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"Pig-powered Potatoes: A Story of Land Transformation" as published in Permaculture Activist No. 82, Winter 2011-12
by Bethann Weick

D Acres of NH is tucked just off the main road in Dorchester, NH. A rural town of 300-some residents, Dorchester's many stone walls are all the evidence that remains of the vigorous farmland that once dominated the landscape. Though the fields have long since been left fallow and wild, the stone walls are largely intact.

It is back to these prior boundaries that we are reclaiming the landscape. What follows is our story of raising staple foods through the process of land transformation, building new garden areas and enriching soil fertility. Though we have repeated this process in various zones on the farm, what follows is the recent development of a terraced garden area now referred to as, cleverly enough, "the new pig pasture."

It began with our team of Jersey oxen, Henri & August, with whom we gradually logged the forest in this zone back to fields. No more than a couple of acres in total, it was cleared over the course of two years. The wood became a source of heat (for home, water, cooking, and sugaring), of construction materials, of cottage craft resources, and of woodchips (used in the gardens, outhouses, and animal bedding). The field, meanwhile, became pig habitat.

Our "Dorchester Dalmatian" pigs are high-profile residents, as they serve as our garden bed preparers. We ask only that their pigness flourish: their snouts act as natural plows and their taste for unwanted vegetation drives an all-natural fertilizer program. Their preference for rooting soil gradually and naturally turns the earth of the re-born field, breaks down small stumps, and dislodges stones and rocks. In addition to foraged greens, we also feed our pigs on restaurant scraps and grocery store discards. Three times each week we make the rounds of fifteen local establishments, rescuing valuable calories destined for the dumpster. By redirecting the local waste stream into a beneficial nutrient cycle, we create a net energy gain from this organic matter that would otherwise be squandered on a landfill trajectory.

Often we keep pigs on an area for multiple seasons before transitioning from pasture to garden space. Observation has demonstrated that the longer the time period spent as pasture, the greater the quantity of compost that has been worked into the soil and thus the healthier the soil and the greater the fertility. It is, however, a balancing act: long-term pig habitat runs the risk of severe soil compaction and a devastated worm population.

From Pasture to Potatoes
As the new growing season approaches, we look to the melting snow to dictate our timeline. Once the ground is workable, we set new posts, distract the curious pigs with food scraps, and move the electric fence up hill, re-claiming almost half the space for agricultural development. Terraces are established, each section defined by a row of perennial plantings: a variety of apple and pear trees are planted this year. Though annual food crops will dominate this zone, we are simultaneously expanding our perennial food forest. Not only do perennials offer a decreasing quantity of work as the years, decades, and generations pass, these plantings will also assist in erosion control, offer wind blocks to more vulnerable crops, boost diversity, and attract pollinator species.

Fruit trees in the ground, annual crops are on our mind. Potatoes are a foundational element in our forest-to-garden conversion process. Mother Nature is our cue: as the serviceberry blossoms, we get to the business of planting these starchy roots.

To do this, we work with the contours of the landscape. We want to minimize erosion, and thus establish beds and paths perpendicular to the direction of flow. Large stumps are left as they are, recognizing their value as slow-released nutrients and organic matter while also easing our task. Boulders are also left in situ. Both wood and granite serve as stepping blocks where appropriate, or as landmarks for contours. Using hard rakes, we scrape what excess dirt exists out of the paths-to-be into the beds-to-be. Stakes guide the process, easing the visual challenge.

Once these boundaries have been established, it's time to put the spuds to the dirt. And so we do, as simple as that. Eye to the air, each bed contains three rows of potatoes, set into the soil. Though the pigs have left a rich legacy of fertilization, the soil is compact and fairly thin. This is why we have found potatoes to be such a positive first step in our agricultural re-initiation of the field. 'Taters, and their preference for growing in dirt mounds, make them an excellent beginning crop. Upon planting them, we shovel truckloads of home-grown compost into five gallon buckets, then form 4"-6" mounds around each potato. This is then topped off with mulch hay. (Although straw is generally our mulch of choice due to the absence of seeds, mulch hay is a resource much easier to acquire in such quantities. Thus far we have not encountered any weed issues severe enough to dissuade us from this choice.)

Compost is added again in June and July as we hill the potatoes twice throughout the course of the summer. This time each plant earns one to three gallons worth of compost, mounded about the plant, and again covered by another layer of mulch hay. The compost serves as organic matter in which the plants can root and set additional potatoes, as well as a means of restoring the worm population decimated by hungry pigs. The mulch hay suppresses weeds, minimizes erosion, and maintains cool, moist soil. This process proffers a wonderful synchronicity of needs: while we are increasing the productivity of the potatoes, we are simultaneously creating raised beds along the contours of the field. By the end of the season, we are rich in organic matter just where we need it most.

The paths, too, get special treatment. They are seeded with white clover in the spring, another means of building the soil. Not only does this plant fix nitrogen, it also serves as erosion control. In addition, as the clover grows up in subsequent seasons, it will be utilized as a source of mulch for future crops or as a reliable source of fodder that can be fed back to the pigs…continuing the fertilization of another pig pasture area.

Potatoes, Garlic, and beyond
Come September (August for early varieties), the potato plants mature, the foliage dies back, and we head to the field to harvest. Wielding our garden forks, the treasure hunt begins. This process of digging incorporates the layers of mulch & compost that have been applied over the course of the summer months. Once the harvest is complete, each bed is re-shaped and re-mulched. A deep, rich raised bed is the product of just one season.

It is not to sit unused throughout the winter season, however. Into these very beds we plant our fall garlic. With cloves 4-5" deep in the soil, a thick mulch on top, these beds are ready to rest. Soon enough the warmth of another spring will begin a second season, stirring the garlic and awakening the soil from its frozen slumber.

Subsequent seasons will enter these garden beds into our general crop rotation. Flowers will be transplanted into the edges, and additional perennials will be added as space and needs demand. Over time, beauty, bees, and bounty will dominate this patch once ruled by pigs. At the conclusion of every season, further compost will be added to each bed. Through the addition of such organic matter, continual mulching, and the thoughtful use of crop rotations, cover crops & green manures, soil fertility will steadily be augmented with each season.

What began this year with thin dirt and a denuded enclosure, has transformed into a lush seventeen rows planted with 295 pounds of potatoes. Yields look to be at least 7.5lbs for every 1lb planted based on harvest numbers of our early variety potatoes. In the short term this translates to over 2200 pounds of calories we can eat and sell through the winter months. In the longer term, this is the outset of an essential landscape conversion: from northern forest to edible food forest. Thanks to our potatoes, this new agricultural plot is well on its way to being a rich contributor to our permaculture system.

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