What’s Your Trophic Niche?
Organic practitioners call conventional farms “factory farms” as a put-down, but far too many organic farms and even gardens are run like factories. The focus is on the output: how many eggs did the hens lay today? How many quarts of spaghetti sauce did I put up this year? How many pounds of sausage did that pig make? How many bushels of corn did I grow per acre?
Maybe there’s a better way to look at a farm. Organic practitioners are always claiming they garden and farm in concordance with nature’s rules, so let’s look at nature’s farm, better known as the wilderness.
What is the output of wild nature? There really isn’t any, per se. Nuts may form on trees and drop to the forest floor, but nobody’s counting. There may be 16 squirrels per square mile of mixed eastern hardwood and pine forest, but nobody cares. The figures don’t count in wild nature. Trophic niches do.
A trophic niche is an exploitable food source. From the lowliest blue-green algae to the largest whale in the sea, all plants and animals have their exploitable food sources or they wouldn’t exist. Nature in her entirety can be considered a collection of food sources. For some, like the plants, the foods may be manufactured in their leaves by the action of sunlight in consort with water and carbon dioxide and minerals in the soil. The plants in turn are food sources for other plants, molds, microbes, and animals. All of these creatures in turn are food sources for fellow creatures. Life begets life as life ingests life. Every living creature and many non-living entities are food sources—trophic niches—for whoever can exploit them.
Nature has devised her many creatures to take advantage of the wide variety of trophic niches. If you have tomato plants, then you have tomato hornworms that eat those leaves. First came the grass, then horses evolved to eat that grass. If you have mosquitoes, you then have purple martins to pluck them out of the air.
But nature is too subtle to just provide trophic niches and the plants and animals to exploit them. She then dovetails all the feeding creatures into a complex web of life where each provides a number of benefits to the inhabitants of the overall web, and it’s one for all and all for one. Ecologists call it an ecosystem. When all the trophic levels are filled and functioning, the ecosystem is healthy. So, back to our original question, the product of wilderness is not bushels of anything, it is health.
Is this a pattern for running a farm? If organic practitioners are serious about following nature’s rules, then yes, it is. But, many will say, a farm isn’t just a miniature wilderness—it’s a business that has to support a human family. Farm products have to be sold, money has to change hands. In a wilderness, nothing has to be sold. Every atom is recycled throughout millions of years and millions of creatures. Nothing leaves the wilderness. It’s a self-sustaining and healthy ecosystem.
Organic folks are keen to talk about sustainability as a characteristic of an organic farm or garden, but as long as there’s output from the farm, such as products sold, then there has to be an equal input from outside or the system will eventually become depleted, right?
You would think so, but organic—and biodynamic—farmers have found ways to minimize the depletion. Recycling all crop waste and organic matter through composting, for instance, yields a compost much richer in plant nutrients than the original ingredients due to the proliferation of microbes in the compost piles. Scattering a few handfuls of tiny alfalfa seeds can yield a barn loft full of alfalfa hay that’s rich in nutrients for dairy cows that yield milk that can be sold, as well as manure to drive the compost pile.
Where there are dairy cows, there are flies—and lots of them. Chickens love fly larvae and make wonderful eggs out of them. Chickens yield eggs and meat that can be sold and high-nitrogen manure that helps heat up the compost.
An organic farm can’t be just a miniature wilderness, but the farmer can follow nature by identifying the farm’s many trophic niches and filling them with plants and animals that form an ecosystem that does yield products for sale as it protects itself and its inhabitants from the destruction caused by real factory farming.
If this happens, then the farm will be self-sustaining, it will have products to sell, and its chief by-product will be—just like in wild nature—health for all concerned.