The Permaculture Podcast

    Episode 1466: Notes from the Finger Lakes Permaculture Tour (Permabyte)


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    On September 6th Photographer John and I traveled to Ithaca, NY and the surrounding areas to participate in the first even Finger Lakes Permaculture Site Tour, organized by the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute and sponsored by Ithaca Beer Co., Alternatives Federal Credit Union, GreenStar, Sustainable Tompkins, and a Neighborhood mini grant.

    This experience allowed us to visit functioning examples permaculture sites. There were twelve sites total, but we weren’t able to visit all of them. Rather, we made it to four:

    Wellspring Forest Farm

    This is Steve Gabriel’s homesite. A past, and returning, guest on the show, it was nice to see his home where he puts the practices we’ve talked about in the past, including farming mushrooms in the woods. Steve walked the open area of the farm with us and discussed the grazing practices he uses with the sheep as a way to control weeds, but how initially he had to knock down and remove a bunch of the woody material to get them to softer grasses the sheep could eat. Since they they’ve been effective at ground control. With ten sheep on pasture, we discussed how many he might add. He also showed a discharge swale connected to a hand-dug pond that would flood with overflow and move water through the landscape.

    As other visitors arrived John and I parted with Steve and went on a self-guided tour of the wooded area to see the mushroom production area. Unlike in my speaking with others in Pennsylvania, farming mushrooms in the woods of New York is a serious undertaking. All four sites we visited produced mushrooms in some capacity, all in much greater quantities than I or others I do.
    On the edge of the woods, not far from Steve’s home in the yurt, were a large series of wire mesh compost bins holding both garden and yard waste, as well as compost from the outdoor toilet.

    Emerging from the woods returned us to the large vegetable gardens situated along the main drive. Here a variety of plants grew, and provided a space for us to speak with Steve about cover crops. John and I both learned that if we want to use daikon radish to break up soil and add organic material, but also possibly harvest it for food, that we might stack functions, then it is important to pick radishes that are selected for food quality, not just tillage.

    Around this time more guests began to arrive so John and I headed on to Cayuta Sun Farm.

    Cayuta Sun Farm

    Cayuta Sun is the home of Michael G. Burns and forms a teaching campus for the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute. Along with meeting Burns and his wife, we also spoke with a number of the interns on-site and walked around to see the buildings, including the Octagon, a reciprocated beam round-wood structure that is the primary classroom. Looking up through the top the overlapping beams are visible, which the staff and students nicknamed, The Eye of Mollison.

    After the initial introductions Michael began an ongoing walking tour where people could drop in and out as needed. Along the way he showed us his brush-on-contour experiment that he is using to measure and judge runs for an agroforestry installation with his chickens. I really liked this idea, especially here in very wet Central Pennsylvania, because of how I could adapt this using brash I already have on my home site to layout and begin developing contoured fence rows to filter floodwaters and capture debris. Michael also showed us his Jerusalem Artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), which he uses as a ground cover and for biomass.

    We also saw his pigs, though I never did ask what breed they were. The piggies, however, were quite friendly and wandered alongside while we continued the tour back around to the front of the property to look at and discuss the energy budget of the home. On just a small wind turbine and a few solar panels the Burns’s meet all their energy needs, though with some concessions, such as a limit on small kitchen appliances.

    Here John and I split our party. I went to talk with the other folks onsite and he went to tour the Chicken Salad Bar garden and the Burns’ energy efficient home. John reported back that he was amazed by how efficiently the living space was utilized and how the way choices were made in order to maximize both the beauty, illustrated handsomely by the rich stain on plywood countertops. Inexpensive, pleasing to the eye, replaceable, but will take hot or cold foods or the slip of a knife.

    As I have a bent towards the social side of things, I was amazed by the number of people onsite as part of the tour, as well as the collaboration of the interns and long term residents. As a teacher, I liked to see the way the interns worked on their teaching ability as they ran continuous workshops on mushroom cultivation and introductions to permaculture.

    When John and I reconnected we had a nice chicken barbeque lunch and then headed over to the MacDaniels Nut Grove.

    MacDaniels Nut Grove

    Located on the Cornell campus, the MacDaniels Nut Grove started as a clear cut space that Mr. MacDaniels used as a research area to graft nut trees in the early 20th century. As Jamie, the onsite guide explained to us, Mr. MacDaniels saw nuts as an alternative to grain based agriculture. To develop the grove he would visit various farm shows and other agricultural events where nut competitions were held. There he sought out the winners of the events and asked to take cuttings of the award winning trees. His focus was on nut quality and overall productivity. Throughout the grove were a number of fine specimen trees.

    Fast forward to the 2000s and Dr. Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel began restoring the site from just standing trees. Now, in addition to the original Nut Grove, other woodlands products are being investigated, including PawPaw and mushrooms. There was a simple majesty to standing in that human-managed space that reminded me that we can work with nature to create beautiful landscapes that serve not only human needs, but other life as well.

    After visiting with Jamie and taking pictures there was one last site to visit, so we headed to Edible Acres.

    Edible Acres

    At Edible Acres we met Sean Dembrosky, who was unknown to me before attending this event. He has a very well developed small farmstead implementing permaculture, and his site is a reminder that money doesn’t need to be a barrier to this practice.

    He split black locust and combined it with some hardware cloth and some wire to keep out small animals as well as deer. Total cost? Under $100. Many of his plants he propagated himself over the past several years. Multiple times Sean referenced how he used design in order to minimize his cost outlays, then combined them with free or durable products in order to maximize the usefulness of his work.

    This hand-dug well Sean uses to collect rainwater runoff from surrounding fields. Using an inexpensive, $20, bilge pump he purchased off of eBay that is then connected to a solar panel and truck battery, he pumps that water up into a storage tank. Then, as needed, he opens the valve on the tank to flood irrigate his raised beds. He hand-leveled the beds by scraping the surface level with a hoe after flooding them, to show high and low spaces. This allows him evenly distribute water to all the beds.

    Now by flooding the garden water percolates into the edges of the raised beds and the surrounding ground. Because of the soil building he’s done, and by watching the landscape when he waters, little goes to waste.

    There were other examples of this throughout Sean’s property but we were short on time after the full day so headed back to the Ithaca Beer Company to process our pictures and post some to the Facebook page for the show,

    The Reception

    After the data download, thanks to the Ithaca Beer Company’s WiFi, we had a few pints, a bite to eat, and hung around with folks in the Finger Lakes region of New York who were interested in permaculture. In addition to Steve Gabriel and Michael Burns, we also met Karryn Olsen-Ramanujan and Rebecca Cutter, and spent time speaking with Matt Stillerman, and Chris, whose last name I didn’t catch. This was an enjoyable time because we learned more about the people and places that are doing this regenerative design work, including at the sites we didn’t get to visit. So where do we got from here?

    What’s Next?

    I want to go back up to the Finger Lakes and spend a few days in the area getting in-person interviews including first time conversations with Michael Burns and Rebecca Cutter, and follow-ups with Karryn Olsen-Ramanujan and Steve Gabriel. I also want to visit with Matthew and Petra of Fruition Seeds and speak with them about their unique plant breeding work to develop localized seeds using traditional methods.

    In the area is Melissa Madden, at Good Life Farm, who is someone practicing broadscale perennial agriculture. While there I also want to visit the other sites I didn’t visit on this trip, such as Sapsquach Maple Syrup or Hawk Meadow Farm. That trip organized for early 2015.

    If you like this kind of report and hearing about the various regional approaches to permaculture and the practitioners in the area, help support these field reports so we can learn more about the incredible permaculture projects active around the United States and elsewhere in the world. Go to to make a one time or ongoing contribution to this work. If you’d like you can include a note saying “travel” and I’ll earmark what you give for future trips of this kind.

    I do have two more journeys on the calendar. The next will be to Bridgeton, New Jersey, on October 11th for Chabacon, to see Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute deliver a keynote address and to engage with others on how a community can move towards more sustainable, and regenerative, practices.

    After that, from October 20th through the 22nd or 23rd, I’ll be in Roanoke, Virginia. As part of that trip I have a farm tours and interviews scheduled with Lee and Dave of Radical Roots Farm, in Keezletown, VA, Rick Frederick of Lick Run Farm, and Holly Brown of Island Creek Farm. While there, on Tuesday, October 21st, at 630pm I’ll be at the Roanoke Natural Food Coop, at Grandin Village, to share a short piece on permaculture.

    That’s it so far, but with much more to come. Thank you for your support to share permaculture as far and as wide as possible.

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