As anyone starting something new can attest, there is a steep learning curve and lots of infrastructure to get into place for all of the systems that need to be up and running in order to truly begin. Here on a permaculture farm, that means establishing a very rudimentary ecosystem using the guidelines of Mother Nature to minimize input and maximize yield. So when we looked at the goals and mission of the Vital Farm in conjunction with the property and surrounding ecosystem we were able to synthesize many farming and homesteading skills from the permaculture world and beyond.
Those more versed in permaculture or the functioning of ecosystems know that animals are often a keystone element. They cycle nutrients, prepare the soil, disrupt pest cycles, provide resources like food, fiber and compost, give protection and entertainment, and a host of other positive benefits. But one can’t just get whatever animals, in how ever many quantities let them go and expect a balanced ecosystem to form on its own. In order for us to find that balance, we needed to not overburden the land and ensure our plants and animals can thrive under the conditions we have here. We analyzed the needs of the land and farm and what we, and the land, could reasonably sustain. One of the crucial elements was incorporating an animal we could use to mob graze our pasture to help control “weeds,” deposit minerals to prepare the open pasture to become a silvopasture (a pasture with sparse tree cover that allows the same piece of land to obtain a yield through trees and livestock), as well as many other jobs and benefits. The animal we chose for this job is the Icelandic Sheep, who have multiple yields (milk, meat, fiber), are adapted to this climate, and are particularly well suited for the management style we wanted to implement. But these sheep, while amazing resources to a designed ecosystem, are vulnerable to predators. Our solution was a guard llama.
So, as winter approached we realized we could either build a barn or spend our nights in the freezing cold keeping a fire stoked for our co-worker and llama friend. We knew we had a resource of used pallets at our disposal in addition to a limited time frame and budget. We also had a wonderful resource in our neighboring permaculture farm, Root ‘n Roost, who not only have utilized pallets to build many of their structures but also offer consulting services and have had experience in construction. Knowing this, we approached Sean, our friend and owner of aforementioned farm, to give us a design and some advice on building our barn. He came back with some plans for us that we were able to go through together to clear up details and get pointers on how to do things the right way.
While putting pallets together into a box seems like a simple enough task, making sure that a building this large and with multiple stories is structurally sound takes a little more preparation and planning. This includes putting in some kind of level foundation for it to sit on, knowing where things will overlap, and how to attach everything so that it’s structural. I’ll be the first to admit that while we have experience with small woodworking projects and some construction, including with pallets, this project may have been a bit over ambitious. Nevertheless, we knew with a little hard work and ingenuity we could get it done before winter set in (partially also thanks to climate change and El Niño causing an unseasonably warm December here in upstate NY).
Thanks to all the past experience, knowledge, planning and advice we have been able to complete the structure itself. Now it just needs siding and a roof in order to move the hay and livestock into it. While this is only the short term solution to get us, and the animals, through the next couple winters until a more permanent structure can be built, it should be sturdy enough to last much longer and be converted into other functional uses for the farm or another place for storage and shelter in our future silvopasture. Overall, it felt like a good close to a “Year Zero” filled with establishing systems and building infrastructure. One of the biggest pieces of that infrastructure has a temporary solution and it has allowed us to gain even more knowledge and experience for all the projects that will undoubtedly come up in the coming years.