Book Review: Ben Falk’s ‘The Resilient Farm and Homestead’
Ben Falk’s The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach (available now from Chelsea Green Publishing) is packed with practical information for the landowner preparing for the effects of climate change, peak oil and resources, corporate control of food systems, and, basically all of the reasons many of us would like to set up on some acreage in the country.
I heard Ben say in a talk at the NOFA-VT Winter Conference that you cannot replace a society of producers with a society of consumers and expect to have a sustainable system. His fundamental goal is to build closer connections to our resources, and, ultimately, to produce as much as we can ourselves. Ambitious? Yes. Achievable? We’ll see. Inspiring? You bet.
The book begins with permaculture-type basics then offers a list of 75 guiding directives culled from Ben’s experience on his Vermont farm. He prefaces the list with a reminder that critical thinking is key—that, with land, there are no hard and fast rules, only a constant dialogue:
“The land system is not a machine—it doesn’t function in merely ways, though it is in part mechanical. This is probably why people are easily confused and end up habitually managing land as they would a machine. The rub is, however, that it also functions in far more complex ways beyond the patterns of a machine, or nonliving system. The land system is alive; thus, in a constant state of flux, evolving, responding, adapting, adjusting. It is never the same thing from one month to the next, one day to the next. Thinking it is the same thing leads us to conclusions that are at best ineffective, at worst dangerous. Relating in a way that truly appreciates and accounts for the complexity of the living land system is not mysterious or difficult —it is no different from relating to another human being. . . . Healthy interaction (with humans) is responsive—always based on the conditions of the moment and on past patterns and future goals.”
That said, there are also some terrifically practical things on his list, like:
- Swales everywhere
- Pee on plants
- Embed skills and practice in daily routine
- Cheap tools are too costly
- Disturbance stimulates yield
This last one is exemplified in a way I found particularly compelling. When Ben moved to his ten-acre plot on a Vermont hillside, he let the lawn and another field “go.” As a result, he struggled with a host of weeds, brambles, ferns, and saplings that even his sheep wouldn’t nibble. He whacked and chopped and seeded heavily with forage crops—for three whole seasons—hoping they would overtake the problematic growth, to little avail. To begin with, that shows tremendous patience and conviction, and his honest humility makes the ultimate lesson all the more impressive: Fire. In the end, Ben learned that what whacking and chopping and seeding could not put the screws to, carefully controlled burns, followed by seeding, could. Disturbance stimulates yield. Cool.
Subsequent chapters of the book—on growing food crops, medicine, and fuel—are concise and useful. And tucked in the back are some really meaty gems for putting things into practice:
- Crucial Skill List for Emergencies (I would add knot-tying to the list)
- Tools and Materials (for rural self-reliant and community living)
- Homestead Vulnerability Checklist and Strategy Summary to Reduce Vulnerability in Acute Events (whoa)
- Resources (or what Ben calls “Earth Engagements and Daily Practices,” such as: “Making things by hand and living close to things you make” and “Surrounding oneself with inspiring people and culture”)
For a good overview of the Whole Systems Design approach, watch Ben’s NOFA-VT talk and more on the Whole Systems YouTube page. Total permaculture nerd porn and definitely worth the time. If you’re hungry for more, the book should serve as a useful and inspiring guide.