Project Management is paramount for Permaculture Design

Recently I began a new job doing project management for a green energy company. As part of goals and ongoing training I decided to look into the Project Management Professional (PMP)® training.

The most important part of becoming one of these professionals is to be versed in all the aspects of managing projects, the language involved, and the processes. All of these aspects are explained in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) booklet. You can purchase the updated 2013 edition from their site or download the 2000 version from here. Most of the fundamental aspects of project management do not change from the versions and can serve as a good education for permaculture design projects.

Reading through this manual has been super instructive for me and has already helped me through defining phases within the permaculture design process, which has been one of the more difficult aspects of permaculture for me to grasp.

Grab a copy and see if it helps you as well.




Why I am moving from Google Earth Pro to QGIS

I’ve spent a lot of time developing an open source workflow for permaculture design. While, initially, I thought that Google Earth Pro was my ticket to professional level work, I slowly began to realize the limits that the platform has. I’ll admit, I spent all this time working on learning one type of GIS that I wanted it to be the one I could use until the end of time. But there are some pretty compelling reasons to use QGIS over Google Earth Pro if your goal is to do professional design work, and that is the subject of my article.

Updates and support

I’m fairly certain that Google has been developing their Google Earth Engine while GEP has been left on version 7.1 for years. QGIS on the other hand just came out with version 2.16, and is continuously developing their platform. It’s simply a matter of goals. I don’t think Google really ever wanted to create an ArcGIS alternative, and after using both GEP and QGIS I understand the vast differences in their user interface and capabilities.

File Type Support

This is a pretty straight forward benefit to using QGIS. It supports many more file types that you are going to encounter while doing geospatial analysis. Many data types on websites like CTECO (Connecticuts repository of GIS data) can be used in QGIS, while GEP cannot handle any of it. Take the shapefile, or SHP. Here is a file that needs to be converted to either one of the file types that GEP can support, KML or KMZ.

QGIS is meant to be an open source, high end software and thus understands the need to be able to open and use file types used by the dominant company in GIS: ESRI.


QGIS is adept in handling databases, something I am learning more about everyday. The beauty of databases is that when I create a shape to represent some data on site, for example a riparian buffer, I can create a table with information about that buffer such as seasonal flow, water quality tests, and what kind of species composition is contained within the buffer. I’ll be honest though, I haven’t quite figured out how to do what I just said, but I think it is within the realm of possibility.

Datums & Geolocation for everything

Everything you do on this platform will need to be marked geospatially. Because of this, the workflow that all stems from the master GIS file will be better streamlined. Also, due to the large numbers of plugins available and file types supported, you can export data from QGIS to the next step such as LibreCAD for some CAD work, all while maintaining GPS locations which will become helpful in the field.

Datums are quite possibly one of the primary reasons to switch over. A Datum is essentially a way of orientating the GPS coordinates, there are many, and to keep everything smooth you need to be aware or which datum you are working. The orthoimagery that I use works on the EPSG:2234 datum for example, while GEP only works on WGS84.

It all comes down to workflow, conversion, and goals

QGIS makes the professional open source workflow all that much better. There are many municipalities and governments investing in this technology and doing real world projects on the ground. To me, that signals that QGIS is the better choice for having the workflow be smoother and save time. It is just too much of a hassle to rely on third party apps to convert data from GEP to anything else that will be useful.

Though my one caveat is to not throw out the baby with the bathwater. GEP is a wonderful software and I have had happy clients who end up with the GEP file and can do what they need to do at their level. Most clients need to visualize and play with their data on the fly, GEP is perfect for that. For us other designers, who want to be taken seriously but don’t want to fork up the cash for the proprietary software, QGIS is a great option.

Site Specific Weather Station with Raspberry Pi [Briefing]

I’ve mentioned before that typically when one is first compiling information for site analysis, there is a sizable amount that does not come from the site. Data is typically aggregated for climate, landform, soils, plant systems and more. This is to say that there is always room for more specific data to be collected.

Last year I was surfing the web to look for ways of grabbing site specific data for climate. This journey eventually led me to a DIY weather station that could be run on Raspberry Pi. Luckily, there are robust sources available, and even the makers of raspberry pi are working on making some for sale. But, where’s the fun in that?

The instructable website offers a great blueprint for this project. For less than $300, one could build their own weather station with photo taking capability. It can measure precipitation, humidity, pressure, temperature, wind direction, and wind speed as well as provide time lapse worthy photos in order to make sense of all of that data in visual context.

Furthermore, this particular instructable includes its own software that runs on Python (so you can learn a little bit of that too!) and uses the Weather Underground API in order to obtain other data relative to the site that you would be hard pressed to measure on site scale.

There are a couple of adaptations I would like to make of course. Making the measuring components themselves I think will be the most simple part, a more challenging aspect will be to case them and to find more functions for the space that weather station takes up. Ultimately, I am thinking about building around 6 or 7 of these to put all around the 65 acre farm. While I could settle on having 7 weather stations, I can’t help but be pulled into a deeper process.

The question becomes, if I have a structure capable of capturing weather data and photos, what else should it be capable of doing? They are spread around, accessible, and stationary. What else could be built into these structures to truly maximize need on the farm?

I suspect answers will come as the process moves along. I have connected with the Western Mass Geek Group which has regular meetings on Tuesdays and has encyclopedic members. No doubt with the tools and help available I can make a more functional weather station, and aesthetic too!


Sun One Organic Farm Site Assessment Version 0.1

This is the Site A&A I worked on this fall at Sun One Organic Farm in Bethlehem, CT.  The goals of creating this document centered around education and creating a structure for easier site A&A and better observation of patterns on site.  I wanted to be able to communicate what was happening effectively with someone who had never observed the land through a permaculture lens before.

Rather than treat this document as a normal first to last page book, it is better treated as a series of ponds that the reader can choose to wade in or not.  Links direct the reader to supplemental documentation concerning certain aspects of the A&A.

The site A&A was based almost entirely on the Scale of Permanence found in Edible Forest Gardens. Here is a shareable copy.(ODT) All files below are PDF.





Legal Issues & Illustration

Access and Circulation

Vegetation and Wildlife & Plant List


Buildings and Infrastructure

Zones of Use

Soil Fertility and Management





Non-Urban Hedonism

I say it all the time. In the face of the Anthropocene and all of the  related positive feedback loops contributing to it, fear is the most useless of emotions to evoke.  Fear is a perfect tool if you lack sophistication in your language of optimism.  But I scoff at the attempts to mobilize a culture who is already gripped in fear, with more of it.

In my mind’s eye the future isn’t dictated by fear, it is draped in sensual bliss.  Those who I follow, and who follow me believe in something way beyond fear, and way beyond sacrifice.  I don’t have to sacrifice to reach self-actualization, I just have to design the easier route during a sit down with wild fermented cider and Connecticut grown hash.

The Designer is the Recliner

I live by this, the prospect that through mind calories we can offset body calories, never to waste them again.  Clearly it dovetails from a powerful myth in the dominant culture of the U.S., which, in fact, is a myth that by proxy exists for the whole world to be enraptured.  The myth of progress holds out hope that leisure will come for those who work hard now, because technology will liberate us from the drudgery.

Ironically, when there are people out there who aren’t working, they become vilified in the eyes of those who are employed.  In fact they are living out the myth of progress as advertised…less work!  Those damned parasites, who take my taxes and use them to do a lot of stuff I don’t like.

The myths are powerful but go both ways, as an individual I need to make the myths work for me, not the other way around.  It is possible that I can design a life that requires less work from me, but that takes work.  The designer is the recliner only through diligence, just like progress only comes when you aggressively seek it out and use it.  Work is always necessary, but it doesn’t have to be drudgery, it can be transformative.

The Non-Urban

Rural and suburban land use areas of the United States perceptually lack the cultural amenities that cities provide.  It is probably a simple factor of population density and the creative power of many people in a smaller amount of space.  However, the internet makes it possible for anyone, regardless of location, to be in the know of all bleeding-edge cultural manufacturings.

The delicious and nutritious organic produce flows from upstate New York into NYC via farm shares.  It flows from western CT to New Haven and Hartford.  The city market demands the best organic food stuffs from the countryside.  The hedonism of the Urban is well known, but what about the hedonism of the Non-Urban?  What kinds of pleasures exist fundamentally within the Non-Urban, and what kinds flow from the cities to the mind of the Non-Urban citizenry?

I’m a Hedonist

I’ll admit I’m a foodie, which means by extension I am also a braggart. And how could I not be?  I don’t just make pasta sauce, I make it exclusively from Striped German tomatoes for a unique and sweet tasting product.  My cold remedy for the winter is 4 quarts of wild elderberry cooked down into a single ball jar with raw honey, cloves, and ginger. A 15 minute drive brings me the best raw milk in the state, not to mention the yogurt and butter than comes from the same source. As I throw the butter onto a pan over medium heat it releases a cadre of floral notes, which totally changed the way I looked at butter from the first experience I had with those scents.

This is daily.  For me, it’s not out of the ordinary to be high, it is my default state.  I am stimulating my senses all the time, the sights that will cause my emotions to react positively, the smells that release dopamine in my brain and gut, the tastes that cause my eyes to close and my chest to resonate with a pleasant vibration known as mmmm.  You don’t have to be rich to be a hedonist, you just need to be conscious that it is a function of design.

I am a Hedonist?

So what is hedonism to me? I tend to make these definitions up and use them to suit my own interests. I have little use for a hedonism that views pleasure as the highest good. Pleasure is easily reduceable, but hedonism is truly a holistic venture.  Pleasure does not exist within a vacuum, and my pleasure frequently depends on the source.

Take the Striped German pasta sauce for example.  The pleasure on the surface comes from the taste.  The taste is pleasure at its most reduced. But there are many more interactions between me and the sauce beyond the taste. I know that the tomatoes were grown in good soil, I know the people who took care of the plants, I prepared and spent hours cooking the tomatoes myself. Many associations are created with my first taste of this sauce. The music I play while I work pleases me, the memories I have with those who grew the tomatoes please me, the smell and the food storage potential of the sauce please me as well.

Now, the above paragraph is a horse that has been beaten to death countless times.  I truly cannot bestow through words the experience of these things, and we know on some level that these connections have importance.  But, what if hedonism could improve our health?  Holistically speaking, it could, and for me it does.

With the advent of scientific findings such as New Genetics and the Microbiome, there is compelling evidence that suggests that health is very much a holistic venture.  Yet, no where in the literature is fear seen as a positive force for feeling good, or making a desirable change.  No, a much better way to approach the problems we face is through pleasure, a diligent, disciplined pursuit of pleasure informed by wisdom.

Pleasure vs Pain

The buddhists would say we’re all suffering anyway, and that pleasure and pain are two sides of one suffering ass coin.  Duly noted, but the science indicates that pain carries much higher physiological costs than pleasure.  Pain and stress cause inflammation in the body in various forms, which in turn cause decreased health over time.  Pleasure on the other hand will do the opposite.  We adapt in real time, and with a holistic effort to keep our body in homeostasis, we can be our best as much as possible.  So while flipping a coin will always result in suffering, the path to a better life is paved with more heads than tails.

Think, better sleep (which is pleasurable), little stress (which is pleasurable), great tasting food, music you like, that high after doing physical activity, and optimism.  These kinds of things feel good.  Hope is better than fear.  Optimism, better than pessimism. At least, this is the decision I’ve made for myself, I won’t speak nor decide for anyone else.


The Inescapable Anthropocentrism

The way I see it, there is no way to escape the anthropocentrism when designing with the land. Let’s take a cold hard look at the concept of a better world without human beings. A world that allegedly is much better than a world full of humans could be. I think this world that lacks human beings is a construct in the mind of human beings, an ideal that cannot even be contemplated without a human brain.

While it is certain that our activities are not always aligned with patterns that emerge in nature, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater in our search for the ideal mother earth. There is a reason why if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, it does not make a sound. It’s an age old riddle that has two answers that are equally valid. Yes the tree does make a sound because physics instructs us that anything falling with that kind of mass in an atmosphere like ours must make a sound. No the tree does not make a sound because no one was around to corroborate the experience and communicate it to others.

The fact of the matter is, there is no real tangible benefit to viewing our existence here as hopelessly antagonistic. This type of riddle is along the same lines as the tree falls in the woods. Both answers are equally valid, yet we come to understand that this is a purely theoretical exercise. Yes, a planet without humans would indeed be without the antagonistic qualities wrought by humans. No, the planet would not be better because there is no one to determine if it is or not anyway.

Therefore, if we are to really start getting into the tangible meat of how to design more ecologically, it is always going to be one that is anthropocentric. It is utterly an inescapable aspect of how we view any system to be managed. I exist here on this planet, and I have needs that are met by the environment which means I have this fundamental, inescapable affect on the environment. Not only that, but when I look into the land it looks back at me. The environment has a fundamental, inescapable affect on me. Which leads me to the conclusion that it will take understanding the patterns within myself just as much as the patterns within the environment to do good design.

I exist here and there is no reason I will contemplate a world without me, I will design with the land, together.

Open-Source Permaculture Design: Intro to the Observation Workflow

Months ago I wrote a post about Open-Source Permaculture.  I introduced the programs and wrote briefly about their usage tied together with some stories and fluff.  For this post, I am going to provide an update to the material from the last post as well as begin to layout a workflow for the Open-Source Permaculture Designer (OSPD).

Updates on Software (9/30/15): Most up to date versions of previously mentioned software.

LibreCAD 2.0.8 (August 24th, 2015)

Inkscape 0.91 (January 28th, 2015)

GIMP 2.8

Google Earth Pro 7.1

Sketchup Make 2015

Scribus 1.5.0 (May 22nd, 2015)

Of course, I mentioned other software in the previous post, but I have been mostly using Google Earth Pro, Inkscape, and GIMP for my initial workflow dealing with site A&A.  I have heard calls from some in the community for a permaculture specific software, or accessing knowledge related to permaculture in a open-source way.  I think that these calls are valid and I hope to answer them in my own ways.

My ideal permaculture software is really a workflow of all of these other softwares.  When I look at the whole point of the design process, it is to get from observation to implementation and management.  That means for every aspect of the whole design process, I can fabricate a workflow that can produce a coherent and organized final product.  Let’s begin.


Observation can come in two different flavors…indirect or direct.  I won’t belabor the efficacy of either flavor of observation, but the way that each is recorded and utilized is unique and this is the first aspect of the workflow.

-Indirect Observation-

I’m discussing indirect observation first because it will most likely be the most robust source of most information on a site before even stepping foot on it.  Generally speaking, indirect observations are from secondary or tertiary sources;  you didn’t do it.  The bulk of this information comes from a variety of sources like the NOAA, USDA, and USGS.  Climate, landform, and soil info can come from these sources.  Beyond this there are countless sources for soil science, species identification, species utilitarian value and more.  Maps are an important form of indirect observation.  Survey maps, soil maps, geological maps, maps that show water locations, topography maps and etc will all fit here.

-Direct Observation-

These are things that you personally observe and interpret in your own unique way.  We all tend to focus on different aspects of experience, there is simply too much to take in all at once.  At any given sliver of time, a group of 5 people in the same general area may record observations on some sort of spectrum from exactly the same to completely different.

Anyway, how does one incorporate direct observation into the OSPD workflow?  I like Google Earth Pro (GEP) for this one.  I will do a full length tutorial on this soon enough.  The beauty of GEP is the tools that are available and the way that the tools work.  I can create polygons and lines that demarcate, on satellite,  different parts of a given site.  Furthermore, I can add text and descriptions to the shapes I draw in GEP.  A dialog box will pop up when clicking on shapes.

A real time saver is that if I have had a survey done, I can put in the GPS coordinates and start out right off the bat with my site boundaries on GEP.

So essentially, all direct observations can be recorded with shapes and descriptions on GEP.  This makes it a quick and powerful tool for taking experiences of the day and recording them for later design use.  Keep vigilant though, there is a pitfall of analysis paralysis here.  The point of direct observation in permaculture is not to have a large archival repository of individual observations, the point is to have relevance of observations and attempt to distill patterns from them.  The other point is to have information in context that can inform design in the future.

Verbal Representations (VeR)

After observation comes representation and communication, with verbal communication being the next logical step.  Observations need to be in a streamlined and coherent package.  This is where some sort of publication comes in, or a working document.  The working document needs to be able to communicate direct and indirect observations of the site in a coherent/organized manner.

Direct– Time is a major factor in the organization of the document, the time that the observations occur is really important.  Location is another major factor, a lot of observations are tied in with a specific location, and can be organized in this way.  Biological individuals/groups are another major factor.  Some observations are tied to a specific species and their behavior in interaction with another.  For example, if I observe that birds are making their nests in a particular kind of shape on the facade of a building, I may be able to design a similar shape to make housing and encourage that species.  These major factors effectively fulfill who, what, where, when, how, and eventually why.

Direct observation can be done in different ways as well.  It can be done in a directed or non-directed way.  For example, if I want to understand the changes of the season more, I can embark on a phenological study, eliciting patterns of seasonal change ultimately.  Non-directed, obviously, is just experience that you pay attention to for whatever reason and deem as important enough to record.

Indirect-More or less, indirect observation is an easier thing to represent visually.  A lot of the information from indirect sources is fairly stable.  Things like climate, landform, soils, water, and plant communities remain stable beyond human lifespans.  One can create a document and be secure in the fact that a lot of the information will not change until site specific information is gathered.

Visual Representation (ViR)

Basic yet undeniably unique in it’s representative power.  Verbal representations are quite weak in how they can connect someone to the subject matter.  The context of text is limited in its explanatory power.  Think, if all textbooks had strictly just text, you wouldn’t nor couldn’t really grasp a lot of the concepts contained within.

The visual representations can be educational, artistic, and most importantly as resources to inform design and implementation.  For all the sophistication and uses of Google Earth Pro, it looks ugly, no offense.  With GIMP and Inkscape, one can make much more compelling illustrations to convey the data cleanly and easily.

If you’ve read Ben Falk’s book “Resilient Farm and Homestead”, you know what I am talking about.  The illustrations in the book are really nice, and convey information real easily while displaying a clean look.

Observation Workflow Overview (2 Flows)

Direct Observation>Verbal Representation>Visual Representation>Working Document

Indirect Observation>Verbal Representation>Visual Representation>Working Document

Software – Google Earth Pro+Open Office+Inkscape+GIMP+Scribus+LibreCAD

Observation Workflow Broken Down

Direct Observation>Google Earth Pro (VeR&ViR)>Open Office(VeR)>GIMP (ViR) or LibreCAD(ViR)>Inkscape(ViR)>Finished ViR product.

Indirect Observation>Open Office(VeR)>GIMP (ViR)>Inkscape(ViR)>Finished ViR product.



Beyond the Commodity : Food

I read the article ‘What Isn’t for Sale’ in The Atlantic.  On some level it strikes a cord with me.  Read it ; read on.

I’ll step in as a celeb shot for the author and emphatically express that it might be positive for food to make the list.  Food is so real.  Food is our packet of sunlight, the part we get to taste.  Food is central to the human experience.  Why are we selling food?  Seriously, why?  And why do you buy it?  Why do you buy food?

I don’t know…is all food created equal?  Is the organic actually better than the conventional?  What about tilling, is that affecting anything?  Is the soil alive?  Does it matter if the soil is alive?  Is frozen pizza the same level as your favorite place?  How can we feed the cities?  What about rice and beans?  Are you absolutely mad?  Does stress affect the quality of the meat?  What would it be like to exist merely in a contained area, with friends, who are suffering in equal parts to you?  How did they do it 200 years ago?  I don’t know, probably slow.

Look, a candy bar isn’t a diet, and not all food is created equal.  The agriculturalists and cuisine-folk will share stories that are so unique as to be irreplaceable.  Food is not created equal because the ingredients that we choose from alchemate into a novelty, and to some extent, an identity.  Can you feel so much over a food item that you’d include it in what you are, what constitutes who you are?  Do you feel that way about a diet?

Let’s imagine for a second, that the etymology of diet was ‘way of life’.  At some point, diet was what you would consider a way of life.  Today, a diet can and will end, for someone out there.  No doubt this person could have undergone something truly life changing, or lived this day slightly more devious than another.  But the question is what does a change in diet mean for you?  Has diet ever changed your life?

I suppose I might garner a reputation for snobbery at some point in my life.  Though I suppose I might try to avoid that before it happens.  It’s not snobbery, it’s more of an intense interest really.  I eat the chains of distribution while I feast on this neighborhood restaurant.  They are slow to digest and I really had hoped to get enough sleep tonight.

I eat it and I tip well when I can, because to serve those who are faceless can kill a soul.  A fat tip will raise the heart.  The servers are very much stressed.  The cooks, forget them…that was an exercise in management, how you answer will effect the fecundity of your business.  That and if you choose to look at the restaurant as a business or not.

I like good food, seed to swallow and beyond.  Some of the best food I’ve had came with some soil hanging off it.  I felt good about the taste, the atmosphere, and the story.  It’s almost mythic, seeing a lifecyle from beginning to end.  It’s certainly mythic to juice a head sized kohlrabi and drink it slow.  It tastes so sweet, so good, and then there is the broccoli olfactory load.  Perhaps if we can reconcile the power of the broccoli with  the sweet within the kohlrabi, a new tonic will emerge.  Or maybe I’ll suck it up and love it eventually just how it is.

I don’t think I have much of a diet in the traditional sense.  I go to school and work some odd jobs, do design, write and think.  I really just eat what is available.  My mother always used to make these meals with meat, starch, and vegetable.  I can’t say that the Ham Casserole was equal to any other food, or sharing it was equal at every single meal!  She still adheres to the similar pattern, and I feel like I have something like a diet when I’m home.

When I find myself at Sun One, I have another story with those ingredients.  I spent weeks focused on those ingredients.  I spent weeks cooking those ingredients.  I spent weeks trying to sell those ingredients.  And…I didn’t really mind it!  Selling vegetables is fun at farmer’s markets and local markets.  I see that stuff on the shelves in a couple of minutes.  People buy and eat those ingredients.  I don’t know them, but I’m sure they have a nice story about their ingredients.

When a farm doesn’t have to rely on income derived from food production, it eases the burden.  We would most likely decline to comment on our profit margins, but we certainly aren’t going to lose our shirts over it either.  I enjoy the lack of stress, even though I am just an intern and long-term economic viability of the farm doesn’t affect me much.  But for those who do depend on the long-term economic viability of their farm, less stress may be welcomed.

Food isn’t something one will break the bank purchasing.  Some farms don’t find themselves rolling in the dollars shortly after every harvest.  The product is cheap, and the volume is short.  To be successful you need to be savvy.  To be successful you must know your market, know your soil, know yourself.  This could mean specific growing strategies and products.  This could mean micro greens at $50,000/acre , this could mean squash at much below $50,000/acre.

I don’t knock the successful, or the strategies.  It’s a clear example of doing the best with what they’ve got.  Yet, I think there is more to all of this than just succeeding in market gardening/farming.  Putting food into the market is not going to elicit a diet, though it certainly spawns some children of its own.

I have nothing against the diet proposals by various gurus.  Yet, again I fear we’re benefiting from another example of doing the best with what they’ve got.  The market isn’t just in food, it’s in health too.  The diets are commodified like everything else, in ignorance to place and season.  Avocados are great, but I will accept that as I am a resident of New England, they are not practical to become too attached to.

The diet eludes us.  Can you find it for me?  Because I cannot.  Truthfully I haven’t looked that hard, but should I have to look hard for the diet?  What is the diet?  It’s The Diet.

It’s a whole year, with local, seasonal ingredients, satisfying nutritional requirements, all within your region.  The Diet is a holy grail cultural technology that can prove to be a foundation for solving food related issues in the world.  How can I eat January-December?  What kinds of recipes are there?  Is it a way of life?

Grains, Meats, Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Seeds, Ferments, Baked, Canned.  What can we do here?

And it needs to be here, it cannot be anywhere else, it has to be proximal.  The further the food goes, the more it is subject to commodification.  The Diet can build a local food culture, and instill a sense of place and time within the annual cycles.  In a world where it is can be hard to find common cultural grounds with those that live around you, local food will always stand as the great connector.

Face it, your life is civilized and modern.  The history is so complex but food was present every step of the way.  This cultural puzzle still hasn’t been solved.  We still don’t know how to obtain The Diet for our region.  All I know is The Diet won’t be born from market conditions, but from sources beyond.  The market created problems for food and diet, problems that may be unsolvable from the same forces that created it.

Develop The Diet, the way of life, and we will be closer to decoupling food with commodity.

Deep Time and Constraint-Based Design

My lifetime is pretty short, but the ramification of the design journey I am choosing to embark on will effect things long after my time ends.  Permaculture is very much meant to be permanent, it is supposed to last a long time, that is what I am trying to wrap my head around as I learn from day to day.

Site analysis and assessment is something that is undertaken by everyone after obtaining agency at any kind of site.  It is the basic skeleton on which designs can be puttied on top of.  The more robust the skeleton, the tighter the design.  The skeleton is realized from the observations of the designer, the flashlight of consciousness unveils the skeleton as it observes separate parts within the massive structure.

My time is short, but I am designing for eternity.

Site A&A is an eternal affair, it is a constant relationship between the individual and the non-individual, i.e. the site.  Change is inevitable.  As things change, the patterns are emergent.  Within the patterns lie the keys to better design and more conscious decision making.  So when I am first getting onto a site I am doing a lot of unrecorded and relatively unattached observation, to get the gist or the lay of the land.  It isn’t long though before I begin to do site A&A, and then the work is never done.

Exhaustive Site A&A

I am a proponent of a highly exhaustive and dynamic site A&A.  This kind of A&A ultimately serves as the toolbox of patterns and data to which a designer can realize more design goals.  Because of the idea that permaculture is aspiring to be permanent, the exhaustive nature of A&A is crucial.  My own personal design method is constraint-based.  Constraints are determined by site A&A.  Patterns elicited from site A&A create real constraints that can then determine parts of the design.  It is more about what one cannot do on site rather than what one can do on site.

With modern economic constraints for professional designers and typical time-based constraints for non-professional designers, it is difficult to do such a lengthy A&A.  However, the ideal still remains.

Past/Present/Future Patterning

There are patterns of past, patterns of present, and patterns of future to be realized through observation and recording on site.  Each aspect of time has it’s own types of recording methods and attributes which I will outline here.


Patterns of the past generally deal with things that have occurred and have shaped the site to be what it is today.  Examples of patterns of the past are paleo-climatology, land use history, and phylogeny.  The Scale of Permanence has aspects that exist in the past like climate and landform.  By taking on a study of patterns of the past for a site, one may find helpful constraints that can inform design in the present.  For example, when looking at the phylogeny of Rhus typhina (or Staghorn Sumac) I can determine what kinds of things would work better on a site that has a lot of the plant growing on it.  Right now I am working on a site that grows it prolifically, which cause constraints with managing the stands.  A better example would be an event that happened in the past the prevents certain design in the present.  This is more apparent with sites that have pollution or a real serious limiting factor.  After examining patterns of past, one should be able to elicit both constraints, opportunities, and catalysts.


Patterns of present deal with A&A elements that are changing more rapidly like vegetation/wildlife, microclimate, zones of use, soil management, and aesthetics.  Patterns of present also deal with observations of patterns that are accrued on a daily basis like phenology.  Phenology is recording annual events as they occur on site like budding, fruiting, flowering, first sighting of fauna and etc.  By recording events like this one can get a really good understanding of how the climate is changing on site.  It can be incredibly important to have many of these datasets since official governmental climate studies use phenological records from individuals to understand how climate has changed.  Though there are not many…so we have predictions based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau and only a handful of others.  The present is where most of the constraints will be discovered.


Patterns of future are based on the past and present and can be a rewarding exercise to brainstorm about.  It is worth spending time to try to predict constraints that may occur in the future and how to begin to mitigate those constraints in the present.  For example, if I understand that short-term drought is to become more of a reality in Massachusetts with changing climate I should definitely be planning for a more robust water catchment and transportation system on the site.  I would take the drawbacks of overbuilding my water system if it meant that I would hardly experience consequences of lack of water which could be potentially much worse.


I am looking to measure as much as possible on site that will provide me patterns on how to design the site to function better.  While it may take a while to construct the system of data collection, I ultimately think that the extra effort will pay dividends in the future.  The site-specific document that I create with an exhaustive site A&A will be authoritative when dealing with the site and instructive as an analog for sites that experience similar conditions.  No longer will people who live in the area of my site have to rely on aggregate data based on large systems, they can see what kind of energies are occurring near their own site.

Site A&A, to me, needs to be exhaustive, dynamic, and site-centric wherever possible to be able to inform not only the designers on the site but also anyone who is curious to learn what the document entails.

Open-Source Permaculture

A group of college nerds came together collectively at the UC Berkley campus in the 70’s and ushered one of the most technologically important inventions of the modern age…fully functional personal computing.  Fueled by their desire to figure out problems and impress their friends, these students and enthusiasts worked hard and for long periods of time to crack the problems of computing.  Their club was called Homebrew, and the ethic was sharing and open-sourcing.

I am currently working on applying such an ethic and also provide some insights in how to apply open-source to permaculture design.  The sheer power and swiftness of computers makes them well-suited to creating scaled basemaps which can be easily traded, shared, and printed for various uses.

The roster of Open-Source programs and their uses are as follows:

LibreCAD- Scaled Basemapping

Inkscape – Vector Based Editing

GIMP – Pixel Based Editing

Scribus – Desktop Publishing

Krita – Digital Painting

There are other free but not open source programs available to the budding permaculture designer:

Google Earth Pro (Yeah buddy) – GIS and Geositing

Google Mytracks – GPS Tracking

Xmind – Mindmapping

SketchUp – 3d Modeling

Let me briefly explain which programs I am using so far and for what purposes:


LibreCAD – With this program I am trying above all to create a basemap that is scaled, and on which I can make visually appealing with other software.  This is done by typical low-cost surveying techniques like triangulation and offset/extension.  I build the basemap with my own personal measurements combined with any found measurements from existing maps.

Inkscape – Basically the mainframe of the operation.  Even though on the surface inkscape is basically an open-source version of Adobe Illustrator, it can support a large array of file types.  The most important file type it supports is .dxf which is integral to using and then improving upon work done in LibreCAD.

*Here is a link to an example of the first full basemap I created with the LibreCAD/Inkscape Combination.

GIMP – A photo editor.  I use it personally to edit digital photos that I’ve taken.  Right now I’m working with a Canon A2300 modded with CHDK.  Essentially CDHK makes certain point & shoot Canon cameras able to shoot in RAW format as opposed to jpeg, as well as other useful features like altering shutter speed and aperture.

Scribus – Really haven’t been able to sit down and figure out this one yet.  I have experience with InDesign, so I will have to learn the different interface.  From what I’ve seen and read it can get most jobs done.

Krita – A lot can be done with this digital painting program.  This program is for painting the basemaps that I finish in Inkscape.

Free to use

Google Earth Pro – Now the pro version is available, all one needs to do is download the pro version and use the code GEPFREE when logging in to it for the first time.  It is pretty powerful and I sometimes get lost in all that can be done with it.  It is perfect for getting a bird’s eye view of your site and the context of where you are doing design work.  There are topography maps available to put as overlays and there are soil maps that can be overlaid as well to find out what kind of soil types are existent on your site as well.  The soil types can be clicked on and then sent you to more information.

Google Mytracks – This app requires a GPS device via cell phone, so you’ll need a smart phone in order to use this.  It basically tracks the path that the phone moves in.  This can be used to find out how long it takes to travel certain paths, changes in elevation and other data.

Xmind – Just a mindmapping software.  Bubble diagrams and webs are created through topics and subtopics.  Can be used to organize ideas, plans, and projects.

SketchUp – Used for 3D modeling.  Any kind of architectural work and concepts can be hashed out on sketchup for the site.  I have used it briefly to model the garage and see what it would look like with a second floor.  The garage is right in a central location of the garden, so I imagined that with a second floor and large windows facing the garden (and simultaneously facing south as well) a nice space could be created up there that takes advantage of the solar gain during colder months.

Open-Source is an ethic I really like, and computing is important to design.  Things just move faster with open-sourcing, when many users can access the code and change it to improve the programs and offer more applications.  Companies tend to stop innovating when they become a certain size and opt instead to buy innovation from smaller groups or individuals.

But with more focus and time spent on the learning curve with the open-source programs, innovation can be occurring all the time, because individual coders and small groups can constantly be tweaking the source code in order to provide a tighter designed program.  This is what I’m after as a designer, tightest design possible.

So if you have the time, go for open-source, collaborate, and get more sites implemented.

CSA? I think you mean FSA.

It was a humid and somewhat rainy night in Great Barrington, MA. We were celebrating Rob’s birthday at Baba Louie’s pizza with some farmer friends. It was my first time meeting these young idealistic farmers from CT, but it was easy to relate immediately to their mindset and strife.

The truth of the matter was that these two interns were experiencing the troubles of farming, not the work, but the financial woes. Debt is so ubiquitous in the U.S., but it is especially insidious in the farming world. The farmers are well aware of their lifestyle slowly obliterating, but it is the consumer (read: non-producer) who takes no notice of this phenomena until CSA sign-ups for next year never come around…because the farm suddenly ceases to exist.

It is not that our fair shareholders are to blame, after all the dominant CSA model has come to be reified by both sides of the coin, the producer and the consumer. Shareholders pay the money, come to the pick up, shoot the shit, and then leave gracefully as they came. Farmer’s use the early sign-ups for up front costs (or to regrettably cover last years losses), buy the seeds, work the land, weed, water, pay for repairs, pay for labor, pay less for unskilled labor, manage fertility schedules, manage CSA pick-up, do wholesale, do farmer’s markets, and perhaps meander ever slowly into debt.  But it’s cool, bankruptcy is the new early retirement in America.

The question that this elicits for myself is…where is this community? CSA is meant to be Community Supported Agriculture, in the dominant model today there is agriculture (duh), there is support (money), and there is…well actually that is it. There are farms with 30 shares (ours), 170 shares, 300 shares, and some we at Sun One know of that do 1200 shares. But these shares are not Local, some are being delivered to NYC, Fairfield County, and wealthy suburbs north of NYC.

Now, this is not a critique on the exploited providing quality for the elite. This is a critique on what I believe CSA has become not only to the consumers of the food in the baskets, but the producers. The issue is that while the quality of life is maintained for the consumer, it gets worse for the majority of the producers out there.

FSA is the dominant CSA model.

Enter FSA. Or what I like to call Financially Supported Agriculture. If there is to be any support happening for agriculture, it is overwhelmingly through money. This is an issue. This is a very dire issue if the goal is to be community supported. Tell me what kind of community is being created 50 miles away from the locus of production? It isn’t. Even when there are members that come from surrounding towns and even our own town of Bethlehem, CT…I cannot say I know anything about them or vice versa.

After putting out surveys this season I was pleased with the results, many of our members were happy with their baskets and vegetable selections.  Spoiler, cabbage isn’t a favorite.  Though there was one member who felt that the baskets were just not covering the expectations and needs of his family, and that the local supermarket would be a better option.  It was a valid opinion piece.   But, of course, I felt melancholy about the whole notion.  On one hand I felt a little closer to this member, I actually learned something about him…he had a family and wanted to provide for them.  On the other hand I couldn’t shake off the idea he had no clue about what he had signed up for.  I suppose this time ignorance was not bliss.

Transactions as the Fundament of CSA

The dominant CSA model (or FSA) has come to regard transactional relationships as fundamental.  I give you the money, you give me the food.  Plenty of authors have dedicated time to this phenomena so I will leave it to you, the reader, to self educate on self-interested rational actors, neoliberal economics, late capitalism, commons, gifting, debt, and money.  Read broad and varied though, for with different perspectives emerges a more well rounded opinion.

The point is that community is not developed via this fundament.  Community is perpetuated through continuing relationships.  Interestingly enough, continuing relationships are not created through transactions.  FSA is transactional, and the relationships continue inasmuch the transactions do too.  So our most unsatisfied customer will terminate our relationship by refusing a CSA sign up for 2015 and quite possibly strengthen his existing relationship with the store via increased patronage or begin a new relationship via alternative CSA.  I doubt I’ll care.

The real CSA

Ideally, if community is a goal, then models that do not rely predominately on transaction must be experimented with.  An example of this is incentive-based labor CSA.  Let’s say hypothetically it costs $500 for a full season share, and this cost covers operations and perhaps a sliver goes towards the owner as income (Hah!).  In a community oriented model, the cost of the CSA has to be high but reducible through participation of the member.  Let’s say we hike the cost to $800 per share and $5/hr reduction on the cost.  But wait…hold the phone, $5/hr is all for farm work?   Yes…I am suggesting a low reduction in the share price.  If you have interned at a farm (or if you’re a millenial doing…any internship) chances are you’re getting that or worse.  The point is empathy, and one would never experience that when transactions are paramount.  Working 60 hours to reduce your CSA bill $300 is a pain, but working 60 hours to increase your savings account $300 is poverty.

This is just one option and I would never suggest a farm relies solely on this model.  FSA is necessary because CSA needs a culture of support and we need to wait on that to come into vogue.

A Radical Model

One other model may include higher transparency on both sides of the transactional relationships.  Farmer’s should ask for more if members stand in good financial graces.  In other words, progressive payment plans.  Already in existence are sliding scale CSA payments (say $500-$800 pay what you can), but there is no real guarantee that those who can afford $800 will pay $800.  What I am suggesting is that members and farmers be up front about their financial standing and work out a consensus-based dollar amount for the CSA share.

Consensus is important because it would be absurd to attach a % of income onto a CSA share.  $50,000 net income and $100,000 net income families of four shouldn’t pay $500 and $1,000(1%) respectively for equal sized baskets, but I imagine a frugal and community oriented family may be willing to donate more.  However, with the prevalence of the FSA model, it is unlikely that we ever even deliberate on what could be appropriate for real support of farmers, communal or financial.

Final Thoughts

Don’t be fooled, there are little real communities being cultivated through the dominant CSA model of FSA.  It is no different than any other transaction done in life.  Whether it is at the farm, a department store, bar, hotel, local market, or strip club, each person can walk away when the transaction is done.  The community that does emerge comes from talking, spending time with one another, empathy, and gifts.  So while I find it somewhat tragic that a ‘CSA’ member will be leaving us after this year, it is also somewhat tragic that I maintain a Fuck Shit All attitude through it all.



Constraints before goals in early design stages

In Permaculture design there exists a chicken and the egg paradox concerning the early design stages. Of course it doesn’t matter which came first, merely that the chicken or egg existed in order to create the other. Goals & Assessment fit snug into this paradox, and it begs the question…which first?

First, analyze yourself.  Actually…do this for your own benefit anyway, often. How well do I work towards accomplishing tasks? Does it help to set goals? Do goals gear me into action to acquire the knowledge I need to start achieving my goals? or Do I need to understand more of the system before I make goals? Do I need to know my constraints to avoid error? Do I have trouble letting go of previously determined goals? What works best for me?

Once you’ve done questioned yourself thoroughly with those and similar questions the answer might be clear as to how you want to approach your goals and assessment. However, I have an argument to make here and this is it…constraints before goals in early design stages.

I have been spending some 4-5 hours a day here at Sun One Organic trying to understand what kinds of systems are here. I do this based on the Scale of Permanence, which is adapted from P.A. Yeomans. There are a couple different adaptations but David Jacke’s had lots of bullet points.  One may question where the information to fill in the blanks of the Scale comes from.  The answer is I don’t know, but I am trying to compile that together, because access is very important. Stay tuned for that post.

I haven’t set any goals yet, partly because I lack equity in this property and partly because I want to know my constraints.  If Permaculture is an ecological design science, then vetting constraints is like effort to disprove hypotheses. Science.

Constraints first is a psychological primer.  It puts imagination on hold and objective observation in pole position.  I focus solely on what is present, and that is where my attention is.  Imagination never stays quiet so that is present, but that is not the primary psychological mode.  Goals first is imagination.  Constraints first is observation.

Constraints are useful in the sense that they provide an absolute no.  ‘No’ is a great word, much better than ‘maybe’.  ‘No’ will discipline your mind, ‘maybe’ will clutter it.  ‘No’ will kiss you goodnight, ‘maybe’ will cause insomnia mixed with anxious love-hurt. Constraints tell me: no I cannot develop this conservation area, no I cannot manage the stony woodlands other than as forests, no I cannot put a permanent greenhouse in more than 2 places in the lower area…and one of those areas is likely to be  a parking lot.  So then what?

Once I have my ‘no’,  I’ll use that to develop goals.  Take the woodlands for example.  There are three separate wooded areas on the property.  These are situated on very stony soils and grade that is too steep for cultivation.  Assessment has provided me with proper constraints in this respect.  I shall keep the land wooded in perpetuity and then set goals as to what I want to accomplish in that particular setting.  Perhaps wildlife sanctuary, perhaps copses, perhaps lumber, perhaps mushrooming, perhaps all of these.  Chances are I’d arrive at this same conclusion regardless of when I set goals, but this is a generic example.

The constraints allow for the goal setting stages to be much more informed, and the direct experience that one is exposed to during the assessment stage leads one to understand the inherent change that accompanies goal setting.  The  inter relatedness one sees during assessment allows one to set goals that have complex flavor.

Essentially the choice is an individual one.  Both methods eventually coalesce into a goal/constraint hybrid.  If you have clients, goals probably come first.  But when it’s your time and your choice, take the time to get to know your constraints.  Even if it takes more than a year, take the time.  When we’re designing multi-decade systems, a year or two taken to understand the realities will prove useful.

“The dirt road in front of me is wide I take it.  But the choice is mine in the direction I pave it.”