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?”