A review of:
I’ve come to think that one of the best things people can do about the impending crises of climate change and resource depletion is to arrange our own lives and homes so as to depend as little as possible on fossil fuels; while thus shrinking our own ecological footprints and increasing our resilience, we also create a model of low-impact living for our communities. Growing some or all of our own food is central to this effort. But if a key purpose is to eliminate dependence on fossil fuels and a globalized economy, to reduce our environmental impact to the minimum...we need to question such things as the use of tractors, rototillers and other gas-guzzling machinery, and the importation of organic matter and perhaps chemicals from outside. How can we best set up our homes, homesteads or farms to be sustainable, green, and self-sufficient?
I’ve read four books in the past year or so that address this question; I know there are others (please DO talk about them in the comments!) I’ll start by saying I think these books are equally good though quite different. Each author speaks from the experience of his or her own farm or homestead. One of the key differences is in the location of these authors, and another is in the scale of their undertakings. Deppe is running a large garden in Oregon with the intention of being able to provide fully for her own sustenance and that of her farm partner. Conner has a family homestead in Virginia. Falk’s ten acres in Vermont are as much a learning center for permaculture as a small farm. Shepard’s 100 acres in Wisconsin constitute a full-fledged farm, intended to supply significant food for not only the family but the larger community, as well as a family livelihood.
Aside from differences in climate and scale, there are some differences in focus. For example, one of Carol Deppe’s concerns is gluten-free food, as she has celiac disease. She also has an interest in breeding crop plants, and the scientific background to assist such endeavors. She lives in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, where the growing season is long and the winters mild, but the summers cool and cloudy. Her planning takes these climactic factors into account, but she also chooses her crops with the celiac issue in mind, and her gardening techniques with her bad back taken into account. Her main idea is that resilience is fostered by relying most heavily on a short list of staple crops that are reliable in your area, that supply the most critical nutrients, and can yield a variety of meals. She chose beans, corn, squash, potatoes and ducks, and gives a lot of information about each of these crops. There is a section of pictures illustrating her nifty planter that lets her avoid bending down, her technique for pollinating squash for breeding and selection purposes, and her pretty ducks, among other things.
Ben Falk took over an abandoned hillside in central Vermont, which means he must cope with a short growing season and a harsh winter. He comes from a permaculture perspective, and his efforts focus on digging keylines (trenches) to direct water from upper valleys to lower ridge areas, as well as creating a couple of ponds, and planting various bushes and trees and herbs on the berms along these trenches. Everything planted is edible or otherwise usable; it also anchors the ground and creates shade. In the alleys between these lines of trees he runs animals like sheep. His place is a training center for permaculture work.
Mark Shepard also uses the permaculture approach and also lives in a cold climate, in southwestern Wisconsin, but his perspective is that of a farmer (he talks a lot about the folly of the corn monoculture farmers who surround him). His tactics are quite similar to Falk’s: keylines planted with perennials (chestnuts, apples, raspberries and grapes, in his case, along with smaller things) with grazing animals moved regularly in the alleyways. Like Deppe he’s interested in breeding better strains of his favorite crops, but prefers what he calls the STUN approach to selection of improved varieties: Sheer, Total, Utter Neglect, so that the survivors are those able to cope with whatever climactic or biological challenges your particular location endures. Unlike any of the others, his focus is on commercial farming—how to supply a larger community with food and even, ideally, make a living at it (not an easy thing these days, as he makes clear).
Cindy Connor once ran a CSA and has done a lot of teaching at a community college, but currently she focuses on her own homestead, and teaches through her new book and older videos. Her approach comes from the GROW BIOINTENSIVE school. She emphasizes growing your own cover crops, and composting, right in your garden rather than importing materials. Given her zone 7 location in central Virginia, this is possible with a good-sized garden. She manages to avoid tilling between crops in her raised beds, and gives details on how this can work. Her book is full of planning tools, and like the others has a useful photo section. She also talks about tools for pressing oil, grinding flour and drying crops.
So which book should you reach for first? I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to read them all (likely you can get them through inter-library loan if you don’t want to fork over the bucks to buy them all) but you might start with whichever book suits your climate. Deppe lives in the Willamette Valley where “we have plenty of rain and plenty of warmth, just not at the same time,” so for those with a maritime climate, those with celiac, and those who want to stay at the garden scale, hers might be a good choice. Conner lives in a warm climate where the biggest challenges are diseases and bugs; for those in the South and east-central states, and those who like to plan on paper, hers might be best. Falk lives in cold Vermont, so those whose biggest challenge is a short growing season might start with his book, especially if their land is wet and sloping. Finally, anyone running a farm should probably try Shepard’s book even if they don’t live in the upper Midwest, as it’s the only one coming from a commercial farming perspective. If you live in the southwest and drought is your biggest problem, you ought to check out Chelsea Green’s new Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land by Gary Nabhan. I haven’t read that one as it’s too far from my local concerns.
As for me, the one book I actually purchased is Connor’s, because I live in West Virginia, zone 6, where the length of the growing season is not a problem, and sufficient hot sunny hours for tomatoes and peppers and such is assured. Adequate rain during the growing season is usually not a problem either—but the combination of ample warmth and humidity makes disease (and to a lesser extent insects) my greatest challenge. So her Virginia location fit my circumstances best. But I got useful information from all of them. In fact, I’d go so far as to say all serious gardeners and farmers can benefit from the experience and knowledge of writers like the ones listed here.