A Michigan permaculture farm defies the agricultural status quo by growing in harmony with nature.
Wild mountain yam grows in the forest farm of Oikos Tree Crops.
PHOTO: ERAN RHODES
Hidden within the rolling forested hills and vineyard-covered valleys of southwest Michigan, on the outskirts of a town that embodies rural Midwest culture, is a tiny farm that, if not for the few sturdy hoop-houses, most people would likely not even recognize as a farm.
The property of Oikos Tree Crops, which consists of less than 20 acres, produces a greater diversity of food than any farm I have ever seen, yet from a glance the mostly wooded landscape appears to fit right into its surroundings. The farm is in itself a fully mature food-producing ecosystem.
For a long while, I have wondered what permaculture would look like on a larger scale. After spending a long spring working at Oikos, I finally understand — large-scale permaculture is what native peoples of this land would have called, well, everything. Nature has the potential to produce food in abundance. And humans are capable of working with nature in order to make a particular ecosystem easily harvestable — what modern farmers would call “managed.” This is especially true in today’s world where most nature-based farms are started from scratch, using former cornfields or otherwise cleared land.
Such was the case with the land that plant guru Ken Asmus bought in 1980. After moving from his home in Saginaw to attend school in Kalamazoo, Ken decided to buy a small piece of land where he could experiment with planting all kinds of different trees, and start a plant nursery business. Little did he realize that every time he went out to walk the grassy field — shovel in one hand, tree sapling in the other — he was initiating something entirely revolutionary: a new form of agriculture.
I have just completed my first four months of working at Oikos Tree Crops, though it feels like much longer. I got this job because I really wanted it, which I take as a very encouraging sign, given that most of the other things I really want have to do with saving the Earth. In fact, everything about my life this spring has been encouraging — a truly remarkable achievement in a society such as ours, with its constant reminders of things to be depressed about. I mostly attribute this success to the remarkable uniqueness of working with Ken at Oikos.
When I arrived at Oikos, I felt like I was arriving home; fitting, since the word “oikos” translates from Greek to “home.” And now that I am not only an Oikos customer, but also an employee, I can confidently say that my previous suspicions of this being a special place were accurate. The project I was hired to lead has to do mostly with perennial vegetables, or annual fruits and vegetables whose seeds are primarily sourced from wild ancestral varieties: basically, plants that not many people grow, and pretty much no one grows on a large scale.
More than being a successful small-business plant nursery, I view Oikos as the embodiment of the coming revolution — that is, the food revolution that must transpire if humans are to survive and thrive. The small parcel of land is an organically molded, ever-changing sanctuary — a haven for plants that are dying out, or have otherwise been forgotten. At the heart and core of everything Oikos does are the principles of ecological diversity, centered on edible perennial crops.
A stroll through the rolling hills of the narrow property would likely take even someone who knows nothing about identifying plants quite a long time, given the diversity and beauty of the place, and the knowledge that nearly every trees and shrub is producing a perfectly edible crop. The tall grasses waving to the rhythm of the breeze, tickling the trunks of the abundant trees and shrubs would tantalize even the most satisfied urbanite into confessing to the unparalleled grace of nature.
Unlike other plant sanctuaries or plant conservation organizations, every plant that Ken grows is for the purpose of being spread around, shared, and planted in as many different places as possible. He has no sense of ownership over plants, over nature — a truly remarkable feat considering that Oikos Tree Crops is his livelihood.
The Oikos Tree Crops landscape is, in a sense, complete. There are a plethora of nut trees: pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, hickories, buckeyes and, of course, oaks. There is just about every fruit or berry tree, shrub, vine or crawling groundcover imaginable: nannyberry, bearberry, buffaloberry, snowberry, thimbleberry, and berry much more! And for every type of tree or bush or vine, numerous varieties. The main food staple that has been missing from the food forest is perennial vegetables.
Besides all the wild edibles that grow as weeds around the property, such as dandelions, clover, plantain, nettles, asparagus, among many others, we are now propagating dozens of other edible plants that can become like weeds, and grow on their own, either as perennials, or by self-seeding. Ken does not follow the general public’s fear of weeds — utilizing and working with nature’s abundant diversity, he has never had one weed take over completely. Even plants such as the autumn olive berry or scotch broom, that have caused so many farmers grief, Ken welcomes and embraces into his plant community, fully knowing that they are filling a specific niche within the ecosystem.
Wild varieties of squashes and melons are growing on their own out in the fields, and will hopefully spread on their own in the coming years. Earth peas with their exploding pods will become a permanent edible legume. Perennial wheat and other grasses with edible seeds will slowly replace the aggressive bindweed. Tubers, such as Jerusalem artichokes, groundnuts, chufa, oca, wild mountain yams and others are all thriving. We even have a wild variety of crabgrass that originates in Russia, and we cultivate the seeds for food. We have dozens of perennial salad greens, quinoa (a close relative of the common weed lamb’s-quarters), rhubarb, and even tomatoes and peppers. All these and many more will add to an ecosystem that feeds us, and allows for conditions in which the rest of the wildlife in the area can co-exist, thriving together with us in harmony.
And more than simply providing abundant food and an example of a new form of agriculture, at Oikos we save all the seeds from every plant we grow. We propagate these seeds, and distribute the plants, so that edible “weeds” can take over everywhere.
Our model would be the perfect homestead system for anyone interested in truly living off the land with minimal tilling. The food forest environment allows ample space for livestock as well, or the occasional “harvest” of some of the abundant wildlife that makes its home here.
I see Ken Asmus as a visionary who’s way ahead of his time, though he won’t admit it. In fact, Ken tends to shy away from anything that might resemble being political. His modesty is an inspiration. Ironically, I view the entire Oikos operation as being one of the most radical acts of rebellion and revolution I have ever seen (and I have been around my fair share of gung-ho political activists). What can possibly be more political than defying the destructive food system that seems to have such a strong hold of this country?
Industrial food production has become something so removed from nature, with its mono-cultures, its mass tilling, irrigating, spraying, genetic engineering, manipulating and owning.
I have already learned so many valuable lessons during my time at Oikos. Every day I am introduced to new plants that, even though I have farming experience, I never knew existed. I am thankful to be working here, and I am thankful that you, by reading this, are taking part in the revolution.
Eran Rhodes is an aspiring author, and is currently working on starting an edible landscaping initiative in Chicago. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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