The New Normal: We Are All Farmers

By Steven Saint Thomas & Trudy Thomas

The whole neighborhood is now sheltering in place. Everyone’s looking for something to do or catching up on their existing to-do lists, while we wait for the world to get back to normal. 

We’re using lots of post-layoff time to work on our permaculture homestead in Humboldt County, Calif. We’re wrapping up the sheet-mulch on about a quarter-acre and building garden beds – even planting! Our neighbors, all unseen on the other sides of the fences, are out filling the air with the sound of power mowers and the smell of new-mown grass.

Ironic – they’re out farming the grass that we’re trying to kill. It’s not that we hate grass, but we can’t eat it. We need to transform my grass-dominated yard into a place where fruit, berries, vegetables, garlic, herbs and pollinators can grow without the competition. Permaculturists often use sheet-mulching to create a fresh palette of topsoil on which to design self-reliant food systems.

A greenhouse, mini-orchard and keyhole beds of various designs now occupy land once given over to grass.

We are all farmers, it’s just that we’ve spent most of our lives up to now farming dollars. The New Normal will be farming our own food! 

I’m guessing my neighbors are expecting the Old Normal – back to fully stocked grocery stores, plenty of gasoline and mowing the lawn every other Sunday. The current coronavirus pandemic has brought home what permaculturists have been saying for 40 years. The normal we grew up with, powered by fossil fuels and other non-renewable natural resources, is coming to an end. The future will be different and we need to be ready for that. 

The coronavirus has put the entire world on pause –  an unprecedented opportunity to make a course correction!

As permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison put it: “The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10 percent of us do this, there is enough for everyone.” 

Our family is seven years into a 10-year plan to get ready for the future. We’re not ready yet, but if we keep our hands to the plow, we just might get there. We’d like to offer the following New Normal steps based on our recent adventures in permaculture.

1. Start growing food now. If you are currently farming grass, stop and let it die. Grow food – some is better than complete dependence on grocery store chains. If you have land, start planting something you will actually eat – potatoes, onions, lettuce, zucchini. If you don’t have land, grow something in containers on the porch or in a window sill. Don’t let another spring go by without planting new food sources somewhere within your reach!

If you REALLY want some grass, just sheet mulch a section for your garden.

2. Look for ways to grow more food. Already growing? Need more space for gardens? Get rid of your lawn and plant – edible landscapes are gorgeous and have far greater value than grass. How about a greenhouse for starts and extending the growing season? Maybe you have a neighbor with land but no skills for gardening – offer to help out. Find a school, church or community garden that needs some tender loving care. Aim to grow 10 percent more food this year than you did last year.

3. Start storing water. Rainwater can be stored in the topsoil as well as in containers. Mulch helps catch rain and minimize evaporation. Swales (Australian for “ditches”) can also capture runoff, spread and sink water, and prevent erosion. Here’s a swale we dug that moves water running down the street into our yard to irrigate trees and hedges. Rainbarrels can store water from rooftops for times when it doesn’t rain. 

Swales can boost water storage anywhere without picked barrels or gutter diverters.

4. If you can, move to a place where you can grow more food and store more water. If it doesn’t rain much where you live, it’s probably time to move! Big cities in the Western U.S. are sucking the life out of the Colorado River. Ideally, find a piece of land and devote most of it to food production (more land, less house). Own it without a mortgage if at all possible – liquidate any Wall Street assets (401ks, IRAs, mutual funds) you have and pay off your mortgage. Move in with other family members. Buy or build a tiny home on family property. Pool your resources with family members and buy land, or pay off mortgaged property (Sorry, but working with family will be part of the New Normal. Swallow your pride and do it for your kids.)

5. Connect with neighbors and find ways to work together for sustainability. Explore sharing rides – complete with face coverings! – or get/share a bike (and drop that gym membership). Share tools, seeds, labor and the harvest. 

It’s easy to organize a sheet-mulch gathering while maintaining social distance!

6. Get ready for the long emergency. The New Normal means the Old Normal won’t be coming back. The endless-growth economic model won’t be coming back. The consumer will need to become a producer. It might be the next pandemic (yes, there will be more) or utilities going bankrupt, trucking companies folding or collapse of ecosystems… imagine a sheltering in place that doesn’t end in our lifetimes. Build diverse revenue streams: Evaluate your skills and sell or trade those skills with the local community. Reduce grid-use: Transition to alternative sources for lights, water and heat.  Get rid of your power-sucking clothes dryer and put up a clothesline. These are changes we can make while there is still time.

7. It is easier to stay positive when you connect with nature. The New Normal needs to be a world where humans are a part of nature, not above and beyond it. This is why indigenous people survived for eons while empires rose and fell. Back to Bill Mollison: “Sitting at our back doorsteps, all we need to live a good life lies about us. Sun, wind, people, buildings, stones, sea, birds and plants surround us. Cooperation with all these things brings harmony; opposition to them brings disaster and chaos.”

We are all farmers – of something. We will reap what we sow. Happy growing!

If you’ve read this far, you might be interested in a relatively new documentary on (mostly) East Coast permaculture – from rooftop gardens to suburban lots to farms. It’s called “Inhabit” – beautifully done!

We’re also an organizing “Adventures in Permaculture: Saturday Night Thrive” check-in via Zoom. Hope we can connect soon!

Connecting the community a big benefit of Permaculture Design Certification

Ten new permaculture designers were certified during the 2019 Humboldt Bay Permaculture Design Certification (PDC) course. They are ready to help transform the community for sustainability and local food security. One of our students shares her thoughts below!

By Casey Jo Dascanio

My experience with Permaculture was pretty limited before I signed up for the 2019 Humboldt Bay Permaculture Design Course (PDC). I grew up on a horse ranch in southern California, have lived here in Humboldt for 16 years, and have participated in my fair share of gardening and some natural building projects among friends.

My two main reasons for joining the class were to meet a fresh set of local people with similar interests to mine, and to fill in the pieces of specific knowledge I would need to create the whole picture of a happy, sustainable and community-serving farmstead for myself in the near future. I was greatly rewarded by the experiences of the class.

The classes were formatted into weekend meetings once a month, with optional learning get-togethers in between. This format really lent itself to getting to know fellow classmates. The group was all extremely knowledgeable already and had so much to share with each other.

The schedule also allowed time to visit many different sites to see how teachers, students and community members integrate Permaculture into their personal lifestyles. Not only did we receive detailed instruction from a variety of local experts, but we also got to meet some prominent figures in our community and put our hands on some of their projects.

The course covered the practical aspects of Permaculture like rainwater collection, animal husbandry, composting and building soil, selecting appropriate garden plants for our area and needs, natural building, food preservation and much more. These were the things I had anticipated from the course.

We also covered a great deal of social change elements under the umbrella of “Urban Permaculture,” such as: integrated neighborhooods or eco-villages, alternative energy, how to locally shift the norm for consumption, cooperation between local peoples and native peoples to reinforce practices that are patterned after nature, and even disaster preparedness on a personal and neighborhood scale (which has already demanded real attention in recent weeks).

To tie together all we had been learning, we formed design teams to meet with clients and create designs for their personal properties that met their creative vision and practical goals.

Overall, this course definitely satisfied my needs. I have gained so much new information and techniques and really had a chance to hone the vision I had created for my future. I also forged connections to new friends, Humboldt Permaculture Guild members, local farmers and business people, members from Cooperation Humboldt, and community leaders; who were all there for our course completion, urging us onto new pathways to continue practicing what we have learned.

This course is a gateway to a greater lifestyle of conscious living, cooperation, and creating the idyllic life that can endure whatever the future holds. I hope you will consider signing up for the next Humboldt Bay PDC, tentatively slated for 2021!

For more information on the next Humboldt Bay PDC or other Permaculture news, subscribe to our e-newsletter below.

Sign Up

* indicates required