The desire to create a permaculture paradise is deep in my bones, and has been growing in intensity every year since I began my studies of the permaculture design philosophy and methodologies a decade ago. Many of my friends share this vision – a homestead surrounded by bountiful fruit and nut trees, contented animals grazing in lush pastures, a root cellar filled with homegrown goodness, and a natural home powered by the sun. I think this vision can be a little misleading. After years of working hard to achieve my dreams, I know one thing to be true: all of those beautiful images I had in my mind only come into being after plenty of blood, sweat, and tears.
When I finally found the perfect piece of land to begin building my permaculture paradise in 2010, I felt filled with an endless abundance of energy; I could now create everything I ever dreamed about in the flesh, on the ground! I was fortunate enough to find and fall in love with the most amazing woman to share my life and dreams with, and we were married between two beautiful old oaks on our new property shortly after moving here. Now, three years later, we are still filled with wonderful permaculture visions, but we have reached a plateau. We now know that there is a limit to what two healthy young people with very limited funds can do in a year, while running a farm-based business in the black, and trying to have some kind of social existence. I have concluded that there is a correlation to the amount of sunlight available in the day and the amount of energy available in myself as well.
I went past this daily recommended allowance of personal energy for the umpteenth time this November, after finishing up the 20′ by 50′ addition to our pole barn, with the help of only my wife and a 3-point post hole digger that wouldn’t go more the three feet down into the dense clay of our subsoil. A day after we finished the roof, it snowed. Then, we proceeded to process 30 geese in one day, 90 chickens the next day, and finally around 80 turkeys over the course of two days within a week.
My left arm just gave out – it had had enough. I couldn’t move it any more than a few inches in any direction without excruciating pain in my shoulder, and my chiropractor told me I should rest my arm, or more ideally my whole body, for at least a few months. One big negative with owning your own farm and being your own boss is that you can’t ever rest. That’s the way I had been feeling throughout the summer and fall — a strong sensation of: Hurry up, you are never done! Rest is for those folks who go to a job in an office and come home to a game of croquet. Rest is a luxury for those who can afford to buy new clothes and take vacations.
Now, I know that when your body gives you multiple warning signals, you should probably heed them. But sometimes it seems like you just can’t and that’s when you get into big trouble. I was almost totally out of commission for a week or so after the turkey harvest, unable to sleep for more than an hour at a time because the pain would grow into an intense ball in my shoulder, even while I lay still and took ibuprofen every four hours. This is arguably a worse result than if I had said, simply: I need to take the day off. My chiropractor did all she could to relieve my pain and a couple of weeks later I was able to move my arm again and sleep through the night, as well as load and unload feed in the pickup truck, and prepare dinner and do the dishes and normal everyday stuff like that.
This was our third year of business together on our small acreage, and we haven’t really taken a break since we moved here, other then the big Winter slow down. In the Spring, Summer, and Autumn it’s hard to know when to allow yourself a day, or even just a few hours of rest, as everything needs to be done ASAP. Here in Wisconsin Winter is just around the corner, always. And when you have livestock your life is dictated by their needs more then anything else. Even in the winter, we spend a couple of months talking about our business, garden, and livestock plans before getting our seed orders in and beginning the delicate and problematic process of growing thousands of living plants in the late winter coldness. This is living your work — my Job and Me are not separate entities.
Sometimes my wife and I discuss simplifying our extremely diverse business model by paring down our production to only one or two products that we could focus on more directly, and perhaps gain a little more time to pursue our interests on a personal level. But when we look at how that would change the diversity and quality of our day to day life, and then work out the debt that we would more then likely have to go into in order to to really ramp up the production in those one or two products in order to justify and pay off the debt, not to mention the reduction in the ecological diversity of our farm, we tend to come full circle, back to appreciating our multi-layered and complex approach to running a small permaculture-based farm. To paraphrase Eliot Coleman, instead of increasing production in a crop to grow sales, we are trying to increase the value of our existing crops and products to grow profit. Not only that, but growing in polyculture and in a biointensive manner minimizes the usage of our land base and maximizes production from a single area. We’ve found that a bird in the hand is literally worth more then two in the bush.
I definitely hold a staunch belief that the increased costs of fossil fuels to the consumer and the reduction in cheap oil production will, in the long run, put many folks out of the farming business. The larger agricultural enterprises will increase their market share and aggregate their holdings, utilizing bulk purchasing power to keep their costs down. The small to medium sized enterprise will have to have the regenerative potential in their farm business up and operational, so that they can produce the seed stock for all of their animal and vegetable operations, as well as the ability to irrigate and water with minimal energy usage and generate fertility and fuel from solar power.
This is our goal of course, and the goal of many of our peers. At the present moment, when I look at the cold hard reality of how we are producing the food on our farm, I can see many systems that need to be improved, and many new systems that need to be started. The majority of our costs are feed and seed, and the majority of that is ultimately purchased from farms outside of our bioregion. This is not an unusual practice in modern farming, but if the electrical grid was down and fuel was unavailable, only the Amish in our area would really be able to continue farming. Even now, with a grid-powered well pump, our operation is susceptible to an energy blackout. A generator can only run until the fuel in its tank is gone.
While self sufficiency is a worthwhile goal, I think that in reality it is far more resilient to foster the development of breeders and growers in a local co-operative of food and energy producers and consumers. I think that the rural foodshed hubs will need to organize within their bioregions and communities to create seed stock and animal-stock businesses as a complement to other essential community businesses — an upside to the growth of locally produced seed stock is that it will begin to produce an abundance of nativized genetics, as Joel Salatin has termed it. What could be more important than breeding species of vegetables, perennials, trees and shrubs, and all of our domesticated livestock, to be nativized in our own specific bioregion, bred for the climate, growth factors, and other attributes that are important to the local farmers? Heritage breeds should be maintained in order to have a larger genetic source bank of seed stock material, but we should also be breeding "new heritage" breeds that fulfill the needs of our bioregion, climate, and also consumer preference as well.
All this to say, finding the true course of a permaculture farm-based enterprise is a hard journey, and for me, building a solid food-based business is perhaps the first and most important step toward realizing that ultimate goal of creating a permaculture paradise. Trying to rush toward ever expanding and ephemeral goals on the horizon might in the long run be more harmful then helpful to my dream. Creating a goal-set founded in reality that begins with a viable business model may in the long run be more of an asset to your bioregion then building the perfect compost-heated shower or even grafting pear scions onto a hawthorn tree. The thriving businesses in our bioregion will define its economic health, and a healthy local community is far preferable to an enclave of survivalists holed up in bunkers, and it is a far more resilient and enjoyable system as well.
Over the course of the last few years I’ve realized that, regardless of all that needs to be done, I must care for myself if I’m going to create a regenerative system of any sort, whether it be my business, my home, or my relationships. Your dreams begin within you and you are the future permaculture seed stock for your bioregion. Regenerate yourself and the rest will follow!