the pigs would adjust to hard-wire, but they did really well. They learned to respect it. I think as long as we moved them enough and they had enough pasture to go dig up, they were pretty happy with where they were.”
Adding a further layer of complexity to the rotational grazing system, chicken coops were also integrated into the movable pig shed infrastructure. Rootdown opted to build two small chicken coops rather than one big one, simply because smaller coops are easier to move. Simone describes the chicken coops as resembling “giant rickshaws”. “There are BMX bike wheels on one end. You pick up the other end and drag it like a rickshaw.” Similar to the pigs, the chickens needed an outdoor run, so Rootdown also set up another electric fence that they could move fairly easily. “The first couple of times you move all this, it takes a long time, but as we went through the season, we could get this down in an hour, but we needed four people to do it. I think this season will give us the time to iron that out a little bit and get more efficient with our rotations […]”.
Managing a total of 12 pigs and 50 chickens, the 2011 growing season marked Sarah and Simone’s first year of experimenting with the rotational grazing system and their self-made infrastructure. Their initial plan was to have the chicken pen following behind the pigpen along the land, but they quickly realized that it wasn’t going to be that simple. “Pigs are really good at turning over the soil, but they are so good, it doesn’t leave anything for the chickens.” With this lesson learned, they put the chickens and pigs in completely distinct field areas and moved them through the land independently of each other. “That worked really well, and they made just one pass on one area of land throughout the season … I’m pretty proud of it. It took some brainpower to figure it out.”
This coming season, Sarah and Simone plan to improve their animal integration system while adapting it to a longer-term production plan. They plan to divide the production fields into three standard sections, each just under an acre. Every year, each section will be assigned to vegetable production, pigs or chickens. The following year, the section assignments will rotate and again host either vegetable production, pigs or chickens. This means that over a three-year period, a one-acre section of land will host vegetables, pigs and chickens – a richly diverse crop-livestock rotation.
With the momentum gained from the previous year, Sarah and Simone are thrilled to start the 2012 growing season. Not only are they winning the battle against couch grass with the help of pigs and chickens, they are building the fertility of their soil, selling the chicken eggs at markets and providing a highly coveted Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) pork option to their customers. Moreover, their tireless efforts have yielded a model that can be adopted by other small-scale organic farmers who seek to integrate their own vegetable crops and livestock. In just two short growing seasons, Rootdown has progressed in leaps and bounds, using their savviness and resources to capitalize on the benefits of integrating animals into the farm system. I can’t wait to visit again to see the transformation of couch grass sod into rich production space!