Fiddle Creek Dairy Brings Balanced Farming Through Silvopasture
by Zach VandeZande
January 06, 2021
Fiddle Creek Dairy sits on an idyllic stretch of land nestled in the hills of Amish country in Pennsylvania. On the way there from the DC Metro, you’ll pass through rolling landscape and small communities of farmers and makers, and you’ll probably see a number of buggies and children in straw hats, vests, and dresses, letting you know that you’ve finally left the it all that people always talk about getting away from. It’s a quiet part of the country, Fiddle Creek’s pasture, which suits farmers Tim and Frances Crowhill Sauder just fine. It suits their cows too, as they live a stress-free, peaceful life on a verdant pasture, poking along and grazing together.
All of this is part of Tim and Frances’ careful, considered design. Both of them are committed to thinking about land from a perspective of restoration and justice, which to them means bringing the land and the creatures that live on it into balance. On their website is a quote from Wendell Berry: “Without proper care for [the land] we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”
Proper care is an idea that’s been a little bit lost through decades of large-scale factory farming, but it’s fair to say that it may have been lost before then; America started in wilderness, and the first colonists saw that wilderness as something to be tamed instead of cooperated with, often with disastrous results. However far back you trace it, though, American agriculture currently lives out of harmony with what most ecologists and environmentalists say is needed—Tim and Frances included. That’s why they approach dairy farming with a sense of balance and health as their first priority. Thinking about a farm as a living ecosystem to be cared for (rather than a profit center) is what led them to the idea of silvopasture.
Silvopasture is a relatively new term for an ancient practice: the intentional combination of grazing animals, forage plants, and trees. Silvopasture provides a number of benefits for the animal and the environment, which is why it’s catching on among farmers who hope that their life’s work provides benefit to the land and animals they care for. For one, trees function as a carbon sink, sequestering five to ten times more carbon than treeless land, and they provide a more balanced microclimate for cattle—shade in summer, warmth in winter—that improves well-being. It gives cows a more varied diet and helps keep them engaged in the process of foraging. It’s also better for the soil, as tress help fix nitrogen and draw in nutrients.
Tim and Frances came to this idea through Austin Unruh, who runs Crow and Berry Land Management, but it clicked for him due to his own passionate sense of what the work of farming actually is: an act of caretaking and, in some ways, restoration. “On the east coast, the ‘native grass’ is trees,” he says. “Trees are what should be growing here.” And so they are, as Fiddle Creek is now home to rows of saplings guarded (for now) by protective tubing. As they grow, a more balanced way of living will come to the farm, which will lead to more profit: Tim and Frances have plans for hickory, pecan, and apple trees commingling with his cows.
“How do we live in this moment and the future?” Tim asks as we look out over his cows munching happily away among the beginnings of a project that won’t come to fruition for several years. “What did my people bring to this continent that’s undeniably good? For me, it’s the cow, the horse, and the apple.”
I recently read the novel Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth, part of which is narrated by a broiler chicken, one of tens of thousands living in a cramped barn. The farming practices described in the book are casually inhumane and disastrous for the planet. The profit motive has its thumb on the scale, and the ultimate question of the novel is the same one Tim and Frances ask themselves: what do balance and goodness look like in agriculture?
It’s a huge question, and there’s so much work to do, which can seem daunting until you talk to someone like Tim. He understands that the work to be done is important, that it takes patience and a thoughtful reconsideration of what we know, and that, ultimately, it’s not just necessary work: it’s joyful.