Practicing Permaculture in Nebraska: A Short List

To many people who hear the term ‘permaculture’ for the first time, even a succinct definition needs an elaborate explanation. Because permaculture addresses a wide variety of topics, a quick ‘elevator speech’ of permaculture necessitates a slow elevator and at least 20 floors for a thorough explanation. For this reason, this essay will simplify the wide world of permaculture into easy steps for every Nebraskan’s daily life.

For the purposes of this essay, the definition of permaculture is the pursuit to feed, shelter, transport and energize your life in your community without compromising the integrity of the world’s living environment. Working with nature allows us to achieve our goals with minimal maintenance. Poorly designed landscapes, buildings and technology that attempt to counter the forces of nature add complexity to our lives and create dependence on a complex system that needs maintenance. With this definition and guiding ethic in mind, here’s a list of sequential permaculture practices that can be adopted for your own personal use.

  1. The first step is to observe your life and land seasonally; and take notes. Notice routines, consumer trends, travel, health, fossil fuel use, plastic use, and social routines. Be real with yourself and try to face the tough work of simplifying the home, your employment life and your community so that your life is efficient, fluid and satisfying. If you are not happy with your life, permaculture will help. But you have to be honest about lifestyle changes and embrace the commitment toward improving the health of your environment.

  2. Get to know your neighbors and your community. You are an important part of a group of people in your living environment that can make life easier for you if you only knew who they were. Like family, communities can come to the rescue when life is difficult or when there is a big community project to accomplish. You would be surprised at the amount of skilled labor and extra time your neighbors are willing to offer when you get to know them. Your neighborhood and the people around you are your greatest resource.                                                                                                                                  

  3. Identify lifestyle steps that can be simplified toward eliminating your carbon footprint. Drive less; use public transportation; ride bikes for transportation (not just recreation); install solar and geothermal energy systems; insulate roofs and north sides of houses/buildings; build homes/ structures into south-facing hill slopes for passive solar; extend roof eaves to block summer sun into south-facing windows (but allow winter sun); install small skylights half way up a vaulted ceiling for less heat loss (not at the apex); minimize north facing windows; site windbreaks to the northwest and shade trees to the southwest; use rocket stoves, masonry stoves, biomethane digesting; and overall just practice conservation to reduce both your energy use and your carbon footprint.

  4. Reduce your daily discarded waste. Try to return everything you discard back to the earth as a composted item or as food for other animals. Discover how wastes can become resources. Learn how to repair items that can be repaired. If it cannot be repaired, can the item be altered or up-cycled to fit another function? If something like e-waste has to be discarded without much potential for upcycling, please make sure it is discarded at a professional e-waste establishment.

  5. Grow your own food and herbs. Don’t worry about growing everything you would ever need. Focus on growing items your neighbors are not growing so you will always be valued for your contribution to the seasonal community spoils. Concentrate on growing perennial crops like tree fruits and berries as much as your annual vegetable favorites. Grow what you love and like to eat. But also branch out and explore. Put in a perennial asparagus patch for a maintenance-free early green vegetable. Erect a plastic-covered hoop house to grow lettuce and spinach all win- ter long. If you love mangoes, try growing pawpaws instead. With the assistance of a greenhouse, there is very little that cannot be grown in Nebraska. Russ Finch in Alliance, Nebraska has proven to everyone that oranges, figs and lemons can not only grow here, but they do NOT need to be sprayed with pesticides. Lastly, grow food for nature too — particularly the pollinators who help produce our human food.

  6. Collect rainwater in tanks and within your landscapes. In contoured landscapes, slow down the movement of downhill moving water with terraces or swales. By not raking leaves or mulching plants, this helps hold the water in the soil longer with less water lost to evaporation or runoff. When collecting rainwater in tanks, please use more than one rain barrel as one 55-gallon barrel will irrigate an average-sized garden for a day or two in a drought.

  7. Save seeds of perennial trees and plants that are successful in your area and replant them in areas that can benefit from more diversity and habitat. Guerilla gardening is a great way to beautify dilapidated areas with new foliage. Start your own hobby tree nursery.

  8. Manicure your yard less. Instead of mowing every inch of your yard, allow some places to become natural. Let low spots overgrow and become wetlands. Don’t mow so close to the trunks of trees. Allowing habitat for nature’s creatures means they will less likely come into your home. A manicured lawn is a desert to most creatures. Do not use pesticides or herbicides. Poisons kill some parts of the food chain creating imbalances in nature, allowing the proliferation of one species to create pest problems.

  9. Buy local. Use a local credit union. Divest from fossil-fuel backed investments. Use cash or trade whenever possible. Your dollar spent in the local economy is the most powerful dollar spent. The value of consumer interactions should benefit the local economy — not foreign banks and corporations. Donate to your local nonprofits. Help your neighbors.

  10. Permaculture is most effectively used as a design strategy for land stewardship systems. However, it is still useful to understand all of the little mundane moments in our lives that can enhance our cohabitation with our living environment. With this short list, I invite you to permaculture your community. 


Ban Body Wash and Liquid Soap Containers

There has been quite a bit of buzz around the world regarding microbeads that are used in liquid soaps and shampoos. Microbeads are banned here in the United States and other places like the UK and Canada are also imposing a ban soon. Thanks to an innovative soap gimmick, these sinister little pieces of plastic are everywhere in the world that there is water. Instead of plastic breaking down into a million pieces to eventually be a part of the many trash ocean gyres, mankind has figured out a way to market and sell a product that is meant to impersonate the egg of practically every aquatic animal. If I were a fish or a bird, little aquatic eggs are the best treat in the world. It is with such moral fortitude that our society saw this diabolical imitation of nature as too disruptive to the order of life on earth. Thankfully, those in politics are listening to scientists regarding this atrocious joke on our natural world.

Not all consumer product pollution stories are a happy story. I would like to use up space in the blogosphere to explain why body wash and liquid soap containers are one of many trojan horses for the plastic industry in an increasingly more "progressive" world. I type "progressive" with quotes because the US National Park system has won a ban of plastic bottles in vending machines within parks and installed drinking water dispensers for your travel bottle. However, the plastic industry is pushing hard to repeal this ban. Also, preemptively banning plastic bag bans is becoming a fad in states like Wisconsin and Michigan. Last year's drop in energy prices has killed most recycling businesses. In a Trump presidency, I am just assuming that pretty much every natural resource extraction method on earth will receive a green light. Consequently, 20th century consumer logic is going to prevail in the leading consumer country of the word for a little longer. This is why I type "progressive". The pendulum of political science is technically progressive; but when compared with the term defined in science, a pendulum represents futility rather than progress. Political science "progress" is a relative term. In good old science, "progress" is an absolute. As I continue my rant, I would like to invoke the scientific definition of "progressive" when discussing the improvement of consumer product packaging.

In the 21st century, I expect corporations to "progress" by minimizing their mining and waste footprint and experiment with some more responsible cradle to grave techniques. In this light, I would like to see the industry reveal a sleek bathroom dispenser and supply replacement liquid soap in biodegradable containers. I know these dispensers exist, they just need to be popularized. Instead, the 20 oz bodywash shower gels are contained in very thick, robust plastic tanks. They are not called tanks, I am merely calling the containers 'tanks' for dramatic effect. Regardless, it is clear that the packaging is such to protect from a potential messy spill. I am sure reams of product licensing language is devoted to the justification of this robust packaging. The landfills of our consumer society are filling up with different types of consumer waste each subsequent decade. Are we now depositing the layer of disposable thick plastic containers?

Regardless of useless packaging, my biggest complaint stems from an instinct of conjecture. I believe the good old bar of soap is more efficient than the 20 oz bottle of bodywash shower gel. Needing much less packaging if any at all, the bar of soap delivers a long life of usefulness. Conversely, the bodywash tank needs to be tapped routinely to spread the lather around the body.

I hope someone reads this rant to test my theory. Please chime in here to let us know your results.

#plastic #Landfill #soap #microbeads #pollution #waterislife


An Introduction to Permaculture in Nebraska Pt 4. (as published in Nebraskans for Peace)

The new world presented to us after the election is in dire need of a permaculture salvation. Permaculture was enjoying some well-deserved momentum under the global leadership of President Obama. As a grassroots movement addressing all of the cultural habits that exacerbate climate change, permaculture is more important now than ever before. The late founder of permaculture Bill Mollison described his brand new movement as “Earth Repair.” Science is teaching us about our glaciers and ice shelves nearing imminent collapse, and it is science through a cultural philosophy of permaculture that teaches us how to heal our soils, clean our waters, filter our dirty air and feed our grandchildren.

The Paris Climate talks attended by a U.S. president for the first time gave the whole world a glimmer of hope. For those who are up-to-speed on the latest climate change news, Obama’s participation in climate talks could not have come at a more important time. Climate scientists have been raising the alarm for decades, but a climate change discussion without the U.S., China and major corporations at the table is a fruitless endeavor. With a new conservative U.S. government imminent, we (the planet) need to find more creative ways that garner popular support for planet repair.

This is why Permaculture becomes the only way humanity can move forward towards something that resembles dignified civilization. I am exclusive in this claim because there is no other philosophical or cultural endeavor in the world that repairs our damaged ecosystems while feeding us. While cultures still exist that tread a light human footprint, they are not numerous and they are not always guided by earth repair objectives. Modern, technologically-advanced societies are demonstrating smaller footprints over time. However, “Jevon’s paradox” suggests that advancements of efficiency actually contribute to increased consumption of a region’s resources (the better gas mileage you get with an energy- efficient vehicle, the more miles you drive), which is limited only by population carrying capacity due to drought.

The world uses the 18th century notion of capitalism to quantify the value of land, labor and capital. Notice that our natural environment is considered ‘capital.’ In Permaculture, respecting Mother Earth is ethic number one. Humanity’s ability to live depends on a healthy biome. Imagine if we gave back to our natural environment at the same rate we take from our natural environment. I am not talking about saving dolphins caught in fishing nets or planting one tree in a manicured lawn. Imagine if we built soil as a culture; soft, nutritious, humus for all of life to benefit from. This amazing, locally grown soil would remove all of the reasons to need unsustainable foreign resources. Our love of soil would bloom into a love of land. Consequently, our connection with the land could be restored again through stewardship of the commons. Just like we have lost connection with food, we have lost our connection to the land. It is the land after all, that provides our food.

Hoping for this cultural transformation towards soil exultation is a moot point if we do not have stable climates from which to grow food reliably.

Cultures in the past were so intrinsically connected with the cycles of the earth that population control mechanisms were practiced to ensure the survival of the group. The compassion imbued in Western culture believes all life is sacred and there are more than enough resources to feed all of us. Prior to the industrial revolution, all land masses around the world had a population carrying capacity. The carrying capacity was determined by what nature could provide. Once humankind found stored energy in our Earth’s mantle (fossil fuels of coal, oil and gas), we did not need earth’s living veneer of soil as much. Now, our food systems resemble a creature of technology and mechanization. Life and our living ecosystems are what allows us to be here. Once we are completely surrounded by concrete, glass and steel environments, we lose our ability to feel connected. It is an unfortunate scenario. In humanity’s assent toward enlightenment and leisure, we have eliminated almost all of the other Earth passengers with whom we shared the earth. This arrogance of dominion over the Earth has created monocultures, eliminated biodiversity, changed the climate and left us with few options but to blame each other.  

As a 21st century objective, Permaculture is trying to change our tendency toward dominion over the earth to something that resembles stewardship. Most people think that Permaculture is only innovative food production. But as you can see, Permaculture is attempting to change the innate biological instinct within humans to consume everything we stand on. It is an umbrella philosophy that allows us to step back from our destructive tendencies and see all resources and living beings that exist as paints on a palette for our ‘Bob Ross’ art demonstration. Just like a painter creating a ‘happy tree’ environment, a Permaculture designer uses the palette of living and nonliving ‘paints’ to create a system that works for all living beings. This system can resemble any analogy you prefer; a painting, a fine-tuned watch or even life itself.

A desert climate is not the best environment for humanity; nor is the arctic. Humans inhabit these places because we have used our ingenuity to overcome scarcity. People who live in these fringe environments will be the first to tell you that the climate is changing. Scarcity is hitting a whole new level in environments dependent on stable seasonal cycles. The picture of a skinny polar bear is symbolic of climate change. The picture of a starving African is a symbol of humanity’s failure in an era of gluttonous overabundance. The picture of any animal struggling to survive is a symbol of human arrogance. Mass animal die-offs accompany our seasons now as animals are missing their food source by a week. The Anthropocene Era (named after us) is causing our own demise. Permaculture is the only method of earth regeneration in all of modern science. And we need to embrace it now—in our own communities—while there’s still time.

An Introduction to Permaculture in Nebraska Pt 3 (as published in Sept-Oct Nebraskans for Peace)

Driving less, using public transportation, riding a bike, avoiding single-use plastic, buying local, turning lights off, mowing less, tiny homes, throwing away less ‘trash’ and eating fresh are easy ways to reduce your footprint as a world citizen.  As a U.S. citizen, we are accustomed to consuming three times more of everything than other people in most countries per capita.  In Nebraska, reducing our rate of consumption can be the most impactful way to clean our local environment and fulfill our duty as a responsible world citizen:  one who does not pollute air and waterways.  In this chapter, please join me in exploring how permaculture reconnects humanity to nature through compassionate stewardship of earth’s biodiversity.


Now that the Olympics are over, I cannot help but feel quite inadequate with my daily achievements.  I remind myself that I am very proud of my desire to make small footprints as an individual.  I do not intend to detract from the Olympian’s desire to taste gold, but rather I would simply like to make a case for moderation, minimalism and, more importantly, the desire to tread lightly as a consumer in daily living.  I invite you to please be an example for your family, friends, coworkers and neighbors to value these practices as a way to save more than just the polar bears.


This may not totally surprise you, but permaculture is environmentalism.  Permaculture is modern humans’ best foot forward to feed, clothe, heat and shelter people throughout the world in the most ecologically-conscious ways.  Combining efforts to conserve nature and nurturing the instinct toward naturally improving our soils will benefit all of earth’s living creatures.  For these reasons, permaculture is becoming popular as a way to grow food effortlessly for our crowded population centers.  For this to work effectively, we must reintroduce the knowledge of nature to our city populations.  I do not think I am creating controversy by stating urban centers are places that generally lack an understanding of how nature brings food to our tables.  This must change.


Before express transportation, food was raised and grown in our cities.  Before the age of oil, sustainable crops like hemp or bamboo were grown around city centers to provide textiles, building materials, medicine, soil fertility and water clarification.  Now, combinations of mowed grass, concrete, steel and mirrored glass are considered the only media worthy of city landscapes. Now, the last expanses of prairies and forests are being razed to grow food ‘stuffs’ for export, food for animals and food for fuel—all hallmarks of an affluent society).  These ‘before’s & nows’ are an important story about the ‘path’ of modern humanity.


As efficiently delivered products became the expected status quo, our society began to reduce the time within a day that is socially acceptable to celebrate food.  Additionally, meat at every meal has become a benchmark sought by every aspiring modern society.  Once refrigeration and efficient transportation became ubiquitous in our society, our umbilical cord to nature was effectively severed.


Towards the latter half of the last century, our culture transformed food from being a central ritual in our lives to something that is an efficiently performed chore.  Towards the latter half of the last century, a globally connected world expanded our taste for global goods.  Towards the latter half of the last century, our culture has outsourced the production of our locally used products to wherever they are produced most cheaply.  Towards the latter half of the last century, people responded to corporate products more readily than to locally sourced products distributed by local ‘Ma & Pa’ shops.


Do you see a pattern, a pathway?  This path was laid down by the individual choices of consumers—a path leading away from Mother Nature.  As 20th-century humanity drifted away from nature, science was used to exert dominion over nature.  As an opposite reaction to the destructive 20th century, the 21st-century endeavor of permaculture harnesses science to restore our severed connection with nature through community-based education.  Great permaculture leaders all around the world are laying down the foundation of a new path toward harmony with all living creatures.


In the 21st century, I am mostly concerned about our youth. Millennials see little hope on an Earth that has been manhandled into submission.  Comedian Stephen Colbert quipped at a presidential state dinner in 2010 that “baby-boomers have deep-fried our oceans.”  Today, our children are still being taught the behaviors of that 20th-century legacy—the most destructive era to biodiversity (excluding meteor strikes) in the earth’s history.  With carbon dioxide concentrations rocketing past 400 parts per million this last year and set to go higher, we are consigning those children to a far more inhospitable world.  Future generations will invariably look back and wonder why our world leaders didn’t do anything to affect humans’ stranglehold on earth’s ecosystem before pushing it to the precipice of imminent collapse?  Optimism in the face of climate change means we believe we can inspire an indelible spirit in our youth to be stubbornly dedicated toward healing the earth from this point forward.


Island nations understand our relationships with the environment more acutely than modern land-locked nations.  Iceland created harsh regulations around the very valuable cod fisheries decades before other countries felt inclined to do so.  Historically, cod is the most valuable commodity to Iceland.  Instead of selling as many cod as possible, Iceland saw value in creating a stable Cod fishing ecosystem.  Beginning in the 1950s, Iceland turned down lucrative fishery contracts with other countries to protect future cod fisheries.  This example of ‘doing what is necessary’ in the face of marketplace pressures is unparalleled in the world today.  This example of fortitude is what is needed from our future leaders all over the world today.


Early accounts of Cape Cod fishing described scenes of natural abundance in which you could ‘walk on the backs of fish’ in the ocean. My imagination is truly enamored with this vision of Eden.  As an advocate for permaculture in Nebraska, how can I preach the good word of nature’s abundance when the last two centuries have been focused on removing nature’s abundance?  Twenty-first century humanity can continue single-mindedly pursuing technological fixes to our global food system in order to feed our growing populations...


Or, we can work towards healing Mother Nature which once created abundance for everyone.

An Introduction to Permaculture in Nebraska, Part 2

In the land of beef, corn, soybeans, the High Plains aquifer and center pivot irrigation, Nebraska has enormous opportunities for the Permaculture practioner to stand out and make healthy impacts throughout our urban and rural communities. It isn’t difficult to dream the way J Sterling Morton did 100 years ago and visualize the future of Nebraska’s landscapes. Mr. Morton’s dream of expansive orchards were not realized for the longterm, however we still have the luxury to imagine the Nebraskan agricultural future from here and now using intelligent design on our landscapes. 

In this second chapter, I hope to discuss some of the ways Permaculture ideology can help a Nebraskan’s day-to-day routine be more earth-friendly by making conscious decisions that reduce our individual footprint. The first ethic of Permaculture asks us to take care of the earth. As a result of our reverence for Mother Nature, all of earth’s living systems will flourish. My favorite Permaculture quote comes from deceased Japanese Permaculture superstar Masanobu Fukuoka. He states that the “ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but rather the cultivation and perfection of human beings”. While the most popular visions of permaculture specifically address the sustainable procurement of food, there is much needed discussion on the entire production/consumption cycle.

In addition to resilience and passive abundance, another important Permaculture theme is ‘cycles’. The production/consumption (P/C) cycle is the most important expression of permaculture within a society. According to Permaculture principles, the P/C cycle of our individual lives should focus on the concept of a “closed loop”. The closed loop refers to the P/C cycle in the context of your residence, your community and your region. The most ideal Permaculture inhabitation would produce its own energy, food, clothes, compost, materials and shelter while producing no waste.

The second ethic of permaculture asks us to take care of people; those close to us. Much of a permaculture design system focuses on creating “abundance through passive means”. This means we are creating perennial edible landscapes that produce food with minimal maintenance and inputs. This approach could best be described as creating ‘forage’ systems with varying seasonal harvest times. If you have ever harvested apples from an apple tree, you may realize that this windfall of fruit is a gift to a farmer who really only worries about ‘harvesting’. As we create systems that create abundance for our home and community, we realize that so much ‘production’ depends on a healthy supply of inputs or amendments initially to create healthy soil conditions. Over time, the living permaculture system will return nutrition back to the soil seasonally.

Additionally, even if a family’s discarded waste cannot be reused or upcycled, at least it can become soil. The third ethic of Permaculture allows us to come full circle. Instead of ‘throwing things away’, the excess time, materials, money and energy created in our collective systems of abundance place people in a position to help those less fortunate. In addition to returning much needed nutrition back to our soils, we must consciously accommodate the needs of all people without wasting that which can be reused or upcycled. Ultimately, the soil is the most delicate piece of our global design puzzle and the soil must be built up for our children and grandchildren to grow food effortlessly.

After all three ethics are followed, we will achieve ‘sustainability’, Permaculture-style. However, Permaculture specifically likes to achieve this sustainability with a little help from Mother Nature.

The level of sustainability inherent in Permaculture can best be described as the sweet spot where nature provides more assistance for your life (food, energy, heat, shelter, clean water, cooling, community), without needing some form of elaborate mechanization or complicated maintenance process. If there is a natural process or design consideration that performs a task better(more ecologically-conscious) than the man-made counterpart, then that is a permaculture solution.

Permaculture can be described as the ‘bridge’ that represents the ‘harmony’ between people and nature. Many past cultures have no archaeological footprint other than the living ecology that now hints at intelligent design through some form of terraforming like tree patterns, geoglyphs and overlapping biospheres. I fear those who recall 20th & 21st century homo sapiens will describe our landfills, pavement, slums, golf courses, climate change, plastic, loss of arable soil and the dramatic reduction of biodiversity most prominently as our terraforming legacy. 

One should not conclude that Permaculture is anti-technology. Permaculture is only interested in the best-designed technologies. Permaculture principles endorse technology that has 1)a minimal exotic resource footprint 2)provides a practical utility given the longevity of the product design, 3)contributes to a larger design objective of stacking functions and 4)elevates the living standards of many people at the same time.

The technology described in this Permaculture utopia should sound somewhat like a Swiss Family Robinson story crossed with 18th century Native American society crossed with the movie Mosquito Coast and then crossed with the writings of Jules Verne. This is really the point. The future permaculture society has already been imagined through the eyes of science-fiction authors and social science professors. Egalitarian societies that consume resources slower than their ability to replenish the soil have always been imagined as the most enlightened of all societies. Furthermore, progression of mankind should be measured in our compassion toward the living world, not toward some technology arms race that allow us to have larger homes, eat globally exotic foods and disengage from society.

Many parts of the world adhere to different levels of sustainability. However, there is no society in modern times that has confronted sustainability as a matter of survival more than Cuba. As a modernizing island society once dependent on cheap oil, Cuba lost its’ Soviet Union-subsidized oil imports in the early 1990’s. Accustomed to the luxuries that a cheap oil nation enjoys, practically overnight, the people of Cuba had to learn how to run society without oil. It took a few years, but there were enough people still alive who could pass on traditional agrarian and culinary methods that strictly follow the seasonal cycles. Consequently, global volatility caused by energy markets and climate change has motivated many societies around the world to embrace Permaculture as THE way to bring productivity back to our local communities.

As the world confronts the prospect of economic and climate volatility, many leaders of Permaculture are traveling the world spreading the great ideas to those people living in sustenance farming situations so they can benefit from low-tech soil/moisture accumulation design systems. Our ecosystems that surround our farming systems need to be ecologically healthy. The resilience of our food production systems in the face of any volatility is only as stable as the natural systems that support our existence on this earth. Nebraska is mostly insulated from much of the world’s volatility. However, as the world realizes the effects of our global industrial age, there is no region in the world that should not be bracing themselves for uncertain times.

Why did the chicken cross the road? To go to high school.

At an early age, it is important to teach our children as to where our food comes from. This week, Bryan High School in Omaha was highlighted by the Omaha World Herald regarding their brand new chicken coop. As a member of the Omaha Bryan High School Ag Academy Advisory Board, I was delighted to donate my time to design and consult the teachers in building a chicken coop for their property.

Over 2 years ago, my colleague in the nonprofit Omaha Permaculture, Andy Waltke and I, approached Bryan High with the opportunity to help raise chickens in incubators for the kids to observe. After the first trial run with over 100 newly-hatched baby chicks, Bryan high had no choice but to find new homes through Nebraska 4-H as the school was not prepared to raise chickens themselves. On behalf of Omaha Permaculture and Douglas County Nebraska Farmers Union, I decided to push the conversation towards a permanent chicken residence on the high school premises.

After approaching school administration, the dedicated teaching staff at the Ag Academy was approved a location to build a chicken coop with an outer pen on the North East side of the school building. The site is thoughtfully placed underneath the protection of three Australian pine trees. However, there were some issues to address in it's site location. Unfortunately, the preferred location was a low spot that forms puddles during rains. As a solution, we moved the site a little bit more uphill and added more clay to build up the pen foundation; away from stormwater runoff courses. Placed on the North West side of the building and on top of a hill creates the situation to produce the full accumulation of prevailing winter NW winds as it careens around the school building. As a solution, I suggested a robust wood panel pallet/fence-side on the the NW corner of the outer chicken pen; while maintaining an open-air fencing for the sun-exposure sides. 

After some networking and outreach, the Ag Academy at Omaha Bryan High School was able to find a little bit of funding to purchase the coop and the materials needed to construct the coop and surrounding pen. In sourcing materials, I recall the only hangup was finding someone to approve a certain type of 'approved' clay for the foundation of the pen. Even though other construction projects were occurring on the premises, all clay was spoken for. Eventually, approved clay was brought to the site to build up the foundation that would keep the chickens dry from stormwater runoff.

Thanks to this Omaha World herald article, the rest is history. Click the Title for the OWH article.

An Introduction to Permaculture in Nebraska

(Published in March/April 2016 Nebraskans for Peace)

An Introduction to Permaculture in Nebraska


In a strong agricultural state like Nebraska, most people would not think there is much room for improvement. As a Permaculture designer, I can confidently claim that if Nebraska were to adopt permaculture principles throughout the state, we would passively create THE healthiest and most abundant paradise on earth. 


Permaculture is an ideology that funnels the revelations of sustainability and science through community ethics. Permaculture philosophy begins with a deistic reverence for Mother Nature and encourages ecosystem regeneration through natural or low impact solutions. Once you have created a system that creates abundance for you and your family, permaculture invites you to assist the less fortunate members of your community. In the city, permaculture is an ecosystem-sensitive design approach to neighborhood development. In rural communities, permaculture is ecological land stewardship that improves the air, water, and soil for the next generation and the world. For the world citizen, permaculture addresses how we consume, what we consume, how much we consume, and how we manage our waste. 


Many endeavors of life can benefit from Permaculture principles: energy, commerce, finance, health, farming, transportation, building, culture and leisure. To many people, Permaculture may sound like a return to the days of sweat and toil when compared with our current farming and land management methods. While there is definitely some initial investment when establishing a Permaculture design system, the subsequent growing years benefit from a perennial landscape that delivers productivity without the dependence on an annual planting cycle. Through Permaculture's "downhill, downwind, downstream" design approach, passive abundance is provided effortlessly on cue like a Swiss watch throughout the seasons. In many respects, the permaculture farmer works a lot less than your conventional farmer. When people experience a property designed with Permaculture principles, one observes the connections and overlaps of functional landscape features. It is these complementary relationships throughout systems that set the stage for resilience.


Resilience and passive abundance are two important themes in Permaculture. In the current volatile global energy market, new winners and losers are determined virtually year to year. This global volatility ripples throughout the global economy until they reverberate most devastatingly in our rural communities; the same communities pressed to feed a growing population that is migrating to the cities. Therein lies the problem and the solution from a permaculture perspective. Nebraskans are very well aware of our relationship to global markets. As the breadbasket of the world, Nebraskan products should demand a premium price on the global market for a Nebraska grown product produced in an ecologically-sound manner without federal subsidies. If a clean environment were incentivized through a local economy rather than playing slave to global economic tradewinds, Nebraska would sit very proudly as a regional agricultural powerhouse of passive abundance.


In the context of climate change, resilient land stewardship will be the only way to create enough opportunities for passive abundance through macro-scale ecological habitat restoration. Assuming that you are observing the local weather change caused by increasingly erratic global climate trends, we should begin to imagine our landscapes as dynamic, not stationary ecosystems trapped in time. As Nebraska paleontology in Ash Falls points out, Nebraska is in a constant state of change. From an inland sea to rhinos, elephants and the buffalo, Nebraska is very familiar with ecosystem transitions. It is in this wide-swing climate resilience reflected through our hardy flora and fauna species that positions Nebraska in one of the best geographic situations for future experimentation with nature’s climate change-related fluctuations.


To the gardener’s delight, permaculture does not need to be an aggressive management strategy for suppressing weeds manicured to golf course standards when designing for resilience and passive abundance. Many of the plants growing around produce is grown for soil fertility, moisture retention and ecological habitat. For example, to distract our neighborhood garden predators, we should allow some of our ‘ weeds’ to grow around our plantings as a distraction and another option on the menu.  Also, plant another nature garden away from your personal garden. Your personal garden may be the the only source of tasty vegetation for our bunny friends(foes?) on your block. By planting a landscape that encourages biodiversity, you are creating the harmony that must exist between man and nature; even in our cities.


To those who aspire to live sustainably beyond the garden and the farm, careful consideration is necessary when building the farmstead, the home or the neighborhood. From building materials to building orientation, Nebraskan homeowners should consider growing forests to create homegrown homesteads. When designing for our climate, we need to become acquainted with our native and local tree options to develop the proper windbreak from bitter cold northwest winds and hot southern winds that dry out out the landscape. While we have many prairie enthusiasts throughout Nebraska who do not wish to give up any more acreage to invasive forests, the case can be made for both habitats in different regions throughout Nebraska when considering homesteading.


Then, let’s imagine developing all neighborhoods, homes and farmsteads positioned halfway-up south-facing slopes throughout our riparian landscapes. Hilltops are vulnerable to winter winds and valleys are where the water flows. Like the days of our great grandparents, lets imagine homes designed with sufficient shade trees that reduce summer energy use.  When building the homestead, the wild weather extremes of Nebraska weather need to be considered. Through permaculture and sustainable design, a neighborhood can be developed to create heat pockets for winter and cool spots for summer, reducing our needs for high energy use.


So often, a development company likes to imagine a blank canvas. Let us imagine we are a set-designer for a future agricultural sci-fi movie. What is the future of Nebraska’s landscapes? As a new homeowner or aspiring farmer, all you can do is assess the pros and cons of each parcel on the market. I would consider developing your own slice of heaven on a cost-effective parcel of improperly used land; giving a Nebraskan the opportunity to restore and nurture a slice of Nebraskan ecosystem paradise proliferated with Savannah Oaks, Little Blue Stem, cottonwoods, goldenrod, deer, beaver, seasonal birds, prairie dogs, bobcats, cougars, quail, eagles, buffalo, dung beetles, pheasant, cranes, groundhogs, butterflies, squirrels, and fish. Who needs a zoo?

Horticulture is the bomb! (Click here)

LaRue Diehl and Faith Kurtyka's backyard.

LaRue Diehl and Faith Kurtyka's backyard.

Today, I am fortunate to bask in the graceful pen strokes of the Omaha World Herald’s Marjie Ducey. She interviewed two of my ambitious clients, LaRue Diehl and Faith Kurtyka. As with many of my clients, I could tell that they were recently exposed to internet permaculture dreamscapes and simply needed a tiny boost of confidence to apply their newly found backyard perspective into reality. Times are changing. People are starting to question the manicured lawn. This is where it begins. After realizing the potential of what could be grown instead of grass, most people want to dive in with both feet but are usually wary to put a toe in. This world of community-based covenants dictating manicured spaces in urban settings has left people wondering what is acceptable in their neighborhood when displacing grass with something more natural. Ultimately, my job is to simply bestow confidence for people who acknowledge that while the climate is changing, there is still opportunity. When I say opportunity, I mean to say that we can grow practically anything in Nebraska; you just have to believe in the vision in addition to doing the research. I am truly honored that LaRue and Faith dropped my name in the article. Their enigmatic personalities are taking the bestowed confidence they received to ambitious heights. I cannot take much credit for the dreamscape they envision.  Grocery and energy prices will continue to rise. Food will continue to imitate engineered products. We need to teach these skills of natural gardening and the confidence to do this in our communities. If food forests were the future of your neighborhood, would you ever leave?  A wise man once said, “Horticulture is the bomb”!

Embrace the Good Life

Intended for The Sounding Board on the Metro Omaha Food Policy Council newsletter

Embrace the Good Life

“The Good Life” afforded in Nebraska rides on the shoulders of a very proud tradition of farming.  Nebraskan farmers produce high yields on some of the world’s most fertile soil that resides over the world’s largest and most reliable aquifer.  Drilling has allowed semi-arid and dryland farmers to tap into the million year old aquifer for center pivot irrigation.  As the rural to urban migration has occurred over the last fifty years, less people are farming disproportionately more land.  Consequently but not solely, large farmer landowners have become commodity farmers.  In Nebraska, the traditional diversified farm with chickens, pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, orchards and wheat has become a diminishing breed.  As soon as a farmer consciously makes the decision to gamble and buy into commodity agriculture as a means to earn an income as opposed to food agriculture, that farmer loses connection with the soil.   The conservation practices of previous generations are forgotten or simply not seen as “practical” for large expanses of land in the “pearly gate” shadow of mechanized farming.  Thanks to the prevalence of tiling on Nebraskan farm fields, the petroleum-based fertilizers that are used as quick-fix drugs join a dead soil medium that erodes into our riparian watershed.  Of Nebraska’s 1.8 million residents, nearly two-thirds of our populations live in metro counties.  All of these metro counties lie at the bottom of the Nebraskan erosion shed.  The unwitting populations of Kearney, Grand Island, Lincoln, Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans have to endure the environment created from the world’s most aggressive agriculture machine ever created.   Needless to say, without implying hysteria, this is not normal.

Modern farming does not have to imitate large nineteenth and twentieth century industries by expelling its waste to hapless populations downstream. This is not what farming is about.  This is not what Nebraska is about.   

A wise man once said that “the ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”  I like to think that J. Sterling Morton saw Nebraska for its true potential one hundred years ago.  Instead of annual crop production, he envisioned a resilient ecosystem that could naturally provide an abundant bounty of assorted fruits and nuts in orchards, without any mechanization, petroleum, pesticides or center pivots.  In the early twentieth century, the Missouri Valley down to Brownville was known for orchards and the hundreds of canneries that were supported by its bounty.  THIS vision is STILL within reach.  Nebraska and Omaha should not be one of those societies you read about halfway around the world reliant on processed foodstuffs.  While we can only empathize as we watch California farmers struggle through a potentially prolonged drought, the Omaha and Nebraska region has a moment to reflect on our privileged predicament.  Should we use the best and most reliable soil, climate and riparian landscape to grow cheap commodities?   If we want to leave a better world for our grandchildren, we need people to take action.  So, if YOU live in the Omaha, Nebraska region, I challenge you to go out and START a FARM or a RESTAURANT or an ORCHARD or a FOOD TRUCK or a CANNERY today!  Before California farmers realize where the best North American growing region in the world resides, let’s dig some holes and plant something OTHER THAN CORN!

Concrete as a Recycled Material?

Concrete is a building material, which some feel, represents a modern and refined way of living.  Nothing says power and success like concrete and steel. All modern cities harness the amazing qualities of concrete to build vertically and horizontally in elaborate dedications to its stiff resilience. These same people, however, would be surprised to discover that the process to acquire the materials to make concrete is responsible for 5% of all man made carbon emissions. Many times, I feel products which cause more damage than good represent an old way of doing things and that an innovation is right around the corner. While concrete, as a product, has evolved to include many products which perform differently in different situations, concrete's resilience is overshadowed by its environmental cost. Much like the quest for a fully recyclable clean-burning fuel, the path to building a tough yet refined structure without environmental remorse is obstructed by traditional ways of thinking. Until now.

While the world and its contractors are comfortable with their trusted methods. New products are emerging in the material market which will lessen and sometimes eliminate the Eco-conscious burden we should feel. Over time, I have come to recognize bamboo as the ultimate sustainable building material short of shipping. Bamboo is slowly overcoming its stigma as a building material of the poor. The most prominent bamboo architect and engineer Simon Velez is having some success with mixing bamboo with some elements of concrete to appeal to a more modern consumer. Upon reading this, I sighed with disbelief as I realized that the only way to use bamboo for a modern consumer is to mix it with a very unsustainable product. I am the kind of designer who is always looking for improvements in materials to achieve a standard of eco-conscious  living that is analogous to a native ancestor walking through the forest barefoot. This may be tough to achieve, but our own standards as a global citizen make it more possible.

In my part of the world, most building products have traveled quite some distance.  So, in addition to recycled building materials, I have very few choices to find a suitable replacement to concrete. While clay is abundant locally, so is moisture. Ultimately, there are very few replacements for concrete in cities and infrastructure. The only way I could ease my conscious in regards to using concrete would be if concrete could be formed from recycled materials, locally or regionally. This is where the article I found represents a eureka moment for me. Once contractors find the initiative to demand environmentally responsible products in their projects, then old materials like concrete will seem, dare I say, traditional. Please click on the title to this entry to read about true progress in building sustainability.

Ethanol Vote Displays the Monetary Desires of US Politicians

Not that I expected an ethical stance on ethanol. However, with the debt ceiling looming in politicians' minds, mostly democrats felt the need to protect farmer subsidies to create fuel for rich people, at the expense of food for regular people. Ethanol is an inferior fuel which happens to ruin engines. The true colors of our politicians are on display with this very important vote. This is very, very pathetic. I am not proud of this North American energy debacle. Jesus would vote for food instead of fuel, just sayin...

An Obvious Dinner Plate to Farm Subsidy Analogy

One percent of farm subsidy goes to fruits and vegetables.  63% goes to meat and dairy. Yet the balanced diet implies that protein and dairy make up a 20-30% portion of a healthy dinner plate.  I am hijacking this blog topic because this unbalanced perspective of subsidies needs to be addressed as a major cultural/civic policy blunder of modern times. This subsidy drought for healthy food needs to end.

Where plants grow globally in July, and then in December.

Chlorophyll fluorescence has allowed NASA scientists to map out where you get your produce from (unless from a greenhouse) two opposite times a year.  This is amazing!  The differences are very profound and provide insight into the agricultural world.  I often wonder why my corn comes from Florida and Mexico in May, and then why all fruits come from Costa Rica and Mexico in January.  Geographically, the world's elevations and other features also seem to play an important part in terms of vegetative potential.  Notice the impenetrable mass of the Sahara which prohibits growth anytime, and the extra vegetation around river basins.  This map may confirm what everybody feels, is common sense. However, I applaud the technology which allows man to render an exact display of our green environment.  I love perspective pieces provided courtesy of science.

A Welcome Unexpected Effect of $102 Oil

Although I'm aware of the trail of oil which eventually leads to plastic, I didn't think I would see retailers cutting back on plastic, at $102 oil.  This is wonderful!  Honestly, I thought most retailers would sell whatever is manufactured.  An end to clamshells would be a beautiful world.  Ideally, eliminating plastic everywhere is the ultimate goal.  However, I wonder how the plastic companies are going to remarket or repackage their plastic products. Oil companies have lobbying tentacles in everything.  Anyways, the death of plastic manufacturing for packaging, would be a great day.

Omaha needs stores like this

Although this store relies on banks to fund its supply chain, the neighborhood feeling of this store seems right.  Unfortunately, I do not see banks becoming friendlier to local small businesses in the near future.  It is for this reason I feel the neighborhood market will become what they used to be and what they are in almost every other nation on earth; a rolling cart stand with one or two products. Local and healthy food is a necessity for living a healthy life. How many CO2 miles are associated with your food will become more an more important as prices for energy increase. Omaha is blessed to have a store like Wohlner's.  However, there is much more room for more healthy/local food and produce stores. Ideally, urban farming in Omaha is going to need options for retail. There is a part of me which would love to see rolling carts throughout Omaha's streets, I must admit.

Urban Agriculture to Prevent Omaha Nebraska's Status as a Food Desert.

       While the world heads toward an energy paradigm shift surely to affect everyone on the planet, will the people of the Heartland be able to feed themselves? In a region which has encouraged landowners to plant crops for fuel, corn syrup, and animal feed, where are people to go for actual, food, grown on farms?  Unfortunately, Omaha's farmer's markets could not keep up with a potential growth in demand for food that doesn't cost much in transportation fuel. All Nebraskans from all walks of life, would have to look at their spacious landscapes and decide what makes sense.  Spending money on fuel to manicure our yards, may become a new form of bragging.

        As fuel and food prices rise, how will "The Good Life" here in Nebraska, be affected?  $113 a barrel oil, as of 4/20/11, should mean something to people who rely on oil for every aspect of their lives.  Nebraskans enjoy a relatively cheap rate for energy compared with the rest of the country. However, our food is shipped in from everywhere else in the world from large corporations.  To other North Americans, we are envied for our spacious landscapes. If you like land, then move to Nebraska. Yet, why don't we grow food we can eat, on the land?  Nebraska, with its own blend of tradition, politics, and culture, has managed to create one of the biggest ironies on the planet. The swath of land stretching from North Dakota down to Texas has the most fertile soil, on the planet.  Due to modern agriculture, most of this beautiful, rich soil is washing into our rivers and streams; depleting the Heartland of one of its most valuable resources, second only to the Ogalalla aquifer(a close second). Additionally, this wonderful soil we stride on is degraded every year by pesticide and fertilizer cycles.  Modern agriculture in Nebraska is run by big Ag.  Big Ag needs lots of fuel to run big machines.  Even if we were to eat what is grown in the patterned grid of Nebraska's rolling landscapes, how expensive would it be to farm quality food products for nearby cities and towns?
       Historically, Nebraska and the plains region as a whole, has had a roller coaster of a ride, agriculturally. The 1930's dust bowl should still be lingering in the memories of some of our grandparents. If droughts are possible in this region, Nebraskans should begin to consider how to best retain water on their property. Combine drought with high fuel prices and I don't even need to begin to explain what is possible.  These reasons are why I am addressing the subject of a new trend of retro/modern urban agriculture within Omaha. Many people in Omaha are deciding not to make a long drive to Whole Foods or any local grocery store, as often. Omahans are discovering that there is always an abandoned lot on almost everybody's block, or that they have some extra land in back which receives good sun.  I have met many great people in Omaha who are putting 2 & 2 together. All classes of people are acknowledging this necessary social phenomenon to restore what our parents remember as a neighborhood.  Omaha urban agriculture has the potential to be the best example in the country.  The agricultural products needed to farm, are literally, all around us.  A food desert is a place which doesn't sound like Omaha.  Yet, a growing majority of Omaha's population is reliant on food aid, every year.  With higher fuel prices on the horizon, urban agriculture is the only way to prevent Omaha from eating yellow corn #2.

      I am optimistic that the trend toward urban agriculture here in Nebraska will take hold and transform a culture used to surplus into a society of neighborly people. This transformation will be tough.  A new, tough mindset may need to be adopted.  "If you don't work in the garden, should we let you eat?"  To some, this may seem extreme.  To me, farming is going to be the most important skill of this century. So, go over and give your neighbor a hand with her wheelbarrow.

Existing ranch land in Costa Rica

Creek area, used daily by cattle. Total length of valley is about 8-9 kms. Rolling hills, some lush, some barren. Other parts of the valley have some water flowing.

On the hillside, the ridges made by cattle are evident.  Lower left shows the ravine-like erosion. This is an example of the worst part of the valley.

A closeup of the erosion from the previous picture.

A typical scene in one of the undulating parts of the valley.
Vegetation still seems to thrive near steep ravines randomly throughout the valley.

A mango orchard stuck in the middle of the valley.  Meanwhile, the dry conditions cause deciduous trees on the hillside to lose their leaves. 

Here is a commerce town with anything you would need, within reason.  Probably no industrial strength hair dryers. The town is 5kms away from the valley.

Here is an example of the typical road and a relatively "healthy" part of the valley

   I did not realize I would have so many people awaiting these pictures.  If I would have known I would need to present these pictures to my PDC class in a few weeks, I would have treated this day a little differently. 
    For those who read my blog, these pictures basically represent a typical valley in the drier part of Costa Rica.  This area probably sees 6 months of rain and 6 months of arid conditions.  The valley has been used as pastureland for maybe 30 years and the deforestation has further added to its' arid appearance. It is tough to drive on these roads without a 4wl drive, so this part of the country looks like you could be in the 1950's.  This was the surreal aspect to this valley.  If I would have had my partner in crime with me, I probably could have had a more thorough photo diary of everything I saw.  Regardless, families were bathing in the creeks, people were washing their trucks and scooters in the creek, and locals who were stripping down, what looked like a pig, and drying its' meat on logs in the sun.  Costa Rica has much to offer.  It is sad, however, to see Costa Ricans try to imitate the way North Americans treat land.
   After spending time in the rainforest, this arid part of the country seems to be on the precipice of further decline.  I tend to be an optimist.  I think valleys like this represent the beginning of the new forests with which micro-climates can be reborn. It is a valley like this which could restore natural health to a whole region.

Obtaining a Permaculture Design Certificate while reading George Orwell's 1984 in Costa Rica

Without an explanation, the title to this blog seems significant, only to me.  Let me begin to try and explain why this experience has been the most significant experience for me, ever.  Permaculture, as a discipline, assumes that there is a mainstream sociological/technological culture which needs to be abandoned.  Teaching people to take care of the earth, its people, and then returning waste to its respective system, means that people do not embrace these ethics to begin with. Although I feel describing permaculture to people as "cultivation practiced by our great-grandparents" works for conversation sake, it barely scratches the surface as to what it means in our modern world. Our great-grandparents, in an era of ascending oil influence, would have loved to enjoy labor-saving devices if it meant they could still enjoy the fruits of their labor.  Our great-grandparents assumed there was always an improvement on the horizon in which to bestow hope. Similarly, today's youth expects new features out of every annually released iphone. This expectation of technological progress is what we have in common with our great-grandparents' lives. The differences lie in the context.  In an era of declining oil influence, cultivation must revert to the methods which imply less "man-handling". Without relying on fertilizers, genetically modified seeds, herbicides, or insecticides, how will the next generation of people feed themselves? To me, permaculture stands alone as the only solution.
       George Orwell published 1984 in 1949.  He had just watched the world destroy itself and proceeded to write a short historical narrative on the topic of global domination, or as 1984 titles it,"The theory and practice of Oligarchical Collectivism". Orwell submitted this narrative to his publisher thinking the narrative would circulate through academic circles at Universities. His publisher advised him expand his narrative into a larger novel, because the story would reach a much larger audience.  Thanks to his publisher, 1984 has become the most widely read novel of all time.  Now we come full circle as to why I chose to read this novel while I obtained my PDC.  Whenever I leave for a trip, I choose a book for my journey which will assist me in a perspective transition.  I had seen 1984 quoted in everything I have read, for years. Orwellian dogma was something I knew I had to become acquainted with in order to truly understand the topics I read. The novel is scary. I am not used to reading sci-fi, let alone fiction.  When the novel reaches the narrative I describe in the latter half of the book, I hit what seemed like a quick ascent to divine omniscience. The explanation of "doublethink" would not prepare me for the most eloquent prose I have ever read, describing 150 years of reality above the realm of all media.
     "The book fascinated him, or more exactly it reassured him. In a sense it told him nothing that was new, but that was part of the attraction. It said what he would have said, if it had been possible for him to set his scattered thoughts in order. It was the product of a mind similar to his own, but enormously more powerful, more systematic, less fear-ridden. The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already." Winston thinks to himself after reading the revolutionary manuscript. These thoughts inform the reader, "You have just read some serious @*&%!, take a moment to chill."  While learning how to save the world with permaculture, George Orwell was laying out the parameters of a modern world which cannot be saved.  Optimistic Gus found it very difficult to initially marry the Orwellian world order with my new found love of farming.
       Costa Rica has been highlighted as one of the greenest and happiest countries on the planet for the last couple of years.  While the country protects its' inhabitants and its' land with devotion, there are many aspects of Costa Rican life which are poised to imitate aspects of North American life. From pesticide use to minimal sewage treatment, Costa Rica has many problems of an ascending world model of success. However, for a country with less than 300 square miles, the inhabitants enjoy 5% of the world's biodiversity.  Amazing!  Even in its deforested, sewage runoff, and pesticide-laden state, Costa Rica has so much to offer the world, with its' diversity.  I was in the middle of a rainforest which dared me to be destructive with any of my personal consumption habits.  Costa Rica could biodegrade my waste as a consumer and still hand me fresh produce, produced kilometers away.  All year, Costa Rica can feed me!  I return to the heartland of the USA only to be fed by Costa Rica, Honduras and Mexico. This overarching message I received in the Costa Rican environment, is what restores my hope for mankind, despite Orwellian overtones. I can now grow almost anything, anywhere, thanks to my newly acquired skill set. You would think that this skill should provide me with optimism for a lifetime.  Unfortunately, as we all know, the roller coaster of life gives you a hand to play regardless of your respective affinity for hope.
      I have returned from paradise with messages of hope yet hardened with an unforgiving world-view. While my heart views permaculture as the solution, my brain cannot get around the world's desire for power and wealth. In a perfect world, the path would be easy and egalitarian. In this world, the path can only be determined by struggle of the fittest.