Greetings, Friends – Happy Solstice!
The Murphy-Collins team has exciting news… we are so pleased to announce the birth of our new garden – presently named, “The BFG”. B is for Big and G is for Garden. F is for Friendly or other descriptors. She is a 2-acre planting in our family’s pasture that frames the eastern edge of the farmstead. She presently has over 1,230 trees and shrubs planted within her space – perennials that will provide ecosystem, medicinal, food, and economic gifts. With over 66 species of plants, the BFG now hosts black elderberries, black currants, red & yellow raspberries, gooseberries, serviceberries, witch hazel, peach, plum, crab apple, red maple, oak, gingko, fir, and chestnut trees… and transplants of perennial flowers will be coming soon.
Much like giving birth to a new human being, lots of anticipation and visioning were in gestation before labor began. We’ve prepared the site, planted all of the plants (some by hand, some by tree-planter), installed tree-tubes & weed fabric, watered, and graciously danced every time it rains… and now the care-taking and nurturing work begins. One wholly different comparison to that of giving birth to a person is that this labor was shared amongst many. Steve fabricated a rain catchment and irrigation system, helped establish straight rows (harder than you think), plowed, tilled, & mowed to prep the site, and helped get plants in the ground. My uncle David helped dig holes and drove the tractor for our tree-planting machine. My older sister’s family helped put the tree tubes together and plant currants. My parents helped us (and continue to help us) with kid care and whatever else was needed. It certainly puts wind in one’s sail to have a helpful team and to share in the celebration of transformational success. Photos below capture some of our process.
This new garden – this field of perennial crops – is a step towards a more sustainable way of living and it brings me much joy to see this vision coming into reality. The way in which conventional agriculture engages the land, the way that it disengages people and their relationship to the Earth, the way that the government partners with chemical corporations and disempowers small family farms and entire farm communities needs to end. While I write this post, the acreage of my larger family’s farm is still conventionally farmed and we now get notification from our neighbor & hired farmer when chemicals are going to be sprayed. I want to acknowledge the discomfort of this physical and mental juxtaposition to my being an organic farmer and a resident within a conventional family farm. I also want to acknowledge the challenges farmers face to divest from this monopolized system and change their approach. And so… I will focus on the benefits of perennial farming and why it calls to my heart as one solution forward for many of our societal and environmental ills.
Having a Perennial Farm has been my vision since we moved to Illinois. I was initially lured in by the ecosystem benefits as perennial crops protect soil from erosion and improve soil structure. They additionally increase the retention of nutrients in an ecosystem, sequester carbon, and enable water to infiltrate the soil. They offer an opportunity to provide habitat for pollinators and a microbiome on which we depend. And… trees and shrubs bring beauty into one’s backyard. On the workload side of things, perennial crops are planted once and can take a few years of maintenance and care to get established. The cash flow from harvests is slow to start however perennial crops pay dividends in time. “Researcher Ernst Götsch calculates that planting forests can be 8 times more profitable than grains, without even taking into account all the ecosystem benefits generated for the planet and its inhabitants, such as: the absence of toxic substances sprayed on crops, air, soil and water; increased soil fertility; production of foods with high biological value (very high vitality); recovery of springs and water production.” (Centro de Pesquisa em Agricultura Sintropica 2019)
The amount of time it takes for each perennial crop to be harvestable varies reinforcing the advantages of diverse plantings. When we look to Nature, she shows us that diversity is what strengthens an ecosystem. Of our plants that have gone in the ground this spring, I anticipate having raspberries to harvest next year, gooseberries, elderberries, and currants starting in year 3, and harvesting my first fruit trees in year 4. Most perennial trees and shrubs can continue to bear fruit or nuts for decades.
Steve & I were financially able to take the plunge into planting our BFG thanks to the cost-share support from the Natural Resource Conservation Services Conservation Stewardship Program (ALPHABET SOUP = NRCS CSP!). Our 2-acre planting was a line item within our family farm’s CSP contract. There are other programs within the USDA’s NRCS offerings that can also support tree and shrub plantings (ie, CRP, EQIP) – it just depends on your situation, goals, and each program’s rules. Navigating these offerings online is more than a chore and talking with your local NRCS representative is the best way to move forward.
If you are interested in learning more about Perennial Agriculture, I encourage you to check out the Savanna Institute – a non-profit organization that promotes perennial farming through research, education, outreach, and farmer networking.
We have the opportunity to reclaim our connection to and relationship with the Earth, honoring her gifts that provide nourishment to our bodies, minds, and spirits. Perennial Agriculture is one phenomenal opportunity to tend this relationship.
P.S. This post’s title brought to you by Lenny Kravitz