Amrita Farms 'a living learning laboratory' for sustainable farming near Ann Arbor
If you head south down Ann Arbor-Saline Road, past Interstate 94 and the strip malls, you soon find yourself in a rural area, with large green spaces and farms that line the road. What you might not realize is that one of these farms could soon be changing the way we think about food and agriculture.
Amrita Farms, a project of the Amma Center of Michigan – a non-profit center focused on the teachings of the Indian spiritual leader Amma – has recently started the process of launching a full-scale permaculture installation on its 55-acre farm. Originally developed as an organic apple orchard three years ago, the organization hired Ann Arbor permaculture expert Nathan Ayers to manage the farm and broaden its scope.
What is permaculture?Ann Arbor permaculture expert Nathan Ayers describes the science and motivation behind sustainable permaculture farming practices.
Permaculture is an agricultural philosophy that employs methods that work with, rather than against, nature. It is often referred to as a closed-loop system, where one plant's waste becomes another plant's fuel. The landscape is molded with swales and mounds to better utilize and retain water from rainfall.
Ayers, who refers to himself as a "soil geek," speaks passionately about permaculture and his plans for the farm.
"We're running out of topsoil in this country," said Ayers. "By the U.S.D.A.'s numbers, we're losing two billion tons of topsoil every year, which is totally unsustainable. Couple that with a situation where a city like Toledo with over 500,000 people can't drink the water because of algae blooms caused by run-off, that's a huge wake-up call. And that was totally and unequivocally related to farming practices."
If we change our food systems in America, it will address so many other issues.
Ayers explained that in order to be able to continue to feed the earth's population, a change in approach to farming will have to be implemented.
"A big part of permaculture is about transitioning away from annual monoculture, which is what we see in many U.S. farms – typically corn, soy or wheat year after year – to what we would call a perennial polyculture," explained Ayers. "We want to mimic a forest. Sometimes that's called an edible food forest, sometimes it's called an edible forest garden. That's really sort of the mainstay of permaculture. It's a different design system for embracing natural systems."
A 2013 report from the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development echoes Ayers' concerns about our current predominent farming methods. Citing climate change-driven issues with drought, soil depletion and "a burgeoning environmental crisis of agriculture," the commission calls for "a fundamental transformation of agriculture."
"This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers," according to the U.N. report.
Still in his first year at Amrita Farms, Ayers has begun his work terraforming the land. Hardy, native plants like radishes, potatoes, onions and kale grow on earth mounded around a pond - called a kratergarten. The mounds add a verticality to the growing area, effectively tripling the amount of food that can be grown in a given footprint. Comfrey and nettles provide groundcover, adding nutrients to the soil and preventing soil erosion. Hazelnut trees have been added to the existing apple orchard.
Though Amrita has begun supplying some food to Ann Arbor restaurant Back2Roots, and has plans to start producing apple and kale chips, food production is almost more of a means than an end for this farm. What Ayers is building here is a template that he hopes will be applicable on farms across the country and the world.
"Research and education is really the future for this farm," said Ayers. "We're on 55 acres. A lot of food can be grown here. A massive amount of food. But what we have is a template that can be expanded across thousands of acres. It's about designing these ecologically-based design templates that are replicable."
Ayers said that permaculturists are, by nature, working in research in development.
"We're still working to figure out what works, what's going to allow us to provide for our families, what's going to allow us to get off fossil fuels, and what's going to allow us to produce more than we consume. I see this is a living, learning laboratory, where students can come and participate in the work that's going on here, but also take away hands-on skills to replicate what's happening."
Allen R. Pyle, who heads the Great Lakes Permaculture Network, says that there are not yet a lot of well-established, long-term permaculture farm examples in the region, but he's seeing "a huge amount of interest" for backyard and small community-scale permaculture and small-scale permaculture farm development.
"I have found that sharing some basic permaculture practices and principles at this level can really get people excited about permaculture and recognize its potential," said Pyle. "Even something as simple as using plants weeded from the garden as mulch, or growing herbs vegetables very close to the house so they are easy to harvest for use in cooking makes people's eyes light up."
Education is the other half of the Amrita equation. A former Ann Arbor Public Schools employee himself, Ayers is working closely with the schools on a K-12 STEAM-focused, project-based program called The Future Farm. Students visit the farm to learn about sustainability, nutrition, mindfulness and agri-science.
Adult education opportunities are offered, too, with classes on beekeeping, composting, earth building and permaculture.
"If we change our food systems in America, it will address so many other issues," said Ayers. "It will address energy issues, it will address pollution issues, and it will potentially address transportation issues. About one-third of all the oil in the U.S. is used for food production, so when we start switching to perennial, poly-culture system, we're using way less fossil fuels and way less water."
Ayers said that permaculture would encourage people to eat locally and more seasonally. If that makes you worry that we would have to shift away from what we consider traditional food sources, Ayers said that shouldn't be a problem.
"There are permaculture solutions for everything, including cattle," said Ayers. "There are ways to do it all with way fewer resources and way less impact on the land."
Interested in checking out the farm? Amrita is hosting a "Big Green Smoothie Party" at the farm (4201 Ann Arbor Saline Rd.) on Thursday at 5 p.m. Attendees are encouraged to bring their own "superfoods, fruits and recipes to mix and match" with kale harvested on the farm.