As any Mycophile knows, the more you understand about mycelium, the more you understand its intrinsic connection to all things. The real magic of mushrooms is their ability to provide life-sustaining solutions for creatures big and small, and it all starts with the soil.There’s really no life form that is not touched, in some way, by fungi. So, when we talked with Permaculturist Michael Judd, he enlightened us to his world – DIY permaculture, agro-ecology, even the life lessons to be gleaned from farming – but we eventually landed back at the beginning. They say all roads lead home. Home, for Michael Judd, is the soil.
Fantastic Fungi (FF): Permaculture sounds…intimidating. What advice do you have for novices like myself?
Michael Judd (MJ): I like to break it down into projects. People can understand a project. It’s incapsulated, it’s manageable. In my book, Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist, I lay out the steps and materials needed for individual projects.
People always feel like they have to learn more, read more. We don’t need to read more! We need to get out there and start doing. That’s the only way to really achieve success. If you start with a small project and you complete it, you have success. Then, you do another, and another, and the projects build upon themselves. The magic is that it begins to thrive and overtime the projects begin to weave together and you get that synergistic landscape. But it only happens by doing the first project. Trust it, and it will meet you.
FF: That’s a great metaphor for life. “Begin anywhere” is one of my favorite sayings. Just start. How did you start?
MJ: I started with whole system design while living in Mexico with the Lacondon Mayans. The Mayans were geniuses at creating functional landscapes that mimicked nature. About the same time, permaculture was just coming onto the scene, and there were a lot of synergies. I combined these practices, and in 2001, I created a non-profit called Project Bona Fide in SW Nicaragua. The project focused on creating food security through food forests that maximize use of the land. Today, we’ve grown 26 acres of linked design systems that mimic nature while also meeting the needs of local economies and ecologies.
FF: That’s very inspiring. Can you explain the difference between permaculture and agro-ecology, which you also talk a lot about?
MJ: Agro-ecology focuses on how we can intelligently grow food for animals, ourselves and to benefit ecology as a whole. One example is alley cropping, planting perennials between spaced out rows of other crops, like cabbages. You create diversity by stacking functions, and there’s added benefit because the perennial rows are filtering, wind breaking or creating another product the farm might need. Agro-ecology and permaculture go together well, but have different applications. Agro-ecology farming can be umbrellaed under permaculture.
FF: So, let’s go a little deeper (pardon the pun) to fungi. You provide a great explanation for the role fungi has in farming in your book. You write: “Working with fungi is one of the rare win, win, win scenarios where every step of the process has a myriad of benefits. By thinning trees for growing mushrooms, you help rebalance the forest; by inoculating wood with fungi, you speed up the soil building process; and by spreading more fungi in the landscape, you strengthen ecosystems and increase runoff filtration. On the economic side, growing mushrooms for market is as lucrative as a legal crop gets. Local farmers markets and restaurants pay top dollar for outdoor fungi. Value add the harvest into a bottled sauce or oil and you‘ll be rolling.”… This begs the question: is fungi a scalable solution in large scale agriculture?
MJ: That’s a good question. I’m sure Paul Stamets has done more research on this than I have, and there’s Mark Shepard who wrote Restoration Agriculture about large scale farming with permaculture. But, what I know from experience is that fungi are going to thrive wherever there’s consistent organic matter. That’s what will spread mycelium and nutrients. Working on a homestead urban scale, where there’s no end to huge piles of wood chips and where landscape is fertile, you can keep it perennially covered, so you don’t need additional fertilizer. When agriculture is scaled, and the land is used up from heavy cropping, it disrupts the natural balance needed to maintain the land, so they need fertilizers. Existing agricultural models need to become diversified. There is a deeper context here of needing to eat locally and seasonally. Point is, it’s hard to inject fungi into a continually depleted farming system.
FF: So, is it realistic to suggest that in order to make the biggest impact to our food supply and ecology, it will require a lot individuals doing what you’re doing? Small, diversified farming equals big change?
MJ: It’s a realistic solution to go small scale and local, but it shouldn’t be like anything it ever was. Everything needs to be different because of our new realities. A small diversified plot is more productive than large scale agriculture. We need more small scale diversified operations. There are many young farmers who are doing this. They’re learning and encouraging each other.
FF: Where have you seen permaculture at its finest?
MJ: Bullock Homestead on Orcas Island. Douglas and Sam Bullock are great teachers and their land is stacked to the limit.