by Jean Schanen
I am convinced that the world is past the peak of oil production, and that the planet is inexorably growing hotter and hotter and more and more unstable in terms of rain and water availability. We might survive the loss of cheap oil if the population quickly began to reorganize, relocalize, reskill, and generally find ways to provide the necessities of life without access to the vast energy supply we’ve counted upon all our lives up to now, but the climate challenges are, I believe, irreversible and, I believe, humans and most other living beings are unlikely to survive in the relatively near term. This is true, I believe, even without considering the grinding economic pressures which are making the vast majority of humans less and less able to survive.
I started to become aware of these threats to human existence a couple of decades ago, and undertook then to “save the world” by dedicating myself to conserving energy and learning to produce food for local consumption. My husband and I partnered in these tasks, concentrating our efforts in a non-profit we called Start Now. Our story is summarized on our website, http://www.startnow.org. We didn’t suppose that we would do all the saving ourselves, but hoped that we would serve as an example for others. Now we have given up that hope.
We’re old, but we’re not dead yet, so we have to decide what to do with ourselves in our remaining days. As it happens, we really like what we’ve been doing for the last 30 years as a backdrop for world saving — agriculture — and liking what we do is priority one, so it’s an easy decision: keep on doing it.
Not that it’s the same old agriculture we started out with. We’ve evolved from very large scale and conventional (our farm in Belize was 8000 acres) to very small and highly specialized. Now we are urban farmers, studying and incorporating in every way we can the principles of permaculture. We farm three residential properties in a working class neighborhood in a small city near Seattle, 170 feet of street frontage, 100 feet deep running back to the alley, less the square footage of 3 houses, 2 garages and a carport, but supplemented by gardens on the roof of the garage, carport and back room of our house. Not much in terms of acreage, but it produces quite a lot of food – dozens of vegetables, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, goji berries, plums, cherries and apricots, bees and laying hens. There’s something to harvest here every day of the year.
We’re trying to make the farm as self-sustaining as possible. We have eight large water storage tanks to capture rainwater, and we raise several crops for compost and flowers for our bees. We plan to try an aquaponics project, and raise food for the fish on the farm. We generate enough solar power to run the pumps and heat the water.
Urban farming is quite the thing these days wherever there are cities. Seattle declared 2012 as Urban Farming Year and urban farm news from all over fills the online pages of City Farmer News but, sadly, we have the only urban farm in our town of Bremerton, Washington. Many passers-by stop to look and talk about it, but they haven’t taken the hint so far. Maybe that will change. Permaculture pioneer David Holmgren wrote in the forward to The Permaculture Handbook by Peter Bane (New Society Publishers 2012) that “gardening should be recognized as a serious and important form of agriculture that functions as an incubator for new farmers and farming methods” and indeed, so it has been for us.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that as the permanence of life on earth becomes increasingly doubtful, the term “Permaculture” becomes the theme of our lives. Any quick definition of permaculture is inadequate, and as a recent student, I’m hardly qualified to provide an authoritative definition anyway, but what it means to me is an approach to gardening that is most harmonious with the ways that nature “gardens” in wild places, where the plants find the light and nutrients they need to flourish, where the full cycle of growth and decomposition to feed new growth is fostered, not merely sustainable but self sustaining. Life of all sorts flourishes in a permaculture garden, above, on and deep below the surface. We farm for the soil bacteria and fungi, worms and birds as well as for ourselves and our customers.
Gardening, or “garden farming” as Peter Bane calls it, is a bit like manufacturing in the sense that it’s organized effort aimed at producing products, but while manufacturing requires factories, machines, raw materials, purchased energy and human effort to actually put things together to produce a car, for example, garden farming requires only some effort to get the seeds in the right place at the right time. The rain will fall, the sun will shine, and the marvelous processes of nature will cause the seeds to sprout and grow, the roots to reach out and join with fungus filaments beneath the soil to choose exactly the right nutrients and bring them into the plant, the ingenious process of photosynthesis will convert sunshine to substance and build the products we’re after. Obviously, this is a great over-simplification, and we are greatly enriched personally and better able to perform our tasks when we understand the processes involved, but look at the vast forests and wild prairies, and know that growth happens, even (especially?) with no human participation. The best gardeners approach their work with humility, and we try to emulate them.
So there are three obvious reasons why we do what we do: (1) We like doing it; (2) It largely does itself through the wonders of natural processes, and (3) It connects us with our community when we sell at farmers market and to customers at home. But the fourth reason is most important and gives me the title of this piece. Running this garden farm is, I deeply believe, the right thing to do in these end times. It’s right (in my opinion) because it’s life affirming. It makes the world a better place (less carbon dioxide, more oxygen, more available water, less toxicity, better habitat, more healthy food, and so on) every day, and though the difference is infinitesimal, it’s still better than if we weren’t doing it. It’s the hail-Mary pass of survival and it feels better than not doing it.
Actually, there’s also another reason. We eat the absolute best food available anywhere. Organic food is widely available ( “Organic” from giant commercial farms is dubious, in my opinion), but really fresh (picked same day) food isn’t available in any store, and freshness is the crowning glory.
We run our urban farm as a business not because at our age we’re looking for another career, but because we want to show that it’s an option for others that works in our city.
Gardening as a commercial venture provides us with many opportunities to hone our reasoning abilities and learn new things. We have limited growing space and want to produce as much income as possible and so we think about things like which vegetables produce a crop faster, thus freeing space for another crop (lettuce), which are more in demand at the market (early tomatoes) or which are best to extend the market season (all of the brassicas such as kale and cabbage). We’ve adopted permaculture as a quality and ethical standard, and there are now a goodly number of books available enabling a surge of new learning for us.
Abundance of produce has encouraged me to experiment with preservation techniques. Fermentation in particular has caught my fancy. My sauerkraut rocks. Kim chee and pickled radish will be next. Drying is another easy option for some produce.
While we still have the internet, we can find out pretty much anything in microseconds. Just today I looked up beehive winter insulation, optimum storage temperatures for potatoes and onions and how to save tomato seeds. We haven’t watched television for more than 20 years and never miss it! If you want to establish a great collection of books on the subject of urban farming, my list of favorites is here.
The ultimate purpose of our urban farm is to serve as an example and learning opportunity for others. We’re seeing a big increase in food prices right now, and we know that there is more hardship to come. We know that ninety cents of every food dollar spent now goes for petroleum products, including fertilizers, pesticides, tractor fuel, refrigeration, transportation, packaging and on and on, and so we know that the end of our industrial food system is fast approaching. People will raise food at home or go hungry. We plan to offer gardening classes and assemble teams of interns who will go out into the community, try to engage interest in building home gardens, and help people get started. Frankly, we know a lot, and hope to pass it along before we croak.
When there are a dozen or so substantial food gardens established in the neighborhood, we might approach one of the nearby convenience stores and ask the proprietor if we could set up a local farmers market once a week to offer local food to non-gardening neighbors. We already know that a farmers market is a wonderful way to meet people and form community bonds that could extend to other shared interests and local events. We could build a much friendlier, safer and more resilient place to live. I can’t think of any better way to accomplish these things. It’s hard to stop dreaming about a rosier future. Maybe it’s not important to do that.
There’s an undercurrent of love and respect, for nature and each other, that is the soul of urban farming. I don’t subscribe to any defined religion, but I believe in infinity, and so I believe that somewhere in some universe there is a living planet that is healthy and thriving, which very much helps me to bear the imminent loss of life on earth. I’m thankful for this belief. It enables me to feel confident and serene in taking up the tasks of the day. Here we have love and respect, confidence, serenity and gratitude. Does it get any better than this?
Jean Schanen was born in Cincinnati in 1938 and received a BA from Southern Illinois University in 1966 and a law degree from Washington University (St. Louis) in 1978. She practiced law in Alaska through the eighties, where she met her husband Glenn Huff. Together they established a large citrus plantation, Parrot Hill Farm, in Belize in 1980. Traveling between Wasilla, Alaska and Belize about six times a year became too stressful, so Glenn and Jean moved to Eau Claire, Wisconsin in 1990 to shorten the commute. It was still too far, so they sold Parrot Hill in 1993 and started an organic vegetable farm on 50 acres near Eau Claire while also operating a farm-to-table restaurant called Beautiful Soup in Eau Claire. In 2003, thinking they were retiring, Glenn and Jean moved to the Seattle area to be near their two adult children (and also because the love the Pacific Northwest). Seattle turned out to be too expensive and so they relocated in Bremerton, just a ferry ride across Elliot Bay. The food garden they established their first year there just kept growing (pun), reaching urban farm status by 2005. Jean and Glenn have partnered in all of their growing ventures. Glenn was born in Arkansas in 1930, and is a civil engineer with a long career doing road design, water systems, and so on in Alaska. Jean’s daughter went to high school with Sarah Palin and Jean was Wasilla’s city attorney before Palin arrived there.