Homesteading necessitates diversity to avoid waste: an observation of the natural order within the created world.
The USDA has estimated that 30-40% of the food supply within the United States is wasted, usually ending up in landfills. Additionally, the average family in the U.S. produces 6,570 pounds of trash every year according to HWH Environmental.
Not only that, but the same source states that 1,200 pounds of that same trash is really compostable waste.
What are we doing? How on earth did we get here?
In order to understand how to fix the problem, I think it is important to start with how we got here. It didn’t happen overnight, and fixing it also won’t happen overnight.
By the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the Industrial Revolution, begun in the mid 1700’s, was well ingrained in society. Food production was commercialized and factory production of numerous mass manufactured goods was ramping into full-swing, bringing in its wake a new era of waste.
With food cost being so low, and large quantities being readily available for the first time, it became easy for the majority of people to allow waste into their lives. Where letting food go bad and simply throwing it out was unthinkable before the industrial revolution, it became much more common place post-industrial revolution.
Composting, feeding leftover food scraps to livestock, specifically chickens and pigs, became less frequent. With food being cheap and accessible, why bother utilizing every scrap for some purpose within the home economy?
This created issues with garbage being thrown out windows and into streets, creating an environment that was ripe for pests and disease to thrive. It was a problem.
Instead of focusing on ways to mitigate waste, society, post-industrial revolution, just began looking for ways of removing said waste from public spaces. In 1839, a Dutchman began what would later turn into Waste Management when he started collecting trash for a small fee in Chicago.
Following WWII, the agriculture industry saw introduction of chemical fertilizers, a byproduct of leftover ammonium nitrate no longer needed for making explosives. Application of chemical fertilizers, while overall damaging to the land as a whole, produced such a boost in production that there was suddenly too much food.
In response to this issue, the answer again was not to look at utilization issues, but rather to begin exporting food to impoverished countries in the 1950’s and then the development of the garbage disposal in the same decade.
As a country we had officially begun the slippery slope into a mindset of convenience, consumerism and waste production. No longer did we, as a society, remember the practical no-waste methods practiced by our ancestors for generations.
We just consumed and threw away.
Patterns Within the Natural World
I think it behooves us to look at the natural patterns for waste that God designed in nature for answers on how to deal with waste.
God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good.Genesis 1:31
At the very beginning of creation God looked at the vast array of His work and saw it to be good. We must always keep this in mind. Nothing God created was ever bad. It was all good.
Now, given our fallen nature, and the fallen state of our world due to Original Sin, we must also understand that nothing in this world is perfect. We make mistakes and the natural world, while still good, also bears the weight of the fall. Nothing in the world retains the original perfection.
That said, everything within nature follows God’s rhythm much more closely than we are apt to at times, which can give us clues on how we are to live. And, for our purposes specifically, in what ways nature handles waste.
First, we see it through the seasons.
Spring brings new life and new growth in all aspects of nature, from the grass and trees to the birds and animals. It is a time for renewal and beginning again, when nature seems to look forward with vigor and excitement to the beginning cycle of growth.
Summer is generally viewed as the season of production and harvest. Fruit of all types abound in the natural world. It is a time to gather and enjoy the natural glut of produce nature gives, when the young animals grow and life seems at it’s prime.
Fall is when we begin to really see nature’s recycling system come into play in a big way. With leaf fall and the dying back of this year’s growth, organic matter is provided to cover the earth like a blanket. It returns nutrients back to the soil and protects the ground and tender life from the coming winter’s cold. Though the year’s growth seems to have perished, it continues to provide a need within the natural world that promulgates growth in the following year. It isn’t wasted.
Winter is a time of rest. The trees have gone dormant and other vegetation has perished or done the same. The animals burrow into the ground to stay warm, awaiting the warmth of spring to come again.
Other ways nature handles waste.
The seasons, while providing the most obvious cyclicity and examples of utilizing everything, contain many more nuanced examples that are less glaring to the naked eye.
- Decaying matter
- Fungus and other organisms feeds on decaying plant and animal matter within the wild, returning the nutrients back to the larger system.
- Nutrient Cycles
- Nutrients contained in plant material is taken up by insects who are then eaten by birds and continues on up the food chain.
- Once the largest predator in the food chain finally dies, fungus take and break it back down into nutrients for the soil, which feeds the plants. Thus starting the cycle over.
The need for diversity.
Everything in nature feeds off of the diversity within the system. This is how the natural world functions.
You wouldn’t expect your children to assimilate all of the nutrients they need from one single type of food. The same is true for the natural world.
Pasture land naturally contains numerous plant species, all of which are necessary for that ecosystem to thrive and sustain ruminant life. Forests aren’t just made up of one kind of tree species. They contain numerous types of trees, to say nothing of the incredible diversity of the undergrowth.
You also don’t just see one kind of animal subsisting in any ecosystem within nature. There are hundreds, if not thousands of living species making up any ecosystem. Without this diversity, the natural world would collapse, because each species provides some specific need that is crucial for life to continue.
What Does This Have to do With Diversity on the Homestead?
As a disclaimer to this section…given the amount of plastic and other non-natural products that saturate the consumer markets, it is important to note that we live in a time where not everything can be recycled within the normal boundaries of the natural order. At least not quickly.
William Cobbett, in his pre-WWI book Cottage Economy, talks extensively about utilizing everything within the home including: spent brewing grains, extra milk, garden produce and the list goes on.
Shawn and Beth Daugherty also speak extensively about reducing external inputs on the homestead by utilizing ‘waste’ products to fill in the gaps.
What does this look like?
- Extra milk/whey can be fed to pigs, chickens, dogs, and cats to supplement (or, in some cases, replace) feed.
- Frost-killed garden plants act as mulch for the next year’s garden, just chop and drop!
- Egg shells are a great calcium supplement for chickens or in the garden as long as you roast and crumble them first.
- Kitchen scraps can be fed to chickens or composted for use in the garden.
- Cardboard and brown paper bags can make a weed barrier in the garden, or shred them and use as mulch.
- Old SCOBY’s can be fed to chickens as a nutrient dense feed or composted along with other kitchen scraps.
A mindset shift.
Looking at the ‘waste’ on your homestead as a way of filling input gaps requires a change in mindset. We simply cannot maintain the golden standard of production on our homesteads, namely mono-cropping and ‘mono-animaling.’
Without the various products provided from a well diversified operation, recycling of waste products becomes virtually impossible. If you don’t have livestock, you don’t have nitrogen rich manure to add fertility to your land. If you don’t have a diversity of plant life, you have increased pest and disease pressure and less produce.
We have to start looking at things differently. We can’t keep viewing our systems and our world as a wealth of resources to consume and thrown out.
If we want to live as God intended, and start acting as proper stewards of the things He has given us, we need to start watching and emulating the systems He has put in the natural world for recycling waste and reusing it in a diverse system.
Practical applications for diversified systems.
- Plant different crops, herbs, and bushes next to each other to encourage beneficial interactions (companion planting).
- Underplant herbs and flowers in an orchard to reduce pest pressure provide increased nutrient uptake (permaculture guilds).
- Raise more than one type of animal to take advantage of the grazing and browsing habits of each (pruning to maintain your land).
- Utilize animals as a way of increasing fertility within your garden and pastures via manure.
- Grow a diversity of crops within your garden to encourage healthy soil and decreased pest and disease pressure.
The list could go on indefinitely. Your only limitations are imagination and access to resources.
While eliminating all waste is virtually impossible in our consumer driven world, we can mitigate the effects on our own homesteads. By looking at the diversity within the natural world and mimicking it on our homesteads, we can start to utilize some of the ‘waste’ that would otherwise not be utilized within the system.
We’d love to hear how you are utilizing waste products on your homestead! Leave a comment below and let us know 🙂