Curious about the name we chose for our farm?
Well look no further, we’ve decided to make our first blog post all about Leafcutter Farm’s namesake, and the incredible science behind leafcutter ants (Atta spp. and Acromyrmex spp.)
We derived our name from one of the most complex and impressive systems of farming found in the natural world: the ‘gardens’ in leafcutter ant colonies. These small but mighty creatures have developed a complex agricultural system, and have been farming for over 50 million years. These ants are commonly found in the American tropics, and are recognized by their ‘foraging columns’ composed of hundreds of thousands of ants, sometimes spreading over 100 feet.
The ants forage pieces of leaves and carry them back to their nest – sometimes defoliating an entire tree canopy in only hours. While one may think the ants simply use the leaves as a food source, they do not. Instead, they use the plant material as a growing medium for an edible fungus!
Deep within the nest, the ants physically and chemically cultivate subterranean “gardens” of fungi that grow on the chewed leaves. The ants are active farmers: they secrete enzymes, amino acids, and other compounds which aid in growth, and prevent competitor fungi from overtaking the gardens. The ants are even so sophisticated as to have dedicated chambers, far separate from the gardens, that they use strictly for waste products (a sort of ant landfill).
By isolating the fungus within the colony’s garden, the ants have created a domesticated codependency- you could call it ‘artificial ant selection’.These species of fungi (members of either genus Leucoprinus or Leucoagaricus) have been cultivated and passed on by generations of ants, sometimes going back back tens of millions of years. When establishing a new colony, the queen stores some mycelium from the parental fungus colony in a pocket in its oral cavity, and uses this mycelium to establish a new garden. The domestication of fungus by the leafcutter ants has been compared to how humans have domesticated crops over time. Humans have cultivated crops so highly modified that they exist in forms no longer found in the wild. Similarly, the leafcutter ant’s fungal crops (commonly known as leucocoprinaceous fungi) are only found coexisting with the ants in their nests- and not found independently in nature.
We were inspired by these amazing little creatures, living together in colonies comprised of millions of ants, efficiently and effectively farming their food together. We plan to operate our farm with leafcutter ants in mind, working with the natural world around us and striving to always produce the highest quality food and products in a sustainable way. We are excited to keep learning and sharing more about mushrooms, plants, farming, fresh food, recipes, and all the other amazing things we create and try out on the farm! We can’t wait to share it with you all!
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