To most farmers it would take a pretty good reason to leave the fields in the midst of harvest time; for me that reason was the Permaculture intensive held at a place I had idolized, White Crow Farms in Winlaw, BC. I was born and raised on a hundred year old grain farm in North Eastern BC and we’ve been farming organically all of my life. Despite that experience I’ve never had the opportunity to participate in any kind of formal agricultural education so I was thrilled by the idea of gaining knowledge to help me in my first years of market gardening on my own. But more than theoretical knowledge, what excited me the most was gathering with other people within my age range that shared my enthusiasm and passion for growing food in a sustainable way. I grew up with farm kids but so few of us have carried on in that agricultural tradition; as a result, my peers and mentors back home are at least 20-30 years my senior. The value in seeing that I’m not alone, to sharing a collective vision with others like me, while learning from their dreams and passions, the opportunity to rekindle my spirit and my enthusiasm by seeing the work of others, that is what brought me from my farm across the province to White Crow. I knew I had made the right decision the moment I arrived.
We gathered on the farm, a group of strangers from so many different backgrounds from the city and the countryside. Foragers, activists, students, artists, community developers, gardeners and farmers, all unsure of what to expect but eager to gain something they knew they couldn’t find anywhere else. The learning wasn’t about working in ideal situations or theoretical knowledge you gain in a class room, it was hands on gritty; it was about learning to make things work when they don’t go as planned. The intensive was spent immersed in White Crow Farms learning about how it all came together, what worked and what didn’t. In the words of Sydney Woodward one of the events organizers “this farm is a good example of something that is actually accessible to people; a lot of the time you go to a farm and its just not, everything is so manicured, its obvious that so much money has gone into it over the years.” These well manicured farms seen online and in magazines help to build dreams for the future but they don’t prepare young farmers for the reality of what is accessible to them. White Crow is different. In response to Woodward’s comment Madrone Fenton of White Crow Farms said “this whole place is held together with pallets, bale string and fucking faith and grit, but there is something to that; a person can come in and see how it all works. It’s not perfect but you see the work that goes into it and how it all comes together.” The Permaculture intensive allowed us to dream up all sorts of sustainable systems and projects; the setting allowed us to see how we could make those projects work in reality. The truth is sometimes permaculture projects just don’t work because they don’t fit or the inputs aren’t right. White Crow and the organizers of the course were not afraid to show us that. We were shown how projects like a particular terraced garden just didn’t fit the particular farm system and as a result failed. Woodward pointed out how learning about those failures are lessons “Things that aren’t working right are a great example for the students because it lets them see why it fell through, it’s reality and there is learning in that as well.” Fenton goes on to explain how hosting the permaculture intensive is pushing White Crow to dial in their operation “having a focus on showcasing more farming practices gives us more of an incentive to have our own operation together so we can have more examples of what to do rather than what not to do.” Seeing how progress is made through overcoming failure provides a first hand example of the words of Joel Salatin that ‘if something is worth doing it’s worth doing poorly first’. Fenton explains that “if it’s worth giving it a try don’t expect to get it right the first time, learn as you go and know you’ll probably never get to your perfect ideal goal, we are always students.”
A setting like White Crow certainly helped to make the intensive but it was the people who participated that brought something special to the course. Growing up in a farming community has exposed me to wealth of knowledge but it can also be constraining as it also exposed me to a particular set of biases and methods of doing things. Everyone participating in the intensive was there because they had an interest and passion for permaculture. Many of the students worked in urban farming or increasing food accessibility within the city or they just had a genuine interest; they were not constrained by bad habits or standards that determined what it was to farm. They were searching for ways to implement permaculture systems that fit into their own realities and methods that worked for them. Damon Chouinard, another member of White Crow, explained how when starting out it was commitment and ongoing learning not past experience that allowed them to achieve what they had on the farm. “We are coming from the city, we aren’t coming from farming backgrounds where we have that generational wisdom; we are more or less self taught and are now learning from other farmers in the area what works in their systems,” says Chouinard. A diversity of backgrounds also results in a wider base of knowledge and expertise as was apparent in the make up of the class. Moments into the intensive it was clear that this wasn’t a simple teacher student dynamic as each participants carried with them priceless incites. The participant’s expertise ranged from knowledge of edible native plants to how overcome the obstacles of raising chickens in an urban setting. It seemed every participant had countless references to further readings and eagerly took the time to give advice on our own particular projects.
This wealth of knowledge fit perfectly with Andrew Bennette’s approach to teaching the class. Bennette certainly had a wide base of knowledge to share having completed three permaculture design classes, a week of Earthworks with Sepp Holzer, he recently moderated an online course with Joel Salatin and has taught a number of courses and workshops on a variety of permaculture topics. Bennette backed up this foundation of theoretical knowledge with hands on experience working on the field on Moon Gravity Farm a farm, which him and his partner have established in Rossland, BC. A statement in his bio read true, claiming “Andrew works with people’s own observations to help them build a language of fundamental patterns that can be effectively applied in many situations, both social and ecological.” Despite the fact that the man was practically overflowing with information such as how to build swales, hugelkulture beds, ponds, manage livestock and pasture, make affordable bio fuel and even how to build a cob rocket stove he didn’t come with a set curriculum. Instead, Bennette saw the value of knowledge held within a community of people eager to ask questions and share information so he let the collective direct the content of the course. We flew through topics and knowledge under the shade of the trees and we got our hands dirty building beds and measuring contour in the heat of the sun. With such a drastic time constraint we voted on what subjects we wanted to dive deepest into and what topics could be noted for future exploration. Meanwhile an open dialogue between experienced participants and Bennette allowed all of us to access a range of different perspectives on topics covered. Even more importantly, opinions were questioned and challenged without the presence of a strict teacher student structure. When it came to questions of animal’s role within farming and permaculture people voiced their concerns and instead of entrenching within personal biases an open discussion took place, where everyone was able to come to a place of mutual understanding of differing perspectives. These discussions were further aided by having people like Fenton explain the role animals fill on White Crow and how he approaches that relationship.
Woodward pointed out that one particularly important conversation kept coming up through out the course. “Privledge and colonization ended up being a really big focus of the permaculture course,” explains Woodward. Woodward claimed how participants kept coming up to him to say what a significant role that conversation played in the course; he said students would say “I’ve done permaculture courses before, they are great you learn lots of skills but never before have I been to one that got into the knit and grit of the realities of cultural appropriation. What are the realities of our privilege?” The dynamic of the course played a huge role in the way that we were able to approach this sometimes-difficult topic. Part of it was a ranging degree in experience with engaging this topic; the other side was the fact that the class was made up of all settler decedents allowing us to see first hand the existence of our privilege without becoming defensive. Woodward explained, “for the first time I saw the potential power in having that conversation in that kind of group because there were no walls up for anyone; they didn’t feel like there was someone in that group that would be offended if they said something wrong; it allowed them, maybe for the first time, to work through some things that maybe they didn’t know how to articulate right but because they felt it was a safe space.” He went on to say that from there “people in the group that are a little more seasoned in that conversation could explain that ‘that’s why you don’t say this or this could be taken offensively for this reason’ and they could respond with ‘ok that’s good to know’.” The topic of permaculture and the fact that White Crow Farms is on the traditional territory of the Sinixt Nation added to the significance of this conversation. The Sinixt people have been declared extinct by the Canadian government despite the fact that there are members of the Sinixt still alive and holding onto their culture and connection to the land today. When discussing the significance of having this conversation in the course Chouinard stressed, “yes we are on the land and farming and stewarding elements of it but we are just a little blip in comparison to how long they’ve been living on the land.” Chouinard went on to say that sometimes the use of the word ‘permaculture’ might initially miss the point that “they are the people of the land, they were part of it before this colonial mindset came in. They lived in harmony and it’s good to remember that because we have a lot to learn from that.” Samantha Hope a Co-Organizer drove the point home by asking “how can you even study or practice permaculture if you are not in tune with the people who have had a relationship with the land for thousands and thousands of years? That’s what permaculture is about, it’s about a relationship to the land.”
I must admit that being bombarded with so much over the course of a few days was overwhelming. In fact I remember one of us using the analogy of a sponge that had soaked up all it could. I couldn’t wait to pour some of what I had soaked up back into my own farm work. On the final day of the intensive I could see the passion flowing out of each person as individuals presented on projects they had designed, each as diverse as the people delivering them. Looking ahead to what was to come, Woodwards sentiments ring true he said, “If you find ways to bring everybody together, work really hard and then all celebrate together there is just something to that!” So while things wound down in the intensive, gears were shifting on White Crow as volunteers scrambled about preparing for The Field, a festival that would give us all a unique experience to celebrate the end of the intensive. It was The Field that had first exposed me to White Crow Farms and helped to kindle my passion for permaculture. Now as friends poured in from around the province to join our little farmily I was left with a tremendous sense of accomplishment and enthusiasm for the fruits that would bear from such a vibrant community.