Farm Beginnings: The End of the Beginnings for Sweet Showers Farm

A freshly painted mailbox!

This is my last posting about Farm Beginnings because I feel we have passed by the Beginnings part and are onto the beginning of the Doing part.

The Doing part, as you know, is the steady pace learning and exploration tango contained within every moment - you try corn on the lower field for the first time, the squash borer kills all of your cucumbers, goats escape (again), the strawberries are too wet, the chickens are decimated by a hawk, you hold a baby lamb as the sun rises, the sunflowers are pulled down because you planted your peas too quickly to trellis along and everything falls onto the pumpkins. (In the future, may all of my “problems" be as simple as sunflowers falling onto the pumpkins!)

Part of the Permaculture Design Course was to envision what would be on the land in 15-20 years. So this is the global view.

We are calling our land Sweet Showers Farm, courtesy of my Chaucer days. Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote. Sweet Showers Farm works two ways. The Sweet can be a noun showering down upon the Farm and/or the Sweet can be an adjective describing the Showers of rainfall. It makes me wiggily with happiness.

For my future questions there are many online resources to help me:, Virtual Grange, Greenhorns, Beginning Farmers, Young Farmers Coalition, and I have been cultivating neighbor mentors.

Courtesy of my Permaculture Design Course (PDC), which I highly highly recommend as a way to recharge your educational, spiritual, and joy of life batteries, we have a farm plan and goals for the next 25 years.

A closeup of the plantings and whatnot near the house - akin to a vision board.

The PDC did a wonderful job inspiring me - but it also left a bug in my ear. The first day, our instructor Andrew Faust, punctured through my idealism in one obvious comment. It was along the lines of, “You know, people want to run away and create their little paradise, which is great. But what happens when your well is poisoned from the leachate from the municipal landfill, your air quality is so poor you can’t leave the house some days [which happens to those close to Concentrated Animal Feeding Organizations - aka factory farming, the EPA did a study on it], your weather is so weird that you can no longer plant the crops of your grandparents [see Tabasco], and your animals are stressed from the heat and stop producing enough milk to feed you.”


So there it is - the balancing act of life. I am you and you are me and we are all in this together. The choices rest in the Doing.

May sweetness shower our farm...

Here is the post on Real Time Farms

Upset about Fracking? Get excited about Biogas!

I woke up this morning excited, nay wiggly with excitement, because I want to learn all about Biogas generators and put one on our land. I don't know if it is legal to do so in my county (probably not, considering that you are not allowed to put in a composting toilet in your house), in which case I am excited to get that ball moving. images

Once I have put one on the land, I think our town needs a big one for our waste - we currently have a beaver problem near the landfill flooding the land, which might be a good segway to focus the community's attention.

Biogas is what happens when anaerobic bacteria eat organic waste, manure (from humans, etc) or biomatter (plants), and give off gas as a byproduct. For countries who don't have quite such a generous excess of land to throw landfills onto they are already utilizing biogas technology: UK, Germany, China, etc. There are a few instances of biogas in the US, however, Wikipedia seems to conflate biogas with Landfill gas, which is incorrect.

My first desk job was working with landfill gas - the ability to take the methane generated by the bacteria and turn it into electricity and put into an industrial boiler. However, due to airborne siloxanes (a type of plastic) from the breakdown of certain beauty products (often in deodorants) the plastic would gunk up the moving parts of the turbines as the gas was heated in the generators. Biogas is a clean gas, no plastics from industrial waste are coming out of your chickens. (at least, we hope not)

We learned in our Permaculture Design Course this weekend that 2 cows, OR 7 goats, OR 170 chickens (and not counting humans or other organic waste streams) can generate enough gas to serve the needs of heating/cooking for 3-4 houses (this is in China). Not that our teacher was recommending that everyone run out and get two cows to keep in the shower in manhattan to run their Wolf ranges. But this notion of a decentralized, regionalized power grid is VERY important and one that our country needs to address.

In the Bill Mollison's The Global Gardener series, there was a very simple example of this in India that was literally just this design.

In the next 30 years nearly 50% of our high power transmission lines will need to be replaced on the east coast and 13%-30% of the power is lost as it travels (that's the buzzing you hear near the wires). One of the principles of permaculture is that pollution is just waste that hasn't been put to better use.

(On a side note, landfills will 100% become super fund sites EVERY TIME because the liner only lasts 30 years and we are mixing industrial waste with organic matter which creates toxic leachate that goes into our groundwater, among many other fun/sad/horrible things. Check your well water if you live near a landfill and tell your neighbors.)

What does this have to do with food? Well, organic waste from the farm in whatever form: corn stalks, human feces, sheep manure, tomato vines, squash leaves, etc all have to go somewhere. You can compost the waste and feed the organic gold back onto your land and watch the pile steam in the winter from these bacteria - or, I would posit AND, you can harness the energy that is coming from the steaming pile and heat your house or run your stove or even your tractor with the biogas. To me, biogas is common sense - the bacteria are doing all of the work!

Upset about fracking? Get excited about Biogas!

Are you excited too now? Hope so!!

It all brings us back to the old adage, "Waste not, want not."

I wanted to write this out because I felt so wiggly that I was having a hard time focussing on my morning meditation. Still feeling wiggly with possibility and promise of the world and ideas and things happening, but I will try again to focus on my mantra!

As Abraham Hicks would say, I am feeling "tuned in tapped on!" ie, the power of the Universe is coursing through my beingness! What a wonderful wonderful thing!!

I wish the same for you today!

May is Transition Challenge Month

Transition Challenge Month, yup. Brought to you by the Transition United States, yup. Clearer now? Until I was asked to teach a Backyard Chicken class for a Reskilling Festival co-hosted by Transition Ann Arbor, I did not know either. Nor had I heard the phrases "peak oil" or "energy descent". But in my humble opinion, the Transition movement is awesome.

Awesome in the sense I am in awe. Committed people walking the walk - building communities through reducing local energy use, reusing materials for building, reducing reliance on new items, educating a new generation in such practices, creating local currency, and (of course) focussing on the role of food (they LOVE local food).

And why? Peak Oil and Energy Descent!

Peak Oil is the term used to describe the point at which "the maximal rate of petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production is expected to enter terminal decline." The exact tip of the bell curve is debated, but most experts seem to agree that the oil that is remaining to us will cost more and more energy to extract (ie it has peaked, but no one is committing to that position). (Offshore drilling or shale oil extraction compared to the bygone days of black gold striking Clampetts for those of you who like visual comparisons.)

A member of the Transition Ann Arbor group 2 years ago shared with me what distinguishes the Transition Towns Movement from the other groups involved in local and self-sufficient food, transportation, and reducing energy paradigms. It is the assumption of energy descent. It is a notion that, to move forward we actually need to ramp down our energy use substantially. Nothing that we have out there, in terms of the green technologies out there is actually going to replace the oil infrastructure that we have right now ... What we want to do is creatively descend in our energy use, not ramp up to try to replace the technologies that oil has given us."

As I type at my computer, surrounded by my digital camera, cell phone, camera, television, and looking out at the streetlights glowing in the rain, I think I know of what she speaks.

This is the month to get involved. There is a national transition challenge happening throughout May focussing on five great areas:

Take food, for example. You can start a garden, get backyard chickens, plant a fruit tree to trade with your neighbor who gets chickens, plant a row for a local food bank (and check out AmpleHarvest to find your local bank!), start a worm bin, make your own bread, preserve (kombucha is delicious!), save seeds, etc etc...

The Transition Challenge in 2011 logged over 1500 actions and the national goal this year is 2012. Register your Action, check out their Action Map to see what is happening around you. Last but not least, did you know that National Potluck Week is May 20-26? Sounds like a  delicious way to celebrate your new dehydrator!

Though I may not be the best at riding my bicycle in the rain, or always taking the extra 10 minutes to hang my clothing on the clothes line - it is nice to know there is a community of people committed to safeguard our beautiful earth and its resources by thinking outside of the paradigm of abundant oil - and dare I say, their calf muscles are all the stronger for it.

For those of you who are still curious to learn more, here is a TED talk given by the co-founder of the Transition Network, Rob Hopkins.

Here is the piece on Real Time Farms!

Muscovy Duck is unlike any "duck" you have ever eaten

David Beemer, of OmniUnum Farm, decided he wanted more control over his food supply.  In lieu of purchasing Michigan peat and compost, Beemer decided to raise poultry for their manure, a nutrient-rich and accessible fertilizer. Beemer choose Muscovy ducks as his poultry of choice after being served it at Paul Bocuse’s restaurant in Lyons, France. “I asked for something that I could not get in this country… He brought me Magret - and I ate it. They asked me what I thought it was and I said, “that was probably the best veal I have ever had.” And they said, “This is Muscovy Duck.””

Beemer has partnered with Antoinette Benjamin, of Food for all Seasons Catering, because “she is the only one I have found who knows how to cook them. I am a good example - I overcooked the last one. I just didn’t have time to follow the directions she gave me.”

Endemic in an animal designed to perch in trees not wade in water, Muscovy ducks have about 18% fat as opposed to Pekin duck with 29% fat. This fat difference and the less significant oil gland in the Muscovy alters the flavor of what our taste buds recognize as "duck" and can complicate cooking Muscovy for those not familiar with the meat.

According to Benjamin, trained by renowned French chef Madeleine Kamman, “cooking Magret is a matter of technique. So if you look up cooking duck breast, it is different with the Muscovy. Just because of the fat.”

Recently, I was able to try Muscovy courtesy of ici Urban Bistro in Washington DC. The consensus at the table was that the meat was “absolutely fabulous” and unlike anything anyone had eaten before - a bold, unique flavor arising from a texture that crumbled like veal, unlike poultry’s striation.

Borden - Muscovy duck breast

I was also able to see firsthand the difficulty of cooking Muscovy. When the breast slices arrived to the table they were medium rare and succulent. By the time we finished eating the meat (20 minutes later?) the slices were cooked through from the residual heat. The flavor was still there but the texture was dry and unappealing.

Beemer's partnership with Antoinette Benjamin is an opportunity for those of us curious to taste more of this unique fowl. As Benjamin says, “Magret is the BEST for the Muschovy - I mean it is JUST AMAZING. I mean as I said, I don’t think that people - most people wouldn’t know, like David, what they are eating. They wouldn’t know it was duck breast.”

Beemer and Benjamin are planning to hold a Muscovy dinner in the Spring. If you are interested, contact David Beemer at OmniUnum Farm or Antoinette Benjamin at Food for all Seasons.

(Link to article on coming soon...)

OmniUnum Farm: "heaven on earth" for Muscovy Ducks

Borden - Beemer in spa

You never know who you are going to sit next to at FridayMorning@Selmas, or in my case, who will sit on you.

I sat next to David Beemer, of OmniUnum Farm, and Antoinette Benjamin, of Food for all Seasons Catering. As they spoke to me about the world of the Muscovy duck - two day old Muscovy ducklings nestled their warm, downy, wiggling bodies into my neck, tucking themselves in under my hair, as if I were their mama.

After such a bucolic introduction, I had no choice but to visit the farm.

A former investment banker and hospital administrator, David Beemer changed the trajectory of his life after experiencing a health scare while working in Namibia. He left his desk and began raising his own food. “When I first got out here…I put like, 800 pounds of cow manure and Michigan Peat in my asparagus bed. And I just said - this is ridiculous. It can’t be this tough - and that is how I first got into poultry.” Beemer attributes his thriving vegetables to regularly fertilizing his garden with duck pond water and soiled straw from his fowl charges.

Beemer began his Muscovy flock with 18 ducklings from Quaker Hill Farm three years ago. The ducks have a varied diet: including vegetables from the gardens they fertilize, organic crumble, kelp tea, comfrey, worms, fruit, algae, and insects they forage themselves. Beemer has constructed an “annex, an aviary, a spa, and a playground” for the birds out of recycled items from Craig’s List and diverted a small drainage stream and natural spring in order to ensure a constant supply of fresh water to the flock. His 12,500 foot enclosed area is tall enough for the birds to fly.

“My objective was to create an environment for animals to have Heaven on Earth.”

As Beemer explains, Muscovy ducks “are perching birds not wading birds. All ducks have an oil gland, that is what helps their buoyancy and everything in water - but because the Muscovy is a perching bird bred to live in trees and out of the water and bred by farmers … to handle pest control in their crops. [They eat all the insects.] In the summer time, you won’t even see any mosquitoes out here… they are like pythons with legs!”

Beemer continues to describe the birds, exuding delight and joy. “A lot of people think of them as mute, but they are not mute - they whisper and when they are happy they trill.”

Beemer’s all white birds (for ease of dressing) “exceed standard. If you go anywhere and read about the standard for the breed…they exceed standard almost to the point that it is absurd. They look for ducks that are 7 pounds and for drakes that are 9 pounds. Mine are 9 pounds dressed out and they can be as much as 15 pounds.” He is particularly proud of 5 ducks born in early June. “I swear to you that I will put those five ducks against any Muscovy Ducks in the world. They are the finest free-range, all organic Muscovy Ducks anywhere.”

Borden - Beemer's playground

Beemer constructed a "playground" for his flock out of recycled items, in line with the principles of Permaculture.

Here is the article on

Learn about permaculture at workshops by best-selling author Toby Hemenway

I spent three days devouring the world's best-selling book on permaculture, Toby Hemenway's "Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture." Through the efforts of the Southeastern Michigan Permaculture Guild and Food Gatherers, Hemenway will be coming to Matthaei Botanical Gardens on May 22-23 to share with us practical tips on how to turn our landscape into a garden that allows us to be self-reliant. Borden - Toby Hemenway

The book is a dense compendium of practical advice and riveting information about our ecological world. I took away that the basic notion of permaculture is that if you build a plant community or a collection of communities in your landscape that work together in a symbiotic relationship everything (soil, insects, microbes, water use, plants, etc.) benefit exponentially.

Meeting this engaging individual in person at the workshops and his lecture at the Ann Arbor District Library on May 21 would be a great way to introduce yourself to the dense world of thermodynamics, mulch producing plants, swales and guilds. (As in so many things in life, it is all about the vocabulary.)

Hemenway is leading two workshops: "Designing and Installing a Food Forest" and "Permaculture Solutions for City and Suburb" at Matthai and giving a lecture and book signing on at 7 p.m. May 21 at the Ann Arbor Library titled How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth, but not Civilization.

Kris Kaul, of Southeastern Michigan Permaculture Guild, describes her excitement about an author of Hemenway's stature coming to town. "We have been working to make more people aware of permaculture as a holistic, solution-oriented way to design sustainable ways to live on the Earth, whether in the city or in the country, and having someone of Toby's stature come to our area is fantastic. And it turns out he spent some of his childhood in suburban Detroit (his father was in the auto industry), and he has 'many good memories of the land, lakes, and people.'"

Hemenway answered a few questions I emailed to him in anticipation of his arrival.

Q: You say in your biography, you grew "dissatisfied with the direction biotechnology was taking" and "discovered permaculture." What, direction in particular, gave you pause?

The techniques of biotech and genetic engineering are very promising. But nearly all the GE products being made for agricultural use are not needed and exist solely to gain monopolies on seeds and other products, or to encourage farmers to buy more pesticides. This was not an industry I wanted to contribute to, even though I was in the medical and not the ag side of it. Even in the medical side, the products we were working on at that time (1990s) were designed to allow stronger doses of conventional treatments to be given, although that has changed now.

Q: When you and your wife first started working towards your own permaculture site in rural Oregon, what mistakes did you make in the first few years?

Lots. We tried to do way too much, on too big a scale. So start small. We bought land that had very thin, infertile soil even though our goal was to garden, because I knew I could build soil, thus insuring me years of work that could have been avoided. Get the best soil you can, and be clear about your goals: if you want to grow plants, get land suited for that. If you want to restore abused land, be clear that that is truly your goal, because you won't be growing much food on abused land for years to come. Also, we didn't have a good water source, and it turned out our land was not good for pond digging (cracked sandstone just below the surface that wouldn't hold water). We did not live in a supportive community; we were the liberals in a very conservative area and didn't fit in.

We bought it (in 1993) because it was beautiful, and I thought permaculture would fix everything. It did (except the community) but it took a lot of work that could have been avoided if I'd started in a place that would have supported my goals better. In short we were very ignorant about how to choose land, and let our surface goals (it's pretty!) outweigh our deep goals (we want to homestead!). I had not taken a permaculture design course when we bought the land--I had just done a good bit of reading about it, which was not adequate. A permaculture course would have saved me years of work.

Q: How much of your food comes from your own garden?

Right now, only a few greens, since we are moving and I did not start annuals this year (first time in 35 years!). When we had our rural place in southern Oregon I'd say half our veggies came from the garden, and once the trees matured, half our fruit. But we never grew grains, meat or dairy, and if you aren't doing that, you can never provide more than 20% of your calories from your garden unless you live on potatoes. Once I realized this, I abandoned the viewpoint that I must grow some particular percentage of my own food. I grow what's fun to grow, and that's my recommendation for everyone, and will remain so until we have a serious food crisis. I don't think anyone should feel compelled to grow food; that should come out of love and a desire to garden, or maybe from a need to save money.

The point is to take care of your food needs responsibly and sustainably. I have been growing much less food since we moved to Portland, since there are so many farmers markets here and we belong to a CSA, and I'd rather support farmers than be one. I'm also affiliated with many school garden programs, and they load me up with bags and bags of produce at every visit. This evolution has occurred because I have learned that the gardening part of permaculture is a very small part of it: it's just the entry room that most people see first, and then, if their eyes are open to it, they see the dozens of other rooms.

Borden - Gaia's Garden

Permaculture is whole-system design and applies to water, energy, shelter, justice, politics, community, economics, and anything else that can be designed. The garden is the first and easy part, and I've mostly moved into the other rooms. But I'm happy to show people the entry where the garden is.

Q: You share that 14% of crops today are lost to insects whereas 50 years ago that loss was 7%. You posit that doubling of loss is due to soil fertility, loss of hedgerows, and the use of insecticides. For those of us not working as farmers, do you have suggestions for ways we can help shift this trend?

Plant insect habitat. Buy from farmers who create habitat and who build soil. Don't give your money to people who do evil with it. Cut down on consumption, as that's the real habitat eater. Don't eat processed food, as the crops and farms that it comes from are the major killers of biodiversity. Know where your food (and everything else) comes from.

Q: You say, "intervention is the problem" with removing fast growing thickets of "opportunistic plants." We have a community dedicated to removing garlic mustard from our parks and woodlands in and around Ann Arbor, what would you tell them?

They will be working forever unless the conditions that favor garlic mustard are changed. Here in Portland, garlic mustard is being sprayed several times a year in a wildlife refuge that is a wetland, which is stunning to me. The program has been going on for years with no sign of success, because the annual flooding (caused by a flood-control system run by a different bureau) creates disturbance that favors the garlic mustard over the natives they are trying to install.

First, I would have them really examine why the garlic mustard is there: why is it better adapted to the conditions than the natives they want to have? I assume something has changed that now favors garlic mustard, or else it could never compete with well-adapted natives that have been there for centuries. Second, I would make sure that the natives they want really are adapted to the current conditions at the site, or they will always need life support. Just because it's a native doesn't mean that it can survive the site conditions. (or is the garlic mustard growing in grass or other non-natives--I hope not!) And third, really be honest about whether it is the garlic mustard that is the problem, or just their hatred of the plant. Garlic mustard is edible, supports a wide array of pollinators and beneficial insects, and eventually gives way in succession to other species. It's not evil.

Continued disturbance (weeding and spraying) will prolong the presence of garlic mustard. One argument is that it pushes out other species, but natives are always pushing each other out as time goes by (Michigan was all birches and aspens not long ago, pushed out by today's natives), so really the problem there is that it is pushing out species that we prefer for various reasons, some of them reasonable and others just prejudice. Nature will use whatever species are best adapted to the conditions and she has chosen garlic mustard there. She has no preference; that's just a human idea.

In other words, think ecologically about the problem, rather than starting with "I want to get rid of garlic mustard." The plant is there for a number of very good reasons. Figure out what they are.

Q: As a city dweller, I am very grateful your book includes ideas as what we can do with our small plots of land, and your description of your "neighbor's yards" becoming your "orchard" when you moved to Portland glows idyllic. Do you have advice for permaculture devotees whose neighbors are not gardeners?

Back to the earlier answer: support farmers markets and local CSAs. Help create a data base of urban fruit trees that need harvesting (see the Portland Fruit Tree Project for an example) See if your neighbors want to be involved in yard-shares, where other people come and garden for them (these are being set up in cities all over the country). And be a good model: have a beautiful yard that inspires them, not a mass of mulch piles, lumber, and exposed cardboard mulch.

To register for the workshops and for more information, visit the SE Michigan Permaculture Guild website or contact Kris Kaul at 734-644-1520.

Here is the link to the article in