Asparagus and rhubarb, two of the earliest signs of spring, are also examples of a growing movement among southern Wisconsin farms: permaculture.

From the edible forest at King’s Hill Farm near Mineral Point to Mark Shepard’s innovative perennial New Forest Farm near Richland Center, permaculture is gaining popularity among urbanites and farmers alike.

The idea is to create a sustainable food system that perpetuates itself, from the health of the soil to the hazelnuts on the trees. Asparagus and rhubarb fit in because they’re perennials that don’t need to be replanted each year.

A New York Times story in 2011, describing a permaculture course in western Wisconsin, gave this explanation of permaculture: “a simple system for designing sustainable human settlements, restoring soil, planting year-round food landscapes, conserving water, redirecting the waste stream, forming more companionable communities and ... turning the earth’s looming resource crisis into a new age of happiness.”

At Primrose Valley Farm, Jamie and David Baker are relatively new to both farming and permaculture practices, having purchased their 83-acre organic farm north of New Glarus in 2008.

Primrose Valley started its community supported agriculture (CSA) share in 2010, and expects to offer more than 300 shares this year, from mid-June through October.

For the Bakers, permaculture is a lifestyle, from transforming a dying black walnut tree into stairs with the help of a local woodworker to offering cooking classes at the farm’s community center that encourage people to love kohlrabi and cabbage.

The Capital Times: What were you doing before you came to Primrose Valley Farm?

Jamie Baker: I was teaching K-3, focusing on math and science. We were in Chicago.

We’ve always felt that the food system has issues. The lifestyle we had there, although it was comfortable and easy, we wanted to move back to the soil and the earth.

My grandparents were farmers … I grew up in the mountains of Colorado. I was rural by nature. I was very happy to get back to that rural style of living.

Then it was kind of like, if we’re doing this for our family (the Bakers have four children and two grandchildren), we ought to do it for our greater family, our community.

We started out very small, and we’ve been growing every year. Permaculture and sustainability really go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other.

Describe the farm. How much of it is forest?

We have 25 acres of the farm always in forest. We have a developing orchard that we’re just beginning to plant; we’re doing apples, sweet-and-sour cherries. We’re growing elderberries in our berry patch, we have some blueberries and raspberries.

The orchard area is designed with that permaculture aspect in mind. It takes into account that natural architecture that exists in nature and replicating it. It regenerates instead of (degrades).

The whole farm is done in that kind of concept.

What are some specific techniques that reflect that?

We do a lot of border cropping with flowers that attract natural pollinators and help with pest management. For our orchard, we’ll plant first in the area surrounding it with legumes that will do nitrogen fixing to the soil.

We plant garlic; it’s not a harvestable product for us, it’s just there. Garlic and onion plants take care of that heavy spring in nitrogen that occurs that is not good for fruit trees. It also helps with some of the pests, because pests don’t like the garlic. We also plant sage … it flowers and attracts those pollinators.

You create stories of forest, so you have things layered — certain things getting the shade of other items, creating a whole natural aspect. And in the spring, it can be an area where our chickens are naturally pasturing.

How are animals important to the farm?

You really need to have that foraging — that interaction between animal and plant — occurring. The chickens do amazing things for us, because they clean up any fruit that may have fallen. They eat the pests. We have chocolate Muscovy ducks. They’re big bug eaters but they don’t scratch as much, so they can be in areas that aren’t good for the chickens to go.

We’re talking about some goats right now, having some horses.

How did you consider permaculture ideas when you designed the farm?

We don’t fight the way the hill is formed. We don’t disturb the slopes where you’re going to have a lot of erosion ... if we have a natural path where the water is already flowing, we build that into the contour of what we’re doing, as opposed to making it flat and trying to change the topography.

Permaculture — people think it’s only related to the plants and the soil. But really permaculture extends beyond that, extends to the buildings that you’re putting in.

The buildings are designed for longevity, and take into account the natural features of the farm. We built the pack house into the side of the hill … our coolers are underground. They start out at 50 degrees and we only need to cool down from there.

Last season was hard for many Wisconsin farms. What are you hoping for this coming season?

Last year was a very difficult year because of the drought. We have a ton of wild berries throughout our forest and the animals had nothing. The berry would come on, and within a day it was as hard as a rock and it was tiny. There was nothing for (the wild animals) to eat … there was an influx of wild animal pressure last year.

The lesson that will serve you the best is flexibility. You have to be able to be flexible. The best laid plans are “x, y and z,” but you’re going to end up with “w” once in a while.

Our orchard was going to happen last year. But when we saw the weather being unpredictable as early as it was, we canceled our order in March.

Not every farm can manage an edible forest or a perennial orchard. But have you heard of other Wisconsin farms employing more permaculture practices?

Permaculture is something a lot of people are gravitating toward, that they’re looking to employ more and more. I also feel like, for us, we’re not ever going to be a perennial farm. Our goal is to supply a wide range and variety of food.

Permaculture is doing it in such a way that has the least amount of impact, that supports that longevity of the heirlooms that naturally continue to grow. 

Lindsay Christians covers Madison life for The Capital Times.

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Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.