Permaculture, All Grown Up

Chris Newman
Nov 19, 2017 · 10 min read
Permaculture’s true challenge: plausibly feed a rapidly urbanizing population. Image from WTOP.

Mom always wanted a Lexus truck. She would talk about it incessantly, cooing about her “baby shoe” whenever one of the Japanese luxury upstarts shot by us on I-395 as she drove me to school. My eyes would roll, teenaged broodiness blinding me to another of Mom’s uncountable sacrifices; she couldn’t have her baby shoe because she was spending all her money sending me to this school. Money likely unimaginable to her as a Black farmer’s daughter growing up in the Virginia Tidewater. A successful farmer, even.

Her father, a stout and handsome man with skin the color of rich soil, quit his well-paying job as a cooper in North Carolina at the ripe old age of 20, relocating to Virginia to build a house on the farm his mother bought in 1914. A new house in Depression-era Virginia was peculiar. For that house to belong to a Black man sounded like a fish story. Strangers travelled for miles to watch Coston Beamon pound nails into his roof.

My grandparents’ farmhouse in the 90’s about a decade after granddaddy passed.

Eighty years after granddaddy quit his job to start his farm, and twenty years after Mom dreamily called out to her heart’s desire, her very own Lexus truck speeds down that same interstate with me in the driver’s seat surrounded by meat coolers, having also walked away from a lucrative career to start a farm. A perfect knot of irony nearly a century in the making.


I’ve been nestled in Mom’s dream truck close to four hours, dropping off orders from the shadow of the Capitol to the far flung exurbs of Herndon. The sun has set, the twilight lingering in the sky like a child resisting sleep. I’m on the Beltway headed into Maryland as lines of white and red form in front of me, cars flipping on their headlights to usher in the urban night. Something about the hypnotic coming and going of the lights convinced me to pull over to the side of the road and watch.

Hundreds of cars whizzed by every minute. They were on the freeway, the on ramps and off ramps, the little highways and spurs off in the distance. Red and white lights in every direction, as far as the eye could see, an endless stream of humanity coursing as blood through the city’s blacktopped arteries. A car passes and I wonder… what will those people eat next? And where? And why? Numbers appear in my head as four young men in a cramped coupe speed down the freeway.

Four young men. Maybe 12,000 calories a day. 4.5 million calories a year. An acre of permaculture forest; 5 million calories a year. Most of an acre for that one car. Shit… how many cars are out here? The cars fly by, mercilessly fast and uncountable. A mass of commuting humanity needing to be fed in a way that somehow enhances the planet’s ability to keep feeding them. Each of the hundreds, then thousands, of passing cars ticking off yet another quarter acre here… half acre there… of productive food forest needed. Oh goddammit that Bolt bus must’ve had fifty people in it!

Trips to my hometown bring on my darkest moments as a farmer. Washington, D.C. is growing like Spring grass, rendering the landscapes and skylines of my youth unrecognizable. High-rises appear with speed and uniformity that suggest they’re reproducing sexually. Everywhere is a sea of people. On the sidewalks, in the streets, in the shops, in the cars, on the trails, thousands upon thousands of them. All needing to be fed. All needing to be fed the right stuff grown the right way, from the right places and the right systems.

Yes, even the people who try to kill themselves with half-acre slices of bad pizza in Adams Morgan every weekend.

The closest I ever come to being depressed is seeing, in this mass of urban humanity, how far we have to go. I sit on the side of the Beltway watching cars and understand that, in the time it takes me to blink, more people have passed by than I could feed in a year even if my farm were producing at full capacity. I enjoy the pastoral beauty of the farm, the sensual terroir of a productive piece of land, and my happy livestock; but that’s not why I got into farming. I got into farming to prove that permaculture could actually work. That it could feed not just a homestead or an eco-village, but a town, a community, a city, a country, and the world. But as I lay eyes on some small slice of the capital region’s 6 million people, I feel as a single drop of rain aspiring to a river. It feels too big. Too much. It makes me want to quit. The enormity and the despair and the fear can, and often do, drive me to tears. That’s not in the Instagram feed.

The flag symbol of Maryland’s Choptico Band of Piscataway Indians.

Funny thing about tears: they’re the wellspring of life in my tribe’s cultural tradition. Our tribal symbol prominently features an effigy known as the “weeping eye.” This face, with zigzag lines etched downward from the eyes, is commonly interpreted as a deity weeping for the pitiful condition of people here on Kahèsëna Hàki (Earth). Those sëpinko (tears) strike the ground as sukëlàntpi (rain) and raise plants from the ground. The animals — us humans included — are born and eat the fruits of Kishelëmùkònk’s (the Creator’s) pity. We die, we return to Kahèsëna Hàki as soil, where sukëlàntpi falls upon us once more. The soil-body of kikayuyëmënaninka (the departed ancestors) enters each day into a happy conspiracy with the tears of Kishelëmùkònk to bring life anew from the ground. And so as our ancestors tend to us in death, I am driven to tend to them in life. My self-pity ceases on this remembrance. Time to get back to work.

Six million people are in the greater Washington, D.C. area. That’s about 1.5 million acres of food forest to feed them if you don’t count other tools in the sustainable food system — urban gardens and farms (especially vertical ones), suburban market gardens, sustainable fisheries and fish farms, etc. See this map?

The green area is my dream, the one you’ll read about in my Kickstarter campaign and hear about in my various discussions of the future of sustainable food; it’s the million-acre zone 3 (more on this soon) of the nation’s capital reimagined as a giant macropermacultural landscape.

Diagram of zones in permaculture design. From Gaia’s Garden.

Traditionally, permaculture landscape design focuses on a single home, homestead, or farm. Radiating outward from the house are six “zones” containing decreasingly intensive agricultural production as you move away from the home and the center of human activity. Zone 0 is the home itself. Zone 1 includes the areas immediately surrounding the house, including kitchen gardens. Zone 2 might include a larger market garden. Zone 3 is fruit and nut trees and pasture — the sweet spot of the food forest. Zone 4 is a minimally managed area for foraging, hunting, timber, etc. Zone 5 is unmanaged entirely, left as wilderness for meditation, recreation, and inspiration. I’ve started referring to this individual home/farm-centric approach as micropermaculture, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to do so.

The movement needs to go further if it’s going to be taken seriously as a systemic solution to sustainable agriculture. Micropermaculture is swell for designing a self-sufficient homestead for an individual with access to land and resources, but it can’t scale. If it could, there’s a bigger problem still: it doesn’t mesh with the demographic and economic reality of accelerating urbanization. No part of the world is poised to realize the Jeffersonian ideal of yeoman smallholding citizen-farmers dominating the landscape. Micropermaculture leaves too many systemic questions unanswered and, somewhat ironically, ignores the surrounding environment in which it hopes to proliferate. It may see itself as a noble rock standing against the rushing waters of the modern world… but when time is no object, always bet on water.

That’s where Macropermaculture comes in.

Macropermaculture, as I see it, focuses on cities. My life’s work is dedicated to applying macropermaculture to the nation’s capital, reimagining zone 0 as the city itself — the rooftops and multi-story indoor vertical gardens and the places where the hum of life is loudest. Zone 1 is the immediately surrounding suburbs and exurbs, the kitchen garden of the capital produced from millions of small lots. Zone 3 comprises the rural areas at the far ends of the exurbs, a land of food forests yielding staples and protein and produce in their greatest concentration. It’s the zone where my own farm exists; the big green million-acre expanse on that map comprising a bit more than my ancestral homelands. Zones 4 and 5? The great state and national parks out in the hinterlands managed in a wild state for our study, recreation, meditation, and inspiration.


Driving deeper into the Maryland suburbs, my gaze shifts from the red and white road lights to the black of the woods. These patches of land and forest frame nearly every roadside; tens or hundreds of thousands of acres of them woven into the fabric of this city and every other. Oak, pine, maple, poplar, beech, ash, and locust by the millions, some a hundred feet tall, yet all but invisible to the six million eyes that will pass them by every single day. With a little massaging, these woods could become orchards producing every fruit, nut, and mushroom the gaping maw of the city could ever hope to consume.

Why?

I make stops in Rockville, Kensington, Silver Spring, Hyattsville. I see lawns that cost money where there should be gardens that make money. Naked apartment balconies that could be overflowing with trellised winter squash. Unkempt medians on sleepy streets where wild strawberry and mustard would grow just as easily as neglected fescue. Rooftops that might as well be covered with something like rosemary or mint that thrive even when ignored. Empty, blighted buildings in the middle of food deserts that could be indoor vertical farms providing food, employment, and wholesome social spaces to the surrounding community.

Pigs at Sylvanaqua Farms being pigs where they want to be pigs.

Letting things express their nature is a key concept in permaculture. It’s usually applied to plants (put the nitrogen-fixing clover in a place that needs nitrogen), animals (put the pig who loves to root in a place that needs tilling), and ecosystems (let the oak forest be, more or less, an oak forest), but it doesn’t have to stop there. The city wants to be vertical and full of people; so do the vertical indoor farming there that requires a constant human presence. The suburbs are a natural expression of the peculiar American desire for a small piece of land; so let those patches of land be market gardens. The countryside is a sparsely populated area that tends to forest; so this is a perfect place to safely use animals to build soil in support of forest and field staples grown on broad acreage.

There’s enough space, enough people, enough economic demand, and enough ancestral and technological know-how to do this without far-out, unnatural solutions: a hen in every urban backyard; massive out-migrations of urbanites to the countryside to start farming; pigs in the road medians and dairy cows in suburban backyards; the agrihood fad; synthetic meat; biosolids; and the list goes on. These are well-intended but systemically unworkable for reasons ranging from basic sanitation, to physical safety, to social and demographic inertia. Permaculture doesn’t have to be crazy or dangerous in order to work.

Sorry, guys (Thrillist)

Still, even with this macropermacultural view of the world, there are still plenty of challenges. Who’s going to harvest all this food growing from the rooftops to the treetops? Where’s the infrastructure going to come from to process the stuff that needs to be processed, and how will it compete with the vertical integrators concentrated in the American midwest? How’s the food going to be distributed in a way that’s socially equitable?

With my last delivery done, I’m homeward-bound, the Capitol dome lit against the distant night sky. I wonder further: how will entrenched, powerful agricultural interests react to all this? How will people and regulators and politicians react at the local, state, and federal levels? What technology, public policy, and social advocacy innovations are necessary to support this movement?

Most of these issues are well outside of my wheelhouse as a farmer. But they present manifold opportunities for people to contribute if their talents and interests lie in the halls of power, the tech lab, or the town square, instead of the field or the forest. These folks, together with the caretakers of the land, will be the ones to fill in the framework laid out here and realize the vision of a future that’s sustainable for generations to come.

Whether as a farmer, gardener, policy advocate, permaculture evangelist, chef, engineer, innovator, conscientious consumer, or anything else you can think of, it’s our hope that you’ll find a way to participate in this movement and realize our motto: Pemhakamik Menenachkhasik — The Whole World, A Garden.

Good luck, and see you on the farm!


Chris Newman is a farmer in central Virginia. He’s tall and skinny and is growing a great and woolly beard for totally non-political reasons. If you like what you’ve just read, please consider a click on that there green heart thing. And if you really like what you just read, maybe you’ll become a patron (contribute as little as $1/month!) so he can spend even more time writing, building foodscapes, and democratizing Local food.

Visit the farm, Sylvanaqua Farms, on Instagram @sylvanaquafarms.

Chris Newman

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Working toward a sustainable future with Sylvanaqua Farms, the Accokeek Foundation, and GreenMaven. Support it all here: https://www.patreon.com/farmermang

Sylvanaqua Farms

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