This past Saturday, 20 people met at Mike Humble’s FoodsGood Farm in Bayside, New Brunswick to learn about using permaculture for food production.
Growing up, Humble lived on a dairy farm near Stanley, NB. He took the long way around to get back into farming. For many years he worked as a musician and in the food and entertainment industries. After a show one night, Humble was talking with another musician, Ian Griffiths of Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra. At that time New Brunswick was embroiled in divisions over shale gas development. As Mike explained his anti-fracking position, Ian asked this: “I know what you are against, but what are you for?”
Sometimes, someone asks just the right question to change a life. Humble was curious enough about permaculture that he took a Permaculture Design Certificate course with Ben Falk in Vermont in 2015. Humble was sold on permaculture and after that sought out land in the St. Andrews area and began the first stages of FoodsGood Farm.
Many readers may have the same question that Humble has been asked before, “What the heck is permaculture anyway?” It is a set of design principles, centered on whole systems thinking, that simulates patterns and features observed in nature to help humans live in a resilient way.
We can break it down even further to some elements of permaculture that Humble discussed at the gathering: looking to nature to learn design patterns for our daily life, managing water on land, feeding microbes to build healthy soil, learning from Indigenous earth care methods, inviting predatory insects to control pests in the garden, working in ergonomic patterns, and using clever hand tools in the gardening.
Humble calls permaculture “ecolution, or revolution in disguise.” Permaculture isn’t complicated, but as most everyone who believes in it would agree, it takes some time and some patience to learn about the many elements of permaculture and how they all fit together.
Humble is looking to inspire people to come further into the rich world of permaculture. He is offering five sessions throughout the 2020 growing year. They will give learners a total of 15 hours of workshops with optional additional hands-on projects. The first workshop was on permaculture and food production, such an important topic in 2020.
In addition to getting permaculture theory, learners can see it all in action on the seven-acre property, formerly a cow pasture near St. Croix Island in Bayside, NB. The homestead is a cabin with 300 square feet of living quarters above and a workshop below. The cabin is heated by a small amount of wood that comes from the property. This living space is attached to a greenhouse dug into the ground for season extension. The property is filled with a wonderful diversity of perennial flowers, vegetable greens, shrubs, trees, berry canes and trellis work.
Permaculture is about slow and simple solutions, and it takes time to establish these holistic systems. This season marks year four of life on the farm for Humble. “In the beginning I lived in two tents under a maple tree, one for me and one for my stuff. Then I got an RV. One night in November I came back to the RV and it was -10 C. That was when I knew I had to get more built on the property.” The cabin is off-grid, which students will learn about in the “Farming the sun” workshop.
Mike is farming with his partner Kelly and together they feed 20 households with a Community Supported Agriculture share (CSA). CSAs are purchased at the beginning of the season, helping farmers to purchase seed, tools, etc. for the coming year. The CSA household then receives a basket of fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, cut flowers, herb, etc. (depending on the offerings at each farm). The baskets generally come weekly for the set period (usually any months between May and November).
I asked Humble why FoodsGood switched from market sales to a CSA. “After having a market stall at the St. Andrews market for two years we switched our model. We find growing for friends and community much more satisfying than growing for the tourist market in town. It also leads to less waste and attaches the farm to the local community.”
FoodsGood has some interesting features. The soil practice is low-till. If at all possible, the sod is broken once with a tiller and then it isn’t tilled mechanically after that. The large broad fork is the tool used to keep the soil living and breathing.
Mike is passionate in his delivery: “People treat soil like dirt! That is no good. Soil is so much more than dirt!” In fact, the soil is a living entity in the eyes of this farmer who jokes about his “micro-herds” of animals. “There are billions of living organisms in every teaspoon of soil. I don’t feed compost to the soil, I feed compost to the micro-herd who break it down and turn it into substances that are biologically available to plants.” Even Forbes magazine, not your typical environmental advocate, writes that 24% of the planet undergoing extreme erosion, at a cost of eight billion dollars annually. It is no wonder that soil building and water management are at the heart of all permaculture design.
There are no pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers at FoodsGood. Insectaries line the edges of all garden beds. These are tall, wild flowers like Queen Anne’s Lace that attract pollinators. A diversity of insects means more predators higher up the food chain to eat the pests in the lower part of the food cycle (the plant eaters).
The gardens contain a healthy variety of perennials, including nitrogen and mineral fixers like lupins and comfrey. The side hill is the beginnings of a “food forest” which will someday be five to seven levels of food production.
People-power predominates the daily work routine. All of the production this year was done by Mike and Kelly, with help from a few friends. On occasion a car, tractor or tiller will do some light work on the land to save time, but the broad fork, hoe and hand tools are all that are needed.
Could this way of growing food be the future of farming in New Brunswick? Hayes Farm in Fredericton is teaching this model and it is highly accessible to young farmers, new immigrants and people looking at farming as a career transition.
Since these farms typically produce on anywhere from a half-acre to 10 acres, people may even convert their existing property into a “micro-farm.’ Very little inputs are required to get started, so most new farmers can get by without a loan from the bank. After all, should we mortgage our food security? Let’s think more about small and simple solutions for our food future.
Amy Floyd is the Senior Food Security Policy Analyst for the RAVEN project. Amy and her partner Drew live in Taymouth and love their rural community in the beautiful Nashwaak Valley.