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.