Lawn Farming, The Next Big Thing

 

hay

From GENE LOGSDON

Last week’s discussion in the comments section about making hay the simple, old fashioned way led me on to grandiose thoughts. Sounds crazy but the logic is all there. We have 40 million acres of lawns in this country. We spend $30 billion on lawn care. We annually irrigate our lawns with seven billion gallons of water and thirty million tons of fertilizer. That’s enough to make an awful lot of hay for an awful lot of livestock and chickens. An acre of regular hay makes three to eight tons or more per acre and I imagine lawn hay, fertilized and irrigated so preciously would produce in the middle of that range. Bluegrass and white clover cut short as they are in lawns, would dry out quickly, could be raked and sucked up with air bags for dry hay, or packed in bags as silage. Instead, we are taking this forage, some 200 million tons of what could be the best hay ever and the only feed the animals would need and  for which the manpower and the machinery needed is already in place, and throwing most of it away.

Okay, so you wouldn’t want to use herbicides and pesticides on those lawns, or only a little, but so? If you are getting a good price for your good hay, or feeding it yourself to your own livestock, who needs all those “cides”? Money in the pocket makes dandelions on the lawn almost invisible. 

Quite a national conversation would erupt over which grasses and legumes are best for lawn farms. A legume is necessary because it adds nitrogen to the soil and protein to the diet. In my area, bluegrass and white clover would be my choice. You’d never have to replant them. In my climate this combination can be mowed from the middle of April right up into November. Other areas, like in the south, might use legumes that grow nearly all year around.

Of course, should the future be peopled by lawn farmers who were  truly enlightened, lawns could be sowed to alfalfa, or ladino clover, or crimson clover, producing nearly 400 million tons of hay— of a quality that would require no grain feeding in addition at all.

Every home with a lawn becomes a potential farm. The more the population increases, the more the number of farms increase. The last differences between rural farm and urban farm disappear. If lawn farmers didn’t want to feed their crop themselves, they could always sell it to a neighbor or to trucking businesses with regularly scheduled stops in every neighborhood. If Saudi Arabia started buying their hay from our lawn farms, we would no longer have to listen to nonsense about how the American farmer must gear up to feed the world. I might at least afford to buy a new lawnmower.

So what’s to stop such a doable thing from happening? I was going to say opposition would come from the usual bullheadedness that resists all change it can’t see any profit in it. But I can’t see anybody losing any money on this deal. Lawn farming means more money for everyone. Even  big industrial grain farms won’t bitch too much because as they face the end of their era, they will realize they have a fortune in land to sell to lawn farmers who want to buy land in small amounts. Lawn farm equipment will soar in demand and manufacturers will make more money selling little tractors than big ones. Scientists and agri-suppliers will have vast new markets for their services opening up, supplying  lawn farms with improved forages and forage equipment. It will be a bonanza for makers of lawn games and pastime. Only lawn farming allows the use of land for both food production and recreation at the same time.

Lawn farms could double-crop mushrooms and hay. Or fish worms and hay. I keep trying to figure out a way to grow hay or pasture in a field of solar panels. Whatever, the trick will be to think small. If you only have to cut and dry and airbag a third of an acre of lawn grasses every week, you should be able to do it in two days, greatly increasing your chances of getting the hay in without rain on it. Farms so signed and designed to get most of the hay in the barn without rain opens the day when farming will finally become profitable.
~~

22 Comments

Beatrice Karbaumer-Jones June 1, 2016 at 2:38 pm

My sincere condolences to Gene’s family at this time of great loss. May his legacy and writings continue to inspire many future generations.

I planted Dutch white clover in my front yard three years ago. It is slowly taking over the area. My neighbors chickens spend all day eating my clover. I get some free range eggs once in awhile. Its all good.

I read this post the same day I heard this story on NPR:
http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/05/15/477036910/an-all-volunteer-squad-of-farmers-is-turning-florida-lawns-into-food
How many people pay a landscaper to do their lawn for them? What if those landscapers, rather than charging homeowners for the service, offered the service in exchange for the goods: the dry hay as you mention?
I’m a suburban boy living on a tiny piece of land in Columbus, OH and I’m experimenting with gardening in my back yard. I really enjoy your writings, thank you!

    Eventually though for true sustainability it will be necessary to generate fertility on-site not from hauled in compost. Lawns not only can but must play a role in that sustainability. For example: harvest lawn hay then feed that hay to livestock: steers, cows, goats, sheep, rabbits whichever is feasible or even poultry on the site that is to be rotationally changed into garden cropping. Then till the site or cover it with a mulch fabric and plant the garden. The fertility built up with the lawn and hay/grazing will provide some good garden crops for a few years, but then it is advisable to rotate it back to lawn pasture for a few years to build up fertility again. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE EITHER GARDENS OR LAWNS! Lawns can and must perform a crucial role in building and maintaining on-site fertility. Think about it; where will the garden fertility come from once the on-site fertility is depleted from constant cropping if lawn pastures are not part of the rotation? Sure tree leaves and wood chips made into compost can help with fertility but they also provide shade which can hinder a great many garden crops. The constant growth and mowing of grass and clover, if managed properly, captures carbon and nitrogen from the air and places it into the soil, both of which elements are essential for healthy crops. Sod also promotes beautiful crumb structure in the soil which means vegetables cropped in rotation with sod can usually, in my experience, really flourish. I’ve been doing this for many years and I know it really works.

We don’t have much in the way of Home Owner’s Associations, that people are complaining about, here in Maine. Most homes are in very mixed neighborhoods. But some folks have small yards and several children who want to use those yards. My suggestion there is to offer them the most remote of the back corners for their Big Brownie Truck Brigades or their Barbie Doll Lawn Parties. Well, here is a tale of our old Back Right Corner:

That’s where we put the compost. One day, two of my students, twin 12-year-old girls, stopped by on Saturday with their mother, to whom I had promised all my left-over tomato starts. As Mom and I consolidated the little plants, one of the girls shouted, “Who is that, and what’s he doing,” pointing to the compost corner. I said, “That’s my husband, and he’s watering the compost.” They both screamed, “EEEEEEEWWWWW. Our teacher told us about that. EEEWWW,” they shouted as they scrambled up he slope to the corner. “Can I water it?” “No, can I?” My husband was then out of a job, and they kept screaming, EEEWWW” and trading the hose back and forth. Plants transfered, compost well watered, they all returned to the car. As they left, I heard the girls say to Mom, “We have to tell our teacher about this. EEEWWW!’

I’m convinced that the event would have less exciting if the compost had been anywhere other than in the “remote” back corner. Not the front yard. Not under the kitchen window. Way back there 30 feet away from everything under that big tree. That’s where kids prefer to be.

But your hay field needs a broad-leaf to be truly healthy and nourishing. We use chicory, but the hated and beautiful dandelion would be just fine. We eat both ourselves all spring and late fall in Italian braised [stuffato] greens.

    Dandelions were originally brought here as a medicinal herb and or food in my understanding. I’ve eaten many meals of them in my younger days as a first spring green. With a bit of vinegar and olive oil young tender dandelions are delicious in my opinion after they are boiled a bit. Of course, people who are addicted to sweets may not like them.

    My wife tells me she has eaten the blooms that were rolled in flour then deep fried in hot oil. She tells me they taste like good oysters when prepared that way. I don’t know from first hand experience because the geese, goats and chickens on our little farm make sure very few dandelions make it to bloom stage. Clover leaves can be a really nice addition to salads or cooked greens too. Once again it doesn’t have to be a garden or lawn choice but both. Given the nutritional profiles of chicory, plantain, clover and dandelions it seems we are mission the boat if we don’t choice to dine on these denizens of the lawn. Some years I’ve been tempted to forgo growing greens in the garden and just eat what grows in the lawn. I’m told pre-development natives in California consumed considerable quantities of the wild clover that grew in their region. Along with considerable quantities of acorns they gathered from the oaks, plus salmon and game meat they captured and ate that sounds like a pretty nourishing diet to me.

    So building upon that concept, why can’t our yards be veritable food factories? Has anybody actually looked at how many edible plants could be incorporated into a regular lawn. E.g a lawn mowed enough to keep the neighbors off our backs but enough low-growing and/or mowable edibles growing in the lawn to really help supplement the food budget. How cool would it be to go out into the yard with a sickle to harvest the vegetable component of tonight’s dinner? When I visited Indiana I even saw what looked like wild or at least miniature strawberries growing in the lawns which hadn’t been mowed for couple of weeks. They didn’t taste like my freshly picked garden ripe strawberries but still… Could lettuce or spinach or perennial vegetables be cut and come again lawn components? I know I often harvest green tops from onions while leaving the bulbs in the ground to keep growing. Food for thought anyway.

Marsha aka Homegrown secure in SE Ohio May 12, 2016 at 5:16 am

You’ve hit the nail on the head again, Gene. I’ve been whining about all the waste of having mostrous clipped yards for oh, about forever. Have had on in my front yard for oh, forever. Here’s my response, and it pertains mostly to home gardens, which would be a good start. People are lazy. In addition, some think if they raise some nice tomatoes rather than high-dollar big box ‘flowers’ even in their flowerbeds, the neighbors think they’re poor and need money. I remember when yard sales were viewed the same way. It’s still considered ‘trashy living’ here in SE Ohio to have a garden in the (gasp!) FRONT yard.
Me? I use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without. Then climb up on that big nest egg and fear no rainy day. Happy summer to all! I gotta get out in the garden ‘afore it gets too hot to ‘play.’

I Loved your observations in this latest blog. NASA reports 35 million acres of turf in the USA. Republic services tried to make lawn clipping silage in a silage pit and failed. When you bag up small amounts, the bag material cost more than what the silage is worth. This is why I invented the BioPac’r (TM) that packages 2000 pounds of fresh clippings in a poly-lined 1-ton capacity super sack. This is the size required where the silage is still worth more than the cost of the bag even in when hay prices are below $10/ton (ya right).

Currently, landscapers, golf courses, property managers and sod growing companies are “lawn farming” just as you are suggesting. I have several patent claims for our residential model but unless there is a worldwide crop failure, the cost of the bags are more expensive than the feed. There are several curbside recycling companies considering residential pickup using some very strict restrictions to prevent molding. Last, pesticides breakdown during the ensiling process but strangely enough, the EPA has just reported that the ground water under a commercial composting site on Long Island New York is contaminated with the pesticides that composting obviously can’t degrade.

Happy Lawn Farming everyone, lawn-owners will help double food production by 2050.

Agree that lawns are a waste of good growing space, but they should be used to grow food for the householder and the neighbourhood. It will happen eventually whether the lawn lovers of the world like it or not.
PS… like the new blog format.

I was looking at doing a DIY version of this:

https://www.biopacr.com/

You are late to the party. Look up Yardfarmers. I turned a 20 x 24 ft area of my front yard into this years garden. I live in the country so there is no HOA to deal with.

A fine idea that would be one more step on the path to true sustainability. But in a world where California homeowner’s associations fight tooth-and-nail to use the rapidly disappearing water supply to keep lawns lush all for the sake of appearance and where cities like Las Vegas drain the Colorado River to fill swimming pools that quickly evaporate in the desert sun, there will always be a contingent who will resist. But I suppose the point isn’t to convince everyone and constructive change can happen with or without their cooperation.

Gene:
I’ve been doing just that ever since reading your articles in the old “Organic Gardening and Farming Magazine” when I was a pre-teen; excluding stints for working away from home. I’m in my sixties now and still doing it. I used the chicken tractor idea on the lawn to produce pheasants, guineas, ducks, geese, quail, rabbits (and with moveable fencing) sheep, goats, a horse and dairy steers raised for beef. I also kept neighbors lawns in trim with either grazing or a lawn mower or use of a scythe. Sometimes they even paid me to mow their lawns. I say (based on experience) , the concept totally works on both small and larger scales. E.g I’ve simultaneously fed as many as fifty four ewes with lambs on what are commonly called lawn clippings harvested from local lawns, including school yard playgrounds. The sheep milked well and the lambs grew well and were very tasty when butcher time came. I know it works. As an aside, several times I’ve run the lawn irrigation water through a tank where trout and other fish were raised, then used the water to irrigate. The fish waste in the water seemed to help with plant growth.

I have a few suggestions: if the lawn is overgrown mowing can be done best with either a sickle bar mower, (which will make a long stemmed hay) or a regular rotary mower with a powerful engine. In the case of the regular rotary lawn mower use a side discharge chute attachment and start in the middle of the lawn with the discharge directed toward the middle, so the lawn mower path would be circular or rectangular or elliptical while the grass accumulates in the mowed area yet the operator doesn’t walk on the freshly mowed grass. . A high cut setting such as 3″ for bluegrass/ryegrass types of grass works fine because it leaves enough stem height to help keep weeds under control yet keeps the mowed grass high enough off the ground so it dries very rapidly on a hot day. If you use a mower the regular mowing sequence of mowing when another inch or two of growth occurs works fine and keeps the neighboring homeowners from going ballistic.

Alternatively, I’ve used a scythe, especially if the grass gets too tall for a rotary mower to operate without bogging down. It can be used in the same manner as the rotary or reel mower but in my experience scything short grass is a bit difficult and can easily result in uneven grass height which is cut too short for the health of the grass. A human-powered reel mower works well too and provides less dust or pollen to be airborne than the gasoline mower, (meaning less allergy problems and cleaner hay) plus gives the operator a good workout; with no fumes other than from the operator sourced flatulence. I’ve worn out the gear drives on two reel mowers in the past few years so I know it works, but the one problem is that the operator is forced to walk on the freshly cut grass which hinders drying and raking.

On a hot day it doesn’t take long for the grass to be dry enough to rake into windrows with an ordinary lawn rake, then roll the windrows with the rake once the grass on the top of the windrow appears wilted and fairly dry. Continue rolling the windrows in this manner and it might be possible to have the hay dry enough to put in the barn mow at the end of the day, IF it can be stacked loosely and fluffed regularly. In any case it provides dry hay in much less time than what commercial hay growers are able to do from what I observe around here. The result is a hay patch that still serves as a well-trimmed lawn for recreational use.

Carrying the idea further I think that the lawn/ animal combination results in fertility such that garden can be grown in strips surrounded by lawn turf with occasional rotations of the garden strips with turf strips. Using such methods I’ve documented ( for three years running) sweet corn yields of more than nine good ears per corn plant. Yes, I know I had a hard time believing it too.

The main point is: that lawns and gardens can be complementary practices instead of either/or. Also as a side benefit– the lawn/ pasture/hay/ garden concept is a great way to sequester carbon and other greenhouse gases to help address climate change, especially if a human powered reel mower or scythe is used to perform the mowing. Most folks with lawn already have the equipment necessary to make this work.

    those are some great ideas James.
    i’m actually doing the strip thing this year, but with flowers. cut the strips on contour. looks pretty from near and far.
    my neighbors have horses. they bring tons of hay in from the next state over. they’ve got a huge lawn (actually 2, besides their horse fields). their son’s always on the zero turn blowing petrol keeping nice & tidy. i keep telling them that they should seed the lawn into alfalfa & clover and they keep looking at me like i’m crazy.
    i planted our front lawn into crimson & white clovers, pennyroyal and roman chamomille. strangely enough, the deer have stayed away so far.

ok HOW DO WE GET INTO “AIR BAGS” WITHOUT QUITE AN EXPENSE?

jimoxdrover@aol.com

Great idea.1. People could use the exercise. 2.I think the best thing or what i would do if younger and in better health is for the ones not able to make hay or handle animals is to have a small flock of sheep(probably a small trailor full) and with electric portable netting go from house to house,lawn to lawn and “custom mow” the lawn. Go along behind the sheep with a golf club and scatter any large pellets so it is deep into the grass and out of site and mind for the squeamish homeowners and HOA s.You could then save your own “pastures’ and /or forage crops for the animals that want to be contrary and not stay in the fence with the others . Or just take the lambs so they can get new fresh worm free pasture every day or two. Hook the trailor behind a small van type camper or motor home or pick up type camper and you can be doing like the cowboys and shepperds of old.Plus if the climate and things 2work in your favor ,you might not need to put up any hay at all.As much as i love my machines and using them, it does seem silly to work myself into a heart attack putting up dead plants in a big building in the hottest weather for the animals to nibble at and stomp into the manure when they can do so much of it for themselves/ Tim Henslee

Gene Logsdon for President!

Currently feeding my chickens and rabbits from my clover/mixed grass/forb lawn cuttings. Works well; but the fuel required to truck 100 million micro hayfields’ bales to farms seems inefficient. Everyone who has a lawn is just going to have to get livestock.

Preaching to the choir, Gene. Money and resources would be saved growing any agricultural product rather than the close-shorn lawns which require so much labor and inputs as to fairly be an exercise in insanity.

Good luck convincing the Home-Owner’s Associations to forgive lawn-height transgressions above the coveted 2″ perfect green dandelion-less expanse of “look but don’t touch” lawn.

Emily (Alexander) G May 11, 2016 at 7:17 am

I can tell you where opposition to this most sane idea will be: most suburbanites have a grudge against clover in their lawns. Most aspire to a modern golf course fake looking turf…the more phony it looks, the better. I have a co-worker who is always asking me how to kill white clover. I keep telling her to leave it alone, that she should be happy to be blessed with this source of free fertilizer forever. But alas, she goes out an buys broadleaf weed killer and kills it all…it comes back anyway a year later and the process continues.

Also, efficient collection would be a challenge. It’s nearly impossible to get people to separate their refuse into recyclable vs. non-recyclable in the suburbs. Trying to get them all to make half-way decent hay might be very difficult. The hay collector (basically, like a garbage collector in a green truck is how I imagine it) would need to exercise some QC.

In Southern Indiana right now we’ve had continuous rain for weeks. The corn isn’t in and people are getting antsy. Hayfields are getting overgrown, but there is nothing to be done about it if one can’t make silage. Knowledge about timing the mow, curing hay, etc. would be quite the obstacle, and most people time their grass cutting on the day that is convenient based on their work/hobby schedule, not based on whats best for the grass or animals. The Sunday morning mow is replacing church as the summertime sacrament for many people. Silage, because it is more weather independent, might be more do-able.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead of making ever larger and most sophisticated and expensive lawn mowers (status symbols), that effort was directed to making little silage making machines. You could load them up with a special garbage bag or plastic barrel and make silage to be collected. You could mow in the morning and then go over it again in the eventing to get the wilted silage (bonus! you an show off your new shiny silage mower machine TWICE in one day without looking like you are being overly pious about your lawn). I wonder if any marketing folks from John Deere are reading this?

    out here in pennsyl-tucky the folks at the seed mill tell me “only the Amish use white clover…for their lawn!” Well, duh…maybe cause, as usual, they are on to something!

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