[Orange_County_Permaculture] Farming for the Future - despite what the neighbours think

Wesley Roe and Santa Barbara Permaculture Network lakinroe at silcom.com
Sun Apr 29 07:42:54 PDT 2012

Farming for the Future - despite what the neighbours think
Rebecca Hosking | Tuesday, 24th April 2012

Ever feel you are swimming against the tide? Rebecca Hosking describes 
the sometimes lonely and uncomfortable position of being a farmer 
willing to experiment with new techniques and practices used in Holistic 
Management, Permaculture Design and Renegenative Agriculture and 
therefore face a sea of criticism from local (conventional) farmers.

A permaculture garden or weedy mess?
Over the past few of weeks I've been reflecting on those common cultural 
barriers and mental blockers that we feel have hindered our progress 
toward a sustainable, resilient future on our farm.

I've already had a go at 'Received Wisdom' and 'Money and Fossil Fuel' 
so this week I'm going to try to address the last one on the list, "What 
the Neighbours Think'.

Not so long along ago I had phone call from a very exasperated friend of 
mine. Having carefully planted her newly acquired allotment using 
permaculture principles, a couple of months into the growing season she 
received a stiff letter from her allotment association requesting her to 
tidy up her 'messy planting', informing her there were standards she was 
required to meet if she wished to continue utilising that allotment space.

Being a considerate soul she pulled up a few 'weeds' she would rather 
have kept and scaled back her nettle and comfrey patch. My friend was 
sure that gardening with permaculture principles was the right way to go 
but not only was she finding it increasingly difficult to accommodate 
the arbitrary rules of her allotment committee, she was also feeling 
rather uncomfortable with the noticeable disapproval of the more 
conventional gardeners around her.

After some more tutting at her unruly green manure cover crop and on 
hearing the 'absolutely no trees' ruling she ended up letting the 
allotment go and concentrating her efforts on her considerably smaller 
back garden. My friend is not a weak person but, on this occasion, she 
was not in the mood for a fight. The point is that even if we are 
absolutely sure everyone else around us is on the wrong path, there is a 
relentless human pressure to conform. As a social animal, it is normal 
to crave acceptance and inclusion.

Now, apart from the obvious issue of scale, forging a new direction for 
a farm is like changing the way you grow vegetables on an allotment. 
Whatever you do to the land, it never goes without being noticed by 
someone and commented on.

A love affair with neatness
Most of the farming families that surround us I've known since being a 
little girl. For the most part they are good, kind people so we don't 
really mind them thinking we're a bit wacky and a bit 'eco' or 
'greenies' or whatever else they call us – that's fine, it goes with the 
territory. However, for us personally, this is a bit by the by because 
we have to answer to an older generation on this farm and they are very 
much concerned about upholding their local public image and not standing 
out from the farming crowd.

Not bucking the trend

We, like my friend with the allotment, have found ourselves curtailing 
what we've wished to do to avoid arguments. For instance, we would like 
to move to smaller native hardy breeds of livestock for a number of 
sound ecological and economical reasons but we're blocked from doing so 
because 'proper farmers have big animals, small ones are for hobby 
farmers and smallholders'.

Manicured pasture
Conventional farming shares with conventional gardening a love affair 
with order and neatness. Straight lines, clipped hedges, uniform crops 
and pasture that looks like the fairway at Gleneagles is a strange 
shorthand for 'good farming'. No matter how gruff and self-assured 
farmers may appear, none of them want to be thought of as bad farmers 
and there is nothing that says 'bad farming' in pasture more than weeds. 
There is a big storm brewing on the horizon here regarding what we call 
'The Weeds of Shame'.

It is our desire to turn this farm into a shining example of 
regenerative agriculture. As such, there are management practices we 
wish to introduce that actively and deliberately encourage the 
proliferation of 'weeds'. We even want to go as far as broadcast sowing 
'weeds' into our pastures because as an animal fodder they are highly 
nutritious, being high in trace minerals and proteins.

Additionally by introducing them it will increase stabilisation of the 
pasture root structure drastically improving the water cycle, build 
topsoil, sequester carbon, accumulate minerals, hugely benefit insect 
life and pollinators which will benefit our fruit trees and the wild 
bird population... so the list goes on. However, 'weeds' in your fields 
are something to be ashamed of!

The weeds of shame?

Conventionally, docks, dandelions, thistles, nettles etc. means poor 
pasture management and the worry will be your neighbours will be judging 
you for mismanaging the land. No one wants to be ridiculed or judged and 
I do understand my family's concerns; however, the reason we are trying 
hard to shed the worry of what others think is that we have seen what 
those who have freed themselves from those shackles have managed to achieve.

Weeds are our friends

Pioneers Joel Salatin & Neil Dennis

For some it's come more naturally, and some positively thrive off 
standing out from the crowd and being different. Fast becoming the 
poster boy of holistic farming, Joel Salatin revels in it. I've heard 
him described as a punchbag whose smile gets bigger the more he gets 
hit. But I doubt anyone could argue with what he has achieved at 
Polyface Farm in terms of land and business health.

Similarly, in Canada, on the holistically managed ranch of Neil Dennis 
the land speaks for itself. Every year there is more biodiversity and 
more resilience as his business goes from strength to strength. And his 
main tool for achieving this is a massive steaming, stomping mob of over 
1000 cattle. Neil says that becoming a Holistic practitioner means you 
simultaneously provide your local community with a free service. He goes 
on to describe how his farming neighbours are now all so busy 
criticising and bitching about his farming methods that they forget to 
fight amongst themselves anymore.

We view ourselves very much as second or even third wave following these 
pioneering farmers. But even so these farming methods are still very 
much viewed as 'fringe' by conventional agriculture, much as 
permaculture is viewed as 'fringe'. As such one of the toughest things 
to cope with on a regular basis is that feeling of isolation from those 
around you.

Find like minds

Isolation can induce horrible negativity. We've found it saps our 
energy, stifles us and slows down making actual physical progress on the 
farm. It's a struggle to keep up enthusiasm and as a result we have in 
the past ground to a complete halt. For us, the easiest way to cope is 
to occasionally change our neighbours for the day. By that I mean go out 
and find like minds.

Luckily on the rare occasions we attend courses and events there are now 
the same sustainable-minded farmers turning up and it's a real joy to 
see their faces. You know you're in good company for the day where 
everyone has an interest in what's being debated and nobody is there to 
belittle or put it down. On those days you know you can openly talk 
'shop' in great detail and get valued advice from on hand experts. There 
is a huge relief in knowing you're not alone.

The importance of finding like minds (image courtesy of 'RegenAg UK 

We've had friends ask in the past, "I want to buy a plot of land what 
should I be looking for?". Now we know how relatively straightforward it 
is to heal land using regenerative/ecological/permaculture principles 
our recommendations have changed from just looking at the topography and 
quality of the land.

Who lives next door?
I would still say ideally look for south facing land with its own water 
supply but, after that, really the most important thing of all is to 
have like-minded folks around you. The land in a way is the easy part, 
you can practically transform that relatively quickly. What takes far 
more work and can be a lot harder to build are personal connections, 
rapport and affiliations with the community around you. As you're 
starting up it helps so much if at least one other person close by 
understands what you are trying to achieve.

I guess we all desire a level of social acceptance, and not to feel too 
fringe from society or be judged. For anyone practising permaculture 
there is a keenness for the ecological concepts we're working with to 
have greater understanding from a wider part of society. It would 
certainly help with a vast number of ecological problems we're facing. 
Until that time we all have to contend with what the neighbours think. 
Be aware of it and be neighbourly but don't let it hold you back.

Rebecca Hosking and Tim Green made the BBC2 film 'A Farm for the Future' 
and write a regular blog about their experiments and experiences putting 
permaculture, holistic management and other regenerative agriculture 
techniques into practise on the farm and in their garden. To find out 
more click HERE.

For more information about Renegnerative Agriculture & Holistic 
Management courses worldwide see http://regenag.com

For upcoming courses in the UK see http://www.regenerativeagriculture.co.uk/

More information about the Orange-County-CA-Permaculture mailing list