The Network Is Where It's At
“95 percent of the permaculture projects that fail, fail due to poor design in the human sector.” -Dave Jacke
“Everybody wants to dig swales and ponds or run a yeoman’s plow. Rain barrels, herb spirals, ferrocement cisterns, keyhole raised beds-This is the stuff of permaculture dreams.” I start the morning sour, lost in thought, rifling through permaculture cliche's as I pull up to Polyface Farm on an early saturday in November. The central shenandoah valley is adjusting to the first few frosts of the year. Wood smoke is spilling out of the buildings on the farm. Already students in the Shenandoah Permaculture Institute fall 2018 PDC are circling up in the parking area just outside of the farm store.
It’s the third weekend of the course and by now the students are excited to catch up with each other following a two week break. As I”m climbing out of my truck i notice small groups of people talking -mostly about their future projects-some about struggles or joys they’ve had since the last time we were together. These are, on the whole, intimate conversations-there are no strangers despite the short amount of time we have spent together.
I feel good about this. We have done our job. I stand back on the edge, sipping coffee, and waiting for Joel Salatin and the rest of the teaching team to join us. At Shenandoah Permaculture Institute we focus heavily on what Toby Hemenway referred to as the human sector. We design our human sector in the course with the same thoughtfulness as the curriculum and we encourage and provide strategies for the students to factor the human sector into their designs.
My quiet observation is interrupted when three former students and a former apprentice instructor show up. Now this is exciting. There are two great joys to teaching permaculture. The first is seeing substantial and sustainable projects, be they homesteads, nonprofits, or for profit businesses come out of our courses and the second, is seeing students from past courses. Throughout the years we’ve had former students help each other with projects, volunteer on our farms, start businesses that partner with our own, and of course audit later classes.
Joel walks into the circle to start the day. The reunion will have to wait, but i’m bursting with that giddy feeling of seeing old friends and wanting to know what they’re up to. My colleague Trevor Piersol opens the morning with an introduction to Joel Salatin, who is a neighbor to Shenandoah Permaculture Institute and once again I am struck with gratitude in reflecting on the web of elders, practitioners, and students that exist in the state of Virginia. I am happy and humbled to have participated in this small change that is taking place across the state. It is I believe, in the words of Gregory Bateson,-”the difference that makes a difference.”
True Grit and Merry Gathering At Shirefolk Farm
As a vegetable hustler operating a small acre permaculture site, I often find the immediate slow down at the end of the season a relief. The brutality of slinging mixed baby greens and root vegetables 3-dollars-a-pop is a thrilling, bruising grind that rolls into a steep exhale and an enormous amount of time in November.
I sleep in, I write, I hug my kids, I hunt, I clean up, I tend the food forest, and I dream about next season. I also find myself repeatedly making the short trip from the central shenandoah valley to Fluvanna county where Emilie and Logan Tweardy are transforming a 60 acre ex-hobby farm into a productive and profitable, full time broadacre site.
Emilie and Logan are simply put-my people. Sure, I’m biased-Emilie happens to be a partner and core instructor at Shenandoah Permaculture Institute.
Digging into their resume it's easy to notice first that they’ve done the hippy thing -i.e.- a stint in Taos as a massage therapist and a permaculture internship in Costa Rica. They both hold degrees in environmental resources from Colorado State University and -my favorite- have that wild eyed crazy grittiness that can only be forged in the madness of significant time spent as whitewater guides on the Arkansas River. Most importantly though, they’re Lord of the Rings nerds.
Their project and farm name is Shirefolk farm. When they first got onto the land they did the smart thing and resisted the urge to start adding elements immediately. The farm already featured two large ponds, 20 acres of hardwoods, 40 acres of pasture and a couple of barns. They knew they needed to start making an income immediately and so they started with egg production at a large scale, while keeping experimental enterprises to a homestead scale.
Added value ferments, mixed vegetables, goat milk, meat birds, cattle, and pigs. In just a few short years they’ve racked up experience in a diverse and textured quiver of farm enterprises. The pair observed and tinkered and tweaked and worked and made mistakes and it was hard. If I can communicate anything through these writings I hope that it is that farming and permaculture design is hard. Remember that great Bill Mollison aphorism “the designer becomes the recliner.” Nah man, It takes hustle and endurance to make money on the land.
Emilie and Logan are three years into their project and they are now starting to make money. Their primary products are eggs, meat birds (including ducks, chickens, and turkeys), and Lamb.
Meanwhile, the design work continues. They’ve mapped out and addressed their water needs-designed a silvopasture system that will begin installation in the coming years, and added my favorite element to the farm.
In the middle of one of the fields at Shirefolk Farm sits an abattoir where a thousand birds are butchered for market annually. A lot of blood and guts drain down hill from an abattoir. Despite a commitment to cleanliness, carrion flies become inevitable in the pasture where the bloody water washes down. Using this part of the element, they’ve connected the drainage to a berm and basin swale that carries the nutrient rich water into a planting of Paw Paws. Paw Paws also happen to be pollinated by carrion flies. By connecting these systems they’ve stacked functions and multiplied yields in a creative and innovative manner. With system caresses like this, I can’t wait to see what happens to the site as it matures.
When I visit in November it’s usually to spend a day butchering meat birds, or sitting in a tree stand with my bow in their zone 4 hardwoods to harvest a deer. I appreciate how they open their farm to friends and colleagues and allow people like me -a vegetable farmer-to experience such radical connection to the protein my family eats. But above all else, I enjoy the warmth that spills out of the family at the end of the work day or a day in the woods. There is always good food cooking, a warm fire in the stove, and an eager interest in real conversation. It’s what I imagine when I think of Tolkien’s Shire and as I leave to head back to my farm I’m left with the question “What’s in your larder?”
Having the energy and vision for a project is important, Trevor and Jenna got that. Fortunately, Trevor also happens to be an obsessed student of forest gardening-and lets be honest ya’ll- food forests are sexy. It never fails, in the first weekend of every Pdc we teach somebody exclaims; ”I came to learn how to start a forest garden.” I myself dove into permaculture fifteen years ago, seduced by the idea of abundant landscapes with food dripping onto my head, thanks to permaculture thinkers and communicators like Geoff Lawton and Dave Jacke.
Since those heady and bold years of permaculture experimentation we’ve picked up quite a bit of practical knowledge. I’ve even weathered an unhealthy obsession with swales, evolving to view them as unnecessary for fruit trees in the mid-atlantic.
In our bioregion, (the mid-atlantic), there are great examples of practitioners and sites demonstrating effective forest gardening. Michael Judd comes to mind-a charismatic writer and designer from Maryland, Michael has simplified forest garden application into repeatable techniques like the expanding islands strategy. Then there is Dave O’neill-a mixed vegetable farming wizard and mad man with endless energy who has successfully implemented the linear guild as a pattern for establishing food forests. I have experimented with both of these techniques on a homestead scale to successful ends complete with hand dug permed out berm and basin fish scale swales. It’s a lot of work! Something I would want to avoid at all cost on a market scale.
At Wild Rose Orchard Trevor has simplified the design and installment of his system. Recently, he walked our 6th annual SPI Pdc through installment at his future orchard site. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, in this work he is standing on the shoulders of Michael Judd, Dave O’neill, Stefan Sobkowiak of Miracle Farms, Michael Phillips of Heartsong Farms, and Darren Doherty.
Step 1. Design your system complete with species selection. Trevor believes strongly in the central valley that it is important to mimic our natural ecosystem of chestnut savannahs with the use of linear guilds and wide grassy alleys between them. He selects his species and plants them in linear guilds based on when the fruit ripens. This is known as the grocery aisle concept taken from the work of Stefan Sobkowiak.
Step 2. Lay out your site in keyline patterned rows. This could easily be a book of it’s own, but in our experience, it is a skill best learned through doing rather than reading. A recommended resource can be found at earthintegral.com. Trevor recommends slightly raised “planting strips” rather than full-on swales. Combining keyline patterning with planting strips allows for alleys of uniform width and prevents having to use the energy required to dig swales.
Step 3. Till and than, using a rotary plow or hand shovel shape your raised planting strips. This is all that is needed to direct water from valleys to ridges even in large rain events. It’s a low risk, low energy intervention. Step 4. Sow cover crop (Trevor recommends fall planted oats for winter kill and red clover as a nitrogen fixer.) Step 5. Plant trees with myco inoculant. Step 6. Provide fencing for deer pressure, tree tubes for vole and rabbit pressure, and staking for wind pressure. Step 7. Keep tree drip line weed free during the establishment years using wood chip mulch and/or landscaping fabric.
Eleanore Pollard, a 2016 SPI alumni from our U of R course, visited Innisfree Village, "A lifesharing community with adults with disabilities." Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Charlottesville, VA, Innisfree's Lifesharing Mission reads:
"Lifesharing at Innisfree means that residents and their volunteer caregivers live as families in the community's 15 houses. In this close-knit environment, people develop profound relationships based on mutual needs, respect, and love"
Eleanore gleaned a lot from her visit, and got to witness some beautiful and inspiring Permaculture in action. Check out her essay below. Enjoy!
"Innisfree Village values diversity. The community is made up of co-workers, volunteer caregivers, and staff members. Co-workers learn valuable life skills such as weaving, woodworking, gardening, spinning, cooking, etc. Each activity is catered toward an individual’s needs and skill level so that no one feels left out of an activity they might want to participate in. If an individual has an interest or passion outside of what they offer, they try and accommodate that as well.
Our tour guide, Trisha, was incredibly kind and open and answered every question we asked. She led us on a tour of the property and informed us about each workstation. She was very candid when asked whether the farm used any permaculture techniques or principles. Trisha told us that she didn’t think anything was purposely done following permaculture ideals but that the principles and techniques occur naturally on their farm. For example, they utilize rotational grazing for their cattle, moving the cows from pasture to pasture thus ensuring they don’t overgraze one patch of land. They have the cattle graze through first and then they bring in the sheep to eat what was left behind. They also own a Keyline plow, which they use for farming, although we did not get to see exactly what they were doing with it.
Something I also noticed they are constantly doing at Innisfree is stacking functions. Co-workers make art in all different mediums, paint, wood, fabric, yarn, etc. This serves a therapeutic function for them as well as many other functions. They sell much of their art, such as their woven scarfs or wooden cutting boards. This builds confidence by showing them that other people want to own what they have created. Selling their goods also spreads the word about their community. They also hand draw all their labels for their canned goods so each label is unique.
At Innisfree, they grow much of the food that they eat for community lunches. While I was there, co-workers were mixing soil, planting seeds, picking herbs, and sifting compost. The pride each person had from performing his or her given task was instantly apparent. The smiles and excitement on everyone’s faces was extremely contagious and I couldn’t help but well up with happiness. Innisfree Village is someplace incredibly special and I can’t wait to return someday."
-by Eleanore Pollard