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Michael Billington

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since Feb 04, 2014
Earthworker and Educator at Place of Gathering.  I took over and carried on with Sepp Holzer's American Pilot Project in Western Montana.  I have studied at the University of Montana, Woodbine Center for Ecology, with Mark Vander Meer, Sepp Holzer, and Michael Pilarski. 
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Recent posts by Michael Billington

Of course, you could make the same argument about WOOFers/volunteer labour. If you can't do it with market-priced labour, is it sustainable? Then you could justify the lack of economic sustainability by blaming subsidies of conventional agriculture for artificially low food prices, or fact that the cumulative damage to soils and biospheres is not being accounted for in the price of chemically grown crops...

This is a great point. If we factor in the current state of agriculture and look at it in a broader timeline, then maybe the high emphasis on informational sales at this point is just right. It gets people aware of it and trying things, then all those tendrils of new projects can be the ones to demonstrate its productive capacities. With all those forces working against the permaculture farmer (subsidies of conventional ag, lack of valueing ecologic service) we need as much "income leverage opportunities" as possible. I imagine you are right about the trend of focusing on informational products will transition as the market gets saturated and people will be economically encouraged to focus on production.

Maybe this could be fun for U-pick people, though? Marketed as a treasure hunt of sorts?

For contract growing, could you commit to a fairly conservative amount, shoot for double that in production, and have a plan for the surplus if it goes well? What sort of risks do you run if you are unable to deliver; penalty clause, ritual suicide, reputation damage?

Thanks for the good suggestions. I have had children groups come out to the farm and participate in "forage farming" and the loved it!!! absolutely loved it. Gearing a forage farming strategy towards families might be a successful way to go. It would be fairly easy to set up our hugel layout for this type of customer interaction as there are many winding hugels that often create food hallways. One of the events we have this year is called the Farmathalon where there will be different farm based challenges like wheel barrel relays, swimming around one of the irrigation ponds... two of the events are a veggie harvest bingo and an edible treasure hunt. I will be sure to post how that goes, its taking place on the third saturday in august.

In reference to the contract growing, I like that: commit to a conservative amount and try to double it and have a plan for the surplus. The whole start small and expand as capabilities provide thing really works. Work in chunks is one of the wisest permaculture principles, i believe. The risks in this situation I think are related to reputation, both of this farm and of permaculture practices. What do you mean by ritual suicide?

In the Netherlands there is an incredible Agrotourism industry that includes things like cow hugging and hosting corporate meetings at farms. This ultimately creates more exposure for all the quality food and increases sales. I see this as different from selling information because it is including the people in the operation of the farm rather than treating them as outside observers who can give money to look at all the cool stuff. That being said, i love it when people come and look at my project and give me money to look at the cool stuff... Identify the ideal and strive for it while acknowledging the current standing i suppose.

below is a photo of the installation when it was initially created. It shows the hallway effect I mentioned.
5 years ago
we have a bunch of beds made of of different woody compositions ranging from hawthorne to river birch to dogwood to aspen and to cottonwood.

I have dug into the different beds to check out what the wood is doing and boy howdy was that informative. The cottonwood was by far the most spongiest-soggiest-delicousness. THis makes sense to the primitive fire specialist because they know that the highly porous nature of cottonwood (particularly the roots) makes it a good insulator for the coal generated by the contact of the spindle and fire board. Cottonwood trees can suck up gravel!!! Now it may bloody well be my imagination but i feel like the bed with the highest concentration of cottonwood kicks the most but on our project.

in the attached photo it is the mound on the left.
5 years ago
Hey Everybody,

I have struggled over the past years to make an income off of the landscape created by sepp holzer in 2012 and I just wanted to share some of the experiences and outcomes as well as commence a thread on this topic. I have been hesitant to try and generate money from education because I think there are plenty examples of permaculturists and permaculture farms who make the majority of their income off of selling information. This is important but if the Permaculture community is going to demonstrate the validity of our practices we have got to better demonstrate that effecient nature fueled farming can produce enough to feed our communities. That will truly encourage people to start farming with Nature.

The polyculture scatter style of planting worked great for generating food for personal use but when it came down to earning money off of it, it has been less then easy. The proportion of costs from the sheer volume of scattered seed compared to the money it generated was disappointing. This is from on site sales and local farmer markets. It had the advantage of taking little time to plant, which is huge. But the biggest setback came in the form of harvesting time... harvesting for farmer's markets was easy enough because you only need a little of this or a little of that but it seems to me that in agriculture, producing in volume is critical to generating notable income. Getting enough small things like green onions was next to impossible. Five of my biggest take aways from trying to earn money off of polyculture on hugelkultures

1) Keep the polyculture simple: 2-4 species. This allows for high enough densities of a single species to generate volume that most markets demand.
2) Plant pickers on the bottom half and keepers on the top. For example on the bottom half plant things that require regular picking like tomatoes or beans, and on the bottom half plant things that require little maintenance and require time to bulk up like beets.
3) Plant bulky vegetables into hugels so that Identifying them is quick and easy, so that a large space is opened up for succession planting, and that you dont have to sift through all the plants to get enough radishes or green onions to make a bunch. Things like turnips, potatos, orech, diakons, beans.
4) To create produce that has the appearance and succulence that is expected at markets irrigation is required. We recieve 17 in of rain fall and the hugels are surrounded by ponds and are now entering there forth growing season so the wood is broken down well enough to store water. Given all of this, the plants still required extra irrigation to be considered marketable.
5) Its ok to cover hugels in near monocrops if the rest of the area has enough diversity. I have done this with both potatos and squash. Niether had significant problems with pests or diseases and were MASSIVE harvests.

I have begun to lean towards direct marketing towards organic restaurants. They want the volume of whole sale and also are willing to pay the extra cost for high quality fresh food like farmer's markets. Doing contract growing has been on my radar as well but I have not felt confident enough to gaurantee delivery. This year I will be growing naked pumpkins and I will be selling the pumpkin meat to a local brewery for there pumpkin beer and I will be harvesting the seeds for other purposes (propogation/sale/food storage).

Selling to people who have come for tours has been encouraging but sporadic because we have not done any marketing or encouraging people to come visit. This year we are amping up this strategy. Nearly every weekend we are hosting some kind of an event where people will have the opportunity to purchase food right from the garden. I will report how that goes at the end of the season.

I suspect some of the greatest income is likely to come from either a permaculture plant nursery, like akiva silver's operation, but on a broader scale or from specialty foods like crawdads (which we have been growing for three years now).

Folks who do special crafting like cosmetics, soaps, cough syrups, essiac have approached me to grow for them but as i mentioned earlier I have skepticism about promising people things I have not grown before.

What are other folk's experiences with generating income off of holzer style permaculture, hugelkultures, and polycultures?
5 years ago
Elderberry and Currants can tolerate Jugalone (the allelopathic compound in walnuts) and tend to like the same conditions. They each due fine in a sub canopy setting.
6 years ago
Darin, Yes we have a great handful of before and after photographs. Ill attach a couple for you.

The Website is still developing, one of many fires to be attended. In terms of land use and the community being developed- I am growing food, with help from a crew, for a couple of local restaurants, pumpkins for a local brewery, and the diverse array of on site events. This year we will be providing nature based learning to groups of home schoolers, a christian missionary childrens school, and youth from the regional tribes. We are partnering with the tribes to develop the property and due to its being on a reservation the permiting for the earthworks lies in the hands of the tribes who are in support of this broad scale edible restoration, especially since we are emphasizing plants that are indigenizing to the landscape.

We have built a strawbale class room so that teachers, regional and non regional, have a venue to teach at... so in terms of who will be using it, that depends on who has something to teach... do you have something you would like to teach here:)

Zach, Sepp told us to plant fruit trees or grains on the Dam. Yes the crown was a good learning mistake, luckily we have caught and learned, hands on, the value of the mistake before it will become an issue. Sepp also told me personaly that its fine to plant fruit trees into hugels if you plan on just using them for transplants, in fact they grow more developed root systems as a result. And we have done two waterway amendments/installation since Sepp left his mark. The uppermost pond would dry out so I rebuilt it... i had it lined with clay, deepened it, added fish habitat, put in an island and more pond mounds. Its now full, it was able to fill up even in winter.
6 years ago

Water stable aggregates is comparable to humus in function. WSA are a result of microbial activity, pretty much microbe shit. They bind together soil particles, balance, ph, hold nutrients, and support the "architecture" of soil that allows for good water and gas exchange. Acidity in soil can be due to poor gas exchange, eg compaction. So you may want to check on your landscape for compaction. If it is i would suggested plants like lupin, chicory, salsify, dandelion, horseradish, rhubarb, mustard, parsnip, carrot, turnip, rutebega, beets... taproots, to help increase gas exchange. Leave the roots in the ground as much as possible and as they decay they will become little sponges that allow air to penetrate the soil. Leave em in the ground and check em next season, youll see what I mean. In terms of the WSA, if you get more microbe activity going than you will create more WSA and that will balance the acidity. Add microbe solutions, purchased, or ferment your own yarrow, nettle, horsetail, and comfrey (also you probably have a bunch of hanging lichens in the trees around you, probably a brown and green variety. Those are rich in nitrogen and promote cellular production in the soil and in fermentations so add that to!!!) add that mixture with the goal of microbes, not strictly nutrients.

Conifers do not only acidify the soil through the depsoition of there needles but by being so effecient at pulling nutrients out of the soil.... SO if you can keep nutrients in the soil by having a steady influx of them then your acidity should become balanced.

Promote those understory shrubs as much as you can, there decidouos leaves are of great value to your soil.

Chop and drop will be your best friend: Rhubarb, Burdock, Chicory, Sweet White Clover, Primrose, Comfrey, horseradish
6 years ago

Morgan Bowen - Some have suggested that ancient varieties of wheat rye barley would not have the characteristics that would bring on or aggravate celiac disease.

In your interactions with Sepp Or from research of your own Is there any evidence that these ancient varieties might help and be useful to those with celiac disease?

We grew some of this Rye (the primordial corn is the english translation we were gave when he came to montana) after we luckily got our hands on some. Gluten is said to be a biological deterent to help prevent seed head loving feigns from eating the reproductive organ of grass, the grain. We grew three kinds of rye, one of them being sepps. On the other two rye I saw no insects on the seed heads. However on Sepp's rye there were tiny little mites living the life on the seed heads. In the attached photo of the seed head you can see them as the little black dots. There was a ladybug larva eating these little buggers (which as far as i could tell had no negative effects on the grains themselves). This might suggest, it may be a stretch, that this ancient variety of Rye has a lower gluten content.

This rye grew incrediblly. Amazing. It was eye level with me and I am 6'4". I used some of the straw from this rye to cover the floor of an underground sauna I built. The amazing feature of this straw was that it doesnt break up and become dusty like most straw, it stays in rigid hollowed stems that seem to decompose slowly. This is why we used the straw from this rye to mulch the fruit trees that surround our ponds, the large hollow stems provide wonderful thermal buffering of the roots from our cold winter days. Each seed produced a plant with 12-36 stalks, on each stalk was 30-120 seeds!! Think of the exponential growth!!! We planted some in the spring, it didnt go to seed that year, it only grew. However after a winter they produced grain this year. The grain has been called perennial rye by some, but it turns out to be biennial. The grain heads are suprisingly easy to thresh when they are properly dried. The stalks have a very unique aqua blue tint to them. This Ancient Rye was able to out compete even Canary Reed Grass (an agressive wetland invader that inhibits ungulate digestion and chokes wetlands water flow and oxygenation). the grain heads are of average size but differ from other ryes in there grindability. They tend to grind easy and seem to make a less dark brown of flour than rye flour we tend to see in the store. I only had the heart to make one tiny little pancake topped with chokecherry syrup for fear of wasting this most precious rye that has traveled the world.

In reference to Celiacs, Sepp had us plant Jeruseleum artichokes. We are on a reservation where diabetes is an epidemic as a result of the indigenous' diet being robbed from them. That is why we planted tons of it, you remember eh Zach? Jeruseleum artichokes are rich in inulin. " In addition to being a versatile ingredient, inulin has many health benefits. Inulin increases calcium absorption[13] and possibly magnesium absorption,[14] while promoting the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria."- Inulin helps to regulate sugar in the body and blood by working in conjunction with insulin. The digestivemicroflora are also the reason for why so many people get so gassy from j.chokes. Jeruseleum artichokes and there inulin behave like the famous indigenous food of Camas (Camassia). This root was traditionally cooked in pits for 1-3 days until the inulin broke down into fructose (the thing that makes bananas so epic). These slow roasted roots were then dried and pounded into flour.

Here is the kicker, ready? This flour, a product of the inulin present in camas and J.Chokes (and chicory, and budock, and thistle...), actually prevented diabetes... the exact opposite effect of the white flour that today leads to diabetes.... what a trip huh?

Zach, where did you see Sepp spread his grains? what purposes was he using them for? He suggested we spread rye on our dam wall to hold the soil in place. We didnt spread it over the whole dam wall and in the places we didnt spread rye, knapweed dominated. (see photo) Perhaps the allelopathic effects of rye can out do the alleleopathic effects of Knapweed. Perhaps a rye, lupin, sunflower polyculture could out compete knapweed as they are all allelopathic as well.
6 years ago

Bill McGee- Zach, I appreciate your recent posts. I'm intrigued by the bee hive using hollowed out logs. Also the uses of terraces (swales as well?) to create a spring.

Bill, I echo this sentiment. It seems to me that some of Sepp's most profound offerings and teachings stem from this very principle. As he has said when he has visited the states "It is the water's house that we are building."

With the installation he did in Montana at the Place of Gathering in 2013, this point was constantly emphasized. It is through the broadscale rehydration of landscapes that self-perpetuating food forests have an opportunity to take hold. At that installation there are now 3 new springs as a result of the installation. Below is an image I drew explaining how water percolates into surrounding soil and concentrates at certain points in the landscape. Zach has shared an awesome video of the building of a "Bubbler" to have the spring water flow out of a hollowed wood spout and into a trough, maybe he could post that again?

That crawl of water through the soil has paramount implications in the effort to naturalize cultivation. In the photo below you can see where a mound was built next to the pond. This is not a hugel with wood but it is simply a mound made out of fine sediments. Water can "crawl" through soil better when it is fine (INCLUDING UPHILL AGAINST GRAVITY!!!). One of the ponds he built here at place of gathering has a long shorline. In late july when everything was brown, the area along this shorline for about 8 feet was green. A month later in late august that green line had crawled to about 13 feet away from the shoreline UP A HILL!!! Similarly, we have a stretch of land with a pond on the upside and pond on the lowerside. On this stretch of land is almost a kilometer of hugels Sepp had built. The water flows from the upper pond to the lower one through the soil... the water flowing through that soil is then drawn up into the hugels to help keep them moist (but by no means provide for all of there water needs for intensive annual cultivation). What's more is there is a fog that forms between the two ponds in the morning. This fog leaves dew covering the leaves of the jeruseleum artichokes planted at the top of the hugels.... this dew drips down on the hugels. So in a sense these hugels are over head and sub irrigated by natures means!! attached is a shot of those hugels and ponds from the air.

Zach, when you saw his efforts in the old world did you see him employing flood irrigation in any situations?
6 years ago
This is a great thread, I want to offer some of my first hand experiences managing the hugels installed by Sepp at the Place of Gathering. Sorry for the Length. ENJOY!!

Below is a photo of an installation Sepp did in Montana at Place of Gathering. If you look closely you can see little reflections at the base of some of the hugelcultures. This water pooled at the base of these hugels after rains because they are placed on contour and not down slope. The slope is very gradual, maybe 5*. Plus the Hugels have curves and meanders in them which actually help to encourage pooling at the base of the hugels. During the management of these hugels I found these areas to be very valuable. The hugels adjacent to the puddles were obviously more moist and the areas where the water collected grew plants like parsley, carrot, parsnip, mallow (althea officianilis). Again, big fan of what placing them on contour achieved.

No erosion was evident in this scenario. In reference to frost drainage, the areas did seem to be a little cooler, which had its benefits in our hot temperate summers.

I believe hugel swales have there pros and cons. It would depend on how it was built. The important thing would be to build the hugel on the downslope side of the swale to have enough material so that as it broke down it wouldnt drop to a point that water could spill over and generate erosion. Building a mulched hugel swale would prevent the water from having much opportunities to move and generate small erosion gullies. By having the swale sloped down contour slightly at an angle of 1:300 or 1:400 like Yeoman did, then you could ensure the water from heavy rainfall events would flow down the swale and not over it. Also, we must consider that when the wood breaks down it turns into what is called brown cubicle rot. Brown cubicle rot is a stable conglomeration of carbon that will vary little in size once the wood has achieved that state. This is the end goal of the wood in a hugel and resembles biochar in structure and function. Due to its angular nature, it is actually quite structural... like building a house with bricks vs river rocks. In terms of "charging" a hugel with water, swales would undoubtedly be effective at this.

When I was talking to Sepp about how to manage the installation after he left he suggested we irrigate the hugels, contrary to the purported myth of no-irrigation necessary. However this suggestion was suited for our climate which averages only 16 in of rain a year. He suggested 3 soaker houses: one at the peak and one on each size slightly above half way up the hugel's side. When experimenting with this i found it took about 36 hours to saturate the whole hugel at a pressure rating of 25 psi and a flow rate of 7 gpm. Once the outermost layer of soil become dry the soil "wick" that allowed for evaporation of the water stored in the hugel was broken and that stored water would remain for up to a month.

In fresh hugels the wood will not store very much water, but it will release plenty of nutrients and host microbes. 2014 will be the 3rd year of our 6 foot tall alder, dogwood, hawthorn, cottonwood, aspen (fresh and dried) filled hugels. the first year the wood and churning of the soil released loads of nitrogen. The second year the wood locked it up. I suspect this third year we will begin to see a balancing effect where water and nutrients can be stored in the decomposing wood.

Adjacent to one of the ponds we did not actually put a hugel but simply a soil berm of fine sediments (see photo below). This is where we planted fruit trees and Sepp's Famous Rye (which did great, WE HAVE SEED!!!). The fine sediments allow for the effective capillary wicking. By planting the fruit trees here they are above the phreatic zone (the layer in the soil where water fills the spaces between soil particles) and are not drowned by the water but have the benefits of being in saturated soil. From my observations of the site, the coarser soil materials did not wick moisture as effectively (eg. the sandy hugels require more external watering). The tops of all of the hugels were constantly dry, constantly. Unirrigated generally the hugels were dry for the first 8 inches of the soil. Starting seeds in this dry soil is a waste of seeds as they would become seedlings and then could not reach the moist parts of the hugels and die. Just like with any other gardening it is important to give enough water to young plants that they can become established but little enough so that there roots reach deeper.

To respond to the dry tops I planted deep rooting perrenials such as rhubarb, horseradish, elecampane, and jeruseleum artichokes. These have the capacity to reach down deep into the hugels for moisture. They are also all divisible by root divisions. they all also feature massive amounts of leaves. These leaves provided chop and drop material, shade for the driest part of the hugel, prevented deer from crawling over the hugels, and captured dew from morning fog that would drip onto the hugels.

All of the trees planted on the hugels are doing INCREDIBLE. They were planted by mistake as Sepp told us to only plant bushes on them (2/3 up on the hugel). But now years later they are doing better than any other trees (except for those planted adjacent the ponds). It seems to me that planting trees on hugels is like how nature plants trees on fallen redwoods... I actually encourage it. From my experience what hugels need more than anything in order to minimize watering needs is mulch (leaves fallen from the trees planted on there tops), and shade. From growing vegetables throughout the installation i observed that they require much less light than commonly believed and did better in places where they were in the shelter of canopy (full for part of the day and dappled for part).

I was doing a restoration job with some friends that involved some thinning. We took the thinned trees and milled them for beams (a very valuable product) and took the slash and chowdered it up (put it in a pile and chainsawed it up to make it into finer materials). We then filled a 3 -5 foot deep trench with this slash and built hugels over the top of them. I feel that doing this on contour would provide a trench for the water to sink into beneath the hugel and would not compromise the structure of the hugel. This Hugels performed great. By having more thin branches rather than whole logs incorporated into the hugel we ensured there was a high proportion of nitrogen to carbon (as well as a higher proportion of cambium to support mycelial populations).
6 years ago