Sunny Knoll EcoFarm probably wouldn’t look any different from the surrounding northern Virginia landscape: swaying pastures of green and gold, specks of red barns and warped rows of weathered fence, wavy foothills thick with fog and forest sprouting from the backdrop. All the kind of idyllic rural beauty one can imagine is there, enough so that the 15-acre farm becomes surprisingly ordinary and slips past the casual passerby into obscurity. But there’s something even more idyllic happening at Sunny Knoll, something so remarkably different you would have to see it up close and for a great length of time to really understand how it works.

At Sunny Knoll, the animals themselves carry out nearly every aspect of day-to-day operations, with a little help from nature and good timing. Overseeing the operation is a young couple, one a Princeton Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology and the other a quality control expert. Together, they act as conductors leading a figurative orchestra in the right direction at the right tempo.

The concept they use to run Sunny Knoll is known as permaculture to some, self-sustaining agriculture to others, both of which roughly translate to the notion that choreographing the natural tendencies of plants and animals is healthier and more efficient than attempting to control them by artificial means. For instance, when the couple noticed their cows were suffering from diseases and infections caused by parasitic insects, they introduced chickens — a natural insect predator — to the grazing grounds. Their plan worked, but something else happened, too: The constant pacing from the chickens began spreading the manure around the pasture, thus aiding decomposition and acting as more evenly balanced fertilization for the grass.

When they introduced pigs, the pair realized the animals’ rooting through the soil in search of food could replace the need for tilling prior to planting seeds. And when snails and slugs posed a threat to their crops, ducks were brought in for their expertise in hunting them down. Conducting it all requires little more than routinely rotating pastures to help facilitate regrowth and protect the health of the animals, thus ensuring the productivity of the farm itself.

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