The State of Soil on Vacant Lots in North Omaha

Please welcome another guest Blog writer, Dan Harvey. Dan is a staff Soil scientist and farmer for OP, funded through the Claire M. Hubbard Foundation. He is leading our efforts of soil rejuvenation OP and he wants to tell the story of soil on North Omaha vacant properties. Enjoy...


That, my friends, is an entanglement of mycelium.  And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing, especially considering where we have been playing with the soil. Since the beginning of April, Chris Madden of Upstream Weeds and myself, have been designing and installing public permaculture gardens on four Omaha Permaculture lots.  For two months we have been digging in the soils of North Omaha and the diversity of soil profiles is astounding. 

Mid-April the city came out and did an 8 inch roto-till on designated lots.  Immediately following that one-time initial till we broadcasted tillage radish which grew two to three weeks before Chris and I moved in with shovels and rakes.  The gardens are designed with heavy focus and intention to efficiently manage water as it moves through the lot with use of swales on contour to both direct water where needed and to wick and store water in the swales.  This manual shovel and rake work has given us an intimate introduction to the diverse soil profiles present throughout the oldest part of the city.  Here is a soil-centric review of what we have encountered so far.


Top Lot Garden

The “Top Lot Garden” was first in the queue of lots for Chris and I to address this season.  A raw Northwest Radial-Abandoned-Burned-Down-House back drop sets the scene for this elevated, street side garden.  Having been gardened by a group of Karen farmers in 2017 and tended to in previous years by the OP group, the allotment had not been tilled by the city, but did already have a rough layout with some 10-20 raised beds, raspberry bushes, Jerusalem Artichokes galore, compost trenches and a seemingly struggling asparagus patch.  The lot has a back alley, drive-in entrance where the burned down house likes to cough up that which is left of its lungs.  The soil on this lot is equally as “rough around the edges” expressing its true self through compaction, acidity and a bacteria to fungal biomass ratio high in bacterial populations and low in fungal content.  These soils lend themselves easier to annual crops and bushes, though even this early in the season we are seeing with an abundance of living plants in the ground a heavy increase in soil biological activity.  This garden is going to be a perfect location to demonstrate the 5 year permaculture succession plan of establishing design and annual gardens, and allowing the property to progress in biodiversity while later, slower-to-develop crops (like fruit and fiber plants and trees) can establish and fill in over time.


The Military Lot is the second lot that Chris and I approached.  We sunk our shovels into the soil which had been tilled and seeded to tillage radish yielding a knife-through-butter sensation while shoveling and raking.  The Military lot is across the street from Benson Park and next to the original farm house for the area on the westernly dead end of Spaulding Street.  It collects water from a slope on the north side, funneling it directly through our garden resulting in little worry about water so far this season. The soil on this lot is dark and beautiful; I would say 80+% cocoa color throughout with high organic matter but lacks mycelial networks (one theory I have is it has had a consistent water content of 60% or more, slowing and/or preventing the growth of mycelial networks).  Peeking through the microscope I find beautifully developed fulvic and humic acids, and a dense population of fungal spores just waiting for the right conditions to start proliferating.  Though the soil is slightly bacteria laden we have encountered plenty of earthworms, which are a great sign and often a good omen to gardeners and farmers alike. These soils are supporting all vegetation (edible and decorative) beautifully with an abundance of nutrient cycling leading to bright green plants!  It won’t take long to build up the carbon content and organic matter percentage, and to grow a beautiful fungal network.  Whoa.



Third on the list was our lot at the southeast corner of 19th and Pinkney across from Kountze Park.  The lot sits at a bit of an altitude...I’d say about 4 feet above street level.  Attop this knoll used to sit a house that was taken down years ago.  Having received the same tillage and radish seeding preparations, we found the ground easy to manipulate with a shovel, except for when encountering the numerous cobblestone bricks.  Though I can imagine these bricks have added an abundance of nutrition to the soil over the years, striking one with a shovel can leave a ringing in your head that is hard to forget.  With the lot being slightly elevated above street level and sloping to the northeast, we witnessed some topsoil erosion during torrential rain events.  With these helpful observations we got to work making swales and raised beds on contour to hold and infiltrate runoff from the lot, and to retain that rich topsoil.

Stepping back and looking at the macro profile of this lot’s soil you can see a notable change in color and structure in a few areas. The highest area in the northwest corner of the lot has had it’s fine, dark silt washed out and contains sand and clay components which gives it a predominantly grey color.  To the south the soil has more of a burnt red color indicating oxidized iron and well drained soil.  There is decent small size aggregation here.  In the lowest areas the soil is dark black-brown.  In that lower area is where most silt and fine organic matter has settled and created a very rich soil.  The microbial profile varies all over this lot but ultimately is diverse and active.  Plants are showing healthy establishment, growth and color.



At the corner of 28th and Meredith Ave is where our fourth and final garden can be found.  The lot is framed with trees and bushes on the north, south and west sides, and we have a next door neighbor to the east.  The lot is mostly level throughout with a very gentle slope to the south.  The soil was tilled and seeded to radish and has shown excellent water holding capacity.  The area stays humid with such excellent wind block and insulation allowing for the lot to retain any transpiration which in turn allows soils to retain moisture. These elements in addition to this being the last lot we dug into have allowed for the mycelium to establish. 

This lot quickly became my favorite lot for the design and beautiful curves, the memories of the Integrated Life Choices group, the mycelium and the genetic seed heritage we planted.  Sacred Seeds gifted us corn, pumpkin and melons and we were able to find spots for all three, plus a whole bunch more. 


Soils provide and nourish us, but soils are so much more than that.  Soils are a reflection of the times.  There is a past, present and a future, and the soil’s future is one that can be, and has been, predicted accurately.  I feel as humans we must advocate on behalf of the soil to prevent further destruction.  Soil is where human life begins and ends.  Soil is alive and there are so many little critters and rocks and minerals and molecules in soil that love you.  It is a blessing to play in and love the soil  every day, and it is my honor to advocate for the soil, work the land and plant the seed that can help ease the stresses of sustaining day to day in this world that is currently operating on borrowed time.

Sunchokes: The Musical Root

Please welcome a new writer for our Blog, Shana Martinez. She has a strong desire to feed her children nutritious food every day and she loves to try new things in the kitchen. She will be focussing on recipes made by easily grown perennial food in your Nebraskan backyard. Please enjoy her fun and witty adventures in feeding kids healthy food.

Well, it’s summer time, which means I will be forcing my children to try new foods thanks to all the fresh produce available in Nebraska this time of year. My first experiment was with sunchokes also known as Jerusalem artichokes or as my kids will forever call them fartichokes (but I will come back to this fun fact!)

Before, I endeavored on this culinary adventure I wanted to learn more about sunchokes as I had never seen any in the grocery store.  Sunchokes are actually the roots of a sunflower which in my mind makes them cooler than any other vegetable I know! They are native to North America and super easy to grow in our Nebraska climate. Honestly, I wish it was as easy to raise children as it is to grow sunchokes.  I would definitely be mom of the year!


Here is a pic of a few of the gems I got from Omaha Permaculture. Ugly dudes, I know, that is probably why you don’t find them in your grocery store in this era of eating pretty food. However, what these guys lack in visual appeal they make up for taste. I opted to peel mine (which is totally optional) to get rid of the little sprout guys (that’s the scientific term). Also, I am super lazy and it seemed easier to peel them than it would be to scrub all the dirt off.


Sunchokes can vary in size.  I included a picture of one next to a Roma tomato for scale.  This was one of the larger ones I had.  Forgive the shadow; this mama may have had a few glasses of wine while making this delicious meal.

For my maiden voyage into the goodness of sunchokes, I decided to start with chips since that it how I got my kiddos (4 and 6) to eat kale. It is all about the marketing for these little people. Using my best friend, the mandolin, I thinly sliced the sunchokes until I tried to chop off the end of my finger. Word to the wise: Don’t drink and slice, kids!


Here is the before picture. Aren’t they pretty? They kind of look like flowers already. Other than the operator failure on the mandolin, these could not be easier to make.  I looked at a few recipes online, but assumed I was above using a recipe and winged it. I mixed olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and tossed it with the chips and baked in the oven until crispy (somewhere between 30-45 minutes).


Here is the final product, and I must say they were just as addicting as any other chip on the market only better! They have a slight spice to them almost like horseradish, but much milder. They also got the thumbs up from my 4 year old. We served them with grilled pork chops. 


At this point, I had had enough wine that I considered myself quite the culinary genius and topped my pork chops with the chips. I must say while I may not be a culinary genius it did taste amazing and I finished off the chips myself. 

The verdict: sunchokes are delicious. I must warn you, though, the nickname fartichoke is very fitting. My husband said I was farting in my sleep when he came to bed, but I have to say I have no regrets! I would just not suggest eating them on a first date.

I can’t wait to get more because I now have a million ideas on how to incorporate these into our family diet.  They are just as good raw as they are cooked.  I think they will add good crunch in summer pasta salad.  I am also looking forward to mixing them into my mashed potatoes for a little twist. They would also help add some creaminess to homemade mac and cheese while adding nutritional value.

So what are you waiting for? Throw some in your garden STAT. Shoot, if I would have known how easy they were, I would have just raised sunchokes instead of children!

Shana Martinez, 6/26/18

Announcing: OP hires Soil and Water Scientists courtesy of the Claire M. Hubbard Foundation

We are proud to present our newly hired staff for the 2018 year. Our Water scientist/farmer Chris Madden and Soil scientist/farmer Dan Harvey are excited to lead our volunteer groups through Citizen Science programs and events this summer on our many vacant lots throughout eastern Nebraska.

Thanks to the generous support of the Claire M. Hubbard Foundation, OP is able to employ Chris, Dan and a Doane University intern towards the creation of a surprise, 'ToBeAnnounced' landscape publication. This publication will create a foundation for future years of landscape endeavors with Omaha Permaculture. 

Growing food, cultivating the regeneration of soil and nurturing ecological habitats are the goals for this landscape publication project. Through this all-important building-block project, OP is excited to unleash our Citizen Science team in Nebraska to maintain healthy and clean environments for all living things to enjoy. 

Citizen Science is for everyone. Knowledge is power and nature is the best teacher. Please inquire at if you would like to be involved this growing season. Thanks for following us!


An Introduction to Permaculture in Nebraska Pt 4 (as printed in Nebraskans for Peace 10/16)

The new world presented to us after the election is in dire need of a permaculture salvation. Permaculture was enjoying some well-deserved momentum under the global leadership of President Obama. As a grassroots movement addressing all of the cultural habits that exacerbate climate change, permaculture is more important now than ever before. The late founder of permaculture Bill Mollison described his brand new movement as “Earth Repair”. Science is teaching us about our glaciers and ice shelves nearing imminent collapse, and it is science through a cultural philosophy of permaculture that teaches us how to heal our soils, clean our waters, filter our dirty air and feed our grandchildren.

The Paris Climate talks attended by a US president for the first time gave the whole world a glimmer of hope. For those who are up-to-speed on the latest climate change news, Obama’s participation in climate talks could not have come at a more important time. Climate scientists have been raising the alarm for decades, but a climate change discussion without the US, China and major corporations at the table is a fruitless endeavor. With a new conservative US government imminent, we (the planet) need to find more creative ways that garner popular support for planet repair.

This is why Permaculture becomes the only way mankind can move forward towards something that resembles dignified civilization. I am exclusive in this claim because there is no other philosophical or cultural endeavor in the world that repairs our damaged ecosystems while feeding us. While cultures still exist that tread a light human footprint, they are not numerous and they are not often guided with earth repair objectives. So often, indigenous peoples are part of the problem (albeit a smaller footprint) when considering biodiversity loss or resource depletion(Who are we to judge?). Modern, technologically-advanced societies are demonstrating smaller footprints over time. However, Jevon’s paradox implies that following advancements of efficiency, mankind will always consume all the resources in the region; only limited by population carrying capacity due to drought.

The world uses the 18th century notion of capitalism to quantify the value of land, labor and capital. Notice that our natural environment is considered “capital”. In Permaculture, respecting Mother Earth is ethic number one. Mankind’s ability to live depends on a healthy biome. Imagine if mankind gave back to our natural environment at the same rate we take from our natural environment. I am not talking about saving dolphins caught in fishing nets or planting one tree in a manicured lawn. Imagine if we built soil as a culture; soft, nutritious, hummus for all of life to benefit from. This amazing, locally-grown soil would remove all of the reasons to need unsustainable foreign resources. Our love of soil would bloom into a love of land. Consequently, our connection with the land could be restored again through stewardship of the commons. Just like we have lost connection with food, we have lost our connection to the land. It is the land after all, that provides our food.

Hoping for this culture transformation towards soil exultation is a moot point if we do not have stable climates from which to grow food reliably.

Cultures in the past were so intrinsically connected with the cycles of the earth that population control mechanisms were practiced to ensure the survival of the group. The compassion imbued in Western culture believes all life is sacred and there is more than enough resources to feed all of us. Prior to the industrial revolution, all land masses around the world had a population carrying capacity. The carrying capacity was determined by what nature could provide. Once mankind found stored energy in our Earth’s mantle, we did not need earth’s living veneer as much. Now, our food systems resemble a creature of technology and mechanization. Life and our living ecosystems are what allows us to be here. Once we are completely surrounded by concrete, glass and steel environments, we lose our ability to feel connected. It is an unfortunate scenario. In mankind’s assent toward enlightenment and leisure, we have eliminated almost all of the other Earth passengers whom we have shared the earth with. This arrogance of dominion over the Earth has created monocultures, eliminated biodiversity, changed the climate and left us with few options but to blame each other.  

As a 21st century objective, permaculture is trying to change our tendency towards dominion over the earth to something that resembles stewardship. Most people think that permaculture is only innovative food production. As you can see, permaculture is attempting to change the innate biological instinct within mankind to consume everything we stand on. It is an umbrella philosophy that allows us to step back from our destructive tendencies and see all resources and living beings that exist as paints on a palette for our Bob Ross demonstration. Just like a painter creating a “happy tree” environment, a permaculture designer uses the palette of living and nonliving “paints” to create a system that works for all living beings. This system can resemble any analogy you prefer; a painting, a fine-tuned watch or even life itself.

A desert climate is not the best environment for mankind; nor is the arctic. Mankind inhabits these places because we have used our ingenuity to overcome scarcity. People who live in these fringe environments will be the first to tell you that the climate is changing. Scarcity is hitting a whole new level in environments dependent on stable seasonal cycles. The picture of a skinny polar bear is symbolic of climate change. The picture of a starving African is a symbol of mankind’s failure in an era of gluttonous overabundance. The picture of any animal struggling to survive is a symbol of mankind's arrogance. Mass animal die-offs accompany our seasons now as animals are missing their food source by a week. The Anthropocene era is causing our own demise. Permaculture is the only method of earth regeneration in all of modern science. Please find a way to embrace permaculture in your community.

An Introduction to Permaculture in Nebraska Pt 3 (Nebraskans for Peace 9/16)

Driving less, using public transportation, riding a bike, avoiding single-use plastic, buying local, turning lights off, mowing less, tiny homes, throwing away less ‘trash’ and eating fresh are easy ways to reduce your footprint as a world citizen. As a US citizen, we are accustomed to consuming three times more of everything than other people in most countries per capita. In Nebraska, reducing our rate of consumption can be the most impactful way to clean our local environment and fulfill our duty as a responsible world citizen; one who does not pollute air and waterways. In this chapter, please join me in exploring how permaculture reconnects humanity to nature through compassionate stewardship of earth’s biodiversity.

Now that the Olympics are over, I cannot help but feeling quite inadequate with my daily achievements. I remind myself that I am very proud of my desire to make small footprints as an individual. I do not intend to detract from the olympian’s desire to taste gold, but rather I would simply like to make a case for moderation, minimalism and more importantly, the desire to tread lightly as a consumer in daily living. I invite you to please be an example for your family, friends, coworkers and neighbors to value these practices as a way to save more than just the polar bears.

This may not totally surprise you, but permaculture is environmentalism. Permaculture is modern man’s best foot forward to feed, clothe, heat and shelter people throughout the world in the most ecologically-conscious ways. Combining efforts to conserve nature and nurturing the instinct toward naturally improving our soils will benefit all of earth’s living creatures. For these reasons, permaculture is becoming popular as a way to grow food effortlessly for our crowded population centers. For this to work effectively, we must reintroduce the knowledge of nature to our city populations. I do not think I am creating controversy by stating urban centers are places that generally lack an understanding of how nature brings food to our tables. This must change.

Before express transportation, food was raised and grown in our cities. Before the age of oil, sustainable crops like hemp or bamboo were grown around city centers to provide textiles, building materials, medicine, soil fertility and water clarification. Now, combinations of mowed grass, concrete, steel and mirrored glass are considered the only media worthy of city landscapes. Now, the last expanses of prairies and forests are being razed to grow food ‘stuffs’ for export, food for animals and food for fuel (all hallmarks of an affluent society). These ‘before’s & nows’ are an important story about the ‘path’ of modern humanity.

As efficiently delivered products became the expected status quo, our society began to reduce the time within a day that is socially acceptable to celebrate food. Additionally, meat at every meal has become a benchmark sought by every aspiring modern society. Once refrigeration and efficient transportation became ubiquitous in our society, our umbilical cord to nature was effectively severed.

Towards the latter half of the last century, our culture transformed food from being a central ritual in our lives to something that is an efficiently performed chore. Towards the latter half of the last century, a globally connected world expanded our taste for global goods. Towards the latter half of the last century, our culture has outsourced the production of our locally used products to wherever they are produced most cheaply. Towards the latter half of the last century, people responded to corporate products more readily than to locally sourced products distributed by local ‘Ma & Pa’ shops.

Do you see a path? This path was laid down by the individual choices of consumers; a path leading away from Mother Nature. As 20th century humanity drifted away from nature, science was used to exert dominion over nature. As an opposite reaction to the destructive 20th century, the 21st century endeavor of permaculture harnesses science to restore our severed connection with nature through community-based education. Great permaculture leaders all around the world are laying down the foundation of a new path toward harmony with all living creatures.

In the 21st century, I am mostly concerned about our youth. Millennials see little hope on an Earth that has been manhandled to submission. Comedian Stephen Colbert quipped at a presidential state dinner in 2010 that “baby-boomers have deep-fried our oceans”. Our children are being taught the 20th century legacy of the most destructive era to biodiversity (excluding meteor showers). With carbon dioxide concentrations rocketing past 400parts per million this last year, our children are wondering why our world leaders didn’t do anything to affect mankind’s stranglehold on earth’s ecosystems before standing on the precipice of imminent collapsing points? Optimism in the face of climate change means we believe we can inspire an indelible spirit in our youth to be stubbornly dedicated toward healing the earth from this point forward. 

Island nations understand our relationships with the environment more acutely than modern land-locked nations. Iceland created harsh regulations around the very valuable cod fisheries decades before other countries felt inclined to do so. Historically, cod is the most valuable commodity to Iceland. Instead of selling as many cod as possible, Iceland saw value in creating a stable Cod fishing ecosystem.  Beginning in the 1950’s, Iceland turned down lucrative fishery contracts with other countries to protect future cod fisheries. This example of ‘doing what is necessary’ in the face of marketplace pressures is unparalleled in the world today. This example of fortitude is what is needed from our future leaders all over the world today.

Early accounts of Cape Cod fishing described scenes of natural abundance in which you could ‘walk on the backs of fish’ in the ocean. My imagination is truly enamored with this vision of Eden. As an advocate for permaculture in Nebraska, how can I preach the good word of nature’s abundance when the last two centuries have been focused on removing nature’s abundance? 21st century humanity can work hard to technologically design efficient food systems to feed our growing populations; or, we can work towards healing Mother Nature which once created abundance for everyone.

An Introduction to Permaculture Pt 2. (As printed in Nebraskans for Peace 4/17)

In the land of beef, corn, soybeans, the High Plains aquifer and center pivot irrigation, Nebraska has enormous opportunities for the Permaculture practioner to stand out and make healthy impacts throughout our urban and rural communities. It isn’t difficult to dream the way J Sterling Morton did 100 years ago and visualize the future of Nebraska’s landscapes. Mr. Morton’s dream of expansive orchards were not realized for the longterm, however we still have the luxury to imagine the Nebraskan agricultural future from here and now using intelligent design on our landscapes. 

In this second chapter, I hope to discuss some of the ways Permaculture ideology can help a Nebraskan’s day-to-day routine be more earth-friendly by making conscious decisions that reduce our individual footprint. The first ethic of Permaculture asks us to take care of the earth. As a result of our reverence for Mother Nature, all of earth’s living systems will flourish. My favorite Permaculture quote comes from deceased Japanese Permaculture superstar Masanobu Fukuoka. He states that the “ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but rather the cultivation and perfection of human beings”. While the most popular visions of permaculture specifically address the sustainable procurement of food, there is much needed discussion on the entire production/consumption cycle.

In addition to resilience and passive abundance, another important Permaculture theme is ‘cycles’. The production/consumption (P/C) cycle is the most important expression of permaculture within a society. According to Permaculture principles, the P/C cycle of our individual lives should focus on the concept of a “closed loop”. The closed loop refers to the P/C cycle in the context of your residence, your community and your region. The most ideal Permaculture inhabitation would produce its own energy, food, clothes, compost, materials and shelter while producing no waste.

The second ethic of permaculture asks us to take care of people; those close to us. Much of a permaculture design system focuses on creating “abundance through passive means”. This means we are creating perennial edible landscapes that produce food with minimal maintenance and inputs. This approach could best be described as creating ‘forage’ systems with varying seasonal harvest times. If you have ever harvested apples from an apple tree, you may realize that this windfall of fruit is a gift to a farmer who really only worries about ‘harvesting’. As we create systems that create abundance for our home and community, we realize that so much ‘production’ depends on a healthy supply of inputs or amendments initially to create healthy soil conditions. Over time, the living permaculture system will return nutrition back to the soil seasonally.

Additionally, even if a family’s discarded waste cannot be reused or upcycled, at least it can become soil. The third ethic of Permaculture allows us to come full circle. Instead of ‘throwing things away’, the excess time, materials, money and energy created in our collective systems of abundance place people in a position to help those less fortunate. In addition to returning much needed nutrition back to our soils, we must consciously accommodate the needs of all people without wasting that which can be reused or upcycled. Ultimately, the soil is the most delicate piece of our global design puzzle and the soil must be built up for our children and grandchildren to grow food effortlessly.

After all three ethics are followed, we will achieve ‘sustainability’, Permaculture-style. However, Permaculture specifically likes to achieve this sustainability with a little help from Mother Nature.

The level of sustainability inherent in Permaculture can best be described as the sweet spot where nature provides more assistance for your life (food, energy, heat, shelter, clean water, cooling, community), without needing some form of elaborate mechanization or complicated maintenance process. If there is a natural process or design consideration that performs a task better(more ecologically-conscious) than the man-made counterpart, then that is a permaculture solution.

Permaculture can be described as the ‘bridge’ that represents the ‘harmony’ between people and nature. Many past cultures have no archaeological footprint other than the living ecology that now hints at intelligent design through some form of terraforming like tree patterns, geoglyphs and overlapping biospheres. I fear those who recall 20th & 21st century homo sapiens will describe our landfills, pavement, slums, golf courses, climate change, plastic, loss of arable soil and the dramatic reduction of biodiversity most prominently as our terraforming legacy. 

One should not conclude that Permaculture is anti-technology. Permaculture is only interested in the best-designed technologies. Permaculture principles endorse technology that has 1)a minimal exotic resource footprint 2)provides a practical utility given the longevity of the product design, 3)contributes to a larger design objective of stacking functions and 4)elevates the living standards of many people at the same time.

The technology described in this Permaculture utopia should sound somewhat like a Swiss Family Robinson story crossed with 18th century Native American society crossed with the movie Mosquito Coast and then crossed with the writings of Jules Verne. This is really the point. The future permaculture society has already been imagined through the eyes of science-fiction authors and social science professors. Egalitarian societies that consume resources slower than their ability to replenish the soil have always been imagined as the most enlightened of all societies. Furthermore, progression of mankind should be measured in our compassion toward the living world, not toward some technology arms race that allow us to have larger homes, eat globally exotic foods and disengage from society.

Many parts of the world adhere to different levels of sustainability. However, there is no society in modern times that has confronted sustainability as a matter of survival more than Cuba. As a modernizing island society once dependent on cheap oil, Cuba lost its’ Soviet Union-subsidized oil imports in the early 1990’s. Accustomed to the luxuries that a cheap oil nation enjoys, practically overnight, the people of Cuba had to learn how to run society without oil. It took a few years, but there were enough people still alive who could pass on traditional agrarian and culinary methods that strictly follow the seasonal cycles. Consequently, global volatility caused by energy markets and climate change has motivated many societies around the world to embrace Permaculture as THE way to bring productivity back to our local communities.

As the world confronts the prospect of economic and climate volatility, many leaders of Permaculture are travelling the world spreading the great ideas to those people living in sustenance farming situations so they can benefit from low-tech soil/moisture accumulation design systems. Our ecosystems that surround our farming systems need to be ecologically healthy. The resilience of our food production systems in the face of any volatility is only as stable as the natural systems that support our existence on this earth. Nebraska is mostly insulated from much of the world’s volatility. However, as the world realizes the effects of our global industrial age, there is no region in the world that should not be bracing themselves for uncertain times.

An Introduction to Permaculture in Nebraska Part 1

An Introduction to Permaculture in Nebraska (Part 1 of 4) 

Gus von Roenn, PDC

In a strong agricultural state like Nebraska, most people would not think there is much room for improvement. As a Permaculture designer, I can confidently claim that if Nebraska were to adopt permaculture principles throughout the state, we would passively create THE healthiest and most abundant paradise on earth. 


Permaculture is an ideology that funnels the revelations of sustainability and science through community ethics. Permaculture philosophy begins with a deistic reverence for Mother Nature and encourages ecosystem regeneration through natural or low impact solutions. Once you have created a system that creates abundance for you and your family, permaculture invites you to assist the less fortunate members of your community. In the city, permaculture is an ecosystem-sensitive design approach to neighborhood development. In rural communities, permaculture is ecological land stewardship that improves the air, water, and soil for the next generation and the world. For the world citizen, permaculture addresses how we consume, what we consume, how much we consume, and how we manage our waste. 


Many endeavors of life can benefit from Permaculture principles: energy, commerce, finance, health, farming, transportation, building, culture and leisure. To many people, Permaculture may sound like a return to the days of sweat and toil when compared with our current farming and land management methods. While there is definitely some initial investment when establishing a Permaculture design system, the subsequent growing years benefit from a perennial landscape that delivers productivity without the dependence on an annual planting cycle. Through Permaculture's "downhill, downwind, downstream" design approach, passive abundance is provided effortlessly on cue like a Swiss watch throughout the seasons. In many respects, the permaculture farmer works a lot less than your conventional farmer. When people experience a property designed with Permaculture principles, one observes the connections and overlaps of functional landscape features. It is these complementary relationships throughout systems that set the stage for resilience.


Resilience and passive abundance are two important themes in Permaculture. In the current volatile global energy market, new winners and losers are determined virtually year to year. This global volatility ripples throughout the global economy until they reverberate most devastatingly in our rural communities; the same communities pressed to feed a growing population that is migrating to the cities. Therein lies the problem and the solution from a permaculture perspective. Nebraskans are very well aware of our relationship to global markets. As the breadbasket of the world, Nebraskan products should demand a premium price on the global market for a Nebraska grown product produced in an ecologically-sound manner without federal subsidies. If a clean environment were incentivized through a local economy rather than playing slave to global economic tradewinds, Nebraska would sit very proudly as a regional agricultural powerhouse of passive abundance.


In the context of climate change, resilient land stewardship will be the only way to create enough opportunities for passive abundance through macro-scale ecological habitat restoration. Assuming that you are observing the local weather change caused by increasingly erratic global climate trends, we should begin to imagine our landscapes as dynamic, not stationary ecosystems trapped in time. As Nebraska paleontology in Ash Falls points out, Nebraska is in a constant state of change. From an inland sea to rhinos, elephants and the buffalo, Nebraska is very familiar with ecosystem transitions. It is in this wide-swing climate resilience reflected through our hardy flora and fauna species that positions Nebraska in one of the best geographic situations for future experimentation with nature’s climate change-related fluctuations.


To the gardener’s delight, permaculture does not need to be an aggressive management strategy for suppressing weeds manicured to golf course standards when designing for resilience and passive abundance. Many of the plants growing around produce is grown for soil fertility, moisture retention and ecological habitat. For example, to distract our neighborhood garden predators, we should allow some of our ‘ weeds’ to grow around our plantings as a distraction and another option on the menu.  Also, plant another nature garden away from your personal garden. Your personal garden may be the the only source of tasty vegetation for our bunny friends(foes?) on your block. By planting a landscape that encourages biodiversity, you are creating the harmony that must exist between man and nature; even in our cities.


To those who aspire to live sustainably beyond the garden and the farm, careful consideration is necessary when building the farmstead, the home or the neighborhood. From building materials to building orientation, Nebraskan homeowners should consider growing forests to create homegrown homesteads. When designing for our climate, we need to become acquainted with our native and local tree options to develop the proper windbreak from bitter cold northwest winds and hot southern winds that dry out out the landscape. While we have many prairie enthusiasts throughout Nebraska who do not wish to give up any more acreage to invasive forests, the case can be made for both habitats in different regions throughout Nebraska when considering homesteading.


Then, let’s imagine developing all neighborhoods, homes and farmsteads positioned halfway-up south-facing slopes throughout our riparian landscapes. Hilltops are vulnerable to winter winds and valleys are where the water flows. Like the days of our great grandparents, lets imagine homes designed with sufficient shade trees that reduce summer energy use.  When building the homestead, the wild weather extremes of Nebraska weather need to be considered. Through permaculture and sustainable design, a neighborhood can be developed to create heat pockets for winter and cool spots for summer, reducing our needs for high energy use.


So often, a development company likes to imagine a blank canvas. Let us imagine we are a set-designer for a future agricultural sci-fi movie. What is the future of Nebraska’s landscapes? As a new homeowner or aspiring farmer, all you can do is assess the pros and cons of each parcel on the market. I would consider developing your own slice of heaven on a cost-effective parcel of improperly used land; giving a Nebraskan the opportunity to restore and nurture a slice of Nebraskan ecosystem paradise proliferated with Savannah Oaks, Little Blue Stem, cottonwoods, goldenrod, deer, beaver, seasonal birds, prairie dogs, bobcats, cougars, quail, eagles, buffalo, dung beetles, pheasant, cranes, groundhogs, butterflies, squirrels, and fish. Who needs a zoo?

A Critical Importance of Land Access in 21st Century America

Graham Herbst

There are many types of governments throughout the world and each of them provides for different degrees of freedom, individuality and personal agency. From North Korea to the Netherlands we can look at different ways that societies develop to accommodate the needs of the people and keep order amongst its citizens. Dictatorships are widely recognized as power that is too highly concentrated to lead effectively or equal the collective wisdom of larger groups, but from within the most powerful democracy in history it can be hard to tell what fields the United States underperforms in. What is the role of government in a free society and how do we allow for the greatest good while interfering in peoples’ lives as little as possible?

One of the problematic aspects of a republic and representative democracy is the huge human network of administrators, advisors, lobbyists and politicians who exert their influence in specific fields or industries without necessarily needing to understand how that field impacts others.  The network of relationships between people, goods and services, and the law is so complex that it is often seen as lacking the ability to respond quickly to societal changes.  During our country’s shift away from a predominantly agriculture- and manufacturing-based economy, television shows like Hee Haw and The Beverly Hillbillies exemplified the stereotype held by much of the country about the farmers and ranchers that fed them: inept, low-tech, and uncivilized folk that didn’t “fit in” among high-rise buildings and taxi cabs.  The loss of large segments of our manufacturing industry further contributed to the large number of Americans that needed to find a new line of work, often in the service or information industries.

Corporate-owned large-parcel farms began to spring up in response to environmental calamities for crops and the instability they presented to the small family farm. These smaller farms at one time were situated in close proximity to urban centers in order to efficiently feed cities that had very little capacity to provide for themselves. To imagine the huge quantities of food, goods and resources that flood in to accommodate New York City’s 8 million people is simply staggering. As the scale of commodity markets increases, producers have been detached from those they provide for and replaced by the grocery store which drives down prices for producers in order to accommodate vastly centralized distribution networks. Through the wonders of science and ingenuity, new degrees of efficiency are made possible and quickly demanded by the free market. 

These new economies created vast changes in both housing demand and demographics as foreign, low-cost labor infills the industry. As Macoinis points out, this immigration is often viewed as a net negative on society when a more nuanced reality exists. Language barriers temporarily burden government and school systems with effectively communicating and educating ESL citizens and their children but diminishes as a problem within a few generations. When cities continue to expand their boundaries, outlying farms once dedicated to providing for the city itself become more difficult to manage and fall under pressure to sell out by increasing property value.

As these new economic models drive workers off the farm and into the city, the need for more food from industrialized farms grows in a self-fulfilling prophecy that accelerates economic changes that must be adapted to. The inability of people and our government to fluidly adapt to these rapid changes is part of where high urban crime numbers come from. 80% of Americans now live in cities and are completely dependent on “someone else” to grow their food and/or create a job for their income. This process of disconnection is so complete that most view vegetable gardening as drudgery intended for those with no other option. Connection to the land (and nature in general) has become an optional pursuit for people that often struggle to find life purpose in the absence of those most basic of human interactions with the world around us.

In a country where life is expensive, necessities are inequitably accessible, and many are oppressed by racist, classist or otherwise bigoted hierarchies, some will choose to become predators of their neighbors or scavengers of scrap metal. During the last half of the 20th Century, as we turned away from urban cores and towards the suburbs, spread out rather than re-envisioning our existing infrastructure, and made our first attempts at re-thinking the scope and scale of community-building, the majority of Americans lost touch with the knowledge and capacity to provide for themselves. The New Urbanism tenants of decentralization and “communities within larger communities” is equally applicable to our food system. As long as cheap, subsidized food is available, American society continues to complicate its ability to accommodate the safety, health and prosperity of Americans and staves off the pressing need for a localized agricultural renaissance.  

Temporary Urbanism: A More Responsive Approach to Vacant Land Utilization

Graham Herbst 

Original article:

Vacant land is a common problem in the United States. Large cities or small towns, rural or urban, Midwest or coastal, our approach to building cities is transforming in response to the failures of past thinking. As infrastructure installation and maintenance costs rise, planning practices have changed and continue to slowly move away from an emphasis on sprawl in order to bring new thinking to the old, forgotten corners of town that were left to languish while adding to municipal work load.  In the post-2008 era of “staycations” and concerns about access to jobs, healthy food and outdoor spaces, citizen groups are bringing new thinking to the unused spaces around them in order to do more with less.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Julian Castro, wrote an article in 2014 that summarizes the state of vacant land use nation-wide, with a focus on temporary uses. The term temporary is not defined by the nature of land use strategies but by the intent of the user in conjunction with the municipal agencies that oversee the property and can be as short-lived as a single day of festivities or span over a number of years. The creativity and capacity of citizens to create new uses for vacant space is one major factor influencing decision-making in these projects and city planning departments have displayed varying degrees of support and willingness to allow “out-of-the-box” initiatives to be implemented.

Philadelphia is a shining example of resilient land use initiatives supported by both the city and its citizens where land use paradigms have expanded beyond the typical community garden into a project called The Porch which incorporates local food and crafts vendors, public art and leisure space into a parking strip adjacent to an Amtrak station.  By bringing together elements of transportation, commerce, public space and art, Philadelphia’s University City District now has a thriving hot spot, (documented with periodic usage data collection) that is invigorating the area with amenities and activity that is attractive to home-buyers and businesses alike.

Temporary land use projects can also help to empower segments of the population that are often unheard or marginalized by providing projects and spaces that instill pride in the area and can subconsciously raise the bar for how the adjoining neighbors care for their own property. The temporary nature of these projects allows for exploration of project potential while minimizing necessary investment of resources. Although an attractive community garden or pocket park cannot be depended on to overcome economic factors in blighted areas, they can create a “sense of place” that improves perceptions and may reduce stress. Place-making has an important role to play in determining what amenities are most desirable in the area and likely to garner participation from those in the neighborhood.

Not all vacant land utilization projects are successful, and there are a few different factors at play that must be aligned in order to reactivate land that was previously unused or underused. An individual or group will initiate the project by coming together on an idea for implementing a project in a specific place or series of places.  In these early stages, it is critical to have agents in place that define the context of the project and work with city officials to agree on parameters for activities on the proposed sites. This often takes the form of an MOU or annual agreement that defines the length of time of the agreement, maintenance and signage requirements, a process for dealing with complaints about the property and general use restrictions. Deviating from this agreement is the most obvious way for a land utilization project to fail. A city opening up vacant land for use by interested citizens presents some level of risk under the insurance policy that citizens are covered by while using public land but also provides a framework through which lower-income citizens gain access to one of the most important resources there is: access to land.

Another important factor for utilization projects is the city’s policies regarding vending, food sales and music ordinances. In order to develop critical mass for success, projects will often seek to engage and outreach to people in the area that are not directly involved in project activities through live music, impromptu street sports, weekly markets and educational series.  As Castro notes, “Because landowners are ultimately responsible for the safety and security of their property, the risk involved in making their property available to others often deters them from allowing these temporary uses.” The last important group to consider is the public.  Without public interest and acceptance of the project, little momentum is generated and projects fizzle out. Whether a group is reaching out to a specific niche group or the general public with goods for sale or educational/recreational opportunities, the project deliverables must be desirable and accessible to the target audience. Social networks, and local print/TV media are crucial tools in expanding the reach and visibility of projects in order to attract participants, new board membership and customers.

Community gardening is the most common and well-known form of temporary land utilization and also has the deepest roots in American culture. While many recall the publicity campaigns urging citizens to implement “victory gardens” to support the war effort by improving self-reliance, the first cases of citizens using public land in major cities to grow food likely occurred in 1970’s New York with the Green Guerillas, a group that utilized “seed bombs” to beautify the fenced-off buildings and lots that had been abandoned during the fiscal crisis of the early 70’s.  Liz Christy is known as the founder of the group and quickly began establishing a community garden in the East Village that still stands today, despite escalating land prices and monumental pressures to redevelop the site. As the movement grew in support and impact, the Green Guerillas ushered in the beginning of a new approach to relations between Lower East Side citizens and their city government that is being continually adopted and adapted by US cities today, providing an early model for community engagement and land utilization that continues to be utilized and expanded upon today.