Nine years ago next month, Erin and I started our farming experience in Texas with a week-long permaculture certification course on a farm nestled in Bastrop’s lost pines. Underseeding permaculture with our agriculture aspirations was both enriching and synergistic. I liken it to adding root crops to a cover crop – going deeper into the earth and pulling up those minerals essential to growth.
This week, about 50 members of the Austin Permaculture Guild came to our Bastrop farm for its monthly permablitz. Three full days of cutting deadwood, digging a 250-foot swale, and planting fruit trees has transformed a wooded hillside into a defensive line against groundwater runoff, soil erosion, and farmer neglect.
When we bought this land five years ago, I was drawn to this hillside for its view of Wilbarger Bend and the wild persimmons that cover it. Restoring it back to health was too massive a job for one person or even five. What it needed – and received — was this small but energetic army of dedicated conservationists who are saving Texas soil and water one shovelful at a time.
At our potluck lunch on Saturday, I admitted to the group that the hillside represented a farming failure. This two-acre strip of woods is a transition zone between two terraces – the sandy post-oak savannah on top and the native pasture with its ancient native pecans and silty loam soil that stretches out below and descends once more to flood plain. To claim ag exemption on this section of the farm, I needed to include it in the grazing area for our sheep and goats. A combination of overgrazing (the farmer’s fault) and extreme drought (nature’s fault) resulted in dead trees, lost soil, and groundwater runoff that flooded our road with each heavy rain.
For the past several years, Dick Pierce and Kirby Fry have taught a permaculture design course in the barn at our Austin farm. Each Saturday, while we were busy processing vegetables below, a score of students gathered in the hayloft with the hope and promise of aligning their lifestyles in closer harmony with the laws of nature.
Led by Kirby, some of these same students were now putting their skills and knowledge into practice. They hauled dozens of fallen hackberry and cedar elms scattered across the hillside to create a meandering labrynth that reminded me of an Andrew Goldsworthy art installation. Unlike Goldsworthy’s stone walls, these wooden ones will eventually decompose, but not before they do their job – stopping the gravitational flow of water and organic matter.
The swale and berm they dug — by hand — skirting the base of the hill like a moat. On each side they planted fruit trees and leguminous shrubs. The project was capped off with a sprinkling of seeds for groundcover and tamping them in with bare feet and boots.
“If there was any doubt,” wrote Michelle Hernandez, founder of the Urban Poultry Association of Texas… “Many hands make light work.”
It was the association’s 2014 Funky Chicken Coop Tour that made this project possible. Each year, it donates proceeds from the tour to a good cause. Our plan is to use this hillside for New Farm Institute’s education workshops and camps. Eventually we’ll have chickens pastured in the lower pasture that will thrive from all that diverted water.
Today, as I walked through the wooded hillside, I felt a renewed sense of inspiration and gratitude. It was as if Green Gate Farms had its own Civilian Conservation Corp for a weekend and was shown the way toward a more sustainable future.