281 – Geoff Lawton Q&A Round 2 – Part 2

Best way to establish a food forest in high desert (Rocky Mountains) with annual rainfall 3″-8″ at 7500 ft above sea level. Geoff says he’s getting a lot of questions about high dry deserts. It is a difficult landscape, because it’s quite cool, but still dry. You’ll have to work hard on your nursery systems, probably with a glasshouse of some sort–Geoff talks about an underground greenhouse, mainly just a glazed south facing roof, maybe even with animals inside. Check out Chapter 11- dry land strategies. You’ve got to get the shelter going for your plants, do the earthworks, get ready for the rain and be ready to plant when you’ve gotten your rain. You can use some groundwater, if it’s not too deep–you’ve got to get those trees going. If your earthworks are good you will recharge the aquifers. Once you’ve got trees, they will start gathering moisture via condensation. Living in cold climates brings all those challenges of comfort and heating.

Paul takes a stab at this question: he thinks job one is to increase organic matter. He agree that you start up with earthworks, and points out that you can make some serious wind breaks, like 12′-15′ berms and do other things to gather water and create microclimates.

Geoff has a system for using an excavator to fill earth bags, and another system using nylon net to hold earth together. (Can’t wait to see more of what that leads to!)

Paul points out that he personally doesn’t like large berms “on contour” because he’s worried about frost pockets. Geoff says that if you are in high desert, catching all of the rainfall (which is likely to come in rare, major events) might be more important than avoiding frost pockets. Similarly, you might need to gather snow and try to shade it as well, to keep it from melting and evaporating. Geoff points out that swales are for trees, and the trees should send the cold air up and over and create a sheltered place below them.

Paul asks Geoff about air wells: stacked rocks that can collect water via condensation. Geoff says he’s seen ancient rock piles with swales for holding the water that’s gathered in the middle east, and Bill Mollison saw a lot of gathering condensation water in the Canary Islands, using trees. He’d love to hear more about people using condensation water.

A question about keeping away large herbivores like elk and bison. Geoff says both Bill and Sepp Holzer talk about bone tar, putting that on the trees to keep animals off. You could try planting stuff they really like and putting it over there (this is good for birds). Electric fence can be helpful, especially if you bait it with peanut butter on aluminum foil. Dogs are good. Geoff trained his (cattle) dog to go nuts on foxes. One thing that’s useful for really large animals is a ha-ha fence, a deep ditch with steep sides that the animal can’t cross.

How many acres do you need for self-sufficiency? Well, it depends, doesn’t it. Some land is very difficult. It depends on the climate, on the geography. If you want to be a raw fruitarian, the big island of Hawaii is a nice spot. According to the John Jeavons biointensive gardening system, it’s 1000 sq ft per person, featuring vegetables. As a complete guess, if you have 1/4 acre of zone 1, you can do well for a small family. For one person, 1/5 of an acre should do you well. An acre of zone 2, with food forest, animal tractoring system, and if you want to pasture animals, you’re looking at 2-4 acres for zone 3. Your woodlot is an important part of the system in a cold climate: coppiced woodlot, and now that should be a good 5 acres. Geoff has clients with 7 acres who raised 3 boys on their land with very little in the way of exterior inputs. Bill had a student who has been able to raise huge quantities of food on 3 acres in Hawaii for decades. Geoff has a student from last year’s online PDC who is feeding his family of 8 (well, 90% of their food) on an urban lot in Florida.

This moves into a discussion of cold climates versus tropical or sub-tropical climates, pros and cons of each. Warm climates never get a break, cold climates have huge variation in tasks (and comfort).

How can urban and rural permaculturalists help each other? Geoff says people need to get together to share their experiences. In Australia, they do “permablitz”s, where groups of people come together to tackle a job at someone’s place. Geoff says that producing food in your front yard is a good thing, in Austalia. Paul share tales of front yard gardens being persecuted in the United States.

Geoff says if you have a permaculture group with more than 100 people, a local, non-profit community group, and the group is diverse, and it goes on for more than a year, then you will have the local government people come in and see that they’d better figure out what it is that all these people want. He says most people who run for office are insecure, and if they come in and see a really diverse group, they will be intimidated by this. Start a group, call it “Permaculture (your town’s name here)”

Do you know any commercial farm that transitioned from regular agriculture to permaculture without utilizing income from workshops. Is permaculture viable without being a leisure interest. Geoff says yes, yes it can happen. In Iran they went from a big commercial farm to a smaller more diverse oasis, and they are making production levels of various things. Mark Shepard in Wisconsin has built up a permaculture farm. Of course, you’re never going to have the same products–it’s going to get a lot more complicated. There are farmers who have gone from simple grazing to cropping and grazing and then forestry with water harvesting earthworks. The big issue is, how do you market the new diversity coming off your land? That should actually be easier in France, from whence the question came.

Paul shares examples of how people can become successful through developing diversity in their income streams. Then follows a discussion about how people just can’t see what they are not ready to see. Geoff talks about the experts saying you can’t grow figs in Jordan, even after he’s got figs on the trees.

Ivan asks what to do if a national permaculture group has rules that conflict with what Bill Mollison taught. Geoff says, go with what you know and what you think is right, but the Skype connection goes wonky at that point and that’s abruptly the end of this podcast.

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Credit: Julia Winter