A greener thumb

A fresh approach to farming puts down new roots in the hills and valleys of Southern Indiana.


By

I can’t believe it’s this hot out already; was there even a spring?  I’m taken all over the grounds by owner Peter Bane, who shows me the different plants he works with and the ins and outs of the farm, just outside of Bloomington, that he runs with his partner Keith Johnson.  Lettuce and strawberries are wildly growing all over the place, and I tip-toe about as if it’s a minefield. The sun’s bearing down, but a cool, coy summer breeze is flirting with me.  A few clouds pass overhead, so a redhead like me, with a little sun lotion, won’t burn into a lobster.

Peter Bane shows off the recently constructed reservoir. The reservoir collects and filters water siphoned from gutters. /Photo by Joshua Fleck

Bane’s farm is not like any of the farmer-on-a-John-Deere plots I saw peppered around Southern Indiana as a kid.  You know what I’m talking about, the organized brigades of corn or soybeans along the sides of roads.  Certainly there are ditches for irrigation, but here it’s different. Serpentine irrigation lines slither all over the farm, with the heads of these serpents starting from the gutters of the buildings on the property.  One such path feeds three ponds filled with goldfish and toads, each pond larger than the last. What flows over the banks nourishes the rest of the crop.  No, what I’m seeing here isn’t some typical farm.  This is designed wildness here.

This is a permaculture farm…  But wait, what’s that word, “permaculture”?

“What it is, is a designed approach to creating human environments,” Bane says, “and that’s everything from the garden to the farm to neighborhoods and towns and countryside.”

Keith Johnson plays with gold fish in the pond behind his house. Johnson runs the farm along with Bane. /Photo by Joshua Fleck

Bane, whose book The Permaculture Handbook comes out June 5, first came to Southern Indiana with Johnson in 2003.  Bane and Johnson had attended and instructed a seminar on permaculture design in North Carolina, where they met Department of Religious Studies Professor David Haberman.  Bane says Haberman brought the ideas back with him to IU and invited Bane and Johnson to join him in teaching the now annual permaculture design course through the Collins Living Learning Center, a source of income for the two of them.

At the moment, most permaculture practitioners are like Bane and Johnson, inspired individuals with a small plot of land.  This is due in part to the nature of permaculture, as well as the very obvious lack of any broad scale permaculture projects.  Currently, there are only seven registered permaculture farms to the Permaculture Global website.  But those are only those who have taken the time to register online, because between Bane and Johnson, they have taught more than 50 permaculture courses to 2,300 students, as well as contributing their time and services to local organizations such as Transition Bloomington, part of the larger Transition Indiana, and the Bloomington Permaculture Guild.

A form of ecological design that was first coined in 1911 by Franklin Hiram King in his book, Farmers of Forty Centuries: Or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, permaculture, as it is understood today, has its roots in the mid-1970s. Australian naturalist Bill Mollison and ecologist David Holmgren opposed the industrial-agricultural methods we see many farmers use today.  They believed these methods reduced biodiversity, destroyed natural environments such as the Amazon, and poisoned land and water.   The methods they developed were made public with the publication of their book Permaculture One in 1978.

“Our food comes from far away, it’s grown by people we don’t know and in conditions we probably wouldn’t approve of, and is not necessarily healthy or nutritious,” Bane says.  “And we’re beginning to enter a time in history where those failures are becoming more common.”

Permaculture seeks to avoid a monoculture crop, such as growing only corn and soybeans, but instead to plant a variety of crops and to rotate them frequently between harvests. Growing one or two crops make them more susceptible to disease and focuses on a plant that may or may not be native to that environment.

The three ponds which take the runoff from the water resevoir in the back. Beyond just aesthetic pleasures, carefully designed water sources serve an important role in irrigation. /Photo by Joshua Fleck

Permaculture, on the other hand, works with an array of edible native species.  Here in Southern Indiana, Bane says we have much we can work with, such as elderberry and spicebush, to walnuts and sassafras. On his farm there is a medley of fruits and vegetables — plum and peach trees, strawberries and potatoes.

Bane says they don’t only work horizontally across the ground, but also vertically along houses and fencing.  Walking along the pond, Bane points out lettuce starting grow in the pathway around the water.

“It’s like I said, we just plant it and let it run wild here,” he says.

But if I remember my days in high school correctly, we were told Southern Indiana lacks the rich soil and flat land of Northern Indiana. I think of our woodlands, rolling hillsides and valleys that stretch down to the Ohio River.  The landscape forces the farmer to adopt a more careful and thoughtful approach to cultivation.  Bane says permaculture lends itself to that model very well.

“This is a more marginal landscape in conventional terms, which makes it more receptive to different ideas which permaculture offers,” he says.  “You see it in mountain regions, you see it in hilly regions and out of the way places that are not so much in the commercial and industrial mainstream.”

But he says permaculture can also exist in backyards, on rooftops and in community gardens. And it has taken root in Southern Indiana he says, partly because of the now 10th Annual Permaculture Design Course for Southern Indiana at the White Violet Eco-Justice Center at St. Mary of the Woods campus near Terre Haute.  Students take what they’ve learned back home to their own communities, encouraging the permaculture community in the 812 region to grow.  And even though it lacks the fertile soil, Southern Indiana still has fertile social ground for permaculture to take root.

“People have, for a long time, taken responsibility for themselves.  It’s sort of that strong Hoosier value of self-reliance, which is a term we use in permaculture,” Bane says.

“It’s not so much stubborn independence as it is a lot of things are better done at home and taken care of locally.  It’s like ‘Well!  That makes sense.  I was already doing some of this, and this just gives me more fuel.’”

The fragrant and beautiful Lilly of the Valley flower. Johnson said it was not only his favorite flower, but that of his grandmother. /Photo by Joshua Fleck

A common misconception people have is that permaculture is just organic gardening with a twist.  But as Bane and I continue around the farm, I realize that it’s not just a gardening technique, but a well thought-out approach to address every aspect of living.

Don Smith Moorman, a 2007 graduate student of the permaculture design course, says on the Midwest Permaculture online forum that it has similarities with organic gardening in its concern about waste reduction and construction materials, but it also looks at food production and community economics, like the recent locavore movement that encourages consumers to buy food from the surrounding farmland.

It’s not an industrial-scale solution you’d expect agricultural engineers to present at farming conventions, but small solutions, each appropriate to the place and people involved. It’s, “learning from nature and its patterns to integrate and sustain ourselves while enhancing life for all organisms,” Moorman says.

For instance, the irrigation system is part of Bane’s water collection and filtration system, which collects run off from all the structures on the property into a reservoir at the back end.  Bane says we’re standing on a watershed, and the water that runs off from here will eventually make its way to Lake Monroe and on to the Ohio River. “So you see that we can have an impact on places far removed from where we are actually working,” he says.

The two honey bee hives located towards the back-end of the farm. Bane says one he got from Russia and the other from Italy. /Photo by Joshua Fleck

I notice weeds like white clover, wild violets and dandelions.  But Bane tells me the bees actually love them, and bees are a farmer’s best friend.  Bane has two honeybee hives that are used for both the honey the bees make and the free service they offer of pollinating the property and the surrounding area as well.

Permaculture can also help out with heating and cooling.  On Bane’s property they’re growing grapes along the walkway and underneath an overhang. Grapes don’t like being soaked, Bane says, so the upper parts of the vine seek a dry area. The vines grow on the side of the house with the most sun, meaning shade and some heat off the house, reducing air conditioning bills.  Come winter the vines will be bare, and the sun can bear back down on the house again, much like it is still doing to me.

Bane advises new permaculture farmers to start out small and grow from there. Work with what space you have, he says, and recognize that you’ll be bound to have some failures.  Permaculture is a communal effort, he says, which is why you should ask for help when you need it.

Bane and Johnson see permaculture spreading like ivy and digging its roots deep as the future. They say we need to work on alternatives to traditional agriculture.

“We’re starting to see the things early permaculture designers predicted and warn us about play out,” Bane says.  “If we don’t begin to transition to a more sustainable method, it’s bound to be catastrophic.”

One Response to “A greener thumb”

  1. Colt Larsen
    June 17, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

    I agree with you completely on the need for sustainable methods of farming and irrigation. I’ve come across permaculture before and I completely agree with you on the point of saving the environment by increasing biodiversity. Although I disagree with you on the question of importing crops from other countries. The fact that we consume it and remain healthy is testament to the fact that they are as good as domestic crops. In addition, stopping such imports would result in a huge and unimaginable trade barrier, which would have a ripple effect around the world, and would definitely jeopardise the jobs of many people.