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!

ADP taps watershed expert

Mark DuPont (green shirt), left, urges watershed management at the opening of Adventures in Permaculture’s permaculture design course. (photo by Steven Saint)

by Trudy Thomas

Permaculture guru Mark DuPont gets right to the point. In a recent presentation to permaculture design certification students, he didn’t talk about how to grow great veggies or his favorite composting method. He talked about climate change and how to survive it.

DuPont and his partner Blythe Reis have spent the last 27 years practicing permaculture at Sandy Bar Ranch in Orleans, Calif., where they rent out vacation cabins. The Humboldt Bay 2019 Permaculture Design Certification (PDC) course opened at Sandy Bar April 13-14 and DuPont gave the keynote.

He said if we are going to survive earth’s climate crisis we must focus on our watershed. A watershed is a region’s drainage basin for precipitation, culminating in a body of water such as a river. DuPont said we must care for all of it, from its highest point or ridgeline to the river mouth where it empties into another river or body of water. 

The group heard what he has done to care for the Klamath River watershed. Through the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, he has partnered with other groups and tribes to restore fisheries habitat, implement fire and fuels management, and encourage native plant growth. In partnership with the Karuk tribe, he has helped revitalize the forest ecosystem for traditional native foods such as tanoak acorns, camas bulbs, berries, salmon and medicinal plants.

He warned that humans are blindly exceeding the planet’s limitations on multiple levels, comparing it to rowing a boat backwards over the precipice of a waterfall.

“Permaculture is about turning the boat around and facing it,” said DuPont. “It’s a way to not go over the waterfall backwards.”

In the late 1980s, DuPont studied permaculture under renowned natural builder Ianto Evans followed by a stint teaching integrated pest management in South America. With several others, he and Blythe purchased Sandy Bar Ranch in 1992 where they taught permaculture design courses and ran a fruit tree nursery. In 2010, they launched Klamath Knot Permaculture to help create resilient communities. 

DuPont is big on taking initiative. He said sometimes you’ve got to jump in and well, “try sh@%” – and some amazing things have happened. For example, DuPont and his colleagues successfully remediated a contamination site with mushrooms, a practice called mycoremediation. Mycelium, a network of filaments in the root system of fungi, use digestive enzymes to break down and absorb chemicals like hydrocarbons and pesticides, which inhibit photosynthesis and contribute to climate change.   

Watershed management also means changing attitudes towards fire. DuPont and his neighbors take a watch-and-see approach when the forest around them ignites. Resisting panic, they closely observe what the fire might be doing to restore balance. “Don’t think fire is always catastrophic,” DuPont said. “A lot of fire is low intensity and can do a lot of good work.”

Climate change will bring more devastating wildfires, floods and crop failure. It means facing imbalances not seen before. But DuPont thinks there’s something that could keep us afloat in the rising tide of calamity threatening the planet – a healthy watershed.

“Your watershed is your lifeboat,” he said.