Commercial Farm ProjectsHealth & DiseaseVillage Development

Regenerate Yourself

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!

17 Comments

  1. Your own personal energy is a resource as well, and we need to design accordingly or we devalue our design.

    I say that whilst understanding the urge to do 5600 things at once and still feel like you’re not done…

    Ever thought of taking on WWOOFers? It sounds like you’re in a stage where you could use more human energy input.

    Other than, that, good luck!

    1. Thanks Berry –
      We did have a little help finishing up processing our turkeys from one of our amazing CSA members, Sue. Many friends and customers would love to help us out on our farm but it seems that the limiting factor with the amount of help we can receive is timing – when we need help we need it right away, and most folks are not available on our time frame. That said, I agree with you, we are at that stage where some extra helping hands would come in really valuable. That’s why we are taking on our first intern next year, my wife’s little sister who is currently out WOOFing around world.

  2. Hi Andrew,

    My lady and I built the house and farm infrastructure here too. Without stating the obvious – as you are already now aware – you have to undertake tasks in balance and take time out to recover and remember also to have some fun. Plan in recovery time and fun time too. Spontaneity is a worthwhile objective, but rarely do I see anyone achieving it.

    As a bit of advice, spend more time getting your infrastructure right so that you don’t have to rely on things like grid connected well pumps. I try really hard to get every drop of rain into the ground water table here and the 300 odd fruit trees here then don’t require watering during summer – despite a 5 month drought and high temperatures last summer (a record breaking heatwave too).

    After years of this stuff, I’m noticing that this year seems to be the year that outputs are exceeding inputs from the plants here.

    Also try to think outside the box. If grain costs are high, then try to get some organic waste for free for your poultry to eat. Save money wherever you can and the balance will start to tip in your favour sooner or later.

    An old Italian peasant once remarked to me that land is there to save you money, not make it. Understanding this will put you miles ahead of any commercial farmer who is probably in debt up to their eyeballs.

    Keep up the good work. Chris

  3. Thanks Natasha, Chris, and Frank for the kind words. Chris – I’ve been thinking long and hard about the struggle to build ecological and regenerative systems on the ground while simultaneously trying to build a business, or organization of any sort. Its a lot of work, but I do tend to believe that everyone has to make a livelihood in some way, and there is no better way to do that then to be part of the growing regenerative farming movement.

  4. As I’m reading your article, one word keeps popping into my head – Sabbath. Even if you’re not a believer, one day of intentional rest each week is good practice for mental and physical health, as well as the opportunity to invest in your family. Did you say you had Amish in your area? Ask them how they keep the Sabbath. Thanks for sharing your struggles, and best wishes for health in 2014.

  5. Thanks Galen – I agree 100% with you! We’ve attempted to take one day to rest a week for quite some time, but it never quite works out! So it is clear to me we have to make our own time to recharge.

  6. If there’s no you, there’s no farm. I’ve been suffering for a year and a half from stress related injury. Forced to slow down on our homestead has been difficult, especially in the huge costs of Dr’s who still haven’t put a solution to my problem.

  7. First of all, thank you so very much Andrew for sharing your experience and insights! Before I comment on at least a few of the many important issues and details that you brought up I would like to digress for just a moment on your pain issues if I may?

    Without a doubt and from chronic overuse and (depending upon your also likely breathing and postural issues…and water intake or lack thereof?) I would bet my own ranch/farm that your shoulders (both) arms, back, and chest (especially pectoral muscles) are loaded with myofascial “Trigger Points” which while probably dormant at the moment will almost certainly re-activate, usually without warning, the next time you over do it, forget to take your day off, forget to stay conscious of your posture, breathing, and water intake, stress out, and really, any number of other additional “predisposing” and/or “perpetuating factors” which I don´t need to go into here.

    Many stateside Chiropractic schools are now including Myofascial Trigger Point work in their curiculums but if your Chiro is not specifically trained in this work, and please pardon my butting in, you will do yourself and your projects a huge favor by finding a …qualified/certified… practitioner who can help you by probably precluding another “melt-down” while teaching you simple techniques for self-care which you in turn can share with your wife and other people you care for. I am not much of a joiner but before leaving the States, I Certified with the National Association of Myofascial Trigger Point Therapists meantime already having practiced and taught on five continents over the previous 20 plus years.

    FYI, Chiro and the Trigger Point work are very complimentary; just different.

    We will complete our first 6 years (7 days a week? You bet!) on our own project(s) this month and reading your offering brought tears to my eyes quite frankly because one can get so lost in the self-inflicted struggle to not only “do it all” but to also and always do it “right” the first time and everytime. Your experiences and insights really hit home and besides recently coming close to “hitting the wall” ourselves, what you and your comentators kindly shared was as validating as it was loaded with wisdom which we all, especially us care-givers, need to be reminded of on a fairly regular basis.

    I am in Yucatán, Mexico now 10 years this month and about to start what feels like some new and very exciting chapters and directions but first of all, I just wanted to make available to you, if you are interested, some more extensive, basic information, as yet unsolicited, that I am pretty sure you will find very helpfull in terms of staying out of pain over the long haul.

    All the best to you, your wife, colleagues and commentators in this New Year Andrew.

    Saludos cordiales,

    Gil and Cristina Romero
    Rancho Santa Cruz
    Panaba, Yucatán, Mx

  8. Thanks Justin & Gil for your words. Justin, that is exactly it, without you there is no farm. I hope you get the care you need. Gil & Cristina – Thanks for all the wonderful thoughts, I’m almost 100% sure my chiropractor understands those myofascial trigger points, I will talk to her about it the next time I go in. The balancing act of doing everything at once and caring for ourselves continues!

  9. Hi Andrew,

    All good points and it is a worthwhile objective. It all takes time and I reckon initially you may have to draw down on your lands resources to get some good income going. That will then give you the resources to build the abundance back up again. Sometimes that’s how it rolls. I wrote an article on this website about some of the the problems I was having with growing strawberries. This year, I’ve worked out (after years of experimentation) how to grow them without all of the problems and will expand those systems. They receive no additional watering either. It all just takes time (global thinking, but local solutions!) which is why I suggested getting some income in initially whilst the business gets established by drawing down on your available resources. Regards.

  10. Great article… I felt this a lot this year. It’s not the “simple life” that’s for sure! Best of luck in your endeavors. It is hard, no doubt. We groups, community, to make it really work well.

  11. Thank you Andrew,

    I can relate. We have 3 sons under the ages of 10 and have been setting up a homestead/education center/intentional community. Finding the balance can be a dance between working and rejuvenation, while hosting volunteers, raising children, designing PC systems and implementing these systems and infrastructure. It is so empowering and at the same time can be draining. We found ourselves jaded and then rejuvenated through taking time to assess our feedback loops, our dreams, and our achievements. Eating really well, taking time to breath and appreciate what we have has been so rewarding. I appreciate your article and reflection. Keep shining and being activate change in the world.

    Much respect,
    Alana Bliss

  12. Thanks for an excellent article Andrew. We would love to find someone (could be a couple or family) who has a similar vision and passion to Andrew to co-create a permaculture paradise with a strong business model (at least while the music keeps playing ie: The Fed keeps printing) We live on a 1500 acre farm in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand and follow the principles of Joel Salatin who we host on his speaking tours to NZ, Mark Shepherd and his Restortation Agriculture plus we practise Holistic Management and grazing techniques, while planting lots of trees!!
    If you feel inspired to serve the world by “Being the Change” please visit our website http://www.thefamilyfarm.co.nz and contact us if you feel inspired to join us as we live to reconnect people to the earth that sustains us through good food and access to nature.

  13. Thanks Ben and Alana. Ben, funny you should mention the “good life” I was just perusing the Nearings writings and some of what they say about how they partition their lives has really imprinted itself in my head. A third of their day was for labor, a third community service, and a third to self-improvement. Now that is a goal to work toward, one I don’t know if I can ever achieve. They did say the balance of the thirds was spread over the year in different amounts, Alana – Definitely agree, even though I was talking about my specific issues as a farmer, I think everything I touched on applies across the board to self-employment in general and trying to reach for a dream overall.

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