“Food production is already becoming strained as ecological degradation, water constraints, and the burgeoning effects of climate change push against a rising population and changing diets. …Declines in oil production are likely not only to reduce global food production, but to undermine the economic systems that made food accessible and affordable.” — David Korowicz, Energy & Food Constraints will Collapse Global Economic Recovery

“How to garden in the best of times was not an issue. …I needed to understand more about how to garden in hard times. I needed a more resilient garden.” – Carol Deppe, The Resilient Gardener (2010)

“You can be in my dreams, if I can be in yours.” – Bob Dylan, Talkin’ WWIII Blues

SUMMARY: The current industrial model of US agriculture is economically, energetically, and ecologically doomed. Any hope for a livable future requires that we accelerate the creation of resilient, ecologically-viable ‘shadow structure’ replacements for industrial US agriculture in the diminishing time available to us. We already possess the tools, knowledge, and organizational structures to begin such projects at the family and community level. Here are some things I’m excited about.


It’s been a relatively busy Fall, so I was elated when my daughter (6yrs) and nephew (8yrs) came to me, hankerin’ for some honest physical work. I told them I had a 12’ x 3’ patch of sunchokes in the garden, and they could try to get whatever they could. I handed them a stack of buckets and sent them on their way.

Now, I WAS sort of expecting big things out of the sunchokes this year. I finally had them in rich, cow-manured garden soil where the deer couldn’t get them, and they had been adequately-drip-watered through the nasty month-long, mid-summer drought. The improbably-tall plants, with their fetching yellow flowers, had looked almost obscenely lush all summer; they even had to be tied up.

About a half hour later, my daughter comes running up to me: “Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad! Come and look how much we got! There’s SOOOOO much!” Indeed, they had managed to pull out four, full-to-the-top, 5-gallon buckets – about 80 pounds! At this point they found a garter snake and I lost their attention, so I pried the rest of the crisp, knobby tubers out of the ground myself – another 120 pounds!

So that’s 200 pounds of sunchokes from a 12’ x 3’ bed!! (They were the ‘Stampede’ variety from www.johnnyseeds.com) I was elated. And this on top of my multi-pronged excitement from the following recent perennial-polyculture-related developments here on the farm: (1) having my young Chinese chestnuts bear a measurable yield for the first time, (2) planting a bunch of hybrid hazelnut seedlings for the first time, (3) finally getting around to count up all the fruit & nut trees and shrubs I’ve planted over the past 10 years and seeing the number go into the several hundreds.

I mean, could it really get any more exciting around here?!


The answer, of course, is yes – I suppose it COULD get more exciting. Ummm…well, maybe. Because while, here in the nascent stages of industrial collapse (e.g., see http://www.feasta.org/documents/risk_resilience/Tipping_Point.pdf), there is very, very much to fear, there is ALSO very, very much to be excited about. A world of possibilities opens up to us as the ecocidal trappings of industrial life begin to crumble all around us; as our corrosive, fossil-fueled blinders – both mental and physical – are cast off; as we are forced to re-enter the community of beings on this still-verdant planet.

Now, I don’t want to down-play the likely nastiness of the socio-political and environmental shit-storms piling up at our doorstep – it’s not gonna be pretty. But there’s an undeniable element of excitement here too: Like maybe we can make something BETTER here; something that DOESN’T kill the Earth; something that DOESN’T kill our children; something that DOESN’T kill our souls; something WORTHY of our ancient lineage as a species; something WORTHY of the insanely beautiful planet we tenuously inhabit.

And I fully realize that maybe I’m dead wrong to be excited here. Perhaps mine is the naive excitement of the young democracy demonstrator just before the first baton crashes down onto a skull; just before the blood starts to flow and the still-potent force of a dying state is unleashed. Maybe this is the youthful euphoria of a teenager just handed the car keys – just before the crash. Maybe it’s the excitement of a good yield on the eve of a twenty-year drought.

…But maybe not. Maybe the excitement I feel WON’T be snuffed out by all the bad stuff coming our way – at least not all of it; at least not everywhere. …Maybe.

In any case, what follows are some things I’m getting excited about. Sue me.


If you haven’t read Carol Deppe’s book, “The Resilient Gardener” (2010), you should find a copy. It’s absolutely wonderful. (Actually, in a sane country, the entire Chelsea Green catalog would be required reading for all high-school students. Alas – sane we are not.)

In her book, Deppe outlines five key crops she deems essential for a resilient agriculture in the troubled times ahead: corn, beans, potatoes, squash, and eggs. She goes into some detail with each of these, concerning their culture, breeding, storage, and food preparation.

In formulating her ‘dream team’, Deppe was looking for ESSENTIAL crops – the key ones that will allow us to survive/thrive even though all sorts of climatic/economic/socio-political heck might be raging around us. And although Deppe is located in the Pacific Northwest, slight variations of her instructions allow them to apply to many other parts of the US.

Being an enthusiastic tree-planter, semi-informal permaculturalist, and general devotee of perennial polyculture (see http://www.energybulletin.net/authors/Dan+Allen), I was thinking about what a perennial version of her ‘dream team’ might look like – at least where I live, in New Jersey. Why? Well, for various ecological and sociological reasons, an agriculture featuring a healthy percentage of perennial crops would likely be even more resilient to the coming economic/climatic shit-storms than a strictly annuals-based mix. (e.g., see Wes Jackson, et al.’s work at The Land Institute, the extensive permaculture literature at Chelsea Green, and some of my essays above)

So here’s my perennial dream team: Chinese chestnuts, hybrid hazelnuts, sunchokes, and grass-fed sheep – plus The Land Institute’s perennial grains, if they ever pan-out. I’ll VERY briefly outline the promises and possibilities of each of these in the paragraphs that follow. And keep in mind that these perennial ‘resilience essentials’ can be thought of initially as compliments to Deppe’s annuals-based dream team – to be introduced in progressively greater percentages, as we (hopefully) approach some resilient, ecologically-sane, place-adapted versions of post-carbon agriculture here in the US.

One can dream, can’t one? (Yes, one can!)


Full disclosure: I’m in love with Chinese chestnuts. There, I said it. I love the spiked leaves, the grey bark, the pungent flowers – that striking bouquet that wafts across the fields and roads in the gathering heat of the summer. I love the chestnuts themselves – the impossibly-wicked spininess of the seed-case; the shiny, deep-brown hue of the nuts; the smooth, heavy feel of them in my hand; the rich, earthy aroma after roasting.

I love ‘em!

That said, chestnuts have three key attributes that earn them membership on my dream team:

(1) The nuts are just about nutritionally-equivalent to carbohydrate-rich corn. Indeed, “corn on a tree,” as some growers say. This is a key point because, as Wes Jackson reminds us, we get most of our food energy from carbohydrates – presently in the form of annual grains. If we’re going to replace our beloved-but-ecologically-devastating annual grains, we need a carbohydrate-dense alternative – and few fruit/nut trees deliver such a concentrated nugget of carbohydrates as chestnut trees. And for those who question the yield potential of chestnuts versus corn, I say this: What yield will corn give you once industrial NPK fertilizer is no longer available? Being able to explore a larger portion of the soil profile actually gives the deep-rooted chestnuts an advantage here. (And of course, the ultimate solution in two words: Hu-manure. See Gene Logsdon’s wonderful book, “Holy Shit”.)

(2) They’re deep-rooted, drought-resistant perennials. Perennials hold soil – heck, they can, with sound management, even IMPROVE soil. And as healthy soil is one of the KEYSTONE resources for our species in the post-oil era, this is no small attribute. In addition, as our climate destabilizes, brutal droughts during the growing season may soon become commonplace. Deep-rooted trees will have more access to scarce soil water (and nutrients) during these key weeks/months, thus allowing at least SOME yield where annual crops would fail utterly.

(3) They are multi-purpose organisms. We can use their excellent wood for building/heat after the trees pass on, and they provide top-notch wildlife habitat while they are alive. Walk through a chestnut grove in mid-spring and you can just feel Life coursing through the Earth; walk through a cornfield and you feel as if you’re on a tour of the factory floor. And not only that, but you can even graze sheep and cows under the widely-spaced, full-sized trees. Not a single photon goes to waste!

For the past few years, I’ve ordered a few pounds of chestnut seeds in the Fall (http://www.empirechestnut.com/), kept them in the fridge over the winter, planted them in gallon pots in the Spring, and then popped them in a well-drained field/pasture/tree-line in the Fall. You can do it other ways, but that’s what has worked best for me. Of course, they also need protection from nibbling mice and deer (http://www.plantra.com/buynow/bntreeshelterO.php). After I get a sufficiently diverse genetic base, I’ll start saving and replanting my own nuts anywhere I can. Danny Chestnut-seed!

Check out these sites (http://www.empirechestnut.com/ or http://www.uky.edu/Ag/NewCrops/introsheets/chestnuts.pdf) for more details on culture, harvest, storage, and cooking.

But watch out – you might just fall in love.


So if I’m in love with chestnuts, I guess you could say that I’m READY to fall in love with hazelnuts. I don’t TRULY love them yet – but only because I don’t know them as well. We just met. Well, sure, I’ve always loved to EAT hazelnuts – from the Nutella days of childhood to my more whole-foody present acquaintance with the raw nuts themselves.

But they’ve always seemed like semi-exotic visitors from the Northwest US – a treasured guest, but not someone to fall head over heels for. Not someone to get attached to. That is, until I heard about the exciting breeding work being done to bring hazelnuts to the Northeast US as a food crop.

Hazelnuts have never worked as a crop in the Northeast US for two reasons: (1) the commonly-used European cultivars couldn’t withstand the eastern filbert blight fungus, and (2) the plants’ reproductive parts couldn’t withstand the cold. Recently, however, many breeders – both at universities and private growers – have been developing good-yielding, blight-resistant hybrids between the native and European hazelnuts (see http://www.arborday.org/programs/hazelnuts/consortium/ & references therein).

Nuts from both ‘named’ hybrid varieties and from well-producing hybrids on private farms are starting to become available. I just planted some seedlings gleaned from Mark Shepard’s farm in Wisconsin (http://www.forestag.com/nursery.html) this past Spring, but it’ll be a few years before I can assess their productivity. Plant-breeder Tom Molnar from Rutgers University is currently running field-size trials of many promising hazelnut cultivars not too far from my house. (Molnar advises: “I think your seedling plants from Mark Shepard should do well here in NJ. You might also want to consider trying some of the eastern filbert blight resistant plants (clones) coming out of Oregon State University. The best for nuts are Jefferson and Yamhill, with their pollinizers Theta, Eta, and Delta. Burntridge, Raintree, and Grimo nursery sells them. Grimo also has a number of their own selections that are worthy of test. The OSU and Grimo plants are doing pretty well here at Rutgers. ”)

Hazelnuts have essentially the same laudable ecological/resilience attributes as chestnuts – except that they’re nutritionally equivalent to oil-rich soybeans instead of corn. “Oil on a bush.” Imagine that — an oil crop that doesn’t skin the Earth alive! Of course, they’ve got a lot more nutrient-wise than just oil. In addition, they apparently work well in sub-optimal, rocky soil. No problem, because we’ll be putting lots of composted humanure on them, won’t we? Sure we will. They’ll do just fine.

I should add here that if you’re planning on ramping up hazelnuts for biofuel on any scale larger than for the occasional small-farm usage, you may as well just put a loaded pistol next to your grandchild’s head & pull the trigger. …Same end result. The Earth can’t afford that. …Food, not bio-fuel! That’s what they make muscles, hand-tools, and neighbors for.


OK, so if I’m ALREADY in love with chestnuts and I’m READY to fall in love with hazelnuts, where do sunchokes fit into this tangled phyto-romantic menagerie? Well…I’d have to say that I’m ASTOUNDED and EXCITED by sunchokes – otherwise known as Jerusalem artichokes, sunroots, or Helianthus tuberosus. (I’ll stop the love/lust analogy right here, lest it get too raunchy.)

How else could you feel about a tough-as-nails plant that delivers edible tubers to the tune of over 5.5 pounds per square foot?! (200lbs/[12’x3’] this year from my rich garden soil). And I’ve grown them under less-ideal conditions other years ( i.e., in reach of nibbling deer, unwatered during a crushing mid-summer drought, in so-so soil, etc.) and still gotten impressive yields. Potatoes are nowhere near as forgiving as these beautiful, brawny, bushy, 10-foot-tall, photosynthesizing phenoms.

Now, I’d be remiss here if I didn’t include some important caveats about the carbohydrates in sunchokes. Carol Deppe states the following: “[They] are easy to grow and are productive, and would seem to be a reasonable candidate for a carbohydrate staple. However they aren’t. The starch in sunroots is inulin. Humans don’t digest inulin.” …And she has a point. Because what good is a starchy staple if the starch sails right on through your digestive pipes? That is, of course, until it hits your colon. There, the local inulin-digesting bacteria toss a huge gassy shindig, creating quite a carbonic ruckus, and waking all the neighbors (…or at least the wife).

Nevertheless, I’m ‘long’ on sunchokes (to use a soon-to-be-meaningless economic terminology) for the following reasons: (1) As the first European explorers found, Native Americans were growing lots of sunchokes in their wonderful gardens, along with beans and corn. If they were good enough for a place-adapted people using zero fossil fuel and looking seven generations ahead, they’re good enough for me. (2) Inulin apparently has beneficial effects on our internal flora & fauna, as a soluble fiber and ‘prebiotic.’ (3) Inulin hydrolyzes to digestible forms of sugar over storage or with prolonged cooking. Thus it CAN act as a good carbohydrate source if prepared appropriately. …And by the looks of things economically, we’re about to have a lot more time on our hands to think about and appropriately prepare home-grown food. (4) As they know in Europe, sunchokes ferment readily to make home-made alcohol – a valuable commodity when the huge fossil-fuel-guzzling beer factories shutter up and succumb to entropic and catabolic decay. (5) They make a cheap supplemental hog and chicken feed for those days when the household doesn’t happen to make enough food-scraps for the family ‘organic-waste recycling’ pets. (6) After easing them into my diet, I find their gasiness subsides. I’m not exactly sure what’s going on here, but it seems like perhaps I’m digesting them better over time and leaving less intact inulin for those gassy cave-dwelling critters down below.

So there. You can get a variety of starter sunchokes from www.johnnyseeds.com, www.fedcoseeds.com, www.seedsavers.org/, and a bunch of other places. But after that, just store a bunch of your tubers in the ground, the fridge, or a root cellar over the winter (don’t let them dry out!) for re-planting the next year. I keep mine in closed buckets in a cold (but not freezing) back-room. (My two pounds multiplied to 200 pounds in one season!) Go nuts with them. And screw the warnings about ‘you’ll never get rid of them’ (not true) – and besides, why would you WANT to get rid of such wonderfully resilient food-producers as these?

Now, I suppose sunchokes, as they’re commonly cultured, aren’t REALLY perennials – at least not too much more than potatoes are. I’m moving my sunchoke plot from year to year for preventative soil-nutrient and pest-control reasons, so I’m effectively growing them like an annual. However, if you keep grass-clover strips between your annual rows, as I do (http://www.misty-acres-farm.com/), you’ll have zero erosion problems and you can still sleep easy at night.

Your seventh-generation descendents will be none the worse for your sunchoke fetish.


Nothing’s easier to grow than grasses and clovers: they’re deep-rooted & drought tolerant; they can take a beating and sprout right back up; they’ll re-seed themselves if given the chance; they’ll sprout up everywhere – including places we don’t want them; they hold & build soil, improving it over time as the clovers fix atmospheric nitrogen; etc., etc.

As far as resilient plants go, they’re top of the heap.

The problem, of course, is that we can’t eat them. Pass a clover leaf through a baby (as my brother did recently) and you get a still-perfect, slimy clover leaf in a diaper. We simply lack the appropriate digestive system flora and fauna required to dismember the tissue of these bountiful plants and unleash their nutrients.

Enter the ruminants. Sheep, goats, and cows ARE able to digest this bountiful, resilient energy source. And not only that, they convert this otherwise-nutritionally-useless plant material into some totally wonderful food and fiber that we CAN use: meat, wool, milk, & other dairy products, hides, bones, soil-enriching manure, etc. …Spectacular! Almost too good to believe! You couldn’t dream up such magical creatures!

So if we’d like to incorporate the top-notch resilience of grasses & clovers into our agricultural system, we need to partner up with these magical ruminants beings. All they ask of us in return, of course, is for us to allow them to express their special sheepness/cowness/goatness in an appropriate fashion.

They simply ask us not to try to debase them as we would, say, a human industrial factory worker – trying to turn them into a mere machine. They ask to be given their due respect as a living organism. That’s all.

How to pull off this partnership in a way that benefits both parties requires a special mix of knowledge and compassion that’s becoming increasingly rare. You can still find it today, perhaps, in a special neighbor. But it’s also found more certainly in the essays, poems, and stories of Gene Logsdon and Wendell Berry. Another contrary farmer, Joel Salatin, is also worth checking out. Maybe start with Logsdon’s “All Flesh is Grass.”

So do that before you pursue the partnership. But if you’re interested in a resilient food system – one that has a chance in the face of all the back-breaking craziness that’s a-comin’ — you’d be mad to leave out the ruminants.

I have a small flock of Tunis sheep. I’d recommend a small/medium-sized, old-time breed – they’re easier to move and don’t need to be pampered. Check out the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website for some good possibilities – http://albc-usa.org/.

And allow me to mention again: Sheep and cows are perfect compliments to a sprawling, standard-sized-tree, fruit & nut orchard – lazily eating the grass between the large, spread-out trees in a bucolic scene that will just melt your damn heart. (Goats, of course, will voraciously strip the bark off every tree and BREAK your damn heart to pieces – so beware.)


All four pieces of a resilient agriculture mentioned so far – chestnuts, hazelnuts, sunchokes, and sheep/cows/goats – I have at least some experience with. But there are other cool things on the horizon too – things I haven’t done, but which look exciting in terms of trying to build a resilient food system. These include (1) The Land Institute’s perennial grain breeding program, and (2) the widening selection of perennial vegetables available to the home grower.

If you’re not familiar with Wes Jackson’s Land Institute and their perennial grain breeding program, check out every word at http://www.landinstitute.org/ and in Jackson’s excellent books. In a nutshell, they’re trying to breed an array of PERENNIAL grains to replace the ecologically-destructive ANNUAL grains we’ve used since the beginning of agriculture. It’s quite an ambitious task, and they’re using a two-pronged breeding strategy of both domesticating existing perennial grains and perennializing existing annual grains.

And while the Land Institute is still perhaps a few decades from their ultimate goal, the fruits (or grains) of their labor are already starting to spill forth. “Kernza”, their first perennial wheat variety, is already starting to be made available to farmers. And if their entire breeding program ever reaches fruition, it has the possibility of making human agriculture orders of magnitude less destructive than it has historically been.

Good stuff.

And I should note finally, that perennial vegetables are really starting to get under my skin. While we’ve always grown asparagus, rhubarb, horseradish, and chives, I’ve been experimenting lately with a bunch of other neat possibilities: skirret, scorzonera, stinging nettle, Chinese yam — as well as the nominally-perennial shallots and potato onions. Since perennials take a few years to really get going, the jury’s still out on each of these, but I eagerly look forward to the creeping spread of perennials throughout my annual veggie plots over the next decade. I’ll try to add a few new ones every year.

See www.fedcoseeds.com for a basic selection of these perennial veggies. Also check out Eric Toensmeier’s excellent book, “Perennial Vegetables” (and his website, http://perennialvegetables.org/about/). There are SO many neat possibilities, and our climatic future is SO uncertain that we’d do well to experiment with as many of these deep-rooted perennials as possible.

For example, I hear that Carol Deppe is experimenting with breeding scorzonera (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_salsify) as a perennial lettuce-like leaf crop. Cool! So many possibilities!


…So there. How was that? Inspiring? Uplifting? I’d say that if this stuff doesn’t just fill you with the warm fuzzies, then…well…you need a great big hug or something.

…There — does that help?

But warm fuzzies aside, I think we should end here by briefly putting all this good stuff within a larger (and unfortunately far scarier) context: Like, where exactly ARE we as a civilization? And where are we GOING? And what do we need to DO?

Because we DON’T just live in happy little small-farm/gardening bubbles, and it’s dangerous to pretend we do. We’ll be planting chestnuts, hazelnuts, sunchokes and clover within the larger framework of a dying civilization – a larger context that has much more control over our lives at this point than we do.

So let’s get outline the context here:

Where are we? Well, we are at the beginning of the end; for we have already begun the accelerating collapse of industrial civilization. As Nicole Foss says, “we’ve been eating our seed corn for decades” – but due to inertia and pseudo-clever bookkeeping tricks, the inevitable socio-economic troubles are just starting to manifest themselves now. We are hours, days, weeks, months, or at most a few years away from the next catastrophic downturn – one far larger perhaps than that of 2008. And there will be more to come – likely many more. …We are also, of course, at the beginning of the end of climatic stability. How fast and far this progresses is anybody’s guess, but given a near-term catastrophic industrial collapse, we will soon be completely at the mercy of positive feedbacks in the climate system – hard, cold, biophysical reality. No treaties or negotiating here. We will pay for our sins. God help us.

Where are we going? As David Korowicz says, “We are going somewhere we’ve never been before.” (http://www.feasta.org/documents/risk_resilience/Tipping_Point.pdf) We are going to a place where the ‘operational fabric’ that supported our industrial lives literally unravels around us – sometimes overnight; a place where our very life-support systems stop working properly, or even at all. But unlike other civilizational collapses, we will find that the fabric this time had been suspending us VERY VERY VERY high above safe ground; and many of us will fall and fall and fall and fall. People and ecosystems will be falling and falling and falling all around us. And if it doesn’t look like they’re falling it will be because we are falling with them. And the landings will be hard. Often too hard. People and ecosystems will be dying and dying and dying and dying all around us. And if we stop noticing them dying, it will be because we have died ourselves. These are the places we will be going.


SO what must we do? What CAN we do? Isn’t all this chestnut and sunchoke stuff really then just piddling nonsense against this larger catastrophe unfolding around us? For if what I say comes to pass — as it must by the inviolable thermodynamic laws of our universe — is there ANYTHING we can do?

Firstly: no, working to invent a less-destructive, more-resilient, perennial-based agriculture is decidedly NOT nonsense. And secondly: yes, there are many things we can do – that we MUST do.

(1) We can PREPARE for the coming fall as best as possible, in whatever grace period remains. We can learn skills and collect tools. We can gather cultivars of food trees & seeds of vegetables; we can plant them skillfully and tend them lovingly. We can get to know our neighbors – human and non-human, living and non-living. And we can let them know us. We can try to wend our way down towards safer ground before (and while) the supporting fabric of our lives disintegrates. We can try to fashion resilience parachutes and risk-safeguards that may cushion the fall. …And, of course, some or all of these preparations may be for naught. But we can try. …I’m going to try.

(2) We can MAINTAIN OUR COMPOSURE as the fabric disintegrates beneath us. We can try to keep a clear head, a steady hand, and a firm footing as all hell breaks loose around us. We can help our family and neighbors. We can sacrifice our comfort for others – hoping, but not demanding, that others do the same for us. We can remember our manners and clear our vision – seeing others not as objects to be manipulated for gain, but as sacred, sentient beings on a shared journey. We can keep our shit together.

(3) We can HARDEN OUR RESOLVE for the long hard road to stability. We can keep our eyes on the prize: to become emotionally and physically fulfilled individuals enmeshed within healthy human and biotic communities. And we can keep believing in that dream, even when all we can see around us is death and failure. And we can keep fighting and working for that dream even when all we feel is tired and worn out. And we can resolve to live and teach the dreams that inspire us. (e.g., For me, that dream borrows heavily from Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic and Wendell Berry’s agrarianism.) And we can just not give up. …I’m not gonna give up.


So there — preparation, composure, and resolve. That’s what we can do.

Everyone can do it in their own special way, of course. What I outlined in this essay is partly how I’m going to try; it’s part of MY dream. You can try something different – your own dream; something that fits you and where you are.

But try something. We have to try. We have to have dreams. And we have to hold onto them as things fall apart. We have to not let go.

And maybe some day my dream will work – at least part of it; or some version of it. And maybe yours will too – at least partly. And maybe so will a bunch of other people’s dreams.

And maybe at some point they can start to fit together.

And maybe we can all be in each other’s dreams.

That would be nice.