Future Farmers

1 / 2
2 / 2

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.

“Everything that’s created here,” says Living Future’s founder and executive director, Melissa Hoffman, “would enhance the living systems of the region: animals, birds, insects, soil biota.” Teal Farm goes beyond organic farming to a type of farming that does not use outside materials at all.

The site is harsh with winter mountain winds, so WSD designed a system of windbreaks. The land was resculpted to create sheltered garden and orchard pockets, which are home to fruit and nut trees, fuelwood trees, nectar flowers, perennial vegetables, and medicinal herbs. Eight acres have been planted so far, with more than 2,500 plants of 250 different species, including unexpected food crops like Chilean mango, yucca, Siberian seaberry, and Korean bush cherry. These intense gardens constitute one end of a gradient of land; at the other end is untouched forest.

WSD’s principles find perhaps their fullest expression in another Mad River Valley project: the Warren Common. “This is what a New England village center could be after peak oil,” says Falk. WSD’s master plan would include a suite of agricultural practices used elsewhere in the world, but not regularly practiced in the United States, such as edible windbreaks, agroforestry (growing crops among productive trees), and wet cropping for rice and watercress. There would be traditional community vegetable gardens and orchards, but also areas managed for fuelwood and charcoal production. Growing seasons would be extended with greenhouses and cold frames. Soil would be enriched with a method called keylining and intensive rotational grazing, which involves creating a series of shallow ditches along a slope, then using animals to repeatedly remove cover crop biomass. In this method, water stays on the slope longer. This increases plant vigor, which in turn improves the soil through accumulation of leaves and stems above and deeper penetration of roots below.

Falk is using the keylining technique on a hillside on his own farm, as well. In less than a year, it improved the productivity of a marginal piece of land, now thick with clover and perennial flowers.

The search for solutions is what brought Falk where he is today. He grew up in Vermont and spent his early adult life leading wilderness trips and spending extended periods of time in the backcountry. After graduating from the University of Vermont in 2001, he went to the Bahamas, where he worked at the Island School, a nature-based high school. While he was there, he redesigned the campus, a project he considers to be Whole Systems Design’s first.

After two years he moved back to Vermont and settled into the building trades before studying architecture and landscape design. Then he officially started Whole Systems Design out of his house on those 10 acres in the Mad River Valley. Early projects included a sauna and bathhouse and some small residential landscapes. He also built the two-story studio that sits at the head of the large pond on the property.

Whole Systems Design consists of just a few full-time employees, one of whom is Falk’s partner, educator Kristen Getler. Another is Cornelius Murphy, who holds a landscape architecture degree and a perma­culture design certificate. This is not a traditional studio environment, however, given that some of the team’s work includes tending the farm.

Besides landscape design, WSD is creating lesson plans paired with educational landscapes and has launched Whole Systems Skills, a series of workshop and seminars centered on WSD’s methods for making land productive. WSD has been featured in Northern Woodlands, Mother Earth News, and Fast Company–the last suggesting WSD’s appeal, even beyond the stereotypically crunchy Vermont eco-crowd.

WSD’s research farm isn’t conventionally pretty. There aren’t walkways or patios. There are wire fences to step over awkwardly from one zone of the farm to another. Materials waiting to be used or turned into firewood are scattered everywhere. Hoses to move water from collecting ponds to crops snake through the unmowed grass. Everything smacks of practicality, except the studio and the sauna, which are beautifully designed and built wood structures with stone stairways. Teal Farm is more organized, with low stone walls providing some structure to the landscape. But Falk’s focus really is on creating thriving foodscapes, not on other landscape design principles like definable spaces, entry experiences, or landscape progressions.

Falk actually rebels against the notion of the designer’s prerogative. “We’re not trying to get to a solution just from our heads,” he says. “We’re trying to let the place and the conditions bring the process to its solutions.” It is true that WSD’s site analysis is exceptional. The master plans for Teal Farm, Warren Common, the Island School, and every other project on view in the firm’s studio include page after page of detailed maps, sections, existing species lists, and other background information. He believes that this is the catalyst for proper site solutions and that the designer’s hand should be subordinate.

“That’s why most design has failed us,” he laments. “It’s ego based. The designer comes in and says, ‘Here’s what the entrance needs to look like.’ That’s really driven the field of landscape architecture, without an understanding of who inhabits the place–not just people, but the soil, the plants, the water.”

Adam Regn Arvidson is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and landscape architect. Excerpted from Landscape Architecture Magazine (March 2011), published by the American Society of Landscape Architects. http://archives.asla.org/nonmembers/lam.html

Have something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the July-August 2011 issue of Utne Reader

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.