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Come on Home!: Ecological Agriculture and Sixteen Wonderful Farms that Point the Way


Ben Falk’s Vermont farm

“If we don't get sustainability right in agriculture first, it won't happen anywhere.”  -- Wes Jackson, http://www.landinstitute.org/

“We’ve got examples [of agricultural sustainability], but you’re not under any obligation to be an optimist. And you’re not under any obligation to construct a hope for the whole human race. What you are required to do is to be intelligent. And that means you’ve got to have an array of examples you want more or less to understand. Some are not perfect…and to be intelligent you’ve got to know why some are better than the others. …[T]hat means you’ve got to think in particular about particular examples.” – Wendell Berry, http://www.iasc-culture.org/THR/THR_article_2012_Summer_Interview_Berry_Jackson.php

“If there’s a world here in a hundred years, it’s going to be saved by tens of millions of little things.” – Pete Seeger, http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-01-29/pete-seeger-interview-how-can-i-keep-from-singing

Summary:  The transition to an ecologically-based agriculture is obligatory if we hope to feed ourselves during the wrenching economic, social, and climatic troubles ahead.  But how do we make this transition?  This essay uses over a dozen working farms across the country (& a few other countries) to illustrate some of the key principles of the ecologically-based agriculture that will be required.  …The next steps are up to you, kid.

I. A GATHERING DARKNESS

“That’s how the pan flashes / that’s how the market crashes / that’s how the whip lashes / that’s how the teeth gnashes” – Tom Waits

At this point in our crumbling industrial misadventure, anyone with even a shred of consciousness can sense the approaching storms. 

Of course, the skies of our earthly prospects have been darkening for centuries – with every pound of topsoil washed to the sea, with every molecule of CO2 spewed from our incessant fires, with every deadly toxin stockpiled in our crumbling nuclear reactors, with every species we exterminate, with every resilient human connection to the earth severed by the maelstrom of our industrial culture. 

But as the winds pick up and the thunderheads roll into sight – as we enter the spastic endgame of our civilization -- things are about to get noticeably exponential.  Indeed, stray gusts of entropy have already billowed our drapes a time or two (e.g., DeepwaterHorizon, BearStearns, the TX-OK drought, Fukushima, Frankenstorm Sandy, etc., CA drought ongoing), but far worse is yet to come.  That deep roar in the distance, those sharp cracks, the tinkling of broken glass – it’s headed our way.

I won’t go into all the gory details here, but I think our dicey predicament can be summed up like this:

  • Our industrial way of life is toast.  The way we live now in Industrial, USA will not last long.  It may persist anywhere from a few more hours to a few more years, but the faux stability we’re feeling now will end shortly.  Jim Kunstler summarizes the big picture nicely at his Forecast 2014 post: http://kunstler.com/clusterfuck-nation/forecast-2014-burning-down-the-house/.  And Chris Martenson does all the play by play at http://www.peakprosperity.com/.
  • The post-industrial transition will be damn hard.  While we can certainly expect much laughter, love, and beauty in the ‘collapsing’ times ahead, we’ll also be visited by a generous helping of much nastier stuff.  Here’s a sampling of some unwelcome things we’ll need to deal with over the coming years as our civilization unravels:  economic depression, broken supply lines, hunger and want, military opportunism, spasms of pollution, repression, homelessness & refugee camps, disease, random & directed violence, etc.  See Dmitry Orlov’s The Five Stages of Collapse for a general framework of what we might expect.  And see Kunstler’s World Made by Hand novels for a fiction take on the same ideas.
  • We’ll likely have trouble feeding ourselves in the coming decades.  As the fabric of fossil-fuel-based industrial agriculture unravels, we’ll be shocked to find that (1) the transition to traditional annuals-based agriculture is severely challenged by past erosion of the necessary capital (soil fertility, fossil aquifers, knowledge, skills, genetics, etc.) and (2) that really any sort of dependable agriculture becomes highly problematic due to a destabilizing climate.  For more details, see http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-03-11/when-agriculture-stops-working-a-guide-to-growing-food-in-the-age-of-climate-destabilization-and-civilization-collapse.

II. COMING HOME

“You haven’t looked at me that way in years / But I’m still here” – Tom Waits

So the future certainly paints a potentially scary picture, no?  And it thus begs the question:  What should we do about it?  Or, is there anything we can do about it? 

…Well, we do have some choices. 

The lazy choices are, as usual, the bad ones: 

(1)   We can do nothing and hope everything will be ok.  It won’t.  The approaching storms are too big for the ostrich strategy to work. 

(2)   Or we can work to wall-off just our own family from the approaching storms.  This is almost certainly futile, as the massive approaching storms will overwhelm any meager family bubbles we can erect.  And even if we could protect our own families initially, no family is likely to survive in isolation – too much can go wrong.  Small, tight-knit communities are probably the smallest (and largest) units to have a fighting chance.  Because, if you have something and those around you don’t, don’t expect to keep it very long.

While the challenging choices are, as usual, the good ones: 

(1)   We can reconnect with our families and human communities, knowing that we’ll need each other to have any chance of making it through the storms.  This requires the difficult process of learning to live and work closely with many people – both related & not – who either scare you, disagree with you, or annoy the hell out of you.  We need to learn to do that and keep the inevitable tensions from ripping our little communities apart.  …Hey, who moved my cheese?!

(2)   And we can reconnect with our ecological communities and the earth.  Only by tying back into the powerful cycles of biological growth and decay do we have any chance of weathering the coming storms – and particularly, of feeding ourselves in the coming resource-challenged, climate-destabilized future.  And this requires the long, messy (but fulfilling!) process of learning where we are and with whom we share the land.  …Hello, song sparrow!  Nice to meet you!  What are you up to?

Put another way, we need to come home.  We are a people sprung from small communities and an intimate connection to the earth.  That is our home.  And only recently have we strayed from that literal Eden – initially with the tragedy of annual agriculture and the growth of cities, and then with the catastrophe of industrialism.

So now we just need to come back.  But that is, of course, a tall order, given how far we’ve strayed and how much damage we’ve done.  So we’ll need to work damn hard at both getting there and staying there to have any chance of making it through in one piece. 

And we need to start now.

III. ECOLOGICAL AGRICULTURE

“We belong to the water / We belong to the air / We belong where there is love” – Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes

But fortunately, there are many who have already started on this journey home – far too few, to be sure – but enough to give us some hope that we can do it.  And some of these people have left a record of what they’ve done and why they’ve done it – and crucially, what’s worked and what hasn’t.  And that’s what I want to share here.

And while there are many pathways by which people are coming home, I’m going to focus here on agriculture, as food acquisition is perhaps our most intimate interaction with the land.  And also, for a number of social, economic, energetic, and ecological reasons, how we do agriculture dictates a great deal else about how we structure our societies.  Thus, Wes Jackson states that, “if we don’t get sustainability right in agriculture first, it won’t happen anywhere.”  So we need to get our food acquisition in line with what the earth requires of us, and then everything else in society has at least the potential to follow a similarly enlightened path.

But what does the earth require of us?  And what would constitute a ‘sustainable agriculture?’  And how can we even grow any food reliably amidst the mayhem of these approaching storms?

All three answers, I think, come back to this: tying our agriculture back into the biological cycles of growth and decay, back into the riot of relationships among the living and the non-living inhabitants of the land.  We need an ecological agriculture – one that doesn’t sit on the land, displacing ‘nature’, but rather one that fits into the land, partnering with the land in a way that (as Eric Toensmeier quotes in Paradise Lot) fulfills human needs while enriching the land.

We need to dive back into the ‘tangled bank’, offering up our considerable ecosystem-shaping talents as a species – but also humbling ourselves to the larger whole, of which we are but one contributing member.  That’s ecological agriculture.  That’s a potentially permanent agriculture.

And, frankly kids, that’s the only chance we’ve got.

IV. THOSE ALREADY ON THE PATH HOME

“Only one desire / that’s left in me / I want the whole damn world / to come dance with me” – Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes

But while any stirring ecological agriculture ‘call to arms’ certainly raises the goose bumps on my arms, we’re going to need some more particular directions if we want to make it home in time – before the approaching storms rip us apart. 

…But luckily we have them!  Dozens of farms, after spending decades exploring and implementing various forms of ecological agriculture in their places, have recorded their experiences in book, article, and video form.  …Just for us!  Yay!! 

So now we need to carefully study their examples, noting what has worked and what hasn’t – as well as the key ways in which their situation differs from ours.  And then we need to work to create some form of ecological agriculture appropriate for the particular places and communities in which we’re embedded. 

This is, of course, easier said than done – especially given the inexperience of most Americans with both practical ecology and agriculture, as well as the persistent hindrance from a still-dominant ecocidal culture.  But do it we must.  So do it we shall – difficulty be damned. 

And to facilitate this daunting task, I’m going to present a bunch of these examples of ecological agriculture here, along with links to relevant books, articles, or videos that flesh them out. 

But rather than just list the farms, I’m going to highlight just one key characteristic of each – one characteristic among the many key elements of the diverse ecological agricultures we need to implement.  These key elements, presented here, include things like a general ecological framework for agriculture, perennial staple crops, species diversity, polyculture planting, capturing rainwater in soil, drought adaptations, etc..  There are other elements we could include – but this is a good start, I think. 

And each farm, of course, features many or all of these key elements, but some do one particularly well or in some particularly interesting way – which is the one I’ll discuss it under.  In any case, you should certainly dive into the literature yourselves.  And then pull out what might work in your place and give it a try.  

Hey, it’s worth a shot. 

ECOLOGICAL AGRICULTURE…IN ACTION!

“Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.” – Wendell Berry


1. FOUNDATIONS OF ECOLOGICAL AGRICULTURE:  Wendell Berry (KY) & Wes Jackson (KS)

We can fully imagine, implement, and sustain an ecological agriculture – one that can fulfill our needs while mending the strained relationship between human culture and the land.

And we must, because centuries of land abuse and the mounting depredations from industrial waste and pollution have painted us into a tight corner.  Our slack is gone.  We can no longer pretend to go it alone.  We will need a true partnership with the land if we are to have any hope of making it through the coming ecological bottleneck.

Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson are American treasures.  On their respective hillside and prairie farms, and in their writings for half a century, they have served as (so to speak) relationship counselors between our wayward human culture and the land.  They suggest that only by listening closely to the land over many generations can we hope to fulfill our responsibilities to it, to nurture its health as it nurtures ours.  And only by tending to the health of our human communities can we foster the culturally-enforced restraint such an ongoing responsibility demands.  Their words and examples can give us strength and guidance in the long journey of healing that lies ahead.

2. PERENNIAL STAPLES:  Phillip Rutter (MN)

We can get the bulk of our carbohydrates, fats, and proteins – our agricultural  staples – from perennial crop species that are not only climatically resilient and efficient at energy and nutrient uptake, but that also enrich the farm ecosystem and build precious soil. 

And we must, because again, our slack is gone.  Our soils are already thinned and depleted by the ravages of centuries of annual grain production.  Our formerly-annuals-friendly Holocene climate is already beginning to destabilize.  Thus, continued reliance on climatically-fragile, nutrient-inefficient, soil-wasting, annual-grain staple crops is not merely a bad idea, it is literally cultural suicide.    

In a sane culture, Phil Rutter would have the fame of a George Washington.  As the founding president of the American Chestnut Foundation, Rutter, a plant ecologist and tree breeder, is a major part of the imminent return of the American Chestnut to our forests.  But his 160-acre Badgersett Farm in Minnesota is also well-advanced in its efforts to domesticate hazelnut, chestnut, and hickory-pecan trees for use as perennial staple crops.  Using a nature-mimicking hybrid swarm breeding method, Rutter has combined the genomes of several species of hazelnut (and likewise with chestnut and hickory-pecan) and selected for earliness, reliability, and size of yield, as well as a robust disease resistance.  After over 30 years of breeding, he is now many generations down the path (furthest with hazelnut), and his trees are already available for purchase.      

3. SPECIES DIVERSITY:  Ken Asmus (MI)

We can supplement our staple crops with a diverse array of trees and shrubs that not only supply fruits, nuts, edible leaves, fuel, and fiber, but also build soil, capture rainwater, and accumulate nutrients.

And we must, because the coming economic, social, ecological, and climatic shit storms demand an uber-robust agricultural resiliency.  And the only way we achieve that is through a redundancy and complementarity of perennial food crops – i.e., addressing each food-nutrient niche with several crop species, and addressing as many food niches as possible.

Ken Asmus’ Oikos Tree Crops catalog is an ecological agriculture treasure chest.  On his 13-acre Michigan farm, Asmus grows, propagates, and sells a breathtaking variety of woody perennial food plants, in addition to a nice selection of perennial vegetables and nitrogen fixers.  Nobody can predict which food species will serve us best in the ecologically-scrambled times to come, so we need such wide diversity to hedge our bets.  But not only does Asmus’ farm feature a stunning diversity across family and species, his nursery features an impressive genetic diversity within each species as well.  Incorporating such open-pollinated seedling diversity, which sacrifices narrow yield maximization for yield regularity and resilience, will be absolutely key to both place-adapted woody-crop breeding efforts and in keeping our families fed in the face of the wacky weather ahead.

4. PERENNIAL VEGETABLES:  Eric Toensmeir (MA)

We can get much of our nutrient-dense vegetables (leaves, stems, flowers, roots, and tubers) from a diverse array of climatically-resilient, soil-holding perennial herbaceous species.

And we must, because annual vegetable production on anything larger than a garden scale is problematic in the same manner as annual grain cultivation – wasting of soil, inefficient at capturing nutrients, ecosystem over-simplifying, vulnerable to climatic instability, and ultimately suicidal.  In addition, we will need a diverse array of perennial vegetables to fill key niches in our nascent food forest polycultures.

Eric Toensmeier is something of a perennial vegetable savant.  In his 0.1-acre Massachusetts backyard, he grows (along with his gardening partner Jonathan Bates) hundreds of species of edible perennial vegetables.  In his excellent book Paradise Lot, Toensmeier details the multi-stage, emergent process of determining which perennial vegetable species fit best in his place.  Some species grow great, some don’t; some taste pleasing to them, others don’t; etc.  But with enough attention, a suite of pleasing, productive, place-adapted perennial vegetables eventually reveal themselves.  We will need to begin the same process in our places. 

5. POLYCULTURE:  Geoff Lawton (NSW, Australia)

We can raise our perennial food, fuel, and fiber crops in diverse polycultures that mimic the structure and functions of natural ecosystems.

And we must, because agriculture is about to get damn tricky.  In the face of mounting resource scarcity and climate destabilization, our agroecosystems will need to become both more efficient at nutrient capture and more resilient in the face of the ever-more-frequent disruptions.  Only a high diversity of genetics and structure both above and below ground will be up to the task.  We will need to mimic the redundancy and complementarity of natural ecosystems if we wish to continue to eat in the century ahead.

Geoff Lawton, a protégé of permaculture founder Bill Mollison, might be my choice for “Groundskeeper of the Earth” if such a silly title existed.  Since it doesn’t, we all need to pay close attention to what he’s doing in Australia.  Because he’s doing something beautiful – and something on which our collective survival depends.  Lawton is partnering with the land and building a farm that stands a chance; a farm that mimics the resilient form and functions of a natural forest ecosystem, but that also produces food, fuel, and fiber for generations to come.  Such a project requires careful observation, sound ecological knowledge, the right plant species, hard work, and time – but it’s as possible as it is necessary.  Learn from this man and start now.

6. CAPTURE RAINWATER IN SOIL:  Mark Shepard (WI)

We can capture the majority of rainfall in the soils and ponds of our farms with relatively minor but well-placed earthworks.

And we must, because rainfall in much of the US is becoming increasingly uneven – with long hot-dry spells punctuated by brief, intense rain events.  And while the average annual rainfall may remain somewhat ‘normal’, the soil moisture dynamics for agriculture and the land are changed drastically.  So when rain does fall in this new ‘weird weather’ manner, we need to “slow it, spread it out, and sink it in.”  And when we do, longer droughts can be weathered, flooding is minimized, base flow in streams is maintained, and hillside springs gurgle back to life – and the land thrives.  And so do we.

Mark Shepard is an engineer by training, and he’s applied both an engineers eye and an ecological sensibility to the fate of rainfall on his beautiful 106-acre Wisconsin permaculture farm.  Through a combination of on-contour swales, subsoil plowing, and catchment ponds, Shepard has been able to keep rainwater on the farm where it belongs – slowing its runoff, spreading it out, and allowing it to sink into the soil where it’s needed by his food trees & shrubs, grasses, animals and family.  Look at an overhead photo of his farm (see his website above), and you can see the outline of the contour swales, spreading runoff from valleys to ridgetops, instead of funneling it as fast as possible (in eroding torrents) down the valley centers – as happens on most farms.  And this stuff isn’t just for big farms:  these water-managing strategies are as vital on 0.1 acres as they are on 100 acres – as Eric Toensmeier mentions in Paradise Lot

7. DROUGHT ADAPTATIONS:  Gary Nabhan (AZ)

We can grow some amount of food in times of severe drought stress if we learn from and implement the nature-mimicking water conserving techniques of traditional desert farmers.

And we must, because droughts are coming – brutal, prolonged droughts that dwarf anything in living memory.  Climate models suggest that, as the climate continues to destabilize over this century and beyond, much of the US – even many currently well-watered parts – will be racked by prolonged episodes (or, in places, even essentially permanent states) of extreme drought.  The beginnings of such droughts are already becoming noticeable in states like TX, OK, and CA.  So in many parts of the US, we must increasingly adopt the many time tested strategies developed in desert regions for utilizing every single drop of rainfall and dew we can capture.  Or we perish.   

Not too long ago, the great ecologist and author Gary Nabhan was absolutely devastated.  Native to the arid Southwest US, Nabhan was noticing a disturbing shift in the climate there that was making it increasingly difficult to grow any food at all at his farm.  After mourning for a period, he started looking for solutions – to see if there was any way to adapt to the increasingly hyper-arid conditions his farm was experiencing.  So he looked to regions and farms all over the world that had found ways to thrive under such conditions.  He found that through a suite of strategies mimicking how natural arid ecosystems manage water (nurse tree over-stories and multi-layered plant structures, building soil carbon with mulch, terracing, check dams and living fence rows to catch debris, drought/flood/wind/fire-tolerant species, etc.), arid-land farmers were able to maximize their farms’ ecological potential and make the desert bloom.  So he put it into action on his own farm.  And it’s working.  – The land is talking to us, you know.  We just need to listen.    

8. ADAPTED ANNUALS:  Carol Deppe (OR)

We can breed our own resilient, open-pollinated, place-adapted annual crops to supplement our perennial crops.

And we must, because (1) we’ll still need resilient, place-adapted annuals during our necessary transition to a perennial agriculture, and (2) there may be challenging times in certain parts of the US where only annuals will work for us.  For example, if the expected future droughts become so crippling that our woody crops die back, we may be able to turn to short-season annuals that can thrive even in the small growing windows available to us.  Secondly, if climate disasters, social disruptions, war, or severe pollution events force us away from our perennial plantings, we can transport our annual seeds and some food security along with us.

Carol Deppe is a visionary.  A Harvard-educated biologist and longtime gardener, Deppe lamented the sorry state of the vegetable seed industry – namely that local, place-adapted varieties were being lost left and right, while varieties that remained were being managed poorly, resulting in a diminishment of many important qualities (taste, nutrition, storage ability, etc.).  So she did something about it.  She started breeding her own varieties of the annual crops she deemed as most crucial to a resilient food supply in the pacific Northwest – squash, corn, beans, and potatoes (as well as ducks).  And she wrote some fantastic books telling us how we might go about doing something similar where we live.  So let’s do it.

9. ANIMAL HUSBANDRY:  Sepp Holzer (Austria)

We can raise hardy, resilient breeds of livestock in humane ways that not only provide us with food and fiber, but also perform useful functions on the farm and improve ecosystem health.

And we must, because animals raised in a natural, low-input manner represent an added layer of food security to complement our annual and perennial crops – namely, they can eat things we can’t (like grass and branches), and they can come with us if we need to move.  Such livestock are also crucial components in nutrient cycling on the farm (with their manure and foraging), as well as willing workers for ground preparation and harvest.

Sepp Holzer -- the ‘contrary farmer’ of Europe, in the true Gene Logsdon tradition -- is a permaculture pioneer who farms over 110 acres of high altitude slopes in Austria.  Holzer is famous in permaculture circles mostly for things other than animal husbandry (e.g., hugelkultur raised beds, terracing, microclimate enhancements, aquaculture, etc.), but there are a few things about his farm animals that we need to pay close attention to.  Firstly, he raises tough, old-time breeds, sacrificing narrow yield maximization for resiliency and durability – both crucial traits in a post-fossil fuel era.  Secondly, he lets them express their true animal nature – raising them in stress-free, natural settings where they can behave according to their instincts.  And thirdly, he manages them in labor-efficient ways, letting them harvest a majority of their own food while at the same time doing important ecosystem management on the farm.  The picture above tells much of the story by itself.  Check out his work!

10. FARM PONDS:  Gene Logsdon (OH)

We can get significant amounts of both food and enjoyment from our low-input farm ponds, even while they play their vital roles in rain-water management and ecosystem enrichment.

And we must, because as our industrial amenities vanish in the coming years, we will sorely need many sources of both food and enjoyment!  Low-input ponds provide an additional layer of food security -- another complementary food source (plants and animals) to fall back on should other sources become strained.  And ponds can also bring bucket loads of refreshing family and community fun -- as we fan out from our soon-to-be-darkened screens and industrial cocoons to rediscover our families, communities, and ecosystems.

'Contrary Farmer' Gene Logsdon is a living link to a time when our country still perhaps had a choice of two paths -- and chose the wrong one.  Logsdon farms on 32 acres not far from his boyhood home, surrounded by friends, family, and land that he knows intimately -- and often grieves for.  Logsdon has written scores of wonderful books about how we might reconnect our fraying relationships with the land, but his 2004 treatise on farm ponds, Pond Lovers, is one of the more moving ones.  Logsdon truly loves his pond -- a small low-input pond in his sheep pasture that he made inexpensively with the help of family.  And he writes not only about it's food production (which is impressive), but also about it's prime importance to both the surrounding ecosystem and his family bonding.  He writes, "To appreciate the full worth of a pasture pond, I visualize it as part of the extended environment of the farm, which…becomes the watery balance to the meadows and woods.  Such a farm can only continue to increase in self-sustaining animal and plant species, powered and operated almost totally by the sun.  Here is all the paradise I desire, all the paradise I need."  Amen.  So let's start building some ponds!

11. BUILT SYSTEMS:  Ben Falk (VT)

We can design and construct quality, energy-efficient built systems -- those that serve the functions of shelter, heating, water delivery, human waste handling, etc. --with local labor and materials that harmonize with our lives and the land in both form and function.

And we must, because both the 'cheap' materials to build and repair our shoddy industrial systems, as well as the 'cheap' energy to make up for their egregious design flaws, will soon become unavailable.  And we will soon find that careless design and poor craftsmanship of our built systems are a one-way ticket off the land.  So to survive (and thrive!) in our coming resource-challenged era, we'll need homemade, easily-repaired systems that don't waste material or energy resources -- and that serve multiple functions, complementing the other farm operations.

When I start despairing a bit at our predicament, I just think of Ben Falk and I start to feel better.  Falk gets it.  A 30-something permaculturalist, Falk farms 10 acres of challenging land in Vermont in a thoughtful, caring manner -- in a true partnership with the land.  Reading about his wonderful farm gets me musing about all the intelligence and enthusiasm of our young minds that can soon be turned to the vital problems of re-inhabiting this land -- instead of the intellectual vandalism that currently beckons them from industrial culture.  And while his book covers every aspect of his Vermont farm, I just want to focus here on his approach to built systems.  Falk's key insight is that while biological systems reproduce themselves and can improve over time, built systems – again, those that serve the functions of shelter, heating, water delivery, human waste handling, etc. -- start degrading the moment they're created.  Thus built systems are, in a sense, a necessary evil whose functions should be handled or shared, whenever possible, by self-renewing biological systems.  But wherever necessary, such built systems should be (1) designed intelligently for both energy/material efficiency and multiple functionality, (2) built skillfully with local labor and materials, (3) easily repairable when the inevitable breakdowns occur, (4) and redundant in case a failure occurs and the system cannot be repaired immediately.  Good stuff!  -- So just imagine what we could do if our ample intelligence and imagination were applied to enriching the earth instead of plundering it.  Oh wait...we don't need to imagine -- we just need to look at Ben Falk's farm and the wonderful work he's doing there!     

12. HEALING HERBS:  Nancy & Michael Phillips (NH) 

We can grow our own medicines and ally with our plant partners to heal our bodies, minds, and souls.

And we must, because, for better or worse, industrial medicine will soon be leaving us.  We will then be, once again, responsible for our own health and healing, mediated largely through a diverse array of healing plants.  And we will sadly need this healing more than ever, as a potent cocktail of poisons -- organic, heavy metal, and nuclear -- spreads out from our crumbling industrial infrastructure into every nook and cranny of the planet and our bodies.  But even beyond the physical necessity of such healing skills and knowledge, reconnecting with these healing plants will begin to heal our withered, industrial-besotted souls -- as we leave our electronic prisons and reconnect to the river of life that animates the planet.

Nancy and Michael Phillips run a beautiful herb and apple farm in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  And they are the kind of people we need to become as a nation -- skilled, thoughtful, caring, and above all, reverent and thankful for the gift of Creation.  Their book, The Herbalists Way, illuminates not only the path we need to make to reconnect to the powers of the plant kingdom, but also how close we are to the tools and inspiration we need to make this journey -- it's all right here!  Plants have great healing powers that humans have used since the beginning of humans.  And only recently have we have abandoned these relationships.  But we can tap back into these powers if we let the plants into our hearts and minds.  They're waiting for us to come back.  We just need to begin the journey.  So let's start now!

13. EDIBLE & HEALING FUNGI:  Paul Stamets (WA)

We can ally with our fungal partners to heal our bodies with food and medicines, while at the same time healing the land.

And we must, because as we work to recover from the Great Industrial Catastrophe, our bodies and the land will need healing like never before.  Fungi can help us strengthen human health through both their rich nutrients and potent medicinal properties.  And they can help us strengthen the health of the land by building soil, aiding plant growth, filtering water runoff, and detoxifying soil.  

Paul Stamets is a brilliant mycologist, innovator, and all-around champion of the fungal kingdom.  On his farm in Washington state, Stamets is trying to change the way we think about our fungal brothers.  He is pioneering ways we can use woody debris and logs to grow edible and medicinal mushrooms on our own farms -- both of which are vital complements to the plant-based foods and medicines we grow.  But he is also pioneering ways that we can use fungi to restore the land back to health -- namely through (1) filtration of water and reduction of erosion with mycelium mats, (2) forest regeneration with mycorrhizal fungi, (3) detoxification of soil by both their potent fungal enzymes and hyper-concentration of nasty elements, and (4) deterrence of insect pests in our structures by certain fungi.  In all his work, Stamets is serving as a sort of human ambassador to the fungal kingdom, and he's telling us that it's not only time for a fungal detente, it's time for a fungal celebration!  -- So let's party!

14. WILD HUNTING & GATHERING:  Samuel Thayer (WI)

We can get a bounty of delicious, nutritious food from wild plants and animals through hunting and gathering – often with far less labor than from our domesticated crops and livestock.

And we must, because in the tough times ahead, we will need as many complementary and redundant sources of food as possible.  If we just know what to look for, there is a literal banquet out there in just about every wild habitat in just about every month of the year -- food that is not only nutritious, but delicious too.  And due to any number of coming disruptions, there will likely be times ahead when such food is all we have.  (For example, I think back to ecologist Bernd Heinrich's descriptions of his family hiding out in the German forests during WWII and eating wild foods.)  So we need to learn how to find, harvest, and prepare such foods now, so that they will be there for us in our time of need.  -- But even beyond the possible survival necessities of wild foods, their incorporation into our everyday lives will do much to further strengthen the bond between us and the land.  Wild foods are another example of the gifts being offered to us all the time, free of charge, by the great river of life that courses through the planet -- if we only open ourselves up to it.

Sam Thayer absolutely floored me with his two incredible books on wild plant gathering, The Forager's Harvest and Nature's Garden.  While I had dabbled in wild foods and considered myself somewhat knowledgeable, here was a person who lived and breathed wild foods -- who was writing not only from a place of deep knowledge, but of deep love.  Thayer gathers wild foods on and around his Wisconsin farm as an integral part of his family's diet, and he's compiled his growing practical wisdom in such a clear, readable way so that we too can begin grow into such knowledge and love.  His beautiful books are the Sibley's Guide to Birds of the wild food literature (i.e., they're awesome!).  So let's dive into them, start to experiment, and we'll not only eat well, we'll begin to see the land around us in a more compassionate, loving way.  -- Hold on land, we're comin' home!

15. FARMING THE FERMENTERS:  Sandor Katz (TN)

We can ally with microorganisms to improve the storage life, nutrition, flavor, and fun content of our foods.  

And we must, because energy intensive industrial methods of food preservation will not be with us much longer.  Our food will no longer be able to jump from extended cold storage to oven to plate on demand.  So we will need ways to keep our food edible and yummy for longer at room temperature.  Fermenting with microorganisms can do this.  And by doing so, we also get the added benefit of enhanced nutrition and more robust intestinal health…and in some cases, even that most ancient of social medicines, ethanol -- all of which will be sorely needed in the trying times ahead. 

Sandor Katz raises more livestock in his little kitchen than there exist cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens in the entire world.  And those little microbial guys are doing work!  And Katz is as much a culinary anthropologist as anything else -- connecting us to our pre-industrial, old-world past, where a significant percentage of foods we ate and drank were fermented.  And we did it because it works -- fermented food lasts longer, tastes richer, and contains more nutrients.  Such 'controlled rotting' of food is a little scary for the uninitiated, but once we learn to trust in the ways of the ancients, the glory will be revealed to our palates (and intestines).  And Katz lays it all out for us in his wonderful books.  So let's get out that crock, some veggies, and a little salt -- and dive in!

16. SPREADING THE WORD – Teaching, writing, doing, etc.: 

Here is a very incomplete list of some more great teachers and practitioners of ecological agriculture.  Search out your teachers, get access to some land, and let’s get some roots in the ground!

17.  SPREADING THE GENETICS – Some perennial crop and heritage animal sources:

Here is a very incomplete list of some plant, seed, and animal sources for your ecological agricultural adventures:

V.  …AND NOW IT’S OUR TURN

“With my own two hands / I can clean up the earth / with my own two hands / I can reach out to you / with my own two hands” – Ben Harper (Curious George soundtrack)

I think most of us can agree that we are currently living in a very unsettling time -- at the cusp of a monumental transition, with no assurances that the coming descent is even doable.  Yikes!  …It’s like we’re at the top of a rollercoaster ascent and a thick fog obscures the steep track ahead – and no assurances that the track is even there.  Double yikes!

So how then do we respond to this predicament?  What choices should we make?  …Well, the first step is acknowledging that a lot of conceivable options are just not on the table – namely those involving lots of fossil fuel energy and those that rely on environmental, economic, or social stability.   Those options are now likely closed by virtue of our past sins.  But we do still have some choices.  Of course, there are no guarantees that things will turn out OK, but we can maximize our chance for success if we concentrate on making good choices from here on out.

And what are those good choices we can make:

  • Find some land – You can buy, lease, rent, borrow or squat, but as the industrial infrastructure crumbles, it just seems like access to land is a prerequisite to maximizing our chances.  There are pros and cons with every place.  Weigh them and make a stand.
  • Listen to the land – Learn the ecology of your chosen place.  Watch, listen, taste, smell, and feel.  Do this continually.  Realize that no matter how much you know about your land, there is much you are missing.  Embrace that ignorance – allow for wiggle room in your projects.  Start small, observe, & then scale-up.  Don’t do anything you can’t undo. 
  • Look for good examples to follow – Pick the best parts of the best examples you can find and start there.  The farms profiled here can be a start, but look around in your area – good examples can be found in the most improbable places.  Then try those examples on your land and watch for the response.  Then alter your plans accordingly.
  • Look to your community – You won’t make it through alone.  Find like minded people and put your heads together.  And learn to live with those who aren’t like minded.  Find some common ground with them and start from there.  Moving forward wealth will be measured in the quality and quantity of your relationships, not in stuff.
  • Keep on the sunny side – There’s gonna be heap-loads of bad stuff coming our way.  So much that it will be tempting to let it swallow us.  Don’t let it.  Look for the good in everything.  Find reasons to laugh.  Make your own fun.
  • Keep on plugging away – There will be set-backs along the way.  Sometimes BIG ones – ones that take us back to the start.  Remember the lessons you learned playing ‘Chutes & Ladders’ and keep going.  Don’t let the bastards keep you down.

So how’s that? 

Good enough, I say. 

We’ve got all we need to start something good here. 

So let’s get this party started.  J

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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