Guest Post: Building a Food Forest (Part 1)

Article by: Kyle, Sunnyside Acres

Hey there! I’m Lindsey’s husband Kyle, and she has asked if I might be interested in trying my hand at writing a post about some of the Permaculture stuff we’ve been starting this year on the farm. Though I’ve never done any writing like this before, I figured I’d give it a shot mainly because I find the subject really very interesting.

So, here goes. I guess the first question would have to be “What is Permaculture?”.

permaculture-wordle

 

In a nutshell, Permaculture is all about developing sustainable agricultural systems which support human (and animal) life while also replenishing and improving the health of the land they’re conducted on.

It’s about taking natural systems which are currently in existence out there and knitting them together in a design which can maximize the benefits we’re seeking while minimizing or eliminating the “hands on” work and external inputs required (fertilizers, pesticides, etc) once the system has been established. It just takes a bit of good planning and elbow grease up front!

Our Current (Unsustainable) System:

Our current agricultural system, the backbone of our global food supply, is built on cheap energy and external inputs to function. Access to cheap, abundant fossil fuels allows a single farmer to farm massive swathes of land with heavy machinery. It permits us to import external fertilizers and pesticides from far away places which allow the land to produce crops when they wouldn’t otherwise.

Let’s look at the farmer who plants a field full of corn. This field represents something that doesn’t normally occur in nature – a huge singular monoculture. It stands to reason that this natural anomaly attracts disease and pests which would attack or feed on corn as there is such an abundance of it to be found in this one location. So we’re then forced to spray the crops with chemicals designed to kill or deter these threats in order to protect the crop. Once the corn is mature, we come through and harvest it. It gets loaded on a truck, and all of that bio matter which was produced from that field gets exported to somewhere else leaving the soil depleted of the nutrients it expended in making that crop. You can only do this so many times before you end up with “dead” soil.

S1p6a_newly_tilled_field

That’s when we import external fertilizers, spray these nutrients back into the soil, and start the cycle over again for another growing season. It’s a short-sighted system with a clock attached to it. We might not see it break down in our lifetimes, but it’s fundamentally unsustainable as it depends on non-renewable resources in order for it to function. When you’re talking about our global food supply, you don’t really want the words “fundamentally unsustainable” attached to it.

Benefits to Permaculture:

Food security: As far as the benefits go food security is right up there – let’s look at a single tree in the system. You go and plant a chestnut tree, for example. It’ll take a few years to become established and begin producing nuts. Once it does, though, that tree will drop food providing protein, healthy fats, carbohydrates, etc from it’s branches year-after-year without further intervention on your part. And once it’s there, that tree is going to long outlive you unless you cut it down. Not only that, but it’s also going to attract wildlife such as deer to the site which eat the chestnuts (share and share alike!) thus aiding in supporting a healthy local deer population – and voila – there’s an optional freezer full of venison to be had too. So there’s a small measure of food security which can extend for generations to be found in that one small tree. But, of course, we’re not just planting one tree…

Chestnut tray

An acre of chestnut trees can yield a few thousand pounds of food each year(!), again, without a great deal of additional work or external inputs required once that system is established. That’s one real advantage I personally see in perennial vs annual cropping. Imagine if you had a cow that you never had to spend time and money to feed or otherwise tend to in order to get the final harvest of beef at the end of the line. A cow that can convert harvested rainwater, soil, and sunlight into an abundance of food year after year! Eh, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch..you get the idea though.

Environmental Restoration: Another benefit to Permaculture systems is that they improve the environment around them in a number of ways. One of the planet’s main natural carbon sinks are plants. Plants grab carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to use in photosynthesis; some of this carbon is transferred to the soil as plants die and decompose. Thus reversing, albeit in a small way, some of the carbon emissions we put out day-to-day. While this is not exclusively a Permaculture concept, every little bit counts!

Permaculture systems also work at both improving the quality and quantity of soil around them through a number of ways. Some plants have a natural relationship with bacteria which produce nitrogen in their root systems, some plants (often deep-rooted ones) are known as dynamic accumulators which will draw up nutrients from the lower layers of the soil, and these nutrients will be stored in the plants’ leaves. When the leaves fall in autumn and winter and are broken down, those stored nutrients are then incorporated into the upper layers of the soil where other plants will benefit from their deposition.

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This restorative quality is particularly potent in areas where the land has been historically mismanaged or abused, turning poor depleted soils into something more capable of sustaining life. By restoring the soil on site, you promote healthy plant life. By promoting plant life, you promote a healthy animal population. With a healthy plant and animal ecosystem in place, there becomes and abundance of resources available to support human life in a sustainable manner.

In a time where there are global food supply concerns, financial and economic uncertainty, and a general sense that we’re collectively running the planet in to the ground doing what we’re currently doing, Permaculture systems seem to make a lot of sense to me. It restores the health of the land while creating an abundant, human-sustaining, ecosystem in doing so. Thumbs up!

Introducing Permaculture to the Farm

So after doing a fair bit of reading on the subject, we decided to jump in and try our hand at it. From there it was planning, planning, planning…how many trees do we need? What types? Where would they go? And in what order? How much space do they need? Will they shade out the smaller ones if we put them there? Are any of these Alleopathic (releases chemicals into the ground which kills other neighboring plants – like Walnut trees which release a chemical called Juglone)?

Once we had decided on the types of plants we wanted to introduce to the farm, I ended up using online tools to map out our farm and measure the areas I was considering for the project. One site I found particularly useful was: Daft Logic’s Distance Calculator.

From that I was able to make a general overview of the farm complete with accurate distances to plan our future Permaculture projects. Here’s one example from our planning pages..

seaberry

We did this for all the areas we’d intended on planting and it gave us a really good idea as to how much of each tree/plant we needed to order for each area we intended to do work.

Fun Fact: Did you know that not only do seaberry plants (also known as sea buckthorn) produce a tart, extremely nutrient-dense fruit with a high nutritional value, but they also are a “nitrogen-fixing” plant which can change nitrogen gases from the atmosphere into solid nitrogen compounds that surrounding plants can use in the soil?

seaberry2_1024x1024

Rather than purchasing nitrogen fertilizer and spraying it on your fields (which costs money, time, and effort), here’s a plant that does it for you for free just by being there while also providing a nutritious yield of berries!

Other examples of nitrogen-fixing plants we’ve adopted on the farm are Black Locust and Black Alder trees.

During the design phase, we decided to plant these nitrogen-fixing plants in between our “feeder” trees and plants which consume the nitrogen in the soil (such as the apple trees) in order to provide them with a natural source of fertility available year round without requiring any external inputs.

And once all the planning was complete, it was time to start preparing the land itself for planting…

To be Continued at Guest Post: Building a Food Forest (Part 2)

 

 

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