Whole Farm Planning & Farm Permaculture Design:
As I see this process, it is three pronged.
- The farm business, which includes the business plan, marketing, sales, taxes, etc,
- Education, which means attending as many farm tours, workshops, conferences and asking a lot of questions! And,
- The farm design which, if done right, provides a solid, sustainable, easily maintained base for the farm business. We’ll be talking about the design process in this series.
We have had a homestead with a hog, some goats my kids used in 4-H, rabbits, horses and gardens for many, many years. However, we have been officially “farming” (for product sales) now for roughly 8 years. We were launched into the “business” when our then 12 year old daughter wanted to have a paying job and decided to try being an entrepreneur goat farmer. She wrote a business plan, came up with financials and asked the USDA FSA for a youth loan to get started. Her plans and dreams soon meshed with our overall plans for our farming operations and we moved forward with these goals. Throughout that time, we have worked extensively on the business planning, financial projects, markets, and more for the business. We have also attended nearly every farm tour, bus tour, workshop, and learning opportuntiy provided by the VSU Small Farm Outreach Program since 2012.
The new farm
All of our previous operations were conducted on leased farms. Now, we own a 40 acre farm just east of Richmond, VA. This farm is rolling, with just under 40′ in elevation changes throughout. It has roughly 10 cleared acres, 3.5 in rough pasture and the rest in the house, yard, pond, and another small field. There was no fencing, but it does have a large barn.
- To develop a sustainable, earth-friendly farm that produces a variety of products, including meat, nuts, fruites and vegetables.
- To become a reliable local food hub.
- To develop a livestock friendly permaculture operation that becomes a showcase and model for others to learn from and emulate.
- To develop a solid foundation for the re-opening of a farm-based high school.
- To earn a profit.
To reach these goals, we intend to enlist the knowledge and support of as many groups, agencies and specialists as we can! These resources are located at the bottom of this article.
The good stuff
The orginal owner/builder designed some major water catchment into his buildout of the property. Water runs into the pond from both ends of our neighborhood (yes, that means we are located in the low space between higher, surrounding mounds. He designed all of the roof systems on the house and garage (both large structures) as well as the pavement driveway to flow water run off directly into the pond. This part is brilliant.
The property was planted, along the way, with a plethora of fruits and nuts! Growing along the woodland edge is persimmon, perhaps on its own. There are apple trees and figs growing well. Nut trees planted here include pecan, hickory, and walnut. There is also a massive, old, heaviliy producing muscadine grapevine and some blueberry bushes.
Problems to solve
Fencing: Unfortunately, there are many problems that need to be solved here! First and foremost is the fencing. Just to close in the perimeter, we are installing nearly a mile of tightly stretched field fence! Then, cross fencing of some sort needs to be installed to create sustainable movement of livestock through the property!
Structures: The barn is, oddly, located at the bottom of a fairly steep hill. It is closed in on one side with a run in/equipment storage on the other and a large chicken coop on the end closest to the house. It’s location and complete lack of drainage are a major issue. The location of the barn itself seems to have been built up a bit so water doesn’t necessarity pool up inside–at least not in the coop or closed in side. However, runoff from the hill pours around and close enough to the structure to make a swampy mess if you need access to it and does ooze into the run-in side of the barn. There is a drip edge setup but no drip edge drainage appears to have been installed. We were excited to have a barn but soon discovered we couldn’t effectively and safetly use it for the livestock, especially the goats.
Pond, water run-off and catchment: As I previously mentioned, the pond design is brilliant. Unfortunately, the spring that originally fed the pond has long since been driven underground by development upstream, leaving the pond as a rain catchment resource only. There was only a puddle at the deepest point when we moved in. In reviewing the Google Earth time captures, it seems it is dry more than it is full. Not only has it been cut off from its original source of water, it seems to be leaking as the water levels begin dropping as soon as the rain stops.
2018, the year that we moved in, turned out to be one of the wettest years on record for Virginia. In many ways, this was a disasterous time to move. But, there was an advantage in being able to observe immediately the effects of all that excessive water on the property and livestock. The remnants of the origninal stream on the property serves as the overflow system for the pond, carrying the excess water down to the creek that serves as our property boundary. Unfortunately, in heavy or excessively wet times, a huge swath of the property becomes a river bed.
According to neighbors, we rarely see these kinds of rains and they have never seen the flooding we have since moving here. For two Junes in a row now, we have had road topping, pond overflowing, massive water flowing situations on the property. Not to mention the entire first year here everything was perpetually muddy and wet—a situation, mind you, that goats do just the opposite of thrive in.
Soil: The mostly sandy to sandy-loamy soil in the cleared areas, which we had tested shortly after moving in, is beyond poor, with zero nutritional value and is very acidic. There is no organic matter in the soil and growing anything substantial requires serious amendments. Each bed, tree, bush, or plant we add, we dig out a larger area than needed and fill it with compost and mulch we made since moving to this property. Future beds and planned growing areas are being created with layers of cardboard and mulch to block grasses and put organic matter back into the soil.
Woodlands: The rest of the property is covered in a high story of 20+ year old hardwoods with a dense undergrowth of invasive English Holly. The holly blocks all light and keeps out the beneficial undergrowth. The intent is to create a silvopasture setting for the animals to graze in as well as sections of food forests for us. In order to accomplish this, we’ll have to thin out some of the hardwoods and remove most or all of the holly. Hardwoods will be cut, cured, and used for fencing and carpentry projects. Stumps will be inoculated with mushrooms. We are contemplating using the holly trees to build natural crossfencing walls. Smaller hollies branches will be bundled into “logs” and inoculated with mushrooms. Native grasses will be planted in the new clearings, along with shrubs and other browse that suits the goat’s appetites and dietary needs.
Obviously, with whole farm planning, there are many things to consider, problems to solve, and production to manage. This is just the beginning of our journey and we are looking forward to sharing each step of the way. Following are some resources we are already engaged with or plan to utilize soon.
- Oregon State University offers a free “Intro to Permaculture Design” course. I’m hoping they offer this in 2020. On the webpage below are some awesome free resources as well, including the permaculture design book used in the course.
- William Horvath has a course and a ton of good, free info in his newsletters. We signed up for the course.
- The Virginia Biological Farming Association (VABF) has a ton of free resources on sustainable farming, an information packed yearly conference and monthly gardening tips.
- VSU Small Farm Outreach Program offers a wealth of workshops, planning help, and farm tours to get you in touch with the farmers in your area of interest.