Failure is an Opiton

“There are no mistakes in #Permaculture..” Mark Shepard

What a total epic disaster. . So glad I played the game. .

I had some pretty big plans for 2015 — well calculated, thought-out sort of plans. Plans that would more than make up for the goat rodeo that was 2014 (still not ready to blog about that fiasco), but also an all-or-nothing sort of gamble that didn’t allow any room for error. Following on the trajectory of “award-winning community gardener” all the way through to Farm Manager for a nationally recognized urban agriculture program (across the street from a sitting President’s home, no less) I thought it would be a great idea to really farm some land this year, for real. It was a great idea, too, it’s just that the weather didn’t cooperate. Turns out that’s farming for ya.

In December of 2014 I enrolled in the New Illinois Fruit and Vegetable Farmers program through Extension, which I knew to be an outstanding program, having sat in on several classes that year as a guest. Part of that program was supposed to be that I had to figure out a viable plan for a ¼ acre incubator plot in St. Charles, and follow through with it. More on that in a moment.

I have also been spending some quality time at the Fischer Farm in Bensenville, now part of the Du Page County Forest Preserve District, and formerly my extended family’s actual farm. Although I did not spend any time there growing up, it was a working dairy farm all the way through the 1990s. It’s a shame that they weren’t able to keep the farm running, but I am grateful that, thanks to the good stewardship of my forebears, Illinois has a few hundred acres of remnant prairie, wetland, and woodland that might otherwise be pavement. It’s now a historical preservation site, and I had agreed to provide all of the pumpkins for their Heritage Day festival in October, plus whatever other decorations I could grow. That festival turned out to be the same date as my sister’s wedding, and she also wanted pumpkins and various fall ornamentals. These seemed like pretty convenient opportunities, especially since my “off-farm” income doesn’t provide me with anything in the way of free time come July or August. Growing tomatoes, in other words, would have been out of the question.

So I placed an order with Johnny’s Seeds and waited for it to arrive. I was also waiting for the Frost Free Date to arrive on the calendar, which despite global weirding, is still at or about May 30 for these parts. Had a friend grow out some melons and a few other starts just for kicks, and I did manage to get some of those in the ground, but it rained an awful lot in June. The plot I was assigned spent a lot of time underwater, and those waters never really receded. I made several visits to the site and muddied my boots all the way through, but the ground just wasn’t workable. When I didn’t have any seeds in the ground by the first of July, I had to face the possibility that I wasn’t going to see any pumpkins this year. I did make a last ditch attempt on another borrowed site, simply trying to provide enough pumpkins for my sister’s wedding, but that site had serious mold and mildew problems and more than a few squirrels. And that’s pretty much my farming experience for 2015, without so much as a sunflower to show for my efforts.

Way back in the summer of 2014 I spent a long weekend at Mark Shepard’s farm in Viola, WI for a Restoration Agriculture Intensive, and I learned more than a few lessons there about farming with trees and plants and animals and such. As I recall, it rained an awful lot there too, but that’s beside the point. Mark had all sorts of pearls and snippets of wisdom to share with us as we sat in the classroom or meandered about his farm. “There are no mistakes in permaculture” he often repeated. One of the core practices in permaculture is deep observation. Gather all the data that you can, without judgment or prejudice. Don’t rush to interpret, just observe. Sooner or later, decision time is going to come, and when that time does come, remember that all decisions are made with incomplete data. Take the best data that you have available to you at that moment, make the best decision you can based on your accumulated wisdom and experience, and go back into observation mode. What happens next? What sort of outcomes do you get when you decide to do such and such? Gather ever more data. Rinse and repeat.

I may still farm next year, but I won’t feel bad if I take even more time to come up with a better plan. That plan now has to cover all the losses I incurred this year, not just the immediate cost of seeds and such, but there’s also the matter of all the time I put into the farm that I didn’t spend pursuing more viable income opportunities. Valuable lessons were learned, for sure, and I am grateful for the experience I gained, and for the convictions I solidified. I have for a while now subscribed to the philosophy that you shouldn’t play ball where you don’t own the field. The Extension program was a great opportunity, and if the stars had aligned it could have worked out great, but if that same piece of land were somehow mine, I would spend the first year cutting swales, sowing clover, and figuring out some way of turning excess rainfall into a resource instead of a liability. I already knew that at the start of 2015, but there’s a difference between reading about something and having first-hand experience.

I also have to factor in all the time I spent driving around between three counties, and whether the experience I gained is enough to offset the environmental cost of all the fossil fuels I burned, not to mention all the miles I put on my vehicle or the time I could have spent elsewhere. Probably, this time, but from now on I’m going to be taking a hard look at how I can consolidate all of my efforts, and I can think of a few places where I’m already spending a lot of time that could benefit from the planting of a few paw-paw trees. Stay tuned, because this story ain’t over, and I ain’t even close to quitting.

Karmapa Khyenno!