Future Farmers

Preparing the land for a post–peak oil society


| July-August 2011



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Courtesy of Whole Systems Design / www.wholesystemsdesign.com

Ben Falk is growing rice in Vermont. In the fall of 2009 he carved two flat paddies into a hillside above the Mad River Valley, then excavated a small pond at the top of the hill. The pond catches rain and meltwater from the upper part of his 10 acres. Three ducks, which provide eggs and eat the slugs that would otherwise overwhelm his vegetables, often use this pond as their bathroom, so the water is rich in nutrients. It also gets a lot of sun, so it’s warm, like bathwater. A simple garden hose brings the water downslope to the rice paddies, keeping them wet and mucky.

Last July, the rice was bright green, obviously thriving. Falk says he’ll get about 150 pounds of brown rice from these two paddies, enough to take care of the grain needs of a family of four for a year. He also has berry bushes, fruit trees, vegetables irrigated with rainwater, and natural fences of black locust that can be cut for firewood. Portobello and shiitake mushrooms grow on the downed trees in the woods, and sheep graze just about everywhere, herded from field to field with portable wire fencing.

The complex is reminiscent of a wilderness homestead, from a time when there weren’t grocery stores down the road and a family needed to survive on what they could grow, gather, and store. And that’s exactly the point. Falk is founder of Whole Systems Design (WSD), a landscape consulting firm that is planning and implementing projects for a post–peak oil society.

Falk and his clients believe there is a fundamental change coming: that oil is dwindling and will begin to skyrocket in price. That would have a profound effect on our ability to heat our homes, to fertilize our vast industrial monocultures of corn and beans, and to transport out-of-season produce to local grocery stores. Many people find this kind of thinking radically leftist, apocalyptic even, but there are certainly glimmers of this coming reality. Rises in oil prices have far outpaced inflation over the past decade. In Yemen, Qatar, and other countries, reserves are drying up. And tapping the remaining, less accessible reserves is, in light of the recent Gulf of Mexico catastrophe, uncomfortably risky.

“Now is the time to do restoration,” says Falk, “because we can still go to the grocery store for food. We have a window.” He says we need to ask ourselves what we can do to prepare for when gas is $10 per gallon. His answer is to make land productive again, so that food doesn’t have to come from so far away. Falk’s complex of rice paddies and berry patches and orchards in the Mad River Valley is a testing ground. He learns here, where he lives, so he can apply specific principles to other projects, like Teal Farm.

The first major project of the Living Future Foundation, a nonprofit working toward a truly sustainable human society, Teal Farm is 1,600 acres of woods and pasture not far from WSD’s research farm. Living Future brought in WSD to remake the landscape as a productive, low-input agricultural site. Falk refers to it as an ecosystem.