The Quiet Revolution

An interview regarding food forests with Valerie Herrmann, permaculture designer and founder of The Food Park Project and I Love My Life Chocolate.

By Joanne Herrmann, News from the Ground/ Interviews

Suburban Food Forest

Suburban Food Forest

A revolution is taking place, but it won’t be televised nor will it feature crowds carrying banners and signs of protest. It will not be associated with the masses nor with an endless list of grievances against the powers-that-be. There will be no noisy drum circles nor shouts of slogans nor nonviolent acts of civil disobedience. It will not take place in public squares nor on the streets, but in the quiet backyards of private homes and in the silence of the growing places its activists will designate and cultivate for the benefit of their communities.

Just as the fallow ground becomes fertile when allowed to vegetate, and just as the seeds planted in that enriched soil steadily grow, blossom and become fruitful; so too is this underground movement beginning to take shape and burst forth with vigorous ramifications. Individuals are tilling their gardens; communities are tending theirs; vacant lots and once dead spaces and brown zones are being reclaimed; schools, colleges and universities are spreading the word with knowledge and experiences that not only make a decent living possible, but also are filled with the promise of a better future for all of us.

At the heart of this development are a couple of residents from Jacksonville, Florida, Eli Bajalia and Valerie Herrmann, who have created an actual food forest around their quarter of an acre residence in the suburb of Arlington. Having spent the greater part of her post college years in the study of sustainable farming and its offshoot, permaculture; Valerie Herrmann was willing and able to discuss her role in this field and to explain to us her vision for its application in the future.

Q. Can you share the history of your experience with food forests with us? How did you get the idea, and what did you have to do to get one started?

I first learned of “Permaculture” when I was living in San Diego, California. A friend of mine, who graduated from Berkeley, had transformed the 3/4 of an acre backyard of his mother’s into a food forest. A truckload of fruit trees was brought over from Exotica Nursery, a truckload of wormcastings, a truckload of rock dust… banana plants, jujubes,mexican marigolds, and more were planted in the front as well. I lived there for three months…

Then I was sent to take a PDC (permaculture design course) on the Big Island of Hawaii back in 2001 by a non-profit foundation I was working for. After the course, I visited my friend, who was living on a six acre food forest on Maui. I fell in love with the place and decided to stay. The food forest was called Kanahena and was in Ulupalakua, Maui. This somewhat mature system ingrained in my soul what a beautiful life this food forest life is! I climbed sapote trees with a book, picked delicious fruit to eat, and watched the birds at the next tree branch. I lived at another community in Maui after that, which had three orchards that I worked in almost every day. Though it wasn’t designed with permaculture, per se, it deepened my love and connection to the land.

My next influence was when I moved to a small island off of the coast of Panama called Bastimentos in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. A man named Bruce Hill was a permaculture designer and teacher. He had actually designed Kanahena where I had lived on Maui. His greatest contribution to my understanding was when he told me that he stopped traveling around teaching because he felt it was better to build models for people to walk through and experience, rather than teaching to the intellect only. I took that to heart. It is the way that I fell in love with the land in San Diego, and again at Kanahena… By feeling it, walking through it, harvesting food from it, finding favorite places in it. A food forest is something that must be experienced to be understood.

To get the food forest started at my current residence in Jacksonville with Eli, we started with a small garden outside the back door where we grew kale and other crops… In the front, we got busy by laying down sheets of cardboard, and dumping 40 yards of manure on top. We had tree trimming companies dump truckloads of woodchips in our driveway that were wheeled out to all of our pathways, I bought and brought in many truckloads of compost from a local supplier, and also brought in many bales of hay. We threw down lots of cover crop seeds and spring crops and melons; we started planting fruit trees also with our vegetable crops.

Q. As the food forest grew, what did you have to do to maintain it?  What did you do to diversify it? Any obstacles along the way?

As the food forest (I like to call it a Food Park) grew, we maintained it by making sure there was no bare soil and that there was either heavy mulch on the bed, crops, or a cover crop. We would make compost tea and spray the leaves and soil to get the microbial life pumping. We were from the start interested in having diversity — plants diverse in functions (nitrogen fixing trees, hardwood trees, fruit trees, insectary plants, fragrant plants, herbs, berries, vegetable crops) and diverse in habitat (canopy layer, understory layer, shrub layer, herb layer, groundcover layer, vines, and root layer). We are still excited about incorporating new plants into our system.

We had some obstacles, of course; rebuilding the health of poor soil takes time. It is unrealistic to think that you can rebuild the web of life in a few weeks, or even a few years. Harlequin bug was a bit of a nuisance one year- but has not been since- slugs had been a problem in the early days, but are now kept in check by the eco-system; white fly was an issue, but the trees have since become stronger and we see very little of it anymore. Aphids are around, but are kept in check by other insects.

We had a small obstacle with the city citing our property two years in a row as having “noxious weeds over 15” tall”. The first year, we just cut down our cover crop which we were going to do anyway and that was that. The next year was not the same (though it was the same notice). We had lots of plants and didn’t know what we were expected to chop down. I made a packet for the city, which included educational photos of what our plants were and a letter dismissing the charges as antiquated because of a recent state law, Senate Bill 2080, The charges were dropped.

Q.Tell us about your experience with One Spark. How much did you invest in the project? What did you get in return for that? Was it worth it?

It was a great experience in many ways. First, it had me solidify the goals I had for creating a model for how to grow food in ecosystems. Second, being at a venue and talking with so many people was really fun, and gave me hope. People were really, really supportive. We heard many times that our project had something real behind it, and we were inspired after leaving our booth. Third, we made some good contacts there.

It was exciting to win, but, unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of prize money to do much with (after paying back expenses for doing the event). I think the experience of One Spark was definitely worth it – though I’m not interested in participating again next year. You have to go out there like a politician and garner votes 24/7. I feel there are other avenues that I would rather spend my time pursuing to make this dream of a large Food Park and nursery a reality.

Q. What are you growing in your Food Park now? Is it seasonal? Does it sustain you? Aside from growing plants, what else do you do to keep the Food Park thriving?

What’s growing in the Food Park now? We have eggplant, okra, some cherry tomatoes, lots of molokhya, Palestinian squash, stevia, basil, rosemary, edible hibiscus, chaya (spinach tree), papayas, Okinawan spinach, katuk, hoja santo, starfruit is flowering, surinam fruit is flowering, jalepeno, datil pepper, ginger, tumeric, sweet potato, roselle, cranberry hibiscus, many moringa trees, lemons and tangerines are green and growing, and much more. We are just starting seeds for our fall/winter garden which is the main growing season here in Florida. July and August is generally a time when farmers take a break because it is so hot and humid, and few crops are thrilled to be growing. So we will have many, many vegetable to add to the list soon. Foods are definitely seasonal; that’s nature. 🙂

The Food Park will eventually sustain us. As of right now, we buy lots of fruit because it is the main thing we eat. In addition to the herbs and vegetables that we grow, we have over 45 fruit trees planted; so when they are all mature and fruiting, we will not have to buy anything to eat. Hey a few years buying food while you’re also growing food sure beats buying it the rest of your life!

Besides growing food what else do we do to keep the Food Park thriving?… hmm.. We do a lot of “chop and dropping.” You see we have built into the design a way to speed up the succession of the forest from 50 -150 years down to just 10. We do this by overplanting a lot of “pioneer” trees mostly leguminous. These trees can take harsh conditions and grow very rapidly. These fast growing trees quickly give some relief to the ground below them, allowing other less tough trees to gain strength beneath their branches. When the timing is right we “chop and drop” the taller pioneer trees and place the chopped limbs, leaves, and branches under our fruit trees. This accomplishes many things in one fell swoop. It allows more light in to the maturing trees underneath. It provides mulch for the fruit trees, and the roots of the chopped and dropped tree also die back, releasing nutrient to the plants nearby. It is an elegant design that fast tracks a forest to production with speed, health, and vigor.

We also lay a thick woodchip mulch in the pathways.. This serves many functions as well: It allows people to feel welcome in the park, it keeps moisture from evaporating from the land, and it is eaten by worms and mycrorhizzae which add fertility and important partnerships to the plants.

Q.Tell us about the other agricultural projects that you are involved with and how they connect with each other. Is sustainable a form of permaculture? How do these forms of agriculture complement each other?

Other agricultural projects I am involved in, aside from the Milmar Food Park Model, are that I’ve installed a garden at the side of ReThreaded, a non-profit organization downtown, half of which is behind a fence and the other half is on the right-of-way that was planted for the community. I’ve installed a 30×30 foot garden at the J.C. Johnson community center in Brooklyn. It is on the Don’t Miss A Beat side – an after school academic achievement program for kids in a low income area. I’m installing a Food Park at a private client’s residence. I’m designing and will be installing a Food Park at White Harvest Farms – an organic farm put into action by the Clara White Mission. I have a meeting this week to see how to proceed. I’m helping to design a Food Park at a Hare Krishna temple in Gainesville. I help people look at their property and see where they should place their gardens and trees.

As for the connections between these forms of agriculture, the only sustainable thing to do now is to regenerate the land that has been degraded. We will not be able to sustain life if we do not do this, because the majority of agricultural land is ashamedly degraded. The good news is that we know how to do it! Nature wants to do it! All we need is some support to build a model we can use to educate people. I would like to add that the approach we take to regenerate the health of the land is the same approach we take to regenerate our health from disease. We don’t attack symptoms with chemicals. That only works for a short time, and then things really get worse. The approach that works is to Clean and Strengthen the land and the water. To Clean and Strengthen our bodies. This is the way to achieve a vibrant eco-system that takes care of itself, and this is the way to achieve vibrant health without dis-ease.

Valerie Herrmann is a certified permaculture designer since 2001. She designs and installs edible “Food Parks” and gardens. She founded The Food Park Project (www.thefoodparkproject.com). Valerie also works as a Detoxification Specialist, helping people regain their health from any ailment through a specific raw vegan diet and herbal protocols.