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Monday, February 2, 2009

Confessions of a Rural Farmer & Meditations on Energy Descent

Confessions of a Rural Farmer & Meditations on Energy Descent

I recently had the pleasure of attending a 2-day Advanced Permaculture Principles course with David Holmgren in Portland, Oregon at the Portland Permaculture Institute. Being as farmer from a rural area, I typically didn't give much thought to urban permaculture, or cities in general except perhaps as a market for my farm's produce, or a place to buy spare parts. To be entirely honest, if you were a fly on the wall amidst a conversation of Siskiyou area permies and farmers you may hear phrases such as, " that's the last place I'd want to be", or "I hope that they can grow/ preserve/ stash enough food" when discussing the implications of peak oil. A very common doomsday scenario topic around my locale is the hypothetical hordes of starving masses pouring into the countryside from the cities in search of food and water when they realize what has hit the fan.
My view was profoundly changed by my experience in Portland and I was pleased to realize that I had much to learn from my urbanite counterparts. For what urban areas lack in acreage of fields and forests they make up for with tonnages of human creativity and community collaboration. Through interacting with the other course participants who were predominately from the Portland area and experiencing the site of the hosts, Joe and Pam Leitch, I came to appreciate the many interwoven dynamic relationships, which make urban Permaculture so exciting. To name a few:

• Under utilized resources are abundant and readily available free or cheap (wood chips, information, building materials, recycled vegetable oil yard waste)
• A rich and diverse cultural landscape (ethnic, artistic and historical)
• Networking is constant and multi-dimensional (numerous events and groups working for positive change)
• Things can happen quickly because distances between people are short by rural standards
• Leaders of social and cultural change movements frequent urban areas (Holmgren for instance)
• Small changes can have large results
• An inherently smaller ecological footprint than the average ruralite due to resource/infrastructure sharing

Among the participants in the course there were numerous parallel and overlapping focal points - natural building, permaculture, city repair, progressive education, garden agriculture, cohousing/ecovillages, appropriate technology, etc. In my area it is rare to get all the farmers and/or permies together to exchange ideas or work together on a common project as we are generally consumed by our own mountains of personal projects. While there may be many people involved or initiating good projects, coordinating these efforts in a collaborative and cohesive fashion is logistically problematic. One factor, which undermines many rural renewal efforts, is that it is generally up to an individual or a family to maintain and steward extensive farms, forests and projects. This is indicative of 80-acre minimum zoning laws, which restrict multiple dwellings, community and cohousing. Despite many of the virtues and assets of country living there are some considerable challenges, many of which Toby Hemmingway highlighted in his insightful article in the PCA #54.

Cities also serve to facilitate some features of our cultures modern interpretation of sustainability, which may be less appropriate in a rural setting. An obvious example is mass transit, public buses and light rail. Another instance is making biodiesel with recycled/waste vegetable oil which is easily obtainable from many sources in cities represents a genuine step to reduce one's ecological footprint. Having personally made biodiesel for a few years, driving over 50 miles each way to obtain the oil and methanol, I began to weigh out simply restructuring my life to drive less and spend my time doing more worthwhile (& healthful) things. I then looked into getting Biodiesel delivered from town. Then I began to look into the energy return on energy invested, (or EROEI – a way to measure embedded energy) for biodiesel produced from conventionally grown oilseed crops (GMO soy) the biodiesel generates only 60% of the energy put into growing, producing and transporting the fuel in the first place. New oil biodiesel is basically a shell game displacing the burden and effects of one's ecological footprint onto another ecosystem akin to a not in my backyard paradox. Our current fossil fuel subsidy hides many of the embedded energy costs of many of our tech-no-logical fixes. Co- housing is a reach towards village life, which naturally overlays onto urban land use patterns easily. However, zoning, and cultural attitudes in rural communities thwart efforts to develop co-housing and ecovillages.

The Portland Permaculture Institute, home of Pam and Joe Leitch was a veritable cultural oasis/ lifeboat and proving grounds of permaculture principles in action and community locus able to incubate ideas into reality. This land was also a remarkable example of stewardship by the prior owners in that it was 1.6 acres of land in a neighborhood of otherwise high-density housing. Mature figs, black walnuts, cherry, apple and other unique trees comprised a healthy scaffold for the new stewards to develop into an extensive food forest. The acquisition of this land appeared to have contributed to galvanizing the local permaculture and city repair movements by providing an excellent demonstration site. Numerous outbuildings and outdoor rooms fostered a learning environment, which engaged participants with the land, elemental forces and each other in a harmonious way. Their website highlights the site and their programs.

Whilst at the Holmgren PC Principles course I had the delight of staying at Try/on Life Community Farm a newly formed non-profit and established ecovillage on 7 acres of land within a 670 acre Tryon state park within the city limits of SW Portland. Recently threatened with the sale of the property by the owner, who intended to subdivide and develop the land for luxury homes, Try/on Life Community Farm has risen like the phoenix from the ashes and is on the path to raising the funds to purchase the land and place it in a conservation easement. TLC Farm aims to serve the Portland Community through:
"• Innovative approaches to sustainable urban growth
• Interdisciplinary hands-on educational program focused on food systems, permaculture, natural building, and other skills and theories of sustainability
• Publicly accessible demonstration projects, workshops and classes, land tours, and publications for school groups, organizations, and kids and adults of all ages
• Integration of social, ecological and economic sustainability
• Preservation of green space and restoration of native ecosystems
At the confluence of rural farm and native forest, in an urban center, TLC Farm is a place of cooperation and crossroads for a diversity of people."

Inspired by these two promising examples I contemplated permaculture in the city. I was challenged to envision a new model of garden agriculture, where long rows of crops, orchard blocks, and farm ponds are supplanted by a chaotic mosaic of garden plots, heritage fruit trees, roof-top greenhouses/nurseries, fruiting arbors, balcony burdock boxes, city park food forests, rain water catchments and recycled bathtub aquaculture. During an inspired course tea-break rap session a few of us devised a scheme for an urban cooperative community supported agriculture program (CSA) in which a network of backyard (and front yard) gardeners would coordinate their plantings to ensure sufficient surplus to distribute to their neighbors. They could possibly focus on a few specific crops for trade within the cooperative, enabling specialization and productive capacity. Others might forage for fruits and nuts amidst naturalized trees in a city, redistributing the surplus to Co-op CSA members much like the typical model, except deliveries would be made on foot or by bicycle. Neighborhood, or regional seed growing/saving cooperatives might develop along similar lines to ensure a fresh supply of regionally adapted varieties. Limited urban arable land precludes full-blown market gardens (except in reclaimed park lawns). However, adding up the square footage of an entire neighborhoods worth of yard space might equal some considerable acreage. A cooperative city-farm model might grow out of such a plan in which a cooperative of gardeners and small livestock grazers develop a reticulated nutrient cycling/ rotation plan in which a rabbit grower might use portable electric netting to mow lawns, exchanging fertility, meat and pelts for forage, vegetables and more. I imagine this city farm as a pattern remotely akin to a farm with a lot of really big outbuildings, many roads and a few pocket fields and many farmers.

I was particularly empowered to see the extent to which Portland as an archetypical progressive, urban city, albeit an atypical city, had fostered the development of many overlapping social movements. These spanned from ecovillages, to the City Repair Project, social justice movements, progressive education and a general savvy and awareness of appropriate human relationships and the course necessary to achieve them. When I dwell upon the dire situation, which the biosphere is in, and our ability to improve upon it, my thoughts go from technical tool/solutions and always return back to our social relationships. We have all descended from village living peoples at some point in our ancestry and we have forgotten how to live in right relationship with one another and the other species of this planet. The hope is that we can re-member (or become a member again) of a village like social fabric. I believe that this is key to re-establishing harmonious relationships with other species and the elemental forces. Anything less than this would be a linear approach focused on alleviating the symptoms rather than a systems approach of addressing the root causes. As Thomas Jefferson said, " for every hundred men hacking at the branches of evil, only one is hacking at the root." From my impressions it seems as if Portland is progressing more than many rural communities on re-weaving the social fabric. I feel that this is one of the most profound lessons, which rural dwelling people in particular can benefit from exchanging information and experience with urban dwellers.

From my perspective as a farmer when I extrapolate the implications of peak oil and energy descent I see that the above city-farm model might fall short of meeting the caloric needs of all urban residents. As fossil fuels become less available and more expensive, the transport of food from rural areas into urban areas will become more complicated. Rural farmers have existed for as long as agriculture has and their marketplaces have nearly always included village centers and towns. The town center by nature and design represents the center for the exchange of goods and services. In the American landscape an unfortunate transformation has occurred through the development of the suburbs. The village pattern of city surrounded by a ring of intensive agriculture, then a ring of grazing lands, then forests can still be observed in many indigenous landscapes (see figure 1). Michael Ableman's book, From the Good Earth contains many beautiful pictorial depictions of this pattern. Suburban sprawl has consumed and paved what was once the productive agrarian landscapes of the past, all the while furthering the distance necessary to transport food from distant rural farm land. Farms will be forced to change what they produce and how they market it as fossil fuels drive the cost of transport up, or we will need to begin de-paving the suburbs to facilitate food growing closer to town. I know that over the past decade we have focused more of the production of the annual fields of our farm towards vegetable, herb and flower seed production for Seeds of Change, Fedco and Turtle Tree Seeds. We also conserve carbon on our farm by returning the majority of the biomass back into the composting process, only having to transport a comparatively light and concentrated product (seeds) rather than heavy and bulky cases of fruits and vegetables.

Our family has grown the majority of our own food for a number years and over time I have a learned of how much land and resources that it requires to grow enough vegetables, meat, eggs, dairy, grains, legumes, fruits, nuts, seeds and oils for one person, assuming active food storage through drying, freezing, canning and root cellaring. For instance, to grow enough potatoes for two people for a year requires about 800 square feet, a lot of space. Now take this sample and do it for carrots, flour corn, dry beans, winter squash and grains and so on. Although I see the beauty in, and I am personally pursuing a tree crop based agriculture emphasizing on forage crops, I see it exceedingly prudent to acknowledge that most Americans diets (permies included) are still predominately based upon annual crops and animals that eat annual crops. As Wes Jackson has pointed out, humans are essentially grass-eaters, pointing to our reliance on annual cereal crops for food and animal feed. Our models for a permaculture prairie savannah of oaks, chestnuts, hazels, ruminants and ground birds stretching across the Midwest are alluring and highly worth developing, however, their ability to actually feed the masses is a ways off, if it indeed does work. While Cuba may be the poster child for urban agricultural renewal with 60% of the vegetable consumed in Havana being produced in the city. Per capita caloric intake plunged after the collapse of the USSR, it has only returned to 80% of its former level.

I challenge us all to take the principle that "the design is only limited to the imagination of the designer" to a higher level. My goal in highlighting the above points is not to raise the specter of doom, but rather to illuminate the critical linkage between rural and urban areas and to encourage rural renewal parallel to urban renewal. Just as urban areas need to remake themselves to become more interconnected, rural areas need to redefine their identity after centuries of abusive "boom and bust" land practices. Many rural areas across the US are being rapidly depopulated through corporate consolidation of farmlands, failure of family farms, lack of economic opportunity and unsustainable farming practices. Jeremy Rifkin speculated recently that the entire state of Iowa was very close to becoming 14 mega-farms. The demands of a growth based economy plunder the cities and countryside equally with far reaching consequences.

The average age of the American farmer is 62 years old. Stop and think about this for a moment that means that there statistically as many 82-year-old farmers as there are 42 year old farmers and probably not very many 22-year-old farmers (nor 102 year old farmers for that matter!). Fortunately I meet many young people interested in organic agriculture, biodynamics and permaculture. I believe that my nightmare of the starving masses from the cities coming to loot our farm is a less likely scenario than hordes of eager permies coming to the countryside in droves to learn the lost arts of diverse, intensive natural farming to take back to their communities and start mini city-farms or suburban food forests. Ultimately the solution lies in that we are rediscovering our lost culture of garden agriculture, where food, fiber and medicine is produced as close to the site of consumption as possible and surplus for trade is not done solely for economic purposes, but also to interweave cultural traditions through the exchange of seeds, breeds, scions, spores and knowledge bioregionally.

Don Tipping is a biodynamic farmer, shepherd, and activist who lives with his family in SW Oregon's Siskiyou Mountains. His work with Participatory Plant Breeding can be viewed at He is also a founder of the Siskiyou Sustainable Cooperative of farmers in the Applegate Valley, which manages a large cooperative CSA and is developing a value added businesses inspired by Basque Spain's Mondragon cooperative. Contact him at or (541)846-9233

Try/on Life Community Farm, <> (503) 244-1776

Portland Permaculture Institute, (503) 293-8044

Toby Hemmingway,

Ableman, Michael; From the Good Earth

Groh, Trauger; Farms of Tomorrow

Holmgren, David; Permaculture, Patterns and Pathways Beyond Sustainability

Mollison, Bill; Permaculture, A Designer's Manual - Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas

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