Last fall, I stayed at Miracle Farm Bed & Breakfast in Floyd, Va., where I found a composting bucket in my cottage.
The next morning, breakfast was brought to my front door, just down from the chicken coop and vegetable gardens. It featured pears, rhubarb, cape gooseberries, tomatoes and eggs, all from the farm. But most importantly that weekend, I learned a new word: permaculture. Ed Cohn, who owns and runs the farm with his wife Karen Osborne, told me a little about this practice, but I was intrigued and wanted to learn more. So I called Cohn last week.
How do you explain permaculture?
Creating human settlements that are self-sustaining. An even simpler definition is creating systems–you want to have as many things interacting with each other and working in tandem as possible. For example, chickens have multiple functions. If you want to turn an area into a garden, fence it in and put chickens in there—they’ll scratch it up and leave their droppings (which are fertilizer), and in a week, you’re ready to plant. They also provide eggs and help with pest control by eating bugs. Or goats and sheep—they are great lawn-mowers, and goats provide milk, sheep provide wool.
Before you moved to Floyd, you sang professionally in an a cappella quartet in California. So this is a bit of a change. Were you always a gardener?
Yes—since I was in high school. I found out about permaculture when we were living in California. The Permaculture Institute of California, now the Regenerative Design Institute, had a course called Four Seasons, which covered becoming a permaculture designer. It took place over an entire year so you could watch and observe the surroundings and see changes. Observation is a huge part of permaculture—observing nature and changes and interactions–temperature, moisture, direction of the wind. Anyway, as soon as I finished the course, we almost immediately bought this place and moved out here and started our sustainable living center and animal sanctuary.
What are some more examples of permaculture?
Using rainwater for irrigation, heating and cooling and drinking. It’s amazing how many gallons of water you can get out of an inch of rain, depending on how many roofs you have to collect it.
Or setting up food production in a self-sustaining, healthy garden, by creating guilds of plants. Normally in a garden you’ll see a row of this and a row of that, and it’s all very clean and almost sterile. In a permaculture garden you get combinations of plants that are mutually beneficial. A guild is based around a central plant. Say, an apple tree, and under the apple tree you grow something to attract beneficial insects, and you plant grass—suppressing plants and nitrogen-fixing plants (which take nitrogen out of the air and store it in soil). You combine all these in a way so they don’t compete, and you end up with five or six different types of plants helping each other. There’s much less disease and insect damage, and this is how things grow in nature. But our industrial culture has obliterated that idea–they plow up a field and kill it with pesticide. It’s a self-defeating, labor-intensive, expensive system. Permaculture is the opposite.
In the four years you’ve been there on your 25 acres, how has this model been valuable–financially, environmentally and socially?
We’ve established two vegetable gardens that are very productive. We also grow apples, pears, peaches, blackberries, black raspberries and nuts. We compost everything, recycle as much as possible and have hardly any waste. I tend to save stuff and reuse things. We have a bamboo forest, and I use bamboo for garden support structures, fishing poles, to knock chestnuts out of trees. We save a lot of money on food. In 2009 I spent a total of $60 on the gardens, and we got a ton of food from them—enough to serve meals all year. We try to preserve as much as we can, by drying, canning and freezing. We dry things like tomatoes, pears, zucchini and peppers, and we do it in the sun so you’re not using any energy. We donate a lot of food to Empty Bowls, which delivers fresh food to families that need it. I also started an annual county-wide seed swap at the Floyd Country Store where people come with seeds to exchange.
Is permaculture catching on?
The day that computers recognize it as a real word and stop underlining it in red, that’ll be a day of celebration. It’s quickly becoming more familiar to people. I think eventually, it’ll be the way, because it’s just so logical. It’s self-sustaining, and it doesn’t create a lot of waste or pollution. I’m totally into it. Hopefully, if you follow the permaculture principles where ever you are, it will enhance your life and make things less expensive.
What’s your long-term vision?
Eventually I’d like to be entirely off grid here. We have flowing water, wind and sun. When you combine all three, you have a lot of energy. So the long-term plan is to be completely self-sustaining. I think that’s where the planet needs to go. It’s kind of a race—the giant corporations that are trying to destroy the earth, versus those of us who are trying save it. We’ll see who wins.