I want to write about the economics of teaching permaculture and how it fits into the larger goal of “living in harmony with nature,” which is what permaculture is all about. In the process I’ll probably ramble a bit about economic theory, but I’ll also share specific figures from my 5 years of teaching experience. As a teacher who wants to see permaculture grow, I think it is important to be open about how and why we teach courses.
I’ve been interested in economics as a lense through which to view human interactions with the planet for a long time - and I’ve zigzagged all over the political spectrum. In 7th grade I got seduced by Ayn Rand libertarianism, in high school I rejected capitalism and started reading the Monthly Review, and in college I “saw the light” in liberal economics and the technocratic effort to utilize capitalism for its benefits (efficient allocation of resources) while regulating its negative externalities (pollution, income inequality, etc.). Then, in my mid-twenties, like a lot of millennials, I got jazzed on the idea of socially-responsible entrepreneurship and the triple bottom line (we can have our money and feel good about it too!).
In the past few years, as I’ve gotten married, racked up medical debt, bought land, and had a baby, my main focus has shifted to building economic stability for my family. I’ve been forced to accept, for better and for worse, our current economic context and figure out how to create resiliency within it. That means I get stoked about things like health insurance and matching retirement funds instead of the ideas of Keynes and Hayek. Don’t get me wrong, I am still interested in designing a path towards a better system, it’s just that my priorities have shifted - call me a realist with big dreams. Enter permaculture design and the side hustle of teaching…
I got into permaculture to learn how to design thriving human habitats that increase the health of the planet. At age 25, a few years out of college, I spent $1,200 to get my Permaculture Design Certificate. Compared to the cost of my undergraduate degree it was a small educational investment, although it was about half of my savings at the time. That investment launched my permaculture journey and a few years later I found myself as a teaching apprentice. At that point the only motivation to teach was Bill Mollison’s directive of “each one, teach one” - to spread the gospel that I thought could save the world. Fast forward another few years and I now co-own a permaculture education business along with Emilie Tweardy and Ryan Blosser. The teaching impetus is still the same, but now I have to make a certain amount per course to pay the business expenses and to justify spending time doing the work instead of being at home with the family. Here is a little breakdown of the finances for the average SPI PDC, to put things into context:
Cost Per Student: $1000
# of Students: 15
Course Revenue: $15,000
Administration overhead ((taxes, licensing, insurance, accounting) - $2,250
Guest Teacher Fees: $2,500
Teacher Apprentice Fee: $200
Supplies and Food: $500
Space Rental: Donated by SPI Teaching Team
Course Coordinator Fee - 18% revenue: $2,700
Total Expenses: $8,150
Lead Teacher Hours:
Prep Hours: 50
Teaching Hours: 90
Course Profit: $6,850
Take-Home Profit Per Lead Teacher: $2,283
Average Hourly Wage Per Lead Teacher (before taxes) = $16.28
As you can see, I make about $2,000 per course once you factor in income and self-employment taxes, and each course is a 4-weekend commitment, plus planning time. If we teach 2 courses in a year that is about $4,000 in supplemental income for my family - not an insignificant amount but also not exactly a game changer. This works for us right now, but I know that if I were to make much less I couldn’t justify it, even though I love doing it.
So there it is, our current money-based financial teaching model. Obviously, there are pros and cons to this model. What I like about it is that the monetary model incentivizes teachers to work hard, be accountable and professional, and provide a good product. It also provides clear feedback in the form of enrollment numbers - if we aren’t serving our customers we will find out quickly. Incentivizing people to work hard is one of the biggest benefits of the market mechanism from my experience, especially in team projects - have you ever worked with a group of unpaid volunteers and tried to get action items completed thoroughly and on time?
There are also some things I don’t like about our model, the biggest one being inaccessibility. Afterall, only a certain percentage of people are in a position where they can spend $1,000 and 4 weekends on a class. The other drawback to the monetary model is that it can be tempting for a teacher to pump out courses just to make cash. I never want to get so wrapped up in the lucrativeness of teaching that I stop doing the actual work of permaculture - developing my farm and building my community in harmony with nature.
There are certainly other models for teaching out there and we have and will continue to explore them. We could teach informal free courses and avoid all of the costs of licensing, taxes, accounting, etc. We could go digital like Geoff Lawton, drastically decreasing our overhead and tuition while reaching more students. Both options would decrease the quality of our courses in different ways. We could also start taking other forms of capital as payment for our courses (see Ryan’s blog series on Time Banks and the 8 Forms of Capital). We’ve tried scholarships and a sliding-scale, but we’ve found that neither is an effective way of making the course accessible to students in true financial need. It’s so difficult to come up with a way to measure need that we’ve found no significant difference in socioeconomic position between our students who take advantage of the tuition discounts and those who don’t. So, for now, we’ve settled for an early bird discount and the option of a tuition payment plan as ways of helping those with limited financial resources.
Our current model isn’t perfect, but it is working as a way to spread the powerful and much-needed idea of permaculture. And that’s the key for me: it has to work, or else we’re not doing anyone any good. So, for now, we utilize this tool called money while keeping our greater goals in mind, moving forward, and always being open to feedback and change.
My colleague Ryan asked me to write a blog about swales - actually, he asked me to write a blog about “why swales aren’t necessary and why we should all stop doing them except in clear cases where the design calls for it based on functional need.” Oh, and by the way, Ryan has a half-acre of ridiculous hand dug swales in his food forest - and me, I’ve left a trail of annoying swales over every project I’ve worked on….so here it goes!
My basic contention is that in the Mid-Atlantic climate swales are very rarely necessary, especially given how drastic, costly, and permanent they are. From a design perspective, we should be asking ourselves, “What is the problem or opportunity I am trying to address and what is the most appropriate and efficient way to address it?” We should not be asking ourselves, “Where should I put the swales?!” Unfortunately, that’s still a question I hear all the time, including in my own head.
It’s actually really weird that we are all so obsessed with swales when you think about it. After all, they are basically giant, expensive scars on the earth that make mowing a real pain in the ass. Maybe it’s Geoff Lawton’s fault for pumping us all with heady before and after images of lush, fruit-filled swales in the Australian tropics, all with a charismatic twinkle in his eye. Whatever the reason, the idea of swales has attached itself to the zeitgeist of permaculture like a bunch of burdock burs, planting itself around the world in the process.
So back to design…The main function of a swale is to slow down water sheeting across the landscape and infiltrate it into the soil, making it available to plants when otherwise it would be lost. So when might we want to utilize that function in design? The most common use of swales is in an orchard setting. Here’s the problem - most temperate climate fruit-trees (apples, peaches, cherries) are adapted to semi-arid regions and do not actually require that much water. The 3 inches per month average that we get in the Mid-Atlantic is plenty for most fruit trees once they’re established. What’s more, for some trees like apples, too much water can make them too vigorous, leading to an abundance of vegetative growth at the expense of fruit.
There is one big benefit to swales for fruit trees - they provide a raised-bed that will drain and dry out after heavy rain (fruit trees like to be inundated with water periodically but not stay wet). So if your soil doesn’t drain you could theoretically dig some swales and plant on the berms to achieve better drainage. The problem here is you are not actually solving the underlying problem - you still have that compaction layer below your swales. A cheaper and more effective intervention might be ripping your landscape with a sub-soiler or Yeoman’s Plow on a keyline pattern to simultaneously de-compact, redistribute water, and build soil. So swales in a Mid-Atlantic orchard? Probably not. The reason Geoff Lawton uses them in Australia is because he is growing water-hungry plants in an arid environment that gets huge sporadic rainstorms. When he gets rain he wants to capture every bit of it for his parched system.
So when might swales be appropriate in the Mid-Atlantic? One instance might be in a no-till, non-irrigated vegetable garden. Veggies need a lot of water, and when designed right and combined with deep mulch this system could enable you to grow veggies without any supplemental irrigation. Michael Judd has utilized these types of swales beautifully in his work at Ecologia Design. Another example might be a steep, compacted site with heavy clay soil where subsoiling is inaccessible or impractical. Alternately, I sometimes use swales on a 1% grade to slowly move water off of my site, for example, to get it away from the foundation of a house. Lastly, swales might help for growing water-loving plants like Paw Paws, especially if you can get multiple functions out of them (see Emilie’s Blog “Stacking Functions Part 1 - Paw Paw Perfection”).
When Ryan asked me to write this blog he suggested 500 words or less. But now that I’ve written well over 500 words, I’ve realized the subject is actually a bit complicated. I guess that’s because swales, just like good design, are all about your goals, your context, and the unique and evolving characteristics of your site.
Turtles All The Way Down. The Third Installment Of An Exploration Of Permaculture Economics.
I’m on the home stretch of thinking out loud about time banking and folding the thoughts into a larger understanding of how we approach economics in Permaculture. At the end of this, I hope to have a clearer opinion of time banks myself and to have communicated to you deeper understanding of how this tool fits into our permaculture toolkit as designers. First, I want to tell a story and introduce an idea. They may not connect yet, hang in there. The final installment will bring it all together.
There I was, standing in my driveway, untangling my headphones before a run when I noticed a late model minivan speeding down the road. Just as the van reached my driveway, the window rolled down and out came flying a fast food bag filled with empty wrappers and red bull cans. As the minivan sped away, two things stood out. The driver’s bright colored Patagonia windbreaker and an "I Love Mountains" bumper sticker.
My area of the road collects a lot of trash. I think it’s due to the fact that 3.5 miles away is a convenient store and Tastee Freeze. It takes about five minutes to reach this point which is, by my best observational research, the perfect amount of time to inhale a chili dog and slam a red bull.
On the run following this event, I had many thoughts.
I thought about taking a picture of the van and posting it to social media. Participating in the current online call-out culture by metaphorically throwing the driver into the online public square for all to feast on her sins.
Next, I thought about one of my heroes, Edward Abbey, whose complicated brand of iconoclastic environmentalism included the occasional and purposeful chucking of an empty beer can out of the window.
Maybe our driver read Edward Abbey. Maybe that’s why she loves mountains.
The next thought that flashed through my head was a statistic I read the other day about Charlottesville, VA. (It must have been the Patagonia jacket that caused that association.)
Charlottesville is known in our region as a progressive enclave, lauded for their green living aesthetic. Indeed I have conversed with many an environmental champion from Charlottesville. However, the statistic that struck me as confusing and interesting was that the average household in Charlottesville, VA. produces a ton - that’s right - a ton more carbon emissions per household than the average in the United States. This thought did not help my mood.
Linked is a thoughtful piece on this
Just as my self-righteous fury was working itself into a frothy towering Gandalf-style shaming, I thought about all of the plastic I’ve used as an organic farmer.
Did I mention I’m an organic farmer (queue condescending west coast accent hippy voice.) When it comes to the “I’m greener than you” fronting on social media that takes place surely I've got that title on lock-down.
Nope. The amount of plastic I use is sickening. At one point last season, while investing in a new piece of land I had just opened up, I was spending upwards of a thousand dollars a week for a couple of weeks straight on plastic that would be tossed in just a few seasons.
And to think, y’all worry about straws.
Every time you bought my beautiful organic produce, you supported my plastic habit.
Setting limits is a good thing. But this is not a blog about that. Rather, these words are about perspective. Rather than invite you to judge anyone of the people and communities I have written about, I’d like to invite you to think about yourself. Now put a pin in that, while I introduce an idea. We will come back to that thought later.
In our Permaculture courses, we teach the 8 forms of capital. It’s a brilliant conceptual framework for thinking about economics. For an introductory understanding of this concept check out Ethan Rowland's original article at the following link. Dude is a crystal clear thinker and this concept has contributed in a big way to the conversation about economics in Permaculture.
In thinking about economics he expanded the understanding of capital beyond finance into other realms. His 8 forms are as follows.
It never fails. Whenever we teach this, folks always feel drawn towards value judgments about which form of capital is superior to the other. Often financial capital gets put at the bottom and social capital gets placed at the top of the pile. This, I believe, misses the point.
Don’t get me wrong, I get it. Social capital is the feel good one and some permaculture practitioners in all of our upper-middle-class wisdom like to demonize and discount the importance of financial capital. In Rowland's conceptual framework he does a nice job of exploring how each form of capital has the potential for deficits and credit and that this creates opportunities. The brilliance of the 8 forms of capital is that it is a tool for analysis and for design. Much like the way we use the scale of permanence, we now have a tool to analyze our economic landscape and create informed decision trees for how to intervene.
Decisions have consequences.
With the run over, I climbed out of my head and found myself standing in the driveway again. There was a fast food bag still littering my space. I walked over and picked up the lady’s shit. I wasn’t angry. I was happy to do it. Serene almost. Somebody somewhere is cleaning up my shit. We’re all cleaning up Charlottesville’s shit.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
It’s turtles all the way down.
Stacking Functions Part 1 – Pawpaw Perfection
“Stacking Functions” – we hear the phrase all of the time in the Permaculture world, but what does it really mean? Is it simply another variation of “two birds with one stone”? It can be used that way, but at it’s best, stacking functions really is a system-wide philosophy. We look at overall needs on our site and match inputs and outputs in mutually beneficial ways. Over the next few months, I’m going to take you all on a tour of some different designs with awesome and creative function stacking, starting with a design I’m really proud of on my own site. It began with observations about 3 different elements in our system. But first, a little background on PawPaws.
The Pawpaw is the largest native North American fruit, with loads of benefits to enjoy. In late summer it produces clusters of a delicious, creamy fruit, it’s shade tolerant, browse resistant, a butterfly host plant and can handle wet feet. It’s a great tree to plug into those dark corners of the property that you’re looking at and thinking.. what can I put there?? It is flowering now (mid-April), and the flowers are small and dark red, hanging upside down from nearly naked branches as the leaves begin to emerge. A small, resilient tree that produces heavy yields, it's perfect for the homestead. Now that we know the basics, on to our observations.
1). We have a challenge on our site, and it’s of our own making. We process thousands of poultry animals here every year – chickens, turkeys, and ducks. The water coming out of our outdoor poultry processing facility is full of Nitrogen and nutrients and flows downhill toward a pond on our property that overflows into a crick that feeds into Raccoon Creek, then the Rivanna, then the James, and on out into the Chesapeake Bay. We don’t want to send all of this extra nutrient into that system so we need a creative solution.
2). One of our small business enterprises is oyster mushroom production. We’ve frequently got a lot of “spent” mushroom substrate (most often a sawdust and/or grain base/mixture) that is no longer useful in commercial mushroom production, but still has a lot of life left in it to grow and spread. During our last PDC course, Eli Talbert of Talbert mushrooms was giving a guest lecture and said something that caught my interest. “Mushrooms are just Nitrogen gobblers. Especially oysters, they’ll eat almost anything”. I knew this in principle, but a new lightbulb came on in my head.
3). We have a love of Pawpaws, and are starting to work towards propagating them. We purchased 20 bare root trees this winter to start a pawpaw patch that we can later graft desirable varieties onto. This way we’ll grow the top notch varieties and produce our own scion wood (mini function stacking) so that we can propagate specific cultivars.
With these observations we were able to creatively meet a need, reduce our waste, and increase our abundance. Here’s how: We dug a series of swales going down our hillside next to the processing plant and are in the process of filling them with wood chips to act as a sponge and filter. There are 4 of them so far, and we intend to add more this summer and extend the system further downhill. The top swale catches the runoff from processing at its Easternmost end, and it’s dug at a very gentle grade so the water moves downhill to the spillover point at the Westernmost end. The spillover carries the water to the next swale where it enters on the West end and flows gently downhill to the East, where there’s another spillover, and so on. In this way, the water zig zags slowly downhill through these swales and has a lot of time and space to be absorbed and filtered before entering our watershed.
But here’s where it gets cool. Pawpaw flowers have this really cool strategy for reproduction. They have the dark red, veined appearance of raw meat. And they stink! They smell of decay, some even say they smell like rotting flesh. These two characteristics attract carrion flies, which are the pawpaw trees’ pollinators. And guess what enterprise on our farm attracts carrion flies? Poultry processing! Our composting poultry “leftovers” (any guts we can’t use, feathers, skin from peeling the feet, blood etc.) always attract flies, and we’ve located those piles at the top of the swaled. Aaaand, Pawpaws can handle wet feet. They won’t mind being planted in a place that gets periodic heavy wettings (processing days use a lot of water). Pawpaws also have a deep taproot which will help stabilize the berms on which they’re planted.
And here’s where it gets cooler. Whenever we have leftover mushroom substrate, we just throw it on top of the wood chips in the swales and let the mycelium “run”. Those oysters can gobble up all of that rich Nitrogen from our processing days and keep it out of the waterways. We won’t eat those mushrooms, we’ll leave them to keep reproducing. They’ll also help facilitate a fungal network in the soil, which was recently turned over from grass pasture. This will help the survival of the trees which have evolved in forested ecosystems with a healthy fungal community.
So our main inputs here are labor and design. It took a lot of work to dig swales (thanks interns and Spring 2019 U of R PDC Students!) and plant the trees, but the harder bit was establishing the design concept. Once established, the outputs are huge! Clean water, nutrient absorption, delicious fruit, fungal communities, making use of the flies on site, swale stabilization, shade, aesthetics, scion production, seed production, pollinator hosting (Pawpaws are a butterfly host tree, in fact zebra tail swallowtail butterfly larvae will only feed on Pawpaws and nothing else) and more.
This is just one example of what stacking functions can do when applied on a whole system level in your Permaculture designs. Stay tuned this summer, we’ll take a look at a lot more interesting and inspiring design examples. Enjoy, and go plant a Pawpaw!
Thoughts On An Unexpected Death On The Farm
“When you take responsibility for an animals life, you must also take responsibility for its death” –Emilie Tweardy
I didn’t realize how emotionally connected I had become to my pigs until I had to kill one unexpectedly. A few days ago one of the two pigs we’ve been raising for meat was mortally injured and left paralyzed in half of its body, and after consulting with the vet, we decided to euthanize him. It was solemn and shockingly violent, but thankfully it went very quick. First the vet sedated him, and once he was unconscious, I shot him twice between the eyes with my rifle. Later, alone on the farm, I buried him in the ground with a few heartfelt prayers.
I know we made the right decision, but it doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking. The worst part was seeing the crippled, feverish pig suffer – that’s when I realized how visceral the bond was that I had developed with him over the past few months. It is a strange, new feeling – not like the grief of losing a pet, there were no tears – but more of a heavy sadness that hangs like a weight from my chest.
This is my families first go at pigs, and one of the things my wife and I are reflecting on now is that our pigs have become a familiar comfort to us – a vibrant part of the interconnected living system of our farm. I knew I would have to butcher them soon, and I had always imagined harvesting them with reverence knowing that they would be recycled to nourish my family and friends. Now I’ve lost that meaning for this pig and I am struggling to make sense of it. He will feed the soil food web now and next season we will plant a mulberry tree over his grave that someday will feed another generation of pigs. Still, something feels wrong and I have to sit with that for now.
I think I’ve already recognized some lessons from all of this. One is to always have an on-farm plan to butcher in emergencies so the meat can be salvaged. Another is to raise a more resilient breed (it seems like this particular injury is common in Mangalistas). There is an idea I’ve heard that industrial-scale agriculture fosters a society that becomes inured to violence, and that might be true to an extent. But then it must also be true that the experience of raising animals, working alongside of them, and taking responsibility for both their lives and their deaths, makes us take violence more seriously. I know that it has for me.
Beyond Meat – Tapping Into Additional Yields From Animals On The Farm
I farm because I desire that raw tangible connection to nature, in essence to ourselves. I also farm because I enjoy producing food that we eat, it makes me feel safe and eating food from the land we work with every day deepens the connection that satisfies my soul. We produce a variety of things on our farm, but the biggest contribution to our own diet is meat. We easily provide ourselves with all the meat we need. Our meat consists of goat, chicken, beef, and the occasional wild caught deer and even groundhog. Not only are animals a part of our farm because they provide us with food and income, but also because we enjoy being around and interacting with them and I feel that our life is richer for it. They teach us a lot about communication and intelligence and patience. By raising the animals we eat we can also be sure that they are treated humanely, live a good life, and that their dispatch is performed with respect and is quick and as low stress as possible. In addition to the meat for our table, animals provide a plethora of additional yields. Over the past few years I’ve been dabbling with these additional yields, learning how to process different parts and how to enjoy and utilize what they produce. These are some of the ways we tap into the additional yields that our animals provide. Needless to say, nothing on our farm dies in vain.
Once the meat is cut from the carcass, the bones are boiled down for a nutrient rich broth which is frozen or canned for future use. I add vinegar to help pull the minerals from the bones into the broth and let it cook for 12-24 hours before straining the bones out. Beyond just using broth as a soup base, it’s a wonderful rich substitute for water when cooking rice, greens, or beans.
Animal skins are an amazing resource. Early on, I filled our freezer with beautiful skins that I couldn’t bear to toss out until I taught myself to tan them (with the help of books, articles, youtube, and trial and error). Tanned animal skins can be made into clothes, bags, blankets, or even just used as home decor with a deep story. I took a 3 day workshop to learn how to make buckskin (the soft supple suede like leather with no hair) – using the brains of the animal, lots of elbow grease, and smoke. And although I haven’t made anything with my buckskins yet, a skirt is in my very near future. After learning to tan hides for myself I began to offer my services to local hunters who wished to preserve the pelts of their kills. Tanning for others is now a way I bring in a bit of extra income during the winter in the ‘off’ season for the farm.
Animal skins can also be made into rawhide. Rawhide is skin that has simply had the hair taken off and then dried. I’ve salvaged deer hides that would’ve otherwise been tossed from local hunters and made them into beautiful sounding drums by stretching and tying them over hollow forms. Rawhide can also be cut into a thin strip and used as strong lashing.
Fat is rendered down into lard for cooking. Rendering is as easy as cutting pieces of rich white fat from the carcass and melting them down in a pan or crockpot. The fat is then strained into jars while it is still hot and in liquid form and then cooled and used for cooking throughout the year. Lard from our goats has become a staple in our kitchen for cooking and it also keeps our cast iron cookware, which we use on a daily basis, well-seasoned. Lard can also be collected from the top of a pan of fatty broth where it rises and solidifies once it is cooled in the refrigerator. Lard can also be used for making soap (with the other main ingredient being lye). I’ve made soap from hog lard in the past.
I’ve even collected the fat that is scraped from bear hides in preparation for tanning them for hunters. Now while I wouldn’t use this for cooking since the skin it is scraped from is fairly dirty, I render it the same way and we use the resulting grease as a boot oil and conditioner for metal tools. I even used it once to get pine sap out of my hair!!
Hooves from goat and deer are removed and make a lovely sounding rattle to play along with the rawhide drum. The feet from chicken can be eaten or used with the bones to make broth, but we mostly dehydrate them and utilize them as nutritious dog treats.
Anything that isn’t utilized is composted and returned to the earth from which it came.
To follow Betsy and her work at Peacemeal Farm check her out on Facebook at
Permaculture And Faith
I stumbled upon permaculture by accident in 2012. At the time, we were living on ten acres of land in Nelson County and had decided to revisit the task of growing a garden and raising our own animals.
Having been raised on a dairy farm in Northern New Mexico, I had been immersed in all things farming and gardening. Hard work was the motto. The art of self-sufficiency was our way of life and, with a mother raised in the Mennonite faith and tradition, she was a master at growing a large garden and canning/preserving food. To this day, I can still hear the canners rattling and hissing away as yet another batch of tomatoes and green beans were put up for the harsh Rocky Mountain winter ahead.
Years later, as our family settled on our own piece of land, I realized that farming and growing things had never really left my blood. It was like my fingers itched to get into the soil as soon as March and warm spring days hit our patch of grass. However, unlike the rich soil of our tiny, New Mexico town, the soil we encountered was clothes-staining red. It was so heavy with clay that we were at a loss as to how to plant in this new place. We were attempting to successfully raise food on land that had only seen a passing herd of cows. Somehow, we needed a new approach. Enter permaculture.
Through our initial study of permaculture, we quickly figured out that the incorporation of sheet-mulching and organic leaf material from the woods nearby could quickly increase the soil’s fertility to then grow things quite successfully. Permaculture was a whole new way of thinking that took the traditional way of gardening I was raised with and made it a richer, deeper experience.
I can tell you that there was nothing quite like harvesting our garden that first year. While it was far from a perfect harvest, the fact that we could take a previously unyielding landscape, and see it produce bountifully, was exhilarating. However, the piece that I was not expecting, was how much the practice of permaculture resonated so deeply with my own personal faith practice. As I read more about the 3 ethical pillars of permaculture - the call to Care for the Earth, Care for People and the practice of Fair Share - I was reminded of this Biblical passage from Genesis 1:28;
“And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
As a young girl, I was raised in church with the belief that this creation we see and experience each day has a Creator; a Creator who I could have a personal relationship with and experience, not only through faith, but also through interaction with the world around me. However, as I grew and studied Scripture for myself, I began to
understand that part of that relationship with my Creator was to answer the mandate given in Genesis to care for the earth, people, and animals He had created. In fact, if you’re a student of the Biblical text, you will find other passages that point to this call to care for the earth and God’s people throughout Scripture.
I’ll be honest and admit that we as a people of faith have not always heeded that call and the ramifications of that neglect are seen in our world today. However, for me to wait on someone else to step up to do what I feel God is saying in my life, is not to live out an active faith, but rather a disobedient one. I embrace the practice of permaculture because I feel it best expresses how I am called to care for the Earth and the people that make up my community and beyond. It is through the practice of permaculture that I feel I can authentically work in harmony with creation and the patterns of nature set forth from the beginning.
As a young girl, I spent enough time outdoors to see those patterns of nature emerge in everything we did on the farm. The coming of new, Spring calves and watching the way a garden grows - from seed to greening plant - with the help of care, water, and sun. It is when we honor these cycles of nature and how they work with one another that we have the opportunity - dare I say privilege - to enrich and heal the land instead of robbing life from it. However, just as much as permaculture and my faith is about the care of the earth, it is more importantly an opportunity for me to care for people in my life well.
Throughout the last 16 years of being a business owner and employer, I have seen how my own practice and understanding of permaculture has impacted the company I own and lead on a daily basis. We are a company that builds things but, more importantly, we strive to build-up people. By focusing on building people through job placement, skill acquisitions, and care for one another as a work community, I also answer the call of caring for people through the lense of my faith. It matters how we treat people, receive them, and choose to care for them beyond just a paycheck. If I truly believe that each person is uniquely created and has infinite worth, then my faith calls me to care for them well by building-up and serving the community God has put in my particular sphere of influence.
As I reflect on all I have learned through the last few years of studying permaculture, this quote from the Scotsman, John Muir, sums it up well for me;
“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, days in whose light everything seems equally divine, [that open] a thousand windows to show us God.”
May I forever look through the windows of creation to its Creator as I hike the bounty of the Blue Ridge Mountains; as I bend to press my hands into the soil of this valley I call home and care for the people within my greater community.
Rope A Dope Style - A Case Study In Creative Use and Response To Change
How many of y’all hear Gerald Levert looping in your head right now behind that title? Or have visions of the Mayweather vs Mcgregor fight last year? As a 90’s kid with an appreciation for combat sports, I could say a whole lot about both. But this blog is not a nostalgic ride through my childhood, it’s about permaculture and farming.
And farming is a blood sport.
Why then the Rope A Dope?
For those not familiar with the Rope A Dope concept, it comes out of the boxing tradition. The Rope A Dope was made famous by Ali. At its simplest, it is a strategy in boxing where the boxer appears weak, by doing so, invites his opponent to fire off a flurry of ineffective punches. The boxer is on the ropes, which allows the rope to absorb the shock of the punch. In this scenario it appears as though the boxer is being beaten badly, only to turn the fight in their favor quickly at the right moment with a well-placed blow on a tired opponent. Ali beat Foreman (a heavily favored opponent) with this strategy. The fight is up on youtube - every time I watch it I get goosebumps.
In permaculture, we often find ourselves in systems where we are over matched.
I’m on the ropes.
For the last decade, I’ve been vegetable farming at the market scale. I started out building a not for profit farm and then transitioned to build my own small farm. I have learned much.
The seasons on an intensive small scale vegetable operation are long, brutal, and rewarding. Revenue can be extensive, but profit, in the early years especially - is sparse. It’s not uncommon to watch the thin margin on the season disappear in one night in a clandestine orgiastic Roman style feast at the hands of the local whistle pig community (that’s groundhogs for those not from the valley). Excess consumption is not unique to the human sector. I have come to love hunting the beasts down with a crossbow, literally counting the dollars saved with each kill.
Photo from left to right: the farm a decade ago, an overhead of the farm now, a picture of the lower field that is now flooded.
Some seasons are difficult,
Some seasons will sink you.
We live in a valley, peppered with microclimates.
Last year, in my corner of my county, my site received almost 80 inches of rain. We average 36 inches a year.
In all of my design work on the site, I never imagined this much water. The perennial systems performed well, but the annual systems, on which I depend for income, failed.
By July, my neighbor’s property sprung a spring, and a creek developed that ran across my driveway into my lower fields. 9 months later as I’m writing this, there is still water running across my driveway. And my lower field has been underwater since last summer.
Feedback, not failure.
What do I do?
I could lease extra land off-farm, and push forward through the barriers refusing to change the direction I set ten years ago.
This would require pouring more resources, human calories, gasoline, infrastructure - money - into keeping the dream alive.
Instead, I lean on my training.
In permaculture, we look at the goals of a project, our ethics, and the 12 principles to evaluate a design.
In the middle of this crisis, both existential and financial, the two principles that provided the most relevant support in our evaluation were; obtain a yield and creatively use and respond to change. We asked ourselves the questions, what are our goals? What are our yields?
Our goals point towards connection, sustainability, and financial stability.
The vegetable operation isn’t cutting it.
After years of pushing sometimes 60 hours a week, I am 40 years old, broke and facing an effort to salvage an unsustainable project.
This cold analysis is hard. Permaculture is not for the brittle spirit.
But, it is freeing.
My next step is to point positive. What do I have?
I have a killer homestead. Professional grade paid-for infrastructure, tools, and equipment and deep knowledge of plant systems - I have my formal training in counseling, deep roots in a community that I am native to, and passion for medicinal and useful perennials.
By focusing on what I have, rather than what I’ve lost. By applying my assets to goals of the project plus hard climate realities I am able to move forward.
What it looks like.
It’s time to stop the vegetable hustle. My site is no longer appropriate for it, nor my familial context. I am in the midst of pivoting toward a more perennial system and utilizing my present infrastructure to grow out and produce medicinal and edible landscaping nursery stock. In addition, I can lean on my formal training as a mental health counselor to find off-farm work that supports resilience in human sectors in my community and my family.
Psychologically, this moment creates an opportunity to re-brand. Our new name is Moonstone Plant Company.
Zora Neale Hurston - the anthropologist and writer once described strength as like being a rock or a blade of grass. The rock is hard but worn down and broken by water, whereas the blade of grass is unfazed and yielding - strong - when confronted by the elements. (Students of Taoism/Ch’an Buddhism may recognize this idea. I love the thought of Hurston reading Lao Tzu.)
In permaculture, we can’t be hard rocks, breaking ourselves against uncontrollable sectors.
At the end of the day, rather than moving forward stubbornly only to crumble like last Christmas’ peanut brittle, turn to permaculture principles, ethics, and the design process as the structure for a thoughtful, relaxed, and flowing decision making process. This is the seat of resilience.
We must change.
When you find your project at this moment do three things.
Small price - big yield
Find the leverage point in the system.
Projects stumble - shit goes sour, just remember the Rope -A- Dope.