On Good Intentions and Land Use

While home for the holidays this year, I was lucky enough to spend some time with my little sister, who I hadn’t seen in over a year. She lives out in Washington, and I have yet to make it out west to visit the area of the country she has called home for almost three years now. She’s a botanist, combating invasive species and restoring salmon habitat for the Quinault Indian Nation on the Olympic Peninsula. She’s spent her years since college working on native species conservation in various places, and she’s been trying to encourage the local conservation efforts to include more native plants in utilitarian roles. When we walk in the local forest preserve or drive by wooded lots, her trained eye sees which plants belong in the restored prairie, how drastically they are thinning oak stands, and how many invasive grasses went to seed last year. The rest of us just see brown stuff poking through the snow. Spending time outside with my favorite botanist makes me think about how differently the two of us might approach the same piece of land if given the chance. 

It reminded me of a book I read a few months ago, Steven Apfelbaum’s Nature’s Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm. Apfelbaum is an ecologist who bought a farm in Wisconsin as a young man and spent the next few decades restoring it to a non-agricultural oasis of native plants and animal habitats. He touts his farm as an example of how a little hard work and ingenuity can take a piece of land out of the destructive treadmill of conventional annual agriculture while still supporting a family economically.  He grows food for his family on a small garden plot, sells native plant seeds harvested from his land, and the ecological consulting company he started back in the 70s when he moved to Brodhead has grown enough to employ dozens of people in five offices across the country. They provide ecological consultations to people and companies faced with land-use decisions, backed by highly educated scientists and dedicated to mitigating the harm caused by development and other changes to the landscape. His book, while interesting in its own right, seems to discount any need for agriculture at all. He rightly despairs at the chemical farming of his neighbors, but somehow seems to think that his quarter acre vegetable plot is the answer. I’m not one to begrudge anyone a garden, but restoring prairies and wetlands across the rolling hills of Wisconsin is not going to feed anyone but the birds.

On the other end of the same side of the spectrum (and about two hours northwest) lies another Wisconsin evangelist I’ve written about before, Mark Shepard. Just like my sister and I, these two men are united in their hatred of conventional chemical agriculture, but divided in how to address it. Shepard advocates going cold-turkey on monocultures of all kinds - beans, grains, fruit, vegetables, conventional and organic. In his estimation, the only responsible way to feed the world is through diversified perennial ecosystems using a permaculture model. Permaculturists, among other things, advocate for mixed plantings of edible and otherwise useful plants, minimizing soil disturbance while maximizing layers of food production. Permaculture in general, and Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture in particular often advocates using exotic edible plants. Shepard aims to recreate the oak savannas of the pre-historic midwest more by analogy than by strict restoration. The American Chestnut has all but succumbed to blight, so why not breed a new American chestnut using genetics from Asian varieties? Sounds perfectly reasonable. What worries me about permaculture (in my relatively uneducated view) is the fine line between “hardy perennial” and “wildly invasive species.” There is a long history of well-intentioned people introducing species for utilitarian reasons that end up becoming out of control invasives. My sister specifically mentioned reed canarygrass as an example of a plant used widely by the Department of Transportation and other government agencies to control erosion that is now choking out biodiversity in wetlands across the country. Permaculture is not definitionally dedicated to native species, but to mimicking natural systems to produce as much food, fuel, and fiber with the least disruption of the soil structure and the maximum use of water and other natural resources. Rather than preserving individually threatened species, permaculture seeks to preserve regenerative landscapes that feed people and the soil. At what cost? Why should we worry about saving native plants? If a plant is useful, who cares if it spreads rapidly? 

I’m not well-versed enough in either ecology or permaculture to answer these questions with much authority, but it seems to be that these two approaches don’t necessarily need to be opposing forces. Right now, practitioners of both approaches  to sustainability have so far to go against the destructive mainstream that no breath need be wasted on in-fighting. I think we can all agree that any loss to genetic diversity is a loss to us all. Similarly, even the most small-scale gardener will concede that care must be taken in planting the hardiest of perennials (e.g. nobody has a “little bit” of mint for long). Conservationists are doing us all a great service in preserving as much genetic diversity as possible, and as long as we food-growers don’t actively negate their work by irresponsible use of quick-spreading exotics, there is not reason that we can’t all work together to push back the destructive forces of large-scale chemical agriculture inch by inch and acre by acre. 

Farm Week: June 23, 2014 & Permaculture Convergence

This was a busy week on the farm, with the fields finally drying up enough to get some major cultivation done. We started on the upper half of the fields, covering as much ground as possible in the time we had between more planting and harvesting, as usual. Staring down more rain this coming week, we decided that we had better complete the catchup on the cultivation before we were forced out of the field again. So we put the call out to our trusty crew and to the 300+ people who follow us on Facebook, promising a delicious lunch in exchange for three hours of hard labor. Our call was answered, and on Thursday morning, there were nine people, two horses, and a tractor in our two acres of vegetables. Before everyone showed up, we went through the field and made an improbably long list of things we would like to accomplish with our augmented field crew. Lo and behold, we crossed every single thing off that list by the time we stopped working for a generous portion or pulled pork, Asian cole slaw, and brownies with super-ripe strawberries. Danielle and I were in agreement that the extra time spent cooking, prepping, and organizing people more than paid off in how much we accomplished with so many people making a continuous concerted effort. Now the rains can come as they please and we won’t have to worry about huge weeds, and can focus on the fresh flush of weeds that will follow.

Thinking about: many hands, vigor, aeration

Eating: see above, plus lots of salads, and a local vegan feast (see below)

Reading: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Michael Phillips’ The Holistic Orchard, Dave Jacke & Eric Toensmeier’s Edible Forest Gardens, Ron L Engeland’s Growing Great Garlic

This weekend, I attended a permaculture convergence put on by the Madison-area Permaculture Guild. Unfortunately, I had to skip the first night of the conference, which featured a potluck and a talk from the very inspiring Peter Allen of Savanna Gardens and  Mastadon Valley Farm. Better late than never, of course, and when I arrived nice and early on Saturday morning, I was met with a very interesting, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and friendly group of people. We ranged from people who had just encountered permaculture and were curious to learn more to experienced permaculture teachers to permaculture practitioners on urban lots to young farmers incorporating permaculture practices into their farm designs. Like all of the conferences and meet-ups I’ve attended, there was an undercurrent of excitement to be around people who shared some of the same interests and enthusiasms. Especially for the rural among us, it seemed like this feeling was coupled with a relief not to be the odd one in the neighborhood for a weekend. The convergence took place on a farmstead where permaculture practices have been incorporated, and where we were able to put some more into practice over the course of the weekend’s hands-on workshops. Most notably, the first workshop that I attended on Saturday morning involved mapping out a key line swale with a laser lever and watching as a backhoe dug the swale that we had envisioned. Keyline design started (like permaculture) in Australia, its goal being the non-erosive movement of water from valleys to ridges using a 1% downward sloping scale. My Saturday also included an edible and medicinal plant walk, led by a super-knowledgeable forager named Little John. In the afternoon, some of us went to visit a local farm that’s put lots of permaculture into practice. Strause family farm most notably grows wine and table grapes, but is also unique because it’s composed entirely of sand and limestone. In order to increase the organic matter and be able to grow anything, they invite the local crews to dump for free things like branches, wood chips, leaves, etc, which they use to construct massive Hugelkulture beds. The Strause farm looks like a very fun, interesting, and interactive never-ending project. Saturday afternoon and evening were rounded out with an organized large group discussion, a delicious local dinner, informal smaller discussions about any number of topics, a great musical performance, and a bonfire. Sunday, I started out my day with an early morning wet-booted walk around the meadows and forests of the farm, stopping to check how the new swale performed in the rain overnight. The first workshop I attended was with master tinkerer and idea man Greg David, who brought some examples of rocket stoves and highly efficient gassifiers he had fabricated. His talk was fascinating, and I’m intrigued by the possibility of using a rocket stove to heat greenhouse beds for starting seeds. The last workshop of the weekend was a talk on animal husbandry and forest management with grazing animals from a young couple who farm in Stoughton, WI. Emancipation Acres, among many other things, raises stock for other homesteaders and permaculture enthusiasts, focusing on small heritage breeds of pigs build to forage and grow slowly. They had some great tips on general stockmanship, plus some very interesting ideas on how to use animals in a longer-term plan to improve your land. Besides the workshops I attended, there were others going on at the same time where other attendees learned to make yogurt, construct a small aquaponics setup, design and install a pond, and improve damaged soils, among others. The workshops were all interesting and informative, but as usual it was the conversations with others that stood out as the unrepeatable magic of such a gathering. The weekend ended with promises to stay in touch, plans of visits to be made, resources to be shared, and a resounding affirmation that this “first annual” is definitely deserving of a second!