Ensuring Vitality

Leona Palmer

Leona Palmer › Leona Palmer was a native of rural Wisconsin before becoming a time-tested New Yorker. After having ...


(Above: an example of the preliminary work Edible Yard and Garden provides for a customer)

Farming on the Road: Asheville’s Ben Portwood

As my internship at Newton Community Farms ended and I realized that (barring a return to NYC) a car was necessary, mobility and freedom seized me. Connecting the dots between places I’ve always wanted to go and places of people I love, a clockwise route emerged around the edge of the country from Boston to the Great Lakes where I was born. To take in different local food movements and visit my friends and see our truly breathtaking country.

Reader, I hit the road.

I said goodbye to Casey the farm dog, headed off to New York City to pick up my partner and continued down towards our first destination: Asheville, NC.

We camped that night in the staggeringly gorgeous Shenendoah National Park. The next day we lunched in Roanoke, VA, where the historic City Market is open daily year-round. Here, I ate the most delicious peach of my life raised by seventh generation local growers, King Brothers Farm and Orchard.

Outside Asheville we set up camp at Pisgah National Park, took a dip in Lake Powhatan and then fell fast asleep. The next morning’s breakfast was organic yogurt and granola at the cooperatively run Firestorm Cafe & Books, a hub for political and social evolution. Then I was off to interview Ben Portwood of Edible Yard and Garden, an edible landscaping company working out of Atlanta, GA and Asheville. My GPS led me out of the city and down increasingly unpaved roads until I came to a swath of stunning “mountain flatland” in a sort of valley. Ben and a crew were working on a structure, sweating under the sun. To the side sat a new barn, four stately locust beams rising to support an overhang. We walked the property talking about his journey, philosophy, education and practice in ‘regenerative’ rather than simply ‘sustainable’ living: more than sustaining is required, we have to repair the damage. He encouraged not identifying overly with the process (healing), but rather getting it done (“be healed”).

It begins with an apple: flown, shipped, and driven from a conventional New Zealand orchard to Minneapolis. Ben, picking it up at his local grocery, realized that consuming this apple would be “a fundamentally destructive act.” Working as a commercial musician when he met with his pivotal piece of produce, Ben embarked on a six-month personal transition into a new sort of awareness, “back to nature” humming through his mind. A relationship inspired him to sell his things and cast himself into the unknown, flying to Amsterdam and then ending up in an intensive two-year apprenticeship in permaculture at the Monsant Institute in Spain. Ben would spend 18 months in Catalunya among vineyards and 1500-year-old olive orchards.

He has never farmed in the sense of row crops and questions our assumption of ‘farming’ as such, telling me about the USDA’s search for marketable crops in the early 1900’s and its finding that cultures living on annual grain crops were poorer, worked harder, and sang less than those living on perennial crops. As well as J. Russell Smith’s 1929 Tree Crops, who deplored the erosion and depletion inherent in row farming and advocated the use of trees as staple crops. Ben observes that most farmers do what they’re good at and try to conform land to their needs, market demands or skills—creating more work for themselves and often burning out in an endless struggle to manipulate a natural ecology. “We are creating a vacuum in the ecosystems with annual production.” Fields stripped of forest, diverse plant life, wildlife, insects, or pests, and biomass.

Returning to the states, Ben found his way to Asheville after a short stint at the Missouri Center for Agroforestry. He’d always felt an affinity for North Carolina where he’d visited aunts and uncles when young. So, when one aunt suggested Asheville in a conversation about tree farming, he looked up annual temperatures and rainfall and took the jump, within three months establishing a community and looking for land. Meanwhile he began the edible landscaping business.

Edible Yard and Garden works on a few key principles and practices in permaculture, water management and holistic care which prioritize balance and ethical clarity. Beginning with an establishment phase, sometimes a few stages, and then easing out into the long term which requires minimal maintenance. The goal is to create a self-sustaining mini-ecosystem. First the earth is sculpted (in “swales”) into a system of passive rainwater harvesting, catching water in shallow basins which create plumes underground in desirable locations and keeping it away from others—like the house foundation. One customer’s sump-pump ran an average of 12 hours after rain, it hasn’t run since Edible Yard and Garden’s service. The stages allow for adaptation along the way to the soil’s characteristics, drainage and quality.

The water system determines the bed locations, where soil is moved in and “fed” with compost, green sand, micronutrients and bacteria. It is covered and allowed to mature without compaction or tillage while being added to. Next a collection of trees, bushes and perennial plants is established by area and preference: fruit and nut trees such as chestnut, mulberry, elderberry, fig, pear or hazelnut; muscadines or ‘scuppernongs’ (the only grape native to North America), asparagus, rhubarb and blueberry bushes; walking onions, strawberries, herbs and perennial flower beds.

As the yard flourishes and a healthy balance of shade and sun, soil quality and plant health is established, pest pressure should decrease (pests are predominantly a sign of imbalance) and a mix of birds and beneficial insects can thrive. Customers are attracted to Edible Yard and Garden for political and utilitarian purposes, many are concerned with water management in Atlanta especially, as its agricultural business has suffered from drought. They do both full installations and consulting. While they don’t deal directly with annual plants or garden crops like tomatoes, Ben fully advocates people growing their own food for the benefits physically, emotionally (dirt contact has been linked to an increase in antidepressant hormones) and nutritionally and will establish the layout of a garden in the landscaping plan, staggering the ecology of the yard with the annuals to make them mutually beneficial.

His vision for a family and community agricultural project came to life when he saw 16 acres of the most useable mountain land he’d seen, the land we were currently standing on. Ben knew this place was special when a friend responded “My favorite swimming hole is there.” As the former site of charcoal kilns, the driveway still featured scales. They cleared stumps, milled boards from dead or dying pines and poplars, put in a composting toilet, finished the barn and started work on the house, which will be finished within the month as his current lease expires. Besides fasteners, the house is composed of on-site and local lumber, recycled windows, slip straw and overstock clay from a local artist studio. His long term goal is to integrate livestock for milk and meat consumption or sale, as well as landscape maintenance: chickens, beefmaster cows (selected for disease resistance and self-sufficiency in reproduction) and sheep.

A large irrigation pond collects rainwater channelled by a slightly graded driveway on the hillside leading to a home his parents are building with commercial green supplies. The nursery on-site, which supplies the landscaping company, includes: Chamilia bush—yielding black tea; quince and chinese date trees; goumi berry bushes (high in lycopene and a nitrogen fixer in the soil); Sweet Tea Vine (vigorous, shade-loving and, like ginseng, an adaptogenetic); and Paw Paw saplings (otherwise known as the poor man’s banana and the largest native fruit in North America, noted by Lewis and Clark). The size of an avocado with a banana custard flavor and high disease resistance, the Paw Paw fell out of popularity due to its difficulty shipping. (Most grocery produce ripens timely and uniformly and ships well, such as apples.) Nearby, mushroom logs are stacked in the shade. Fruit and nut orchards are in the works and he plans to give space to a group trying to revive the American Chestnut, nearly wiped out in a blight in the early 1900s. Community is an important part of his vision for the property; “No one lives in a vacuum. No one can produce everything they are going to consume. We shouldn’t even be trying for that.” He believes in local interdependency and sustenance; people working together doing what they are good at.

A tractor is parked in the drive, but Ben notes its cost (in money and fuel) equals what it saves (in labor and time) in the short term. Eventually the goal is to have that work do itself through holistic management, creating dynamic equilibrium and synergy; a comprehensive and integrated system that works within the limits of personal and environmental well-being. He emphasizes the first step is determining your parameters of labor and time and work within them. When something requires more: revise, find something that works better, select for the characteristics that are desirable. Speed, efficiency, beauty and above all simplicity. “Set yourself up for success,” he says, “Do things that save work rather than create work.” He concedes that it’s an experimental process, but that diversity—relying not on one leg but balanced between landscaping, perennial orchards, livestock, and nursery, ensures vitality. The land knows how to balance, it’s doing it all the time—work with instead of against it, approach it through what’s necessary and nourishing.

Photo Credit: Leona Palmer