Ben Falk, The Resilient Farm and Homestead
Ben developed Whole Systems Design, LLC as a land-based response to biological and cultural extinction and the increasing separation between people and elemental things. Life as a designer, builder, ecologist, tree-tender, and backcountry traveler continually informs Ben’s integrative approach to developing landscapes and buildings. His home landscape and the WSD studio site in Vermont’s Mad River Valley serve as a proving ground for the regenerative land developments featured in the projects of Whole Systems Design. Ben has studied architecture and landscape architecture at the graduate level and holds a master’s degree in land-use planning and design. He has conducted nearly 200 site development consultations across New England and facilitated dozens of courses on permaculture design, property selection, microclimate design, and design for climate change.
Hello everybody I’m Caryn Hartglass and it’s time for It’s All About Food here on a lovely December 10th, 2013. We had a big snowfall this morning but the sky now looks kind of clear, it has clouds in it but it’s a good day. It’s a little cold, it’s time to put on a sweater, right, and talk about my favorite subject—food. I want to jump in right away with my first guest because we’re going to have a lot to talk about this first part of the show and that is Ben Falk. He is the author of a book called The Resilient Farm and Homestead and Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach with Practical Information of Landscaping and Water Security Perennial Crop Soil Fertility Nutrient Dense Food and more. He developed whole systems design as a land-based response to biological and cultural extinction and the increasing separation between people and elemental things. Life as a designer, builder, ecologist, tree-tender, and backcountry traveler continually informs Ben’s integrative approach to developing landscapes and buildings. His home landscape and the Whole Systems Design Studio site in Vermont’s Mad River Valley serve as a proving ground for the regenerative land developments featured in the projects of Whole Systems Design. He has studied architecture and landscape architecture at the graduate level and holds a master’s degree in land-use planning and design. He has conducted nearly 200 site development consultations across New England and facilitated dozens of courses on permaculture design, property selection, microclimate design, and design for climate change. We need you Ben Falk, welcome to It’s All About Food.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I just got this book literally yesterday and I’ve been devouring it. What I like to do on this show is I like to focus on things that are inspirational, empowering and we hear so much in the news today about things that are scary, things that are violent, things that are destroying this planet and that’s not what we do here. We talk about things that are inspirational and empowering. I believe Ben is back so I’m going to bring him on. Welcome to It’s All About Food.
BEN FALK: Hi.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I just had a little introduction. I’m glad to have you. I got your book yesterday and I was really happy to get it because, as I was just mentioning, we hear so much bad about what’s going on in the world today and what I like to talk about on this show in particular, and in my life in general, are the positive things, the solutions, things that we can do. And clearly you have come up with an approach that works for you that a lot of us can learn from and get excited about.
BEN FALK: Thanks a lot. Definitely works for me very well and it’s something that’s increasingly drawing a lot of interest from people all over as possibility.
CARYN HARTGLASS: And it’s necessary because this is definitely the direction we need to go in. We’ve been going in a very interesting direction for the last couple of hundred years. And a lot of us are saying we can’t continue in that direction. What’s exciting to read about in your book is we can make significant positive changes more quickly than was suspected in improving our topsoil, strength and fertility of the land and this is really exciting.
BEN FALK: It is. The prospects for regeneration, meaning the ability we have to heal landscapes and to bring health back into land and into ourselves as well and our communities as a result. It’s surprising how quickly and deeply we can do that and that’s the best news I’ve ever come across in my life.
CARYN HARTGLASS: It really is great news. I wanted to say before we dig into this book a little bit that I really enjoy your writing. It’s somewhat poetic and there’s a spiritual voice there. It just made it very pleasurable reading while at the same time I’m realizing this work is not romantic, it’s not easy, it’s challenging. There was something that resonated with me in terms of…I just kept saying “yes, yes, yes, good, this is where we need to be going”.
BEN FALK: Thank you. I kept telling myself while I was writing this book, it’s not fiction, it doesn’t have to be great literature, it doesn’t need to be great writing. I’m just trying to share information. It’s a nice surprise to hear.
CARYN HARTGLASS: It’s definitely very good writing and it’s very honest and very true but there was just some really lovely energy that I was feeling coming out of the book.
BEN FALK: That’s great.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Yeah.
BEN FALK: I think maybe what comes across is the lifestyle and the direct contact that I have with the land and with the systems that I’m trying to share. Maybe that just comes through because I’m not a particularly great writer.
CARYN HARTGLASS: It could be also that I love the outdoors and I live in New York City so I don’t have an opportunity to get my hands dirty very often and I like reading about it where I know other people—people in my family in particular—who stay far away from dirt…and probably would not enjoy reading much about it. Some initial philosophy we read about in the beginning of the book that permeates this concept—some in response to what’s plaguing our society today where all businesses, all lifestyles these days, seem to focus on short-term quick fixes, quick income with a disrespect and no regard to the long-term and we are really suffering for that. It sounds like from what you’ve developed there is a way to, with planning, with intelligence, to benefit in the short-term, while planning for the long-term.
BEN FALK: Yes, certainly. That’s very accurate. I think all that we’ve learned directly from the work on our land, and seen how the land responds, how plants grow and how animals grow as well, and how the whole land system responds, that lesson is available when we look at other cultures and historically as well. When we look at examples of how people have tended their places and their own lives in a way that is good for the hundreds of years and the many, many generations. Usually we find people weren’t suffering day-to-day because they live that way, usually just the opposite. Actually I can’t think of an example when people weren’t tending to the ages with their daily work that their daily lives were terrible because of that. It’s always been just the opposite. It’s funny I think there’s this kind of myth that we should just snatch up everything we can for the short term while at least the near-term will be great. Actually, it’s kind of just the opposite. Not only is the long-term not tended to but the short-term is usually very dissatisfying, unhealthy and destructive as well.
CARYN HARTGLASS: We have a lot of depressed people on the planet right now. It’s because of this disconnect that we have with nature.
BEN FALK: It doesn’t seem too surprising. How could it not be so depressed? Our kinds of daily interactions with our sustenance sources and the basics of what we need to live the way they are today.
CARYN HARTGLASS: OK, so you’re talking about permaculture in this book. Can you just give a brief explanation of what that is for people who may not be that familiar with it?
BEN FALK: Sure. There’s a lot of ways to define permaculture but for me the way I use the term is simply a life system—it’s more than just gardening and growing food although that’s a big part of it—a life sustaining situation, a lifestyle and also the way we’re connected to community and an economy as a result where we are modeling our actions and the design of our system on how nature has evolved, how nature works. We’re getting our sustenance, we’re growing food as a result of tending to ecosystems and getting food almost as a side-yield of a system. It’s very different than say you have a ten acre field and you say I want to grow these three crops and everything else we want to remove and destroy because we just want the three crops. In a permaculture you say what ecosystem does best here? You look around at the most natural sites you can find in that climate, in that area and you say how can we garner yields for ourselves out of that ecosystem that wants to live here anyway. It’s working with nature as much as possible, never working against. So you really start to glean yields, food, medicine, fuel, fiber—whatever it is you may need—as side benefits of a system that’s working on its own anyway. So it’s very different even from organic farming. An organic farm is still we want these ten or twenty crops, let’s destroy every other living thing that’s there to get these crops and we may not use particularly toxic materials to do that in an organic farm but still in no way working with how the natural system wants to function and evolve over time in that place which is usually forest-based, tree-based and that’s why permacultures are so into tree crops and having trees be at the center of the system. Everything about most landscapes in most of the world will revert to a forested system over time. That’s the most stable and arguably the most robust healthy ecosystems over time. So we want to figure out how to fit within that, how to fit our food and other systems within the model of a forest.
CARYN HARTGLASS: This philosophy of permaculture, it really can be applied to all things it seems like. Many of us try to control so many things around our lifestyle—the relationships we have. When we learn to accept what is and work with something or someone rather than against them things can really thrive. It’s the same with the land.
BEN FALK: Absolutely. That’s what a permaculture really is. We always have to remind ourselves—it’s not a system of just growing food, although that’s where you see it manifested most fully—it’s really an approach that can be taken to all aspects of life. It’s one of those approaches like you’re describing when it’s realized, the beauty of it is very, very simple but it’s also such a radical thing to do even though it sounds so basic: Let’s just work with systems around as they want to manifest themselves naturally anyway. It’s so basic of an idea and also it looks so radical in practice.
CARYN HARTGLASS: It’s radical in our times today in our industrialized, corporate-related times. But it wasn’t radical centuries ago.
BEN FALK: No. Exactly. It’s really telling of how far we’re removed from the way living systems want to work for us to feel that it is radical.
CARYN HARTGLASS: You mention tree crops. I want to talk a little about trees. Trees are always undervalued. When people talk about the return on investment of building a business or doing something and they have to cut down trees they never include the real value of trees. At one point in the book you compared the return on investment of planting a tree to an IRA account.
BEN FALK: Yes, absolutely. I wanted to break down that value in very straight, baseline monetary terms and realized as I was doing it—which I should say with the help of my father who knows how to calculate compounded interest and do all the numbers I ran through there—I realized as a purely economic instrument what trees do and the way they accrue value over time and the interest they bear they are highly lucrative economic devices. I forget the numbers off the top of my head but you have them there in front of you, the net yield return on investment over time, it’s very high from trees and from forests.
CARYN HARTGLASS: It was great comparison and a frame of reference people aren’t used to thinking about which is where we need to be going, really realizing the value of what is given to us just on this earth if we could only respect and nurture we would be a lot richer in so many ways.
BEN FALK: Absolutely. And trees are only one example of the larger way we are trying to learn how to work with living systems in general which is that the idea of working and living off the interest not mining the principal. To put it in economic terms, that’s all we’re trying to do in permaculture is live off the interest, live off the current solar gain as some people might put it. Not dig down and mine the ancient sunlight in the form of fossil fuels—that’s mining the principal and we know from economics 101 if you mine the principal of your bank account you have nothing to bear interest. You’ve mined the bedrock of your foundation. That’s all we’re trying to do.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Now how did you come upon with this piece of land—you have about ten acres and you’ve had it a little over a decade? The way you describe it, it wasn’t the nicest piece of property you could start with.
BEN FALK: Yeah, in some ways it was the perfect piece of property for us to start with that we realize in retrospect but absolutely if you’re looking to just grow food it’s not the kind of piece of land to pick. It’s basically clay and gravelly, silty soils and boulders. It’s not agricultural soil. It’s not the kind of land that we grow food on nowadays, certainly on a farm scale. It’s sloping, it’s steep, drop a couple hundred feet in a pretty short distance. It ended up being the perfect backdrop for figuring out how to evolve the food system as a whole and also our lifestyle as a result because really what this landscape is—the ten acres that I have—it’s actually like most of the planet. It’s a lot more like most of the planet than deep soil agricultural land. That’s just a very small proportion of the planet where we garner most of our food, right now. So it was a great model to work with because most of the land you have to work with on the planet is this degraded poor soil, sloping, has those characteristics. So it’s a great model. It also then forces innovation. You just can’t work with it using systems the way we grow food today—you can’t just till rows with a tractor and plant annuals and use the typical food system. It just won’t…the landscape I’m on…just won’t allow that so it forces a certain creativity.
CARYN HARTGLASS: There’s a lot of useful information in here. What I like about it…you even talk about your approach…is that you’re not really telling people the specific details of what they need to do. You’re talking about your experience, what you considered, what you did. All the time you keep mentioning in here that the answer to most questions is, it depends…because each piece of land, each climate is individual like we are.
BEN FALK: Absolutely. It’s really easy–the way we raise young people today–the kind of industrial mindset, we want a prescription. Quite literally and also figuratively, we want someone to tell us here’s step one, two, three, four, five–you do it this way, you get this result. Landscapes aren’t like that. They’re all different. Every place has it’s own rules. While there’s patterns that carry from one place to another and we teach those patterns in permaculture design courses, the details of each place are very different so we have to understand those patterns and ask the right questions and the overarching principals at work. We all can discover, and have to discover, the details of how to go about solving the challenges in front of us and in our own places. There’s as many answers as there are places. That’s so fascinating and exciting and empowering because we all have to become our own experts on the place that we live.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Be your own expert. Be your own expert and start trying stuff. I like that.
BEN FALK: Absolutely. It’s the really empowering view I think. We can all be empowered by that view.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Now I was really fascinated that you are growing rice on your property in Vermont.
BEN FALK: Yeah.
CF: When I think about rice I think about California which probably isn’t a good place to be growing rice.
BEN FALK: Well, it has a great climate for it, as for many crops but rice is just one of the many things that emerges, one of the possible solutions that emerge from us trying to fit into the place we live and trying to understand how to do well by the place, how to build soil fertility and how to hold water on site and not dump the water off our site, not degrade our soil and cause erosion and in the meantime how to get food, fuel, medicine, the basic needs of our lives from that land. In that attempt to fit ourselves to the land making paddies seemed like a very good idea. Rice paddies are just constructed wetlands that you can eat out of. They’re just edible storm water retention basins. We know the value of slowing water down and retaining it in things like wetlands is crucial. Here’s a system you can actually also grow food in. There’s a couple of rice strains that are short enough season that you can actually try in the very short season we have in the mountains of Vermont. So we gave it a go and it’s definitely viable. We’ve helped to prove, along with a few other farms, that it’s viable although ours was really the first significant rice paddies in as cold of a climate that we are in, in the North America at least. There is probably…a handful of years ago when we started…there was no one else growing rice in as cold of a place. Now there is so we know it’s possible but when we started we really didn’t know but it is and rice is a staple crop. You can store it for a long time so it’s a valuable thing. It’s one of the only annual agriculture crops in the world that ever figured out how to grow in a truly sustainable and perpetual way, not just hundreds of years but thousands of years on the same piece of land. Most of the time when we grow annuals we destroy the place within short order, a few hundred years or less, but there are rice paddies in Asia that have been in continous use for 4,000 years. They’ve been able to perpetuate the fertility in those systems.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I loved reading about it and the pictures you have are really beautiful. It’s not only beneficial from what you’re reaping from it but the landscape with the ponds in it surrounded by the trees and the other foliage is stunning.
BEN FALK: Yeah, they’re really beautiful.
CARYN HARTGLASS: It’s really beautiful. I wanted to mention when I first started reading the book I was thinking I wonder if he read Helen and Scott Nearing’s The Good Life and certainly you listed it in the appendix. That was a story that came out in the depression where a couple, and they were in their fifties I think when they got started, they both had good jobs that they lost, and then they decided to make a go of it with farming and survived and thrived by making their own food. It was a lovely story and I loved reading it. I don’t know what your motivation was to do this. I don’t think yours was necessarily the same but it’s a similar theme.
BEN FALK: I certainly read the Nearing’s…not all their books…but at least Living The Good Life in college but it was definitely one of the key turning points for me in realizing what I could do with my own life was reading their book…probably freshman and sophomore year in college. My motivations were similar and different. I think they were more similar than different but I also wanted to live in a beautiful quiet place where I could see the stars and not constantly listen to the drone of just human creations but also the songbirds and wind and the snow coming down and all of the other million things that nature offers us but also to take some of my own existence into my own hands a lot more. It was also somewhat accidental. I was going to graduate school for architecture and it happened to be near that school—this piece of land—and the idea wasn’t that I was going to live there and homestead forever. That was in the back of my mind. I wanted to do that some day. The way I ended up on this particular piece of land was a little more accidental than that. In thought that part of my life was going to come later but it actually came sooner than it might have.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Well it seemed accidental to you but I’m sure the universe had it in its plan.
BEN FALK: Yeah, probably, always a little more at work than we realize.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Do you have any recommendations for those of us who live in an urban environment?
BEN FALK: Yeah, you know there’s a lot of great work being done in urban places, in urban permaculture. Groups like the Gorilla Gardeners in New York City are doing a lot of stuff. It’s not what I focus on personally obviously since I live in such a rural place but there’s great resources out there as far as what you can do. You can grow a whole bunch of food in very small spaces especially if you get really vertical, use a lot of trellising and vine crops and work in the vertical element, you can even do a lot of stuff on a balcony. You do need some space and some sunshine to do a lot of things but that being said there’s people growing all sorts of food and also just kind of reclaiming some of their own basics with water systems and some of their food systems in really small spaces. It’s not just food obviously, I talk about in the book… there’s some energy systems. As far as really reclaiming a lot of these basics and taking stock and creating an overall more resilient lifestyle that includes food, energy, medicine, water systems, heating systems, you just have more options to do that where you have some space in a more rural or at least suburban area. The more we depend on and are locked into municipal systems oftentimes the less options we have at our disposal to work with. A lot of great work is being done on that front.
CARYN HARTGLASS: You talk about replenishing your soil and you go into really nice detail with images on how you replenish certain areas, increasing your topsoil really quickly in an area that had relatively nothing because of the abuse that had been done on this land for so long and that was really inspiring. I was kind of entertained or amused to read about how much you encouraged urinating outdoors and the benefit of doing so on plants because of the nutrition that they get. Makes sense.
BEN FALK: We’re getting all our nutrients from the food we eat, they have to go back somewhere.
CARYN HARTGLASS: We’re really uptight these days about being sterile. It’s impacting us in so many ways. Now we’re discovering all these autoimmune diseases that people are getting is linked to the fact that we’re not connected to the healthy bacteria. There was a story recently that came out that the Amish don’t have some of these autoimmune diseases because they’ve got barns with animals and manure lying around and all this bacteria in the air is beneficial for us and not having it is not good.
BEN FALK: We’ve actually had more than one client move to rural Vermont and we’ve tried to help them develop their systems. One of their motivations was their kids were becoming kind of sickly and they had some understanding that it was the result of literally not having enough dirt in their life, not having enough exposure to living systems and not developing a robust immune system. They’ve all experienced a serious improvement in this situation and their kids were becoming allergic to this, that and the other thing from the overly sterile existence that we’re used to. They keep farm animals now and have a lot more health on that front.
CARYN HARTGLASS: The last thing I want to talk about is water. You like to call this place we live in Planet Water instead of Planet Earth.
BEN FALK: Yeah, it’s really what defines our existence. On all sides we’re bounded by what water provides. It certainly is what makes this planet different than all the others out there as far as we know. Water is the start and end point of all life processes. The neat thing is if you get on top of managing your water by virtue of doing that you’re managing your soil. When there’s an erosion problem on a piece of land it’s not just a function of soil. First it’s a function of water, of where the water takes the soil. The water is the medium that moves everything and the universal solvent that holds everything. It holds a lot of fertility as well. What we’ve learned through growing rice especially and through some other crops is that if we can flow, spread and sink water on our site, if we can retain as much water as we can on our site—which is the opposite of what most of twentieth century civil engineering is taught to do, just get it out of here, remove it, put it in the ocean basically—we can actually increase our fertility, increase the production of the land, the actual performance of the system while reducing flooding and the kind of negative impacts offsite which result from shunting water off of land while eliminating erosion causing some other major improvements in the systems. So it starts and ends with water.
CARYN HARTGLASS: We have a lot of re-education to do.
BEN FALK: Yes we do.
CARYN HARTGLASS: For many of us who have no idea where our food comes from outside of a supermarket some people are lucky enough to go to farmers’ markets but aside from that most of us have no idea what it takes to grow our food. Don’t forget, next to air, which we cannot live without, we can’t live without food and water and it’s so important for our survival. I think just reading a book like this can help get us more connected with the appreciation of what it takes and to do it sustainably and in balance. So where can people find…you give courses too…where can people find out more about you and what you know?
CARYN HARTGLASS: Oh, I think we just lost you unfortunately. I am going to look here on my website: wholesystemsdesign.com. You can link from my website responsibleeatingandliving.com and find out more about Ben Falk and his business. There’s lots of wonderful information there, they have videos, workshops and this book is lovely. I really enjoyed reading it and I think whether you’re interested in farming and buying land, creating a farm or just having a garden there’s a lot of wonderful information here. It’s common sense but we’ve been encouraged not to think simply and in balance with nature and I got a lot out of it.
Transcribed by Suzanne Kelly, March 24, 2014