I just had the 1,000th person sign up to my email list! I know, I know… for some of the larger sites this would be laughable, but for me, it is a big deal, and I am very happy! When I started this site, if someone asked me if I would have 1,000 people subscribed, to be honest, I would have said, “Yes! Of course.” I don’t think it because I am such an amazing writer. I do believe I do a good job, but I really think it is because of the subject. Permaculture is amazing! When I really began to understand Permaculture, I realized that there was a bit of a void within the subject of Permaculture. There was no central source for Permaculture information for a Temperate Climate. All I do now is share what I have been learning myself, and, as it turns out, there are a lot of other people hungry for this information, too.
With that said, I know there are a lot of new people coming to my site. It’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed with all the information available, especially between the Plant Index and the Article Index. So, I came up with an idea. What if I told a story? This story would follow a make-believe farm. We would follow its conversion from a neglected commercial farm into a thriving Permaculture system. Of course, this is not a real place, but it could be. This is a story that could happen over and over again all over the country and all over the world. Indeed, this type of story really is happening all over the world right now! That is what is so exciting to me about Permaculture.
Through this story, I will add a link to any topic that I have discussed in a prior article on this site. There are way too many articles for me to include all of them, so this story will just highlight the important concepts and popular articles I have written. You can read through it once to get the big picture and then take a break to read about a subject that interests you. This should be a great tool to introduce people to the ideas of Permaculture, so feel free to share this link with your friends.
Now, let us begin. Once upon a time…
… there was a small, traditional family farm. It was worked by the same family for four generations. About 40 years ago the original family died out. A neighboring farmer was able to buy this property in an auction, in addition to a few other neighboring properties, by going into a large amount of debt (he bought into the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz’s mantra of “Get big or get out” of farming from the 1970’s), so that he now owned close to 1,000 acres. This new farmer cleared most of the property and planted it to row crops of wheat, corn, and more recently genetically modified soy. None of the farmer’s children wanted to go into farming. His children live scattered across the country. They tried to bring the grandchildren to visit once a year, if they could, but since the farmer died two years ago, and his wife was moved into an assisted living home, no one has been to the property in quite some time. The children have been fighting over the land for the last two years, and finally, after they each got a lawyer, it was decided to subdivide the property and sell it off.
The property we bought is one of these subdivided blocks, and it is mostly the original family far. It is approximately 100 acres (40 hectares) of hills and gently sloping land. The land is almost all fields which were prior commercial annual crops, but now it is overgrown with thistle and weeds and a few woody shrubs. There are many bare patches of earth remaining and the soil is hard and compacted, with high red clay content, and very low organic matter. There is a ravine that splits the property running from north to south that used to be an all-season stream/creek years ago, but now only runs for a few days a year with heavy rains. This ravine does have quite a few mature willow trees, cottonwood, and a few oaks, as well as large stands of brambles and other weedy shrubs. The farmhouse had fallen into disrepair for the last 10 years, but has really become worse in the two years it has been empty. There are a few overgrown mature apple, European pear, and plum trees near the home and four large raised beds previously used for annual vegetables.
We started the restoration project with observation. We gathered as much information about the land and surrounding areas as we were able: slope, sun angle, wind direction, USDA Zone, AHA Heat Zone, average and maximum rainfall, etc. In an ideal scenario, we would observe the land for a year before doing any development. We considered all the information we had, and we identified the goals for the land (What do we want to do with the land?). Once we had the goals established, which were in line with Permaculture’s Prime Directive and Three Ethics, we could begin our initial framework design. This consisted of our water systems (collection, harvesting, and slowing), our access (roads, trails, etc.), and our building areas (homes, green/glasshouses, garages, shops, etc.). We attempted to maximize edge between field and forest, road and vegetation, water and soil, etc. We then were able to identify our Permaculture Zones and Permaculture Sectors around our buildings.
With our framework design established, we could design the details (specific species and varieties of plants and seed, animal systems, energy systems, waste systems, etc.). The first major work we actually did on the property was the earthworks implementation. This involved bringing in a large excavator to perform “earth surgery”, as Geoff Lawton calls it. If our budget or our property were small, we could do the earthworks by hand, but this would have been a lot of work and time for the size property we have. We placed swales and ponds on contour. Our design consisted of one large pond, that is almost five acres (2 hectares) in size, and eleven more ponds that are each one acre (0.4 hectares) or less in size. We planted the swales to cover crops and also planted the initial trees and shrubs for our perennial agriculture systems, including our food forests (all nine layers) and other tree crops (commercial nut and fruit crops, firewood, timber, etc.) some of which are being coppiced and pollarded. There was a focus on plants which have direct resources, but in order to create a vibrant and healthy ecosystem, we also added myriad other plants that were nitrogen fixing, pest confusing, dynamic accumulators, and attractors of beneficial insects. We also keyline plowed all the land between the swales to maximize water harvesting and soil building. We reseed as much as we could afford of the keylined pastures to a climate specific mix of pasture seed. We also create seed balls to reseed other areas of the property as time and conditions allowed. We managed our pseudo-primary succession to speed recovery and ecosystem regeneration. We also placed windbreak plants around our fields and buildings, and these plants also doubled as barriers to chemical overspray from the surrounding farmland.
We used moveable electric fencing to run about a dozen goats in the ravine that was overgrown with trees and shrubs; this was not old-growth forest. They ate down almost all the undergrowth in the first season. Most of these animals were processed on site and provide some income and a large part of our meat for that year. Other than the willows, oaks, a wild persimmon, and a few black cherry trees, most of the other trees were cut down. This opened the canopy and allowed us to plant some additional trees, shrubs, and understory plants (currants, gooseberries, elderberry, ramps, mint, ginseng, goldenseal, etc.). We obtained about ten cords of firewood (mostly ash trees but also a few box elder) that took a few years to burn through in this temperate Wintered location. We used a number of trees for growing oyster and shiitake mushrooms (delicious!), and we also set up a few mushroom patches (king stropharia, morels, etc.) in the moist conditions near the ravine. The rest of the trees were used to build some traditional hugelkultur mounds.
After the first year, the ravine became a running stream for a few months in the Spring. After two years, the water flowed almost all the way through Summer. By the third year, the stream ran all year long (only the surface iced over in Winter). The riparian area (land along the stream) is now protected from our livestock, but the wildlife has returned to the area in force. There are deer and wild turkey that are very frequent visitors. We have also placed a number of bat houses in these trees and are continually placing mason bee homes all over the property as well. Over the years, we have had a massive increase in native bird, amphibian, reptile, and insect populations, included a few species that are threatened and endangered. The sterile, bare fields filled with corn stubble is just a memory.
We are now using mob grazing in paddock rotation with cattle, pigs, geese, and chickens in the pastures between the food forests and perennial crops. This is turning into a vibrant silvopasturing system where we will be able to feed our cattle and geese on pasture and tree forage, finish pigs on fallen nuts (chestnuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, butternuts, etc.), and run our chickens (both broilers and egg layers) as well, but this is a multi-year process that develops as our pastures and trees mature. We are also experimenting with raising doves in dovecotes for ourselves and hope to increase the production in the next few years to start selling squab. There are six top-bar bee hives near the edge of the stream for now, and the honeybees are pollinating and producing good honey, some of which we are turning into mead.
We lived in a mobile home for a few years as we dismantled the original farmhouse that was falling apart. The basement was in good condition, so we built a hybrid straw-bale and cob home on that foundation. We are looking into constructing more alternative buildings, but we are still in the planning phase. All buildings will harvest rainwater from the roofs, and while this is just a fraction of water collected on the farm, and also just a fraction of water needed to support the farm, every little bit helps. The previous farmers’ raised beds have been removed, and we replaced them with woody annual garden beds on contour, a few planted compost circles, and a classic herb spiral. We were very fortunate (we were so excited about this!) to have found a melon living in the tangle under the overgrown plum trees. It was like nothing we had ever seen, but the flavor was sweet and fantastic. We think it had likely been an heirloom melon planted years ago that escaped, but we are not sure. We have been in contact with Seed Savers Exchange to determine if this is an already recognized variety or a brand new one. We have been growing it out for the last few seasons, and the kids love it.
Speaking of children, unlike the previous farm, our farm constantly has kids visiting. We run regular Permaculture courses and welcome families to stay as well. In addition, we have families stopping by to directly purchase meat and produce, and they often stay for an hour or more exploring the farm on trails we have established for visitors. We also have extended family living with us, which has worked out better than any of us expected. The variety of jobs we all have keep us from ever getting bored, but we have plenty of time to relax and enjoy the process of growing with the land, our family, and our friends. We are able to feel the sense of place we have here, and that is a beautiful part of this process.
We have built a thriving farm that continues to be profitable and supports many families. We are raising healthy food in a humane manner. We have restored ecosystems and native habitat. We have regenerated the land while providing for all its inhabitants. This is Permaculture!
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- http://organicconnectmag.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/newforestfarm.jpg (the “after” photo is of New Forest Farm in Wisconsin. This permaculture farm is the product of Mark Shepard’s work. Learn more at: http://www.newforestfarm.net/ )