Great Circle FAr, CSA/Permaculture Demonstration Site

Final Report for FNC97-191

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1997: $5,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1998
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


We operate an organic vegetable farm on 10 acres of land on the edge of the town of Goshen, IN. We have about three and a half acres of our land in vegetable production at any given time and have farmed organically here for nearly 20 years. We raise a small herd of dairy goats (12-15) and also chickens for eggs and meat, mostly for ourselves. We raise bedding plants and some winter produce in three greenhouses and market all our fruits and vegetables through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project. We have practiced sustainability in virtually every aspect of our farm and lifestyle for the last two decades.

We are a family farm of two adults and four children, ages 5 to 14.

We set out to show that a permaculture system, including greenhouse, orchard, gardens, and small livestock could be a model of a production system that would help growers promote both economic and environmental sustainability.

We planned to build a straw bale greenhouse to show low input sustainable building methods and to lengthen the market season for northern growers, create a permaculture growing site to illustrate intensive organic methods and expand the variety of foods available for market, and expand our CSA based on the products and length of season provided by out greenhouse and permaculture garden.

The first step of our research consisted of gathering ideas and building plans for straw bale construction. We contacted a straw bale architect from Nashville Tenn. and planned a workshop for the second weekend of October.

We had decided to engage a straw bale consultant for several reasons. First, we wanted and needed guidance on the design of the building and the most efficient use of materials. Second, the needed architectural designs in order to get a local building permit, a process we wanted to go through not only for legal reasons but to create a model for the alternative style of building we were planning. Third, we wanted to combine the building of the structure with an educational format and needed an engineer who could also lead a workshop.

Our next step was to acquire building materials for the project. We were able to procure the timbers from a 160 year old barn for use in the timber frame part of the structure. We had decided that we would also hold a timber frame workshop since we realized that the skills involved in timber framing were also an integral part of the building process.

Many of the needed materials were donated or scavenged including greenhouse glass, lumber, and pallets for the roof. We were very committed to reducing consumption and waste and keeping costs down.

A timber frame workshop was held the first Sunday of October, 1997 and the straw bale workshop was held the second Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of that month. About 15 to 20 people attended each workshop, with some people attending both. It took another month to get the building ready for winter and prepare it for use the following spring. Several people who had attended the workshops helped out intermittently over the next few weeks.

The winter of 1997-98 gave us breathing space to select materials and plan the planting of the permaculture site in the spring of 1998. we attended a permaculture instructors workshop in early spring, having decided to lead the workshop ourselves. This decision was based on several considerations. The first was economics, having spent significantly more money on the straw bale consultant fees than originally projected. The second was a feeling that permaculture methods would most appropriately be tailored to the site and needs of the participants, plant, animal, and human. Since so much of the actual planning and planting would be done during the workshop, we felt we needed to guide the process in order to live happily with the results.

We held the permaculture workshop May 5 through 10, 1998. Ten to twelve people attended. During the workshop, we covered permaculture concepts, practiced applying analytical techniques, designed the site, and planted almost two dozen fruit trees, fifty asparagus plants, red and black raspberries, garlic, and two herb and vegetable guilds.

- Susan Houghton, president of the Organic Growers of Michigan, publicized the various events via the internet and various state publications
- Jeff Burbrink, County Extension Ag. Agent, provided a list of Master Gardener program graduates
- Howard Switzer, straw bale architect, drew plans, provided permitting guidance, and led the second of two workshops to construct the straw bale greenhouse.
- Mary Linton, biology professor and Merry Lea Environmental Center fellow, offered technical assistance and led a permaculture workshop session on soil microbiology. Ms. Linton also guided us in locating interested interns for summer farm work
- Cliff Pequet, local artisan and timber frame builder, provided expertise, tools, and labor during both construction workshops
- Paul Dodson, timber frame builder, helped in timber frame preparation and during the first constriction workshop.
- Nina Bailey, local farmer, donated greenhouse glass
- Jon Cutrell, local landscaper, helped with the building workshops and provided both guidance for the permaculture site and a tour of his own plantings for participants at the permaculture workshop.
- Dale Claussen, construction foreman for local not-for-profit social service agency, donated building materials and labor.

The most obvious results of our project concern the building and use of the straw bale greenhouse. We feel we were extremely successful in illustrating a building technique which can provide ideas and incentive for sustainable building. The workshops were found by the participants to be educational, measured, in part, by the extreme willingness of local people to remain involved in the project long after the workshops were over.

We feel we also made an impact on the community due to the many people who have visited the site, having heard about it either from acquaintances or the newspaper.

The greenhouse itself has been a great success for our farm operation. We were able to add two new restaurant clients to our CSA, providing each with eight shares per week. Most of the early salad mixes, spinach, and green onions, as well as fall chard, kale, and tomatoes, came from the straw bale greenhouse. The building also provided additional vertical space for bedding plants, allowing us to increase volume and variety of the vegetables we were providing to members.

The permaculture demonstration site has also been successful. The permaculture workshop we held was extremely rewarding and we were able to have an impact on the participants as well as the land itself with a highly sustainable approach. Our front yard had been a fairly traditional array of grass and flower gardens and has gradually transformed into a beautiful and utilitarian edible landscape. Though the fruits we established have not yet begun to produce, we are very excited about the prospect of providing these products to our CSA members. Our member survey recorded fruit as the number one desire of participants.

The permaculture site gives us a continuing opportunity to show that, not only can a yard environment provide significant amounts of food, but also that organic agriculture can be accessible to almost anyone with a little bit of space.

The money from the grant allowed us to build a greenhouse and develop a permaculture demonstration site. This has affected our farm in a number of ways. First, we were able to develop a relationship with a number of people and agencies throughout the area, creating credibility and educational opportunities for ourselves and others with whom we had contact. Second, we were able to expand the season and variety of foods we can produce, making our CSA marketing system more attractive and potentially profitable. Third, we have created an esthetically pleasing environment in combination with an edible landscape, providing a model for others interested in the same goals. Finally, our operation had become even more integrated, creating opportunities for both marketing and education as well as increasing sustainability.

We actually overcame both identified and unidentified barriers throughout our project. While planning and constructing our straw bale building, we found that interest was high among unexpected people. Virtually everyone we had contact with was curious and open to the idea and we know of several individuals who have used straw to build everything from cold frames to one couple strongly considering a straw bale residence. Though acquiring a building permit proved to be both complicated and expensive, the results were well worth the effort. The next person to contact the department will find things going much more smoothly for them.

We also discovered the permaculture layout to exceed our greatest expectations for efficient use of space, beauty, and yield. The vegetable and herb guilds that we created during the workshop provided us with incredible bounty and we are actively expanding the site at this time. We feel this is an exceptional model for sustainable agriculture, bringing accessibility to wide range of people. We are very interested in continuing to educate about the use of permaculture techniques in both farming and landscaping.

We found very few disadvantages in the implementing of our project other than the extreme amount of time and energy which was required to focus on just this one aspect of our farm. Now that most factors are in place, the project will actually increase the integration and efficiency of our operation, but publicizing and holding workshops felt a bit overwhelming at the time.

We would be able to strongly recommend the practices we examined in our project, both the straw bale building and the permaculture site. We found straw bale construction to be fairly economical. The techniques are also simple enough that even someone with only basic construction skills can build successfully. Many workshop participants commented on the enabling experience of creating a structure without the need for professional help or complicated building skills.

We’ve also found the straw bale greenhouse to operate efficiently. It is well insulted and our design allows for excellent passive solar operation. There are a few minor aspects of the design we might do differently but that is probably true of all construction.

We also achieved our goal of creating a building not only sustainable in usage but having the lowest possible impact on the environment. Virtually all materials were salvaged or recycled and are bio degradable. We avoided the use of new dimensional lumber as much as possible as well as plywood, concrete, synthetic insulation, and any paints or solvents.

Permaculture, as an agricultural practice and as a landscaping strategy, provides an extremely applicable conceptual framework. Though techniques can become complex, the application of design strategies entails basic common sense. Growers interested in increasing yield, variety, and sustainability can apply these principles successfully.

There is no question in our minds that the application of sustainable building and growing practices can have a wide impact. Both categories can help to reduce off farm inputs, significantly lowering costs. Both strategies are accessible to the average person with limited resources and background, making the production of food on a local basis a potential reality. Areas normally devoted to chemically maintained landscapes can become food producing plots, making individuals and communities less dependent on long distance transportation and chemically dependent food sources. Educational opportunities are also abundant, with permaculture design strategies and greenhouse growing techniques providing an excellent connection for people, young and old, to food sources and deeper understanding of the environment. Solar applications can also help to reduce resource depletion.

Though organic agriculture has always been a way of life on our farm, the building of the straw bale greenhouse and permaculture site have greatly enhanced our own journey toward increased sustainability and our opportunity to inform others about the process.

The nature of our project and events surrounding it entailed a phenomenal amount of outreach.

During the course of our project, three workshops took place. The first, timber framing workshop, provided the structure of our straw bale greenhouse and the second was the straw bale building workshop.

We sent out brochures on the workshop to local contractors, the extension service, members of the Organic Growers of Michigan, CSA members, and press releases to three local newspapers. Two newspapers provided coverage of the events and between 17 and 20 people attended either one or both workshops.

We also found that, in the process of collecting materials for the greenhouse, many questions were asked by the merchants and suppliers in the area. I would guess that a large number of people in this town of 30,000 are aware that a straw bale greenhouse was built here last summer.

A similar strategy was taken for the permaculture workshop in May of 1998. We created a brochure and mailed it to master gardeners, landscapers, organic growers, CSA members, and any other local people who we thought might be interested. We put a small notice in a national perculture journal and information about the workshop was put on the OGM and Michigan Food and Farm Alliance websites. About a dozen people attended the five day workshop.

After the events, I attended several local gatherings to discuss our work and wrote an article for the MOFFA directory. Some contact with the Kellogg Foundation resulted in a second small grant to continue our work in the coming year.

We also had contact with Goshen College to set up internships for the summer and had three individuals work on the farm, participating in both greenhouse work and the permaculture site. Several other members of the community had traded work for produce in order to learn more about the straw bale building and the permaculture site. Virtually all of our 45 CSA members have toured the site and a large number of them have also brought guests. We have had visitors from as far away as Cornell University and northern Minnesota.

I led a workshop at the Indiana Horticulture Congress and we have participated in a CSA research project. I will speak at a farmer’s caucus in January, organized by Purdue University.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.