"Keep going. Evolve. Adapt. Be in the garden as much as possible, but also know when to rest."
Sound advice from one of our experienced instructors for the Montana Practical Permaculture Design Course
that takes place June 16-30 at Sage Mountain Center in Whitehall, Montana! There are still spots left if you want to join us, including one and 3- day options for those of us who can't join us for the full 14 days. Check out our interview with Allison below and come learn with her during our course!
1) What is your background? Why do you do what you do?
I grew up in central Wisconsin, where both sets of my grandparents were homesteader/farmers. I spent a lot of time being on the land as a kid, and on my maternal grandparent’s farm especially, where they grew large gardens, kept bees, grew fruits and had a commercial Christmas tree farm. I went to college for three years in Stevens Point, WI, and pursued an art degree while there. I moved to Montana in 1995. Being immersed in wilderness, living on the edge of Glacier National Park, I came to understand that more than anything I craved a deep and permanent connection to the land itself. The beginning of understanding that there were alternatives to what I was seeing as normal American existence in the late 1990s happened thanks to my time in northwestern Montana.
My curiosity about the land, and particularly food, was piqued when I first learned about organic farming in 1996, which led me to develop the habits of eating organic food, and reading voraciously about organic farming and gardening. I eventually learned to garden in my backyard in Bozeman, and I gardened that way on a handful of rental properties for several years. I enjoyed gardening and producing high quality food that was not only the best I’d tasted, but also the most beautiful, as well as the idea that I could actually contribute in a positive fashion to a great many environmental ills to the extent that I decided to attempt to find out how to make a job out of farming. This led me down an almost 20 year path to the job I have today. I spent several years working in busy restaurants, doing summer landscaping, and working as a farm intern, before eventually forming my first business providing gardening installation, maintenance and design services in 2004. That business morphed into our organic farm in Wilsall, which was begun in 2008. I think ultimately, I do what I do because it feeds my being. I find much sustenance in the tactile realities of gardening and farming, from the soil, the plants, the animals, and being active outdoors most of my days. I also find great inspiration in the colors and shapes I encounter in my work.
2) Why did you get involved in permaculture?
I learned about permaculture while taking part in an internship on a commercial herb farm in Williams, OR in 2001. The farm, Herb Pharm, is an 80 acre diversified farm growing 32 acres of mostly perennial organic medicinal herb crops, for a robust value-added tincture business. In the several years before my experience there, the farm’s owners had installed extensive water catchments, utilized keyline plowing, cover cropping, crop rotations within their soil-building programs to transform an over-grazed sheep farm into a very productive system for producing plant medicine, and a very beautiful farm and education hub. I got to see first hand the before-and-after photos of the farm’s transformation, along with experiencing the reality firsthand.
We had over 50 hours of intensive permaculture training from certified instructors/designers alone, both in class and in the field that season, and when I first learned about permaculture, and became familiar with the Designer’s Manual, I was profoundly struck by the practical concepts involved in setting up holistic systems that were highly productive and regenerative, and in how the methods could contribute to a very drastic shift in how we provide for our needs as humans by working proactively with nature and landscapes and the systems that govern them, with the intent to give back and create community, rather than simply take. In particular, I was moved by the approach within permaculture to understand and work with water as an enlivening element in the landscape, but I was also moved during our extensive farm touring schedule, to see how many farmers in that region were utilizing permaculture design techniques on their beloved and beautiful farms. It was, and still is for me, a very fascinating approach to growing food and medicine, and a source of life-long learning opportunity.
3) Describe what you have going on on your property. What is the overall vision for your place?
We have 20 acres of land on an arid and cold climate version of an ecosystem called the Sagebrush Steppe. The property was managed previously using an over-stocked form of dryland continuous grazing by leaseholders, and we were looking at depleted topsoils, very limited presence of plant or animal species, and erosion of exposed and compacted soils in a wide-open landscape at high elevation off the northern slopes of the Bridger mountain range, with probably one of the shortest growing seasons in the US. I felt that the permaculture techniques that I had learned could help us make what had ended up as a wasteland of sorts into a livelihood, and that it was worth a go, considering prime farm land was not likely to become affordable to us in our lifetime.
We started in 2008 by forming a market garden and high tunnel production, establishing some water catchments, and have continued to expand our permacultural and agricultural educational exposures, water catchments, tree plantings, animal systems, and management structures from there. We raise Nigerian Dwarf goats, chickens and ducks, grow produce almost four seasons of the year, and market various crops and goods mostly to the Bozeman area. We’ve used Holistic Management principles and practices increasingly over the years, both for our livestock and pastures, but also for our broader business. Currently we are in the thick of food safety systems creation, maintaining a busy production schedule, and fitting in work on our orchard areas and other tree and shrub plantings.
The overall vision for our property can generally be described as a sustained effort to expand land regeneration in increasing ripples to and beyond our boundaries to the greatest extent we are able in whatever form continuing to achieve our economic goals takes as we evolve, recognizing that we are on a multi-decade trajectory in a landscape with inherent limitations. At minimum, our goal is to provide a healthy and secure and happy livelihood for our family, while having a positive impact on water harvesting and biodiversity.
4) What advice would you give a budding permaculturist/gardener/farmer?
Do whatever it takes to get your hands dirty, learn from your experience and observation, but spend sustained quality time learning from folks with real-life expertise before setting up your own business, whether it’s through internships on farms or permaculture sites, or by working in the landscaping, construction or nursery trades, or all of the above. Take business planning courses. Learn to constantly observe and assess details. Assess early and often your skills and shortcomings, and adjust your endeavors accordingly. Plan to constantly improve your communications skills. Devour books, but spend more time doing. Learn budgeting and money management and recordkeeping, stay nimble and creative, use what you have, be bold but stay extremely well-organized. Desire to master horticultural and livestock skills, so that the repetitive physical labor challenges can be overcome. Keep it real, sometimes the best skill is having common sense. Keep going. Evolve. Adapt. Be in the garden as much as possible, but also know when to rest.