Principles: 1

Principles of a New Agrarian – Observe and Interact

The cicadas sound like an invading armada of UFOs just beyond the tree line. They’re even louder than the frogs here, and that’s saying something! There’s a certain kind of music in their song, and an opportunity in their abundance.

The principles we employ here at the George Jones Farm come to us from the philosophy of Permaculture, a fancy word for the learnings and actions that come from careful observation and replication of the fertile edge between agriculture and environmental science, tinted by the lens of common sense.

How will our civilization grow enough food for 10 billion people by 2050 without wholesale environmental destruction? How will our organization grow enough food for the 800 or so families in City Fresh without localized environmental degradation? How will we turn enough of a profit to keep operations going while sharing the abundance of nature’s gifts at prices even those who struggle to make ends meet can afford? How do we do this while providing an educational opportunity to people across the region? We will have to work harder, and smarter, and keep to our principles.

Observe and Interact
The first principle we learn about in permaculture is to Observe and Interact. Observe alone, and nothing ever gets done to solve our challenges or make our opportunities count. Interact alone, and the problems we create simply compound. We must, of course, strike a balance. Common sense, we find, is all to often uncommon.

David Holmgren, one of the founders of Permaculture, said “Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship between nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration.”

Farms are incredibly complex creations.  Millions of interactions go on without our intention or intervention. Most of these are enormously beneficial to our cause, reducing our need for inputs such as the fertility-building interaction between soil microbes and plant roots. Others are beneficial for the environment, but create big challenges. For example, the rapid spread of Quack Grass at the George Jones Farm makes weeding crop fields nearly impossible and makes growing root crops a dangerous proposition (the roots of Quack Grass end in a pencil-sharp point which pushes straight through soft root crops like potatoes and beets and can spread as much as 150′ in a single growing season).

Consider the complexity of your backyard garden, or your relationship with your neighbors, or the flow of traffic through your neighborhood, or the stream of thoughts entering your conscious awareness.  These are all complex systems. We may or may not be able to change their basic nature, but we have an effect on all of them.  The principle of Observe and Interact is a self-reminder: I’d better slow down and watch before I do something that creates or compounds a problem.

“Take a cautious approach!” this principle reminds us. Make the smallest intervention necessary and observe how it effects the system as a whole. If we begin small, we can stop, alter, or continue on with some confidence.

Failure, of course, is an option, and an opportunity to the careful and humble observer. We’ve failed a lot at the George Jones Farm. The farm managers and crews that came before us failed a lot too. And in the process, we’ve learned a great deal.

GJF Research Ponds

Some of our best lessons have come to us from trying to grow crops in a swamp. The farm sits on an ancient wetland, a convergence of surface watersheds that creeps slowly across our deep clay soils, pooling seasonally before slowly running off into the nearby creek.

Most farms in the world are concerned with issues relating to too little water. Here on the edge of Oberlin, our concerns stem from too much water. Irrigation is expensive, but “wet feet” kills. Weeds can’t be knocked back when fields are waterlogged, and fields can’t be tilled until dry spring conditions prevail.

For all the struggles of growing vegetables at commercial scale on the wetland edge, we have managed to become master breeders of ducks.

Three years ago, we introduced the Muscovy breed of duck to the farm to help deal with the innumerable mosquitos and flies. This breed, which hails from South America (not Russia as their name suggests), eats their body weight in mosquito larva each week. They don’t lay unfertilized eggs like chickens or other breeds, but they are excellent mothers. After some struggles in the first year to keep a breeding pair alive, this past winter our three females and their drake lover began exploding with happy new clutches. In the course of a just a few months this spring, our 4 adult ducks became a gaggle of more than 40. Free ranging was no longer an option!

As it turns out, the Muscovy duck is not just good for eating mosquitos. They are also an excellent source of gourmet meat. Retailing for nearly $30/lb for breast meat, we found ourselves sitting on our next vital crop. Our students love them – apparently so too do fine diners.

In addition to looking into butchering costs, fencing and feed costs, we also took note of what made these ducks so much happier and healthier than our previous breeding pairs. We looked back through our field notes regarding their their preferred hangouts, their nesting preferences, and their seasonal feeding habits. And finally, we’ve reached out to several chefs in the area, trying to ascertain the demand for the produce. In the end, we’ve discovered an incredibly important livestock option for ourselves and an awesome teaching tool that kids and adults love. And in a year we are all afraid of what Zika could do, it’s nice to know that our little friends are happy eating approximately 80 lbs of mosquito larva each week.

Next step – what to do about all that Quack Grass.

There’s a pun in there somewheres.