WNC CRAFT  – A Way of Life Farm – “Permaculture on a Working Farm” – August 23rd, 2015


DSC_0081The WNC CRAFT August farm tour took us to the foothills at A Way of Life Farm. Our topic this month was “Permaculture on a Working Farm.” The farmers Sara Jane and Jamie Davis gave us an excellent tour of their farm and honest insight into how they incorporate permaculture into their whole farm plan.

Sara Jane and Jamie have been farming for six years in Bostic, NC on their 42-acre farm. They currently grow 2 acres of annual vegetables, and raise pastured pork. The Charlotte Farmers Market and a 40 member CSA are their main markets, with a few restaurants on the side. As Jamie put it, “We grow a little bit of everything, and not a lot of anything.” Much of that has to do with the land where they farm, it’s not suited toward lots of vegetables or lots of livestock. “The land dictates what you do on the land,” Jamie said which has led them to a diversified production system.

To start us off Jamie and Sara Jane gave us their perspective on Permaculture. The concept of permaculture is synthesis of different growing disciplines developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren as a reaction to the state of agriculture and energy use in U.S. in the 1970s. Mollison defines it in this way:DSC_0065

“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation, rather than protracted and thoughtless action of looking at systems and people in all their functions, rather than asking only one yield of them; and of allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions.”

Despite it’s humble beginnings over the years permaculture has come to mean a lot of different things to different people. Jamie explained, that now permaculture seems to be more about what you do, the things, the techniques. But, it’s not about WHAT you do so much as HOW you do it. What really sets permaculture apart from other growing disciplines are its guiding ethics: Care for the Earth, Care for People, and Return of Surplus. This philosophy creates a wide umbrella that can allow someone to evolve their specific techniques and practices to meet their needs, goals, and character of their land.

Sara Jane Davis

Sara Jane Davis

Jamie completed a permaculture design certificate course, which has led them to approach land management and their farm business through a permaculture lens. But, as Jamie pointed out, there are some drawbacks to the philosophy. In general, it tends to neglect economics, business, labor and human elements.Therefore, Sara Jane and Jamie focus on four key concepts that make sense for their farm and goals:

  • Balance short term needs with long-term goals – the ideal and the practical
  • Cultivate the Margin(al)
  • Four legs of sustainability: Environmental, Social, Economic, and Personal
  • Arrow of Succession

As we toured the farm they explained how their farm plan and practices fall into those four categories. Our first stop was their largest vegetable production field, about one acre and edged by tall trees. Jamie explained that while this is their largest field, it is not the most productive. In this field production is restricted by shade and tree root competition. During the spring and fall there are portions of the field that see very little direct sunlight. By fertilizing the field they are also fertilizing the surrounding trees and losing that input. Knowing this they have started to clear the edges of the field of tall trees and plant pawpaws in their place. Pawpaws are a native, low growing fruit tree and if they bring root competition at least they are fertilizing another crop in the process and thereby cultivate the margins.DSC_0071

In addition, when they first started the farm annual vegetable production was not a top choice. However, vegetables became a way to help them meet their more immediate needs while they waited for their fruit and nut orchards to come into production. At this point, 90% of their labor goes in vegetables, but as time goes on and they develop more efficient systems, the orchards will become productive and the enterprises will begin to balance out. Also, they have not expanded the acreage they cultivate for annual vegetables but have seen increased yields as they increase their efficiency and perfect their systems. These are an example of trying to balance short term needs with long term goals as well as their personal and economic sustainability.

As we walked we stopped by their high tunnels, cool and cold storage spaces they built into garages already on the land, and checked out their equipment shed. Jamie and Sara Jane see a lot of potential in high yielding covered growing with high tunnels and greenhouses, mixed with silvopasture where livestock graze in orchards. Sara Jane also explained their plans for mushroom production on wood chips (made from the trees they clear) and spent potting soil used at the base of orchard trees. They are experimenting with growing mushroom spores in liquid to make their own inoculant and training the cultures to produce on potting soil so they then have localized mushroom strains adapted to the materials they want them to grow on.

PawPaw Tree

PawPaw Tree

When we reached the top end of the property we had a view of a larger land management plan the Davis’s have for the farm. Before they bought the land, the forest had been planted in white pine and then clear cut about 12 years ago. So all of the woodlands are secondary small forest growth. This idea of managing the natural succession of land from bare to mature forest is the major work of a farmer, and is depicted in the Arrow of Success. In a version created by Andrew Goodheart Brown and Bill Whipple, the further left on the axis a plant or practice is the more you will be holding back succession – more energy and work is required. This tool is helpful not for pointing out what is good or bad, but by letting you see where your choices fall on that spectrum and put them into context. Then, when putting your farm together you can make educated choices, and hopefully cultivate things from the entire spectrum to encourage more diversity, resilience, and higher yields with less input.

This concept manifests on Jamie and Sara Jane’s farm as they begin the process of turning the secondary small forest growth into managed silvopasture – a 20 year plan. This past year they hired a company to come clear a portion of the property using a flail mower that mulched the trees and scrub. Now they can mow with a bushhog to keep the pasture open and will begin planting nut and fruit trees they are propagating like hardy citrus, chestnuts, hickory nuts, hazelnuts, acorns, pawpaws and persimmons. Eventually they will run their pig herd in between the tree rows letting the pigs forage on the nuts and fruits, so they are less dependent on buying organic feed. After a quick visit to the pigs, we settled in for another delicious potluck meal.

Thank you to Sara Jane and Jamie for a fantastic tour! Their honesty and commitment to aligning their farming practices with their long term life goals and ideals is an inspiration.

See you next time!

Now is the time to join CRAFT for 2015! WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. For more information or to join,click here. Or contact Cameron Farlow, Organic Growers School Farmer Programs Coordinator at 828.338.9465 or cameron@organicgrowersschool.org


Author: Cameron Farlow

Cameron Farlow is the Executive Director of Organic Growers School. Hailing from Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, she has now made her home in Western NC. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University. She also brings experience in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. In addition to her work with OGS, Cameron is a dancer, baker and avid adventurer.