Transitions: Small Scale Ag

Several items have dominated my thinking throughout the course of the past several months:

  • I am doing too much:  Real Job, small scale energy production, entrepreneurship, family, home-scale permaculture, community building, and farming… I get to pick 3.
  • The Next 20 years will be nothing like the Last 20.  Preparing for a successful “transition” will take thought, planning, investment, and action.
  • I love Pushing the Envelope.  Challenging the Status Quo, Answering Big Questions by putting Theory into Practice and then telling people about it is incredibly important to me.

To paraphrase, having come to the conclusion over the past year that the future that I was raised for (Eternally Progressing, Consumer Credit Based Capitalism) was not going to be the reality for myself, and certainly my children (Declining Energy Availability with all its Uncertainties), I reacted by attempting to shore up all facets of my life that were unsustainable -at once- and to help others by holding workshops, blogging, going to meetings, and giving tours all of which I loved doing.

But looking back over the past 2 years in the relative calm of the past month I have reached some conclusions.  I need to find a more focused approach to the next year that still leads me to a more sustainable life, but also adds to the dialogue of Sustainability in a meaningful way. I have chosen to refocus most of my efforts on Small Scale Agriculture, especially here at our personal home.  And to all you that have commented “I don’t know where you find the energy!” this is your answer – we’re all human and possessed of finite resources.  The sooner we learn this for ourselves the better off we’ll be.

2 years ago when we began market farming, there was literally no one in our surrounding villages that was producing local organic produce.  Now, thanks in at least a small part, to our efforts there are 2 young men doing some amazing things.  Neither of them have the external commitments that I do (family and Real Job) so they are doing a much better job than we were and making a bigger impact.  Our community has caught up to where we were going.  Leaving the Farm will be very difficult for me as I am happiest with my hands in the soil; it is possible that I may keep a toe hold there, but I need to move on until I have our own property.

The Appropriate Scale Renewable Energy front is even tougher.  When we built our first gasifier 18 months ago, we had a group of only 4 people doing it.  In the time since, as many as 2 dozen have shown up for our “Work Days” and with the publicity of the MREA we now have folks literally driving down hundreds of miles to learn from us.  It is hard to say that this area is ready to move out on its own, but I am facing the reality of hard choices – and the engineers in our group are better suited to this stage of our project than I am.  I will continue to think on applications for this “triage” technology, and to trial biomass crops, but spending 20 hours a month on this project will be a thing of the past for now.

That leaves Home Scale Permaculture in my initial list (Family is a no brainer, and we are not ready to quit the Real Job yet).  When I go back and re-read my title page for my Sub Acre Ag, I remember how excited I was before I diluted my energies with actual farming and energy projects.  When I surf the web, and especially when I look around South Central Wisconsin, I see very few people pushing the envelope on creating sustainable Suburban Lots.  2 years ago we grew 500#’s of produce from our yard, last year was not even half that and this year will be barely better, despite the improved soils and maturing ecosystems.   More concerning, the weeds, especially the Quack, have gained such a foot hold that we will not be giving any tours this year.  

So I have reached the determination that what our community most needs, now, is tangible examples of productive Suburban Yards.  In my Sub Acre Page, I took my vision to some “logical” conclusions.  If even my own small village of 1200 souls was able to follow our example, we would be a net exporter in seasonal fruits and vegetables with our production of over 1,000,000#’s of produce annually.  What a dream!  Pushing the envelope on this facet of Sustainability -blooming where you are planted- is where I would like to see us spending more of our time.  It gets me more time with my family, while better preparing both us and our community for the coming uncertainties.

I am drawing up plans to drastically reduce the amount of space we have dedicated to paths in the “annual veggie” quadrant of our yard while also better defending it against Quack.  Looks like a 50% increase in growing space is very doable on almost the same foot print.  Connecting my permaculture “islands” will allow for a more continuous soil ecosystem and niches for many more fruiting shrubs.  We have yet to grow edible fungus here, most systems are underperforming their potential, and the “zen” of the backyard is a Hot Tranny Mess that is neither soothing to the soul, nor pleasing to the eye.  There are plenty of “problems” here to keep my mind occupied, and the work is intrinsically good.   Maybe next year will be the year I finally lobby for an urban chicken ordinance… 

I will still be active in many other fields, but of course, a house divided cannot stand.   Ironically, the MREA fair this year helped to catalyze my thinking here.  Literally as I left my workshop on Victory Gardens I had an epiphany that next year I wanted to host a workshop on Suburban Food Production combining Biointensive Gardening with Edible Landscaping and Guilded Plantings within the ethics and goals of Permaculture.  

I have learned so much in the past years, but not everything has been skills in composting or welding. Yesterday we picked over 2 gallons of raspberries and currants from the yard to make muffins and 3 pints of jam… and we left 2/3’s of the berries on the canes.  And because it was my backyard, the “we” meant my wife, my 7 year old son, and our 6 year old daughter rather than whoever was at the Farm that day, which felt fantastic.  Our harvest was so bountiful, I literally felt like I was at a “U-Pick” berry farm.  We have achieved the Permaculture goal of creating a Surplus, and we are just getting started.

Be the Change


11 Responses

  1. I think what you were working on with the gassifier is extremely cool. But I can see that you were way overextended. We have to trust our community enough that we don’t try to rebuild the world ourselves.

    Speaking of sub- acre agriculture, I notice that you link to the SPIN farming website. Have you purchased any of their materials? Would you recommend them?

    I’m more interested in their business plans than the horticultural techniques.

  2. Well, thanks to your recommendation I purchased the Permaculture bible; I started later than you but am nowhere near where you were even last year…I guess that means I need to get busier.

    The one thing that really trips me up is the big picture, oddly. There’s too much to think about! I have two pomegranate trees and a fig tree in buckets on my front deck because they’re perennials — and I can’t decide where to put them. It’s worse than having children because at least you can move, or move with children, if you need to. Trees are kind of permanent. So there they sit until I actually read the book, put my solstice photos to use (winter and summer), and make some probably wrong decisions.

    I think you and I have some similarities: two speeds, for one — Stop and Go. Go being full speed, and stop being, well, dead asleep (if there is such a thing).

    Even if you never influence anyone outside of your family ever again (not likely) you still are creating an amazing example for your children. They are learning how to do it the way it used to be done — by living it every day. That in the end is what builds ties to the land that won’t be broken easily.

  3. I have spent the last two years just focusing on home scale production, and the family and real job still take a big chunk of time. You’ll definitely get more done in one area, but there are still never enough hours in the day, if you catch my drift.

  4. It sounds like you’ve formed a plan for true Rob-sustainability. Congrats – the world would be poorer if you burned out completely! Sounds like you’ll keep your hands in the dirt, while being the model for those of us who can’t/won’t/don’t want to leave our day jobs and suburban houses. There are precious few models for that out there – and by far, the most folks will be in that situation. And we’ll all be fighting quackgrass!


  5. Thanks Guys.

  6. I was relieved to get to the end of this post and not read a declaration that blogging will be cut from your routine. I am thankful for what you share with us, and I hope to continue learning from what you do. I agree that sustainability begins within. “Work as hard as you can work and still get up and do it again the next day.” But no harder than that.

    I look forward to seeing some further information on how you plan to increase crop space on your current garden footprint. I need to do that too.

  7. Sounds like you’re making some eminently sensible decisions Rob. By the way I’ve been meaning to ask – have you done any research into seeding your compost heaps or veg beds with fungi – I’m thinking of having a pop at loading mine with king stropharia or shaggy inkcap at some point.

  8. Hey Rob – I was also relieved that you did not announce a cessation of blogging! Personally, I think that periodic updates on your work around your own homestead could be even more inspiring to me! I firmly believe that the future will require all of us to become micro-farmers and I look forward to seeing how creative and productive you can be in a suburban yard. Keep up the good work but don’t work too hard and make sure that one of your required activities is making time to sit back, sip some homebrew, hang out with your kids, and admire your work.

    PS – I emailed you before about your Grillo and eventually picked up a used BCS 737 with a 30″ tiller. It’s a beast and I’m having a blast converting more of the backyard to productive garden space.

  9. Matt – I have not purchased any SPIN farming material, for a few reasons. First they focus most on high value crops like greens and herbs and from their website at least they have little focus on long term soil building. My goal is more focused on sustainable food production for the home, with enough surplus to put more than a bit by, and provide other surplus for sale / barter.

    I link to them to primarily show that small scale ag can be done, and profitably. I think you have already made the biggest leap that is beyond many small farmers: that marketing is more important to a profitable farm than good farming technique. Look at Salatin to see what happens when you do both!

    Kate / Tim, Blogging is an essential outlet for me. I truly enjoy discussing these issues, and I like to think that my exploits are furthering the field a bit at times. Also, as I use my own blog as a reference frequently, logging my trials here helps keep it in a searchable database. I see no reason that I would stop it any time soon.

    Tai Haku, I have yet to grow mushrooms for food, though it is high on my list, especially as a means to further diversify my permaculture guilds. However, the amount of mychorizzial fungus I have grown n my wood chip mulch has given me some ideas as to how to incorporate symbiotic fungus into my annual beds. More to come on that!

    Tim, the 737 is a great tractor! Congrats! My latest dream toy?

    It even has a PTO and a 3 pt hitch! Kinda at odds with my current trajectory though.


  10. I see that many commentators before me have already expressed many of my own thoughts. The picture you painted of your berry harvesting with the “we” being your family resonated strongly with me – family is a “no brainer” here as well, and I must constantly remind myself that true sustainability begins here on our own block, and that the underlying fabric of our use of the block is the sustainability of our own family unit. Nothing else of a sustainable nature can happen without that, and so I must constantly be vigilant that I do not take on too much, or begin too many things anew, for to do so can end up eroding the very resource on which I think I most depend. It was in the garden today, showing a visitor some of the soil that we had “made” in the past few years that I got to thinking about you, and wondering how you get so much done. That motivated my visit to your blog tonight, only to be reminded that sometimes making soil is enough. Thanks for sharing your humility. Bryan

  11. hello rob

    my wife et i have been looking @ land 15-55 acre range

    we are trying to keep the farm within one hour driving of our house

    i think goats et lambs with chickens may alright with occasional cow

    any suggestions

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