A Permaculture Farm: The Perennial Revolution of Oikos Tree Crops

A Michigan permaculture farm defies the agricultural status quo by growing in harmony with nature.

  • Wild Mountain Yam
    Wild mountain yam grows in the forest farm of Oikos Tree Crops.

  • Wild Mountain Yam

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.

9/8/2011 12:52:50 PM

Great article! I love the concept of permaculture and wild ecosystems. I really do think organics and permaculture can feed the world. They only mark up the organic produce that much for the certification and to put that little symbol on the packaging. It's not really that much more money to produce organically....just different techniques. Google Sepp Holzer in Austria. He returns 50% of his harvest to the land every year because he doesn't have the manpower to collect it all. Nature is truly abundant.

Melissa Burton
8/15/2011 10:35:59 AM

It reminds me of a book...."the One-Straw Revolution", I wish I could remember who wrote it :/

t brandt
8/9/2011 4:11:41 PM

Heart-warming story. Anyone who has the opportunity to live their life on a self-sustaining, self-sufficient homestead should do it. BUT: the other 6.49 billion inhabitants of this planet would starve to death if all agriculture was performed in this way. Yield is way too small to feed the masses or even to be viable economically. "Organic" farms only survive with their low yields because they charge twice the market rates of industrially produced food. And when we use hi-yield industrial ag techniques, we spare land from the plow and it can remain in its natural state.



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