Skip to main content

Becoming Resilient

Monday night Ben Falk, author of the forthcoming book The Resilient Farm and Homestead (Chelsea Green Pub., May 2013), presented an engaging & thoughtful overview of the 10 years of research the Whole System Design (WSD) team has established at a Vermont homestead/farm. WSD’s research includes earthworks, water systems, rice paddies, livestock, site design and management, fuelwood production, human health, soil enhancement strategies, perennial food and medicine crop and more. Almost 100 eager permacultalurists, climate watchers, gardeners, and interested folks generally seeking responsible land use and stewardship filled the room at the public library in Tompkins County (the event c0-hosted by Cornell Garden-based Learning, Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute, Ithaca Children’s Garden and Gardens 4 Humanity)

Since Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in October 2012,  “resilience” has become a commonly used term to describe how we need to prepare for “climate wierdness,” as Falk refers to it. “Resilience” seems to have taken place of “sustainability”. While the media has been using the word to report that NYC will need to build a resilient grid-energy system to prepare for future power outages or build a wall around Manhattan so the city can handle high winds and oceans rising, these approaches are completely contradictory to the resilient methods Falk describes.

Sustainability enables us to stay on the current course, while resiliency requires us to adapt to the change, not fight it. To design & prepare. And to act. Record breaking storms, “weird” weather patterns, an increasingly global marketplace (i.e. that which is dependent on imports and fossil fuels, i.e. that which is not dependent on the local economy, i.e. that which is not independent, sustainable or resilient) are some of the reasons that many folks are starting to try to move beyond sustainable. Being resilient means that we will be prepared when crises hit again and be able to recover from them. Possibly even benefit from them!

During Tropical Storm Irene (August 2011), the Mad River in Vermont was raging high, destroying thousands of homes and complete towns in its path. Millions of tons of soil washed quickly away. Yet The Whole Systems Research Farm actually benefited from the tropical storm. Ben showed a short video of the Mad River from August 29, 2011 – dark brown in color and tearing up the edges of the stream bed. Alongside he showed a video from the same day of a small flow of completely clear water as it made its way through 10 acres of swales, patties, and ponds, where it then remained for several days after the rain had stopped and it could be absorbed into the watershed. The slow progression of the water through the WSD farm actually fertigated the thousands of plants species growing on the land rather than washing away.

Walking the audience through over 200 stunning images from the WSD Farm, Ben proposed dozens of inspiring and crucial points with regards to designing and maintaining resilient landscapes and systems.  Any gardeners, farmer, landscape designer, teacher or really any person who drinks or eats might want to consider these points.  Here’s a synopsis from one attendee who shared the notes he took at the event:

Key word = “RESILIENCE” (more than “sustainability,” etc.)

Decrease Inputs, Increase Yields

How can we turn the most major disaster (global uncertainty) into the most major solution(s)?!

The natural ecosystems of the Northeast US are exceedingly resilient (for example,  roads are reclaimed into forest very quickly), so we have the opportunity here to be a successful model of creating resilient human systems

Catch water so it doesn’t waste soil and fertility – any running water that looks dirty is taking soil/fertility AWAY, and putting it into lakes and oceans

Slow it Spread it Sink it (water)

Although the long-term civilization failures of annual crop production are well understood, there are still many examples of annual crop production systems succeeding.  see the book: Farmers of 40 Centuries

Resilience = Diversity x Redundancy x Connectivity x Manageability

“Fertigate” = Fertilize and Irrigate (accomplish these things with the very same feature)

DIG SWALES EVERYWHERE, especially where grade is enough to carry water (most locations) and soil is anything less than very rich.

In digging swales:  Send water toward the ridges (away from the valleys).  Around here, it’s not crucial to be precise with the leveling process

Take advantage of bare soil (like where a swale has been dug) to seed/establish exactly what you want to establish.

Become a WATER farmer, even before becoming a SOIL farmer (even before becoming a plant/animal farmer)

A couple essential perennial food-producing plants:  Seaberry, plum, hazel

Water-based starch ecosystems (Rice and Taro) are inherently more calorie-productive per acre than terrestrial starches (wheat, etc)

What else can we grow in patty systems?!  Such systems accrue fertility very effectively.

Use available fossil fuels now to establish resilient systems that will last for generations/centuries (and will thereafter be independent of fossil fuel inputs)!  for example, mini-excavator to create patty and swale networks …

Power of Duck – describes one system (ducks+rice) that has been successful for centuries due to the wise interaction of its many components …

A Leech Field is a very fertile location – take advantage!  Very high nitrogen, although squash seems to balance the nitrogen to still produce fruit well.

Use foliar feeding (diluted fish emulsion, compost tea, urine, etc – applied early or late in the day) to help establish trees quickly above browsing height.

Rotationally intensive planting for livestock => extreme/fast increases in fertility

One example of seeding mix:  Lots of Clover varieties; Vetch; Turnip; Radish; plus a “carrier” of Greensand, Aragonite, Bonechar, and Sulfur …. because if you’re seeding, you may as well take advantage of an opportunity to put some minerals where you want them)

Get as many species as possible into one area, and let them interact – there will be beneficial outcomes that were not predictable (“emergent properties”)

Focus on being HEALTHY not just FED

Black locust is likely the fastest-growing fuel wood, so plant and coppice/pollard it.  10-20 cords of wood in only 10 yrs of growth (didn’t catch how many plants that was)
– also good sheep food and living fence

Focus on growing foods that are either staples or nutrient-dense/health-inducing

In our climate, we use MANY MORE calories every year to keep our dwellings heated than we do calories to stay fed.

A quality airtight wood cook stove (like “Waterford Stanley” model) can bring great efficiency to the home – many functions performed by one element

– Dig Swales.  Swale everything everywhere!
– Prevent water from running downhill anywhere it does so
– Determine good places to scatter abundance of seeds (of any useful plants available)
– Plant tons of black locust for fuel wood
– Plant tons of Seaberry plants for delicious fruit, nitrogen-fixing, and deer-proof edibles
– Plant Elder and Kiwi because their late bloom will be resilient in the face of unpredictable spring frosts
– Plant things like Hazel with blooms that are frost-hardy
– Create and use foliar feeds
– Consider using ducks somewhere in my systems
– Focus on nutrient-dense, health-promoting tonic foods


Speak Your Mind