Time-Based Currency pt 2. Let’s Not Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater or Towards A Case For Time Banks
“If the drinking is bitter, become the wine.” -Rilke
Awesome. I started contributing to this blog as a way of thinking out loud about ideas that fall under the big tent of Permaculture. As Permaculturalists we are a proud and passionate lot given to soap boxy moments around our favorite ideas. (There is a joke in here about permacults).
Hilariously, I can imagine what it would have been like to be in a permaculture design course around the Y2k thing. I can also recall my own fevered moments of self-righteousness. For instance, years ago on a particularly strange day inspired by the seduction of abundance through leisure articulated in the Bill Mollison aphorism “let the designer become the recliner” I found myself espousing forcefully the belief that we are approaching the end of work. A real techno-eco paradise.
The thought was not so much A Rifkinesque end of work analysis but a post-scarcity call to action to stop work altogether. An attempt to construct an early aught style drop-out culture where participation in the economy was considered collaborating with an abstract evil known as mainstream capitalist society.
The thought was not well-formed.
I beat that drum with the passion of a post-scarcity evangelist.
What an asshole I was. Fortunately, I left grad school and became a father.
That ended that experiment.
The cool thing about conceptualizing this blog as “thinking out loud” is that the writer gets feedback and a chance to revise and build on ideas. Aside from the excitement of knowing someone out there is reading, (I didn’t think there was), I heard from many people. Some of y’all hate my previous piece about time banks and saw it as an inappropriate take down of a treasured effort by communities to make the world better. Some of y'all asked me what a time bank was, some of y'all laughed and asked, "Why now? Time banks haven’t been relevant since 2008." Meanwhile, some of y’all love the piece, having experienced a similar worry with time banks in your own community. All fair points - and I love this diversity of opinion.
First, let me answer the question: What are time banks?
In 1980 Edgar Cahn started thinking about ways to link untapped social capacity to unmet social needs. One idea coming out of this effort was time banking. This is simply a mode of exchange that lets people swap time and skill instead of money. In a time bank economy, when a person spends one hour helping another person they receive credit. When that person needs help from someone else than they use their credits to get help. For example, If a car-less carpenter needs a ride, they can accumulate credit by working on someone’s deck and exchange the credit for rides from another member. Early on this idea represented a way to create a more equitable and inclusive future by valuing work and skills that the dollar doesn’t value.
Nationally, time banks continue to flourish in some small communities and struggle in others but, with few exceptions, they’ve operated at a tiny scale. In the last few years interest in them has waned. However, I anticipate relevancy of this idea being catapulted quickly into the national consciousness as a result of Andrew Yang who is running in the Democratic primaries for the 2020 presidential candidacy.
As I’m writing this the Freakonomics podcast is on NPR and Andrew Yang and his platform is the main focus of the episode.
Y’all should listen to it. Soon, time banks will no longer be a fringe effort at social equity executed on small scales in local economies by spirited and smart people, but an idea oozing into the consciousness of every American through a gigantic-scale platform like the U.S. election.
There’s that and then there is the economy.
A few years ago An SPI course toured an off-grid farm project in Virginia.
The year was 2016, oil was cheap, the recovery was bounding forward at full clip. The farmer was asked by a student in our group how he felt about the future. He commented that he was very scared for the future. What we need, he said, was another oil crisis to wake people up.
I'm not asking for a crisis of any kind. When shit goes south people get hurt real bad, Woke AF takes no prisoners.
Though the farmer did have a point. There is a correlation between novel ideas and fear. Arguably, we are in the middle of a time of general prosperity in this country. A decade ago, in permaculture courses, everyone seemed to be clad in thrift store attire duct taped at the splitting seams. Now, it’s that bastion of textile superhero do-goodness, Patagonia, that is the dominant brand, paired with a side of Smartwool socks. These are fat times indeed.
“Always predict the worst and you’ll be hailed as a prophet.” Replied the great satirist Tom Lehrer when asked why he was so popular.
Here is my contribution to our collective pessimism.
There is some indication that we are on the doorstep of another crisis. If one is to listen to Yang’s analysis or read Jeremy Rifkin’s 1995 book - The End Of Work - we are in a time where millions of jobs will be lost to automation without much opportunity for retraining. Resources will remain locked up, while jobs, scarce. It is a time to re-imagine yield. Time banks might be an interesting way forward.
Now, I’ve gotten ahead of myself and I need to end this on a high note. With a scan of the timebanks.org website, one finds suggestions to have time bank meetings that are monthly potlucks and to create group time bank projects that are limited only by the imagination. Potlucks, seed swaps, community wellness days or volunteer work parties strike me as robust events that get a great deal of work done for non-profits and time bank members. More importantly, they serve as gathering spaces where core values can be exchanged and articulated and relationships built.
This is something time banks do well.
It keeps people in the game. Long after the exchange of currency dissolves, there is still a group of people and anytime there is a group of people coming together around shared values, there is a chance for intimacy.
I live in the same community I grew up in. Wes Jackson’s imperative to “find a place and become native!” is an afterthought for my family. I was born into a network of people, I grew up with them, and for the most part, things haven’t changed. For others who move to the valley or experience life on the margins in a new community, a connection can be tougher. Sometimes churches are the answer and other times it’s the school system or sports. Still, for many, especially those seeking alternative answers to struggles that the mainstream solutions seem to come up short on, time banks can be a great relief.
I wish I could keep going on about the feel-goods around the concept of time-based currency. But, for now, I’m out of time. In part 3, I’ll dive deeper into the analysis of what time banks do well and attempt to integrate this into what we teach at SPI: The 8 forms of capital.
This is the second installment of a four-part piece on time-based currency and permaculture economics. Stay-tuned y’all, it’s getting fun.
For more information on Cahn - a fascinating man. Check out this 2018 Forbes article.
And more info.
Permaculture Plants Part 2. A Mid-Atlantic Food Forest Cheat Sheet
Expanding Island Food Forest at VSDB Educational Farm in Staunton, Virginia. 'Liberty' Apple surrounded by Echinacea Purpurea, Sea Kale, Red-Veined Sorrel, Chamomile, Goumi, Mountain Mint, Egyptian Walking Onion, Horseradish and more. (Photo by Trevor Piersol)
Food Forests or Edible Forest Gardens are a VAST topic - and one of the things we strive to do in our teaching at SPI is to simplify Permaculture to make it as practical and applicable to our students as possible. In this vein, I've come up with a "Mid-Atlantic Food Forest Cheat Sheet" to help you get off on the right foot with your Food Forest design dreams.
Essentially this is a list of Food Forest plants that I have found are most suitable to our region and to the diversity of a Food Forest system - that is low-maintenance, multi-functional, and native when possible (shout out to Ryan's blog "Plantin' Ain't Easy!). Most importantly, the cultivars chosen are disease resistant to most of our local diseases (for example, I like to plant Apple cultivars that are resistant to the "Big 3" apple diseases - Fireblight, Apple Scap, and Cedar Apple Rust). I've also arranged the fruit trees by fruiting window to make efficient layout easier, ala Stefan Sobkowiak's "Grocery Aisle Concept" at Miracle Farms in Quebec. This cheat sheet is useful whether you are planting out a large-scale "linear guild" orchard or a small-scale "expanding island" orchard. Also, I've thrown in some planting and maintenance tips just for the heck of it - because why go through all of the work and money of getting your orchard started if you aren't able to take care of the plants!
One last note - for the sake of easy maintenance you'll notice I like to simplify my Food Forests to include only Tree, Shrub, and Herbaceous layers. The more adventurous orchardist might want to throw in vines, groundcovers, fungi, etc. - but I like to start with small and slow solutions. I also tend to exclude a whole host of perennial plants from my Food Forest which I find require specialized maintenance strategies - think raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, seabuckthorn, pawpaws, American persimmons, and figs, to name a few. I haven't forgotten those gems but in general I like to plant them together in blocks interspersed throughout the farm, not in my orchard rows. As always, this is an ever-evolving document, but hopefully, it will help you avoid some of the mistakes I've made over the years. Enjoy!
Linear Guild planted on contour with alley cropping of annuals. Species, Arkansas Black Apple, Aronia, Goumi, Rhubarb, Echinacea, Comfrey ,Bee Balm, Locust, Serviceberry, Sorrel. Fennel and Cilantro in the alleys. (Photo by Ryan Blosser)
Mid-Atlantic Food Forest Cheat Sheet
By Trevor Piersol
The Tree Layer (Species/Cultivar by Approximate Harvest Date)
Early September Harvest
Late September Harvest
Tree Rootstock Recommendations
In general, I recommend semi-dwarf or semi-standard rootstock. Dwarf rootstocks will bear fruit sooner but are more fragile and shorter-lived.
Asian and European Pear Rootstocks
Asian Persimmon Rootstocks
The Fruiting Shrub Layer
I like to plant 2-3 fruiting shrubs around or between each tree. The shrubs selected are all fairly easy to grow and will have a height and spread of about 4-7 feet.
Although I see it as optional, it is nice to plant at least one Nitrogen-Fixing shrub around or between each tree. All will grow to about 12’Hx12’W with the exception of the Goumi which is 6’Hx6’W. Here are a few that are well adapted to the Mid-Atlantic.
The Herbaceous Layer
Herbaceous plants are interspersed around the base of each tree or within the linear guild rows. Make sure to mix up species and also plant along edges and in sunny, open sections. Many double as beneficial insect attractants that also produce a nice yield of culinary and medicinal herbs/vegetables. Below are some of my favorites.
Planting and Maintenance
When you are ready to plant make sure you follow proper planting protocols: digging a large planting hole, pruning damaged roots and spreading them out evenly, and not planting too shallow or too deep. Bare-root planting in fall or spring is much more successful than summer planting. I like to dunk the plant roots in a mycorrhizal inoculant slurry before planting
https://bio-organics.com/product/mycorrhizal-root-dip-inoculant/. I also amend each tree planting hole with approximately 2 lbs. azomite (for micronutrients) and 2 lbs. rock phosphate, mixed evenly into the soil.
Once trees are planted they will need an average of 1” of rain per week to get established. They also need a weed-free zone maintained around the drip line at all times. Dwarf trees will need to be tied to a stake. The cheapest option I’ve found is a ¾-inch EMT electrical conduit. Sink the stake 2-inches from the trunk of the tree on the upwind side and then fasten the tree to the stake using a flexible tree lock.
A tree guard placed around the trunk of the tree at the base is essential for preventing rabbits and voles from girdling the tree (I like the see-through mesh variety), and branch tips must be protected from deer browse with some sort of fencing/exclusion barrier. Proper training from the outset is important to minimize corrective pruning later on. Seasonal pruning is recommended to encourage proper airflow and branch distribution and maximize fruiting.
Pest and Disease Management
There’s no doubt that growing fruit trees organically in the Mid-Atlantic is a challenge. We’ve already gotten part of the way there by choosing disease resistant cultivars and creating diversity in the Food Forest. From there you can choose to target problems with organic sprays or experiment with pro-biotic and holistic sprays like effective microbes and neem oil. To learn more about holistic sprays I recommend Michael Phillips’ book “The Holistic Orchard.”
Sources for Plant Material
Here are some online nurseries I recommend for bare-root trees and shrubs: Raintree Nursery, Cummins Nursery (especially for apples on Geneva rootstock), and Burnt Ridge Nursery. Stark Brothers is a great source for dwarf fruit trees although they do not specify rootstock. Edible Landscaping in Afton, VA is the go-to place for Asian Persimmons and Paw Paws. Nourse Farms is a great source for berries. For herbaceous perennials try sourcing from local nurseries or starting from seed. You can also order in plug trays of herbaceous plants online from Richter’s.
Permaculture Plants Pt. 1. Plantin' Ain't Easy (Re-enchant The Landscape!)
A friend of mine once said that “peoplin' ain't easy”. Having spent more than a decade in the mental health field-boy do I know this to be true. I used to say I left my "real" job as a community counselor in order to work with plants because plants are easier.
I was wrong.
My colleague likes to remind me of a quote from the writer and permaculturalist Starhawk, that “permaculture is the art of relationships”. The more time I spend working with plants the more this idea is brought into focus. As a planter and grower, I am guilty of a Pollanesque botany-of-desire species selection in my own projects. What is the plant's function? Do I like the plant? And then there is still that question.
What IS a permaculture plant?
And why are we slow to provide plant lists in our courses? I can imagine biting BuzzFeed's style and using this blog for listicles with titles like "10 of the best perennials every permaculture student needs to know about." That would up our readership. Here is another "The Six Most Appropriate Plants For Your Permaculture Design."
Not only would these lists be wrong, but they would be arrogant, and not only would they be arrogant but they would be vain. In all things, permaculture included - arrogance is helpful until it becomes vanity - tip of the cap to my man Merwin.
As an educator, It can be a delight to hover in that ambiguous space of pattern and concepts with the hopes that anyone reaching for a plant list does some of the preliminary research and work on their own to start building plant knowledge and competencies. I can remember the first several years I really dug into the material, falling asleep night after night with nursery and seed catalogs splayed out on my chest until I had memorized all of them.
Then what do we do?
I turned to the elders of our discipline.
For example, Mark Shepards STUN (Sheer Total Utter Neglect) method of species selection is fun to write about but expensive once you ground truth it. I've spent thousands of dollars on plants that have passed into their next life.
And then there is Dave Jacke-straight up genius-his two-volume encyclopedia on the subject is an invaluable addition to what we do. On the other hand, that shit is overwhelming. I can remember dreaming of field grafting Korean nut pine onto all of my white pines after reading and confronting the shocking amount of information in his tome. Read, but plant simply when starting out. In the end, it’s not about lists, though that is a place to start. It’s about experimenting with what works on your site based on your goals, and then diving deep into the relationship.
But What DO you do?
below is a list - it's not exhaustive, it's sparse. It's based on our experience in our specific region - Shenandoah Valley - where winter temps get down to zero. More importantly, these are plants we have developed relationships with. As you make your lists for your own projects, take the time to get to know your species. "Plantin' ain't easy," but it's fun.
What makes a plant a permaculture plant? Just three things:
Comfrey - At some point, this plant might begin to be played out, but it’s so damn helpful and easy. Not only is it great for the soil and acts as a wonderful barrier plant but when mashed up and boiled becomes an incredibly healing poultice. I’ve had gigantic swollen elbows rendered healed from long soaks. I dream of one day taking a bath in the stuff to relieve the stiffening that is happening to my aging body. Another great use is boiling down the plant material and letting it cool to be used as a rooting agent for propagation!
Tulsi - Another favorite-It gets hot in the field in July. And nothing cuts the heat like a cold glass of Tulsi or Holy Basil. One of my favorite aspects of the plant is that it self seeds. Once it throws seed you never have to plant again. Just walk the patch in the spring and smell the unmistakable perfume of Tulsi wafting up from the soil.
Yarrow - natures bandaid-It’s an incredible resource for those too often moments when a harvest knife nicks a finger. Of course, follow up with some electrical tape around the wound-one must remember to not bleed on the food.
Elderberry - I could write a book about elderberry I love the plant so much. My journey with plants began with a passionate interest in the mystery of healing plants. Before learning to grow, harvest and use Elderberry I was enamored with the folklore around the plant and immediately promised myself to incorporate the charisma of the plant into my own system. One of my favorite poets Peter Lamborn Wilson likes to exclaim: “We must re-enchant the landscape!” and Elderberry does this. If one is to fall asleep beneath elderberry then a person dreams of fairies. I can remember the joy of watching my young daughter dance around the elder bush with fairy wings on. She was just playing, little did she know her play had aligned quite neatly with traditional folklore. Perhaps, however, the most practical of the old stories recommend planting the Elderberry among the healing herbs. The Elder, it is said, is the keeper of medicine and teaches the medicinal plant how to be themselves. On a less abstract note, the use of Elderberry is a true blue winter health elixir. The antiviral properties of Elder make for an excellent daily syrup to keep the sniffles away. And it tastes great! In keeping with the re-enchant the landscape theme I recommend the Black Lace Elder but make sure you pair it with an Emerald Lace Elderberry in order to have proper pollination.
For Easy Fruit
Pawpaw - A great joy of the early fall is trekking through the forest in search of pawpaw patches. When planting on your homestead we recommend great varieties like Shenandoah. Michael Judd has a pawpaw book coming out and we can’t wait to get our hands on it!
Persimmon - Most people cringe when we mention Persimmon, but I”m telling you they are super easy to grow. And some of the hybrid’s and Asian cultivars are excellent tasting. Nikita’s Gift is highly recommended.
Arkansas Black Apple - Apples are tough in the Mid-Atlantic region especially here in the Shenandoah Valley. There are many disease-resistant varieties like Liberty, William’s Pride, and Enterprise. However, My favorite tasting and the one that seems to be the toughest and lowest maintenance is the Arkansas Black.
Patio Peach - Peaches are a roll of the dice in our bioregion. From insect pressure and disease to the dreaded late frosts here in the Valley, the fruit can be finicky. The Patio Peach is not going to bring money into the system, but as a homestead peach for out of hand eating in July, it can’t be beaten. This tree consistently is loaded with peaches and has needed zero maintenance in my system.
Asian Pear - For productive fruit production in your homestead this is the way to go. Very little disease pressure and consistent fruiting. Shinko seems to be the most prolific but on wet years the fruit will split. You can go from counting on having all of those canned pears at harvest to losing 60% of the harvest after a big rain. Korean Giant and Hosui have been our favorites at the homestead.
Gooseberry - I put the gooseberry on here because it’s my children’s favorite. It fruits early and young and provides hours of entertainment for the kids while they surgically pick the berries around the thorns. Be careful with white pines in the neighborhood, however. White Pine Blister rust can take them out with the quickness - and Ribes like Gooseberry are often the culprit.
I include the above trees together under the firewood category for one reason. They are excellent when used in a coppiced hedge system. I like to plant either tree on 8 inch or one-foot centers. After about 3 or 4 years, the tree can be cut down only to resprout from the trunk. By planting close together and strategically cutting every third tree every year, one can have a continual hedge and a supply of great wood small enough not to have to split for burning. In addition, locust is nitrogen fixing and produces sweet-smelling edible flowers. Black Cherry is an excellent wood to have in the homestead for furniture making as the homestead ages.
To be continued.
The Wizard of Short Glade Heights, Time Based Currency Pt. 1
I want to write about a friend not rant about the potential problematic aspects of time based currency. I fear I’ll do both before this is over.
The Wizard of Short Glade Heights is a man I met almost a decade ago. I had moved back to the central shenandoah valley just three years prior and was chasing down the permaculture dream with a passion. I had started attending a meeting of like minded people in town to exchange ideas about our sustainable future.
An older man approached me in the first meeting and asked the question “How green are you?” he had a twinkle in his eye and he framed the question with a hint of irony. It was as if I’d just been approached by William Burroughs if instead of being a lifelong junky, he spent his time chopping wood.
In that first conversation I discovered with great relief, he was a neighbor. It’s hard being an old school lefty and living in rural shenandoah valley. My values tend to skew more toward the environment and vegetables and holistic design then god, guns, and processed gas station snacks. While I’ve since softened on my clearly irrational fear of a hillbilly apocalypse and cultivated a serious appreciation of gas station snacks-(I've had my illusory iron will shattered on many occasions due to a powerful lust for fried pickles) at the time, it was a breath of fresh air to meet a like minded person.
Quickly, he became my homesteading mentor. I would spend my days off at his place stacking wood, cutting wood, splitting wood. On building projects around his site he taught me about first principles and simple design. That is where I first learned about proper tool selection and tool care.
And what a site it was. The Wizard is a formally trained architect who by the age of 43 found himself on 4 acres of land and debt free in a liveable house. At that time he made the decision to lower his stress by lowering his income needs and quitting his job. For the last twenty five years he has lived on 7 thousand dollars a year or 20 dollars a day. On a site that he has spent his time transforming into a magical place.
Almost nothing at his place is new. When I think about valuing what someone else would consider waste and creatively responding to change this man comes to mind. Essentially he has built an ewok village featuring a pair of old farm silos out of found objects. Years ago his scavenging habits got out of hand and he realized he needed storage and an ability to organize. He did the math and figured out that if he paid for an old building down the road from his site, he would save money by storing everything he needed instead of buying it new. He bought the building he now calls Zyx and refers to it jokingly as his personal Lowes and Walmart. In the building is a lumber section featuring 100 year old chestnut boards from an old barn, there is a hardware sections with nails pulled from pallets twenty years ago, plumbing, etc. you get the picture.
Back down the road at his homesite which he calls Z-ville he practices a french technique which he observed while on a trip to France back in the late 90’s as the french strategy of tax abatement. Essentially he deliberately leaves the outside of his estate run down but fine tunes every detail on the inside to create an incredible living environment. It’s remarkably efficient, it’s tiny before every damn hipster on the planet wanted a tiny house and it’s retrofitted and updated almost entirely from found materials.
He is quite simply the “greenest” example of a life I know. But it’s not my admiration for this man and his lifestyle that inspires me so much. Rather it’s our relationship. The mentorship I discovered long ago has evolved into an old school neighborliness and friendship that reduces both of our needs to earn more income.
Like man-buns, gluten-free, unschooling, tiny houses, swales, and whiteboy dreadlocks-time banks as a permaculture act of resistance is working it’s way across it’s own arc of trendiness. It’s an idea and theory with great intention behind it. To be clear, this is not a critique of those brilliant minds who have put their passion, brains, and energy behind time banks in their own community. This energy is well-meaning, and driven-I admire you all too. And honestly, I get it-until recently I used to sport white boy dreadlocks in a man bun while simultaneously designing a tiny house in my food forest full of swales. The arc of time and the potency of hindsight makes fools out of the best of us.
The wizard and I have an unspoken contract. We trade skills constantly. One example of this is he eats for free off of what I produce. During the season I supply him with all of the mixed vegetables that he can eat from my vegetable operation. Calorie wise and weight wise, it’s not a huge burden for the farm, but it’s quite meaningful to a man who spends 20 dollars a day to live. In the winter, I supply him with meat from the deer that I hunt and butcher. Often times, that deer comes from his land that he allows me to hunt. In exchange he helps me when I have reached a homestead problem beyond my present capacity. When my pressure tank goes bad-I call him, when something goes wrong in an engine, I call him, when I need consultation on re-graveling a washed out driveway-I call him. He even goes so far as splitting a little extra wood for me and I can always cut wood from his forest for burning in my wood stove.
Recently, We both upped the ante on this contract. He is designing the addition to our house-a skill that he is trained for in exchange for me writing an historical novel about the tiny little place in the community where we live. It’s a novel that he has conceptualized and wants to see written but doesn’t have the time or patience to put into it.
And that brings me to a central beef I have with time banks. I appreciate the attempt at creating a currency that evens out the playing field where everyone is valued equally. And I appreciate subverting the magic symbolism of the dollar with a slightly less abstract concept as one hour. However, I can't get past the feeling that In the end it’s still magic and it’s still currency and more importantly, it seems to recreate our own old school neighborliness by institutionalizing service. And there's the rub. What time banks seem to do is layer structured togetherness on top of a void and loss of intimacy.
I am suspicious that the answer to our current social and economic alienation is structured time banks where we log our social capital. What if the answer to these problems are less fancy, less trendy, but more meaningful. What if we just need to value and improve our intimacy skills?
In the age of bullshit “find your tribe” marketing and goofy follow your bliss advice spilling off the lips of every get rich quick hippy life coach on the internet, what if we just need a couple of friends. Commit to them-build that relationship-earn their trust and then count on them and make damn sure they can count on you. When I think of slow and small solutions, this strikes me as a meaningful way to build a community. One neighbor at a time.
The Wizard has been good to me and I feel extremely motivated to be good to him. We aren’t keeping score. I have a couple of more people I’m working on building this same relationship and it takes time. Shit has to be worked out. But it works.
So sure, keep fighting for that local time bank-they have value-I believe this. Just remember, as you're stacking hours take the opportunity to truly connect. When time is currency, our relationship to time is changed. And this I fear is how intimacy is subverted. I'll close with a quote from one of my counseling mentors. "Act like you got five minutes, and it's going to take all day. Act like you got all day, and often it takes five minutes."
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