It’s our dream to someday provide shares of a year-round perennial forest products CSA, grown with permaculture principles. At this point, that is our homestead’s main vision and our eventual goal. For now, we’re in the planning and research stages. Our hope is to offer our first shares in 2025.
Though 2025 may seem like a long time away, perennials are not something that can be rushed. Lettuce may come to harvest in as little as 2 months, but apple trees, blueberries, currants and gooseberries can take 4-10 years to be productive. A sugarbush can take a lifetime to mature, bees need a season to get their stores laid in and mushrooms need time and patience to establish.
Perennials with a Long Lead Time
Lead time is a huge consideration in our planning. Fruit trees, especially root cellared apples, are a huge part of our overall plan. The problem is, they take 8 to 10 years to mature and even begin bearing meaningful crops. At this point, our fruit trees include roughly 20 apples, 20 plums and a few pears and cherries. Many of the plums have already begun to bear, and the apples at around 4 years old are still a ways off.
While the fruit trees are maturing, we’re working on multiplying other fruiting crops that are quicker to bear and still bring a high rate of return. Propagating grapes is super easy and we’ve already dramatically multiplied out plantings. Grape vines are hiding just about everywhere, climbing up anything that will support them, and they completely cover our deer fencing top to bottom.
Wildcrafted & Non-Traditional CSA Crops
Foraged products are making their way into the local farmers market here in Montpelier, and every spring you’ll see ramps and fiddleheads dependably. The problem is, ramps, in particular, are difficult to harvest sustainably. Studies cited by Farming The Woods estimate that in tough years, no more than 5% of a wild ramp population can be harvested without leading to a decline. In good years, 15% is the maximum.
The normal rule of thumb you hear foragers cite is 1/3 of any given patch. That’s more than double the amount you can sustainably harvest in a good year without damaging the population.
There are other ways. Ramps can be successfully introduced and cultivated. One study found an 80% success rate in establishing patches using ramp seeds or transplanted wild plants. Our hope is to establish a patch in our woods and keep expanding the patch each year, harvesting no more than 5% for CSA use. The first seeds will go into the ground spring 2018.
Other crops have great novelty value and are not at risk. While maple syrup is popular at markets, there are literally dozens of different trees that can be tapped for syrup. Most trees other than maple have less sugar per gallon of sap, and thus require extensive boiling to produce an actual syrup. We’re experimenting with harvesting and using or preserving the actual sap in products, to save on fuel for boiling to syrup. Birch sap is already being sold by one producer as a finished product in Vermont.
Wildcrafted forest medicinals have additional challenges. Some are regulated nationally, such as ginseng and others are just irresponsible to harvest. We’re working on a cultivation strategy to supplement wild medicinals. Still, consumer education is the biggest hurdle, as many of these medicinals are unfamiliar to customers, and honestly, they may or may not actually need them. With medicinals, it may be better to offer a free choice rather than the same product in every share.
We’ve already learned a lot about growing medicinals for profit from Farming The Woods and we’re confident that it can be part of our final strategy. I’m now ordering the “further reading” book that was suggested, called Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and other Woodland Medicinals so that we can really get the specifics down.
Balancing Workload Across the Seasons
While a well-designed permaculture system is supposed to be low labor and low input, the labor that is required is concentrated in the summer months. Our hope is to be able to harvest and dry many crops for further processing in the winter. Medicinal teas, foraged mushrooms, storage fruits and just about anything that can shift the workload to the offseason.
I’ve also done a good bit of reading on forcing crops mid-winter. According to my favorite food storage book, Root Cellaring, there are a number of crops that can be dug in the fall and forced to produce mid-winter. Things like rhubarb, asparagus and endive can be dug up, stored in pots in a cool moist root cellar, and then brought up into warm temperatures in January or February for a good sized crop.
Circumstances didn’t allow us to test it out this year, but we hope to begin experimenting with forced perennials next winter.
Ensuring a Year-Round Harvest
Beyond balancing the workload, how on earth are we going to provide a share every month of the year? A good bit of creativity, along with root cellaring, drying and post-harvest processing. Our winter baskets will be filled with things that naturally have a long storage life. Did you know that tomatillos and ground cherries keep for months in their husks, no special prep required? There are all sorts of things that keep, but what wont keep we hope to turn into syrups, canned goods, dried goods and other forms of preserves.
If you have other ideas for winter crops, besides what’s listed below, I’d love to hear it. We’re still experimenting, learning and expanding our options.
So this is a tricky one. We’re on 30 acres, but there’s no way we could tend anywhere near that. Realistically, even with space intensive forest crops, we’ll only ever set foot on about 5 acres of our land for cultivation. If we took maple syrup off the list, it’d be more like two acres.
Even the big permaculture manuals tell you that you cant expect to manage more than an acre or two with one or two people. Realistically, much less to do it right.
I could easily see a small scale permaculture CSA run off a suburban lot. I just finished reading The Suburban Micro-Farm and the author devoted a whole chapter to making money with permaculture on your suburban lot. Everything from microscale maple to panting your own leek patch in a shady corner of your yard.
I honestly think a suburban model, with perhaps a half acre lot, could bring in a full-time income with the proper planning. In the suburbs, you have the benefit of customers right next door, and assuming you’re in a more favorable climate than Vermont, you can really make heavy use of all the seasons.
Developing a Cost Model
This part is tricky. How much will people sign up for? We’re hoping for a once monthly delivery, which may not be enough in the summer months. Ideally, we’d have a once a month subscription, every month of the year. The reality of summer harvests may make that hard.
Our vision is a annual signup for $500, with $50 worth of permaculture food & medicinals each month. That would work out to $600 worth of products in a year for a $500 subscription fee.
We’re currently reading The Permaculture Market Garden trying to get a better handle on the business side of running a permaculture CSA. Thus far, that’s the only book I’ve found to date that discusses business plans for permaculture farms and we’re hoping we can glean some good practices from its pages.
Crops for a Permaculture CSA
Our crop list is still under development, but below you can get a rough idea of products to expect by month. I would love suggestions and further ideas. Filling a full year is hard, especially in Vermont (zone 4) with a 100-day growing season. That’s why it’s important to us to make it happen, as a way to set ourselves apart, but also to show that you can produce food on this land to live and eat year round.
–Elderberry & Raw Honey Oxymel
-Apple Cider Vinegar
-Herbal Teas (evergreen tips, rose hips, etc)
–Reishi Mushroom Tincture
-Fruit Preserves (Currant, Plum, etc)
-Chaga Mushroom Tincture
–Storage Apples (Newton Pippin)
-Birch Syrup or Birch Sap
-Wild Mushroom Chai (reishi, chaga, etc)
-Cut Flowers (Lilacs)
-Linden Salad Greens
-Perennial Greens/flower Salad (violets, etc)
–Summer Apples (Yellow Transparent)
-Herbs (Chives, Thyme, Oregano, etc)
-Herbal Teas (Linden blossom, etc)
-Herbs (Chives, Thyme, Oregano, etc)
-Table Grapes & Wine Grapes
-Wine Cap Mushrooms