Years ago when I was in my early-20’s and still knew the absolute right answer to all of life’s questions, one of my best friends from childhood and I got into an epic pissing match one night after a few beers.
We were sitting in a famous dive bar in Denver called the Campus Lounge, and the subject of debate was farming… Something I knew absolutely nothing about.
But I was the typical 20-something cocksure, insufferable know-it-all. You know the type: Newly minted college graduate, always annoying the shit out of those weary parents who just forked over a small fortune for a college education only to be forced to listen to us at family gatherings pontificate this way and that about the solution to all of the world’s complex problems.
On this particular night I was foggily expressing my ignorant certitude about the unquestionable benefits of industrial farming.
My quirky friend was arguing just as vehemently that our entire approach to agriculture was completely ass-backwards.
He was already a student of Bill Mollison, the father of an agriculture technique called permaculture – the study of agricultural design that views farming as an integrated, co-dependent system rather than an industrial process that can be broken up into piece parts.
He argued that one of the biggest scams ever perpetrated on the modern world was that we were incapable of feeding ourselves and needed a middleman between us and that which sustains us.
As I snickered, he explained that it was entirely possible for every human being on earth to be food self-sufficient — that is, each of us, without a lot of effort, could literally produce enough food on a small plot of land to feed ourselves.
At the time, I thought the whole idea was left-wing, commie, pinko, socialist, tree-hugging, oddball quackery.
Fast forward 20 years…
That same childhood friend is now a business partner of mine in this organic farm here in Panama.
Luckily by some mystery of the universe I realized in my mid-40s that I actually knew less than I did in my self-assured 20s and called up my childhood friend to see if he’d be interested in a partnership – I’d provide the funding, he’d provide the permaculture expertise.
So today, 2,623 miles from the Campus Lounge in Denver, he’s creating an organic farm from scratch in the Azuero Peninsula of Panama based on the very principles I’d ridiculed 20 years ago.
And… he’s just as quirky as ever.
He’ll sit for an hour staring at the vegetable beds, watching intently how each critter interacts with the soil and plants, and then devise a strategy to combat pests using companion planting (garlic repels cabbage maggots, radishes repel cucumber beetles, and so on).
He broached an idea with me last month about creating a food tunnel – training vining vegetable plants (cucumbers, melons, even watermelons) up a series of trellis hoops between the beds so that one could literally walk down a tunnel of vines and harvest fruit and vegetables at eye level.
I rolled my eyes and replied skeptically “okay… yeah, whatever”. Then a few weeks later I stumbled across this online somewhere:
Despite my protestations, he spent a month digging out the first three, 40 foot-long raised vegetable beds by hand with a shovel and pick, when we could have knocked out twice as many beds in one day before lunch with a backhoe.
His response; “Yeah, but then we wouldn’t learn anything about the soil.”
We still have a long way to go of course, but in less than a year we have our well dug, a large compost and vermaculture operation underway, water storage tanks in place, and four new beds under construction.
More importantly, it’s already starting to produce… Habenero peppers, garlic, mustard greens, basil, arugula, tomato, amaranth, cucumber, lime basil, carrots, beets, cilantro.
We have pineapples in the ground, papaya trees, melons, passion fruit, watermelon and more than a dozen fruit trees.
Some of it will work and some of it won’t. But the important thing is that the entire concept doesn’t seem nearly as odd or quirky as it did 20 years ago.
With increasing food demands, tightening food supplies, and most importantly, inflationary global monetary policies that are dramatically driving up the cost of food, one of the smartest investments you can make today is in productive farmland. Even a relatively small organic farm (ours is less than 2 acres) gives you not only the personal reassurance of a guaranteed food source, but the financial upside of spiking food prices.
The coda: I sent my partner an email a few days ago suggesting that when the time is right, I also wanted to put in a chicken coop and start raising chickens as well. His reply:
“Chickens for shizzle… I’m not joking. I might just throw some chicks in there and see how they do. Feral badass jaguar fighting chickens with eggs that are hard to crack open… Chickens that eat scorpions and snakes and shit.”
It turns out that chickens DO eat scorpions and even snakes on occasion.
Twenty years later, and maybe I was the oddball all along.