Friday, 16 August 2013

Pittsburgh is at the forefront of an unruly food movement: Permaculture

Darrell Frey, a lanky 55-year-old farmer with a goatee and ponytail, peels back overgrown brush to reveal blueberry bushes.

"I guess they call me 'The Original Gangsta' of Pittsburgh permaculture," he jokes as he plucks a near-ripe berry from one of the bushes at Three Sisters Farm, Mr. Frey's five acres in Sandy Lake, Mercer County.

More guru than gangsta, Mr. Frey is one of the most experienced permaculture practitioners in the United States. Permaculture, short for permanent agriculture -- or in its more evolved definition, permanent culture -- is a system of design that's a counterpoint to the conventional agricultural cycle of seed, weed, fertilize, harvest and leave fallow.

A conventional farm might have stalks of corn growing in monotonous, soldiers-on-parade-like rows, or acres of walnut trees blanketed with nothing but dirt. Even organic farms are neatly sectioned off by crop: Tomatoes here, beans there, peaches on their own plot.

Not so in permaculture design, where a little bit of wildness isn't just tolerated, it's encouraged.

Mr. Frey's farm is a vivid landscape. Nut trees and wild berries grow on the margins. Perennial vines of hardy kiwi and grape create borders and windbreaks. Reeds and wetland flowers sprout from a pond built to capture water for crop irrigation. The land lives in a space between wild and cultivated. This isn't your picture-postcard farmland.

"Our focus is on moving from conventional agriculture -- apple tree, apple tree, apple tree -- into a diversity of fruits and vegetables in the same space," says Juliette Jones, a former student of Mr. Frey.

Although cutting-edge farmers, social-justice activists and even preppers (people preparing for the end of the world as we know it) have been embracing permaculture design for years, it's just now beginning to find its way into the mainstream. The Beacon Food Forest, a seven-acre public foodscape in Seattle, offers free fruit to all who walk through it. Mark Shepard's New Forest Farm spreads over 106 acres in Wisconsin. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- its idealistic vision, permaculture principles are increasingly being recognized as an inherently logical and sustainable way to cultivate the land.

And Pittsburgh, for once, looks to be at the forefront of a food movement.

Permaculture was pioneered by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Tasmania in the 1970s. Mr. Holmgren's 12 principles remain the bedrock of a system that has evolved over the past 40 years:

Observe and interact with the land; capture and store as much natural energy as possible (composting, rain barrels); get something from your work (food or knowledge); learn from past mistakes; use renewable natural resources (make a trellis from home-grown bamboo rather than buy a pre-fab plastic one); don't waste anything; look to nature for intuitive design ideas; incorporate, don't segregate; solve problems slowly and deliberately; value diversity; use the edges and margins; change is inevitable, so be observant and respond in a forward-thinking manner.

Permaculturalists often cite Native American principles of land management as a model for how they think about space. A food forest may appear to be a mimicry of the natural world, but it's actually a deliberately designed landscape.

"The idea is that you create a system that replicates natural systems, but where the plants work for you in a useful way," says Ms. Jones.


Darrell Frey first read about permaculture in Mother Earth News, the influential environmental magazine, in 1980. A year later, he says, "I met Bill Mollison. He told me to go home and start a nursery and have a market garden. That's how you spread permaculture."

Still, "in the first 10 years we lingered in obscurity." During that time he honed his craft as both a farmer and a teacher, and began to develop a local and national following after writing a seminal permaculture-design book, "Bioshelter Market Garden: A Permaculture Farm."

Three Sisters Farm established itself as a model of permaculture design primarily through practical demonstration of its principals -- foremost, that permaculture farms can be profitable. Early on, a potential partner suggested that Mr. Frey file for nonprofit status. He wasn't interested. "I wanted this to be a working business."

Still, this "working business" model comes with a caveat: Money isn't the only way to profit. A conventional farm system is designed to maximize financial gain through intensive productivity. Inputs -- fertilizer, pesticides, water -- are added as needed (or even when not needed) to produce as much food as possible. But short-term profit in conventional systems has lasting consequences; runoff from unused fertilizer pollutes downstream watersheds, insects grow resistant to pesticides, and eventually the land itself runs out of steam.

"We're not so worried about the yield per square foot or acre as we are with the total health of the soil and the land around it," says Mr. Frey.

To that end, a large locust tree rises in the center of a bed of salad greens. The tree may pirate precious growing space, but it also serves multiple purposes: It provides free fertilizer by fixing airborne nitrogen into the soil, it shades tender greens from the heat of the summer sun, and its sturdy branches are used for woodworking projects around the farm.

And while the total yield of crops might be less than on a conventional farm, his produce fetches premium prices.

Three Sisters Farm salad mix, a magical blend of annual greens and self-seeding wild plants that most farmers would consider weeds, retails for $12 a pound. A diverse array of restaurants, including Cure, the Big Burrito Group and the Bayer Corp. regularly purchase his produce.

"It's a really outstanding mix of diversity. It's also what our climate is suited for. We can grow salad mixes all year long," Mr. Frey says.

The nexus of Three Sisters Farm is his bioshelter, an "indoor ecosystem." The two-story, 4,000-square-foot building, framed on one side with floor-to-ceiling glass windows is, at its core, a highly advanced greenhouse.

Inside, seedlings sprout in rich compost. A rare perennial African Blue basil grows like a bonsai tree. 

Chickens, which provide both food and fertilizer, find refuge in the bioshelter chicken coop. Mr. Frey's office and classroom are here.

"My work was just the beginning," he says. "Other dynamic people will come along to take over the movement."

In Pittsburgh, many of them students of Mr. Frey, are already at work.

Forest of food

A sturdy concrete staircase in Pittsburgh rises to nowhere deep in an overgrowth of gigantic weeds. Below the stairs a cultivated trail peppered with small planters housing sapling fruit trees and plants line a pathway. 

Reach the end of the path and nearly an acre of land is cleared, planted and seeded. This is the Landslide, named for the event that brought down homes 40 years ago where the Hill District meets Uptown.

At the top of the stairs, Isaac Hill, a long-haired 25-year-old activist, surveys the seemingly post-apocalyptic landscape. "I was really impressed when I met Isaac. He knows what he's talking about," says Mr. Frey, who taught Mr. Hill in a permaculture class last year.

Homeschooled in rural Beaver County until ninth grade, Mr. Hill says that, as far back as he can remember, he's been fascinated with people's connection to nature. "I was just out in the woods all the time," he says. 

As the Occupy Movement gained steam two years ago, he found his call to activism by combining his love of nature with his passion for social justice.

"We're in a weird location that nobody wants to touch. It seems like nobody knows about it or cares about it, but this whole area was once a neighborhood," he says.

"The original people [who ran Landslide Collective] were anarchists. I'm kind of an anarchist, but not in the way that they are. I'm OK building this a little bit more inside the system."

Brownfield turns green

His permaculture project is beginning with a complete restoration of a destroyed landscape. The soil is totally contaminated with pollutants, so most vegetables are out of consideration because they'd be unfit for consumption. Fruit trees, however, are a safe bet and are being planted. So are flowers, herbs, and other plants that will pull minerals from deep in the soil. And then there are the mushrooms, one of nature's most effective clean-up crews.

"We're slowly restoring this land. All this organic material will break down and transform the soil," says Mr. Hill.

But there are challenges that go beyond rebuilding soil. Although the 1-acre site that's currently under construction is leased by a former member of Landslide (with plans to transfer the lease to Landslide) and the homeowner gave Landslide permission to establish an intercropped orchard anchored by 25 fruit trees on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Moultrie Street, the collective doesn't have legal rights to all the land in its vision plan.

Mr. Hill says that the neighboring acres of abandoned woodland are an ideal site for a food forest comprised of native trees and plants. However, that land is owned by the city. "We don't have it legitimate[ly], but we need to start doing what we can where we can do it," he says.

He hopes that by demonstrating the benefits of permaculture transformation -- perennial edible landscapes that beautify and feed neglected neighborhoods -- city government will give Landslide a garden waiver or turn the plot into a public greenway.

"Permaculture is permanent culture, and changing the culture is just as important as changing the way we grow our food. Food forests, edible trails, bioshelters, these are things we definitely can do. We just need examples. What we're doing here is trying to set an example," says Mr. Hill.

There's just that kind of example only three miles southeast of Landslide. There, volunteers at the Hazelwood Food Forest grow a staggering array of food on a restored post-industrial urban lot.

"When we first started this project, the lot was scrub, shrub, and bushes. Underneath that there were houses. We did a lot of excavation after we broke ground ... even kitchen sinks," says Michelle Czolba, who, along with Juliette Jones, began restoration of the 1/4-acre lot after receiving a Sprout Fund grant in 2009.

Now, says Seth Nyer, one of the managers of the forest, "this place is teeming with life. Look at all the new flowers that are blooming." He points to a 10-foot tree surrounded by wild columbine, blue false indigo, wormwood, and knotting onion. "Our peach tree is already producing like crazy."

If visitors look around, they'll see a diverse assembly of fruit trees, including cherry, peach, nectarine, apple and pear; perennial vegetables such as asparagus, rhubarb and sunchokes; a staggering variety of berries; culinary herbs such as thyme and sage, plus medicinal herbs such as comfrey and mugwort. The urban foresters who oversee the project envision a landscape that will, over the next few years, produce a self-sustaining bounty of diverse fruits, vegetables, roots and herbs.

"It's a great example of how perennial agriculture is a different way of thinking about growing food," says Ms. Jones.

For example, a mix of thyme, comfy, chives and echinacea grow beneath a cherry tree. This polyculture keeps the weeds at bay, produces extra food, feeds the soil, and provides a habitat for pollinating bees. 

"Everything we plant here serves a specific purpose. All these plants are working to help each other," says Mr. Nyer.

More impressive than the plants working together, he says, is that the community is growing to help the Hazelwood Food Forest thrive. "There's space to do things like this here. It's a different way of thinking and Pittsburgh is really receptive to that right now."

That's a good thing, he adds, because "these fruit trees are going to be here producing for a long time."

A permanent culture

The future of permaculture in Pittsburgh is on the rise. There are a number permaculture projects in the works in public spaces such as the Borland Green Ecological Garden in Larimer. Educational institutions such as Chatham University's School of Sustainability are incorporating permaculture into their landscapes, and homeowners throughout the region are planting small polycultures in their backyards. Garfield Community Farm is building on permaculture principles handed down from Mr. Frey; its bioshelter and market garden salad mix are direct descendants of his work. Permaculturalists have even designed a new style of marketplace, Schwartz Living Market on the South Side.

Still, despite the numerous green shoots, nobody can quite agree on precisely what permaculture is or how the future will move forward.

"Even within the permaculture community there's ongoing discussion about if it's a movement, or a science, or agricultural practice," says Mr. Frey.

Indeed, the beauty and the challenge of permaculture is that it means different things to different people. Because it's a design system suited to individual landscapes rather than a prescribed system that's found in conventional agriculture, there is a lot of room for interpretation.

"There are Libertarian preppers who don't care at all for the social-justice component, and also suburban moms who just want to plant something in their yard," says Landslide's Mr. Hill.

Ms. Czolba sees both the small and big pictures. "You can have a fruit polyculture even if you have a small backyard. It's simply about taking the principles of permaculture and multiplying it by the space you have," she says.

And she adds, "once established, there will be much less maintenance than traditional gardening."

That multiplication can be as small as simply encouraging your neighbor to plant a tree. Or, as she envisions, there is a much bigger-picture solution. Creating an integrated network of food forests will become a means of urban restoration. "We have so much vacant space in Pittsburgh, and we should make really good use of it. If we can get a network of these [forests] happening we could share resources, and keep adding to it year after year."

Hal B. Klein holds a master's in food studies from Chatham University and writes for The Allegheny Front, Pittsburgh City Paper and other outlets: