Regenerative Farming at Woodwynn Farms

Agriculture is central to Woodwynn Farms’ therapeutic mission.

Woodwynn Homefulness Program participants assist with crop and livestock production six days a week during their stay, growing most of the food they eat at Woodwynn, and offsetting program costs through cash crop production. The daily responsibilities of farming provide participants with fresh and nutritious food, physical exercise, structure, routine and a shared community. These are distinctive elements of Woodwynn Farms’ therapeutic program. Woven together, they contribute to Woodwynn Farms success in getting people off the street for good.

The current development of Woodwynn Farms involves a transition from land extensive and machinery intensive production of hay for off-farm sales to labor intensive organic production of horticultural crops and high-value animal products for on-farm consumption and direct-market sales. This transition requires accommodation for farm labourers who can participate in the daily activities associated with labour intensive farming enterprises.

Woodwynn Farm consists of 193 acres of Class 3 (80%) and Class 2 (20%) agricultural land, of which 167 acres are farmable. The difference is allocated to the barns, outbuildings, two houses, the riparian areas and the gravel roadway. Current allocation of the 167 farmable acres is approximated as, 120 acres cropped as hay, 20 acres dedicated to horticultural crops, and 27 acres in paddocks and hedgerows (1).

This is very productive agricultural land when managed with attention to drainage, irrigation and stoniness, but requires soil conservation practices that can restrict the range of potential crops somewhat. The farm has a long history of hay, grain, and livestock production enterprises demanding an extensive land base but relatively little labor. More recently, 20 acres have been enclosed with deer fencing, beginning a transition to more labor-intensive organic horticultural production enterprises that compliment the farm’s therapeutic mission. The fenced area currently includes several acres of intensive organic vegetables, small fruits, stone fruit orchards, and two high tunnels, which extend the potential growing and harvest season for horticultural crops. The area dedicated to organic horticultural production will be expanded within this fenced zone, and more high tunnels will be constructed as labor and resources allow.

Outside the fenced enclosure, most of the land is currently used to produce square-baled hay for sale to local horse farms. As a perennial polyculture, hay is a good fit for the steeper slopes of the farm, which would be susceptible to erosion if used for annual crop production. The cutting and baling work has been contracted out because it requires maintenance and operation of specialized and potentially dangerous machinery that does not fit well with the farm’s therapeutic mission. Contractors have not always been able to cut hay when its nutritional value is highest, resulting in a lower value product, and fewer annual cuttings than would be preferred.

Many of the slopes that are currently dedicated to hay production will be gradually transitioned to pasture divided into strip paddocks for a multi-species management-intensive rotational grazing system incorporating beef cattle, pigs, chickens, goats, and sheep. The transition from hay production to rotational grazing will increase the farm labor requirement because electric fences will have to be moved once or twice daily, but will also increase the value of the farm’s output, decrease dependence on machinery maintained by off-farm contractors, and increase retention of soil nutrients. The grazing habits of sheep, goats and cattle differ in that cattle prefer a mix of grass and forbs, sheep are more selective and tend to prefer grazing on forbs, and goats prefer browsing on taller shrubs. Multi-species rotational grazing improves economic returns by improving use of diverse pastures, offers access to different markets, reduces predator pressure, disrupts parasite cycles, and improves range health. The biggest drawback of a multi-species rotational grazing system is often thought to be its high labor requirement (such systems need daily management), but this requirement fits well with Woodwynn Farms’ therapeutic programming. Interaction with farm livestock will provide an additional element of interest to program participants, diversifying the experience they receive through their work with horticultural crops. The livestock component will also provide an important source of meat and animal products, which will be appreciated by the program participants and farm customers.

In addition to feeding program participants, the farm supplies local markets for organic produce and value-added products through direct-market sales at an on-site market and distribution to local grocers, off-site markets and restaurants. A home delivery service is also planned to be launched as a complementary service. All profits from off-farm sales will be used to offset therapeutic programming.

The evolution of the farm from a land extensive operation to a labor intensive, high yielding organic system depends on available labor, which will be provided by the program participants. Diversified organic horticulture operations typically demand more than 50 hours of labor per acre for each week of the growing season (2).  A 3,000 square foot high tunnel typically requires about 8 hours of management weekly, and an intensive rotational grazing system with cattle requires about 3 hours per animal weekly (3).

Assuming 20 acres of horticultural production, five high tunnels, and 100 animal units on the farm, about 1,340 hours of farm labor would be needed to maintain the operation. Each program participant contributes about 30 hours of farm labor weekly, with the balance of his/her time used for food processing and preparation, other therapeutic activities, and personal time, so this configuration would engage about 45 program participants. Farm planning will take available labor into account, with an early emphasis on transitioning hay to pasture and livestock operations, and more land dedicated to labor intensive horticulture operations as the program expands.

Program participants require suitable housing. They are currently housed in donated travel trailers, which offer the advantage of mobility without sacrificing agricultural land, but create challenges related to plumbing, heating and cooling for the comfort of long term residents. We propose the construction of farm worker residences that are dug into the earth on all but the south face, with topsoil from the site transferred to a green roof built to support grazing. This ‘earthshelter’ design (see: will be both energy efficient and dramatically minimize loss of agricultural land. An example of this type of residence was recently constructed near Vulcan, Alberta (4).

Dr. Michael Bomford Ph.D. (Plant & Soil Science)