Benjamin Fahrer: Interview at the Table of Free Voices

Benjamin Fahrer is one of 112 activists selected to participate in the Table of Free Voices, bringing diverse and respected opinions to bear on 100 questions selected by on-line voting from thousands of donated queries. Benjamin manages a certified organic farm in northern California and is active teaching the principles of permaculture and preserving the practices of natural cultivation in anticipation of a post-petroleum society, including working for the living seed bank to preserve Mayan heirloom corn free from genetically modified influences. Benjamin spoke with TreeHugger exclusively the day before the event. The whole thing is worth a read, to find the nuggets such as:"Nature is the prime designer and we still have so much to learn from her."

"It's about the story, because someone says 'Oh my gosh, look at that corn! It's 14-20 feet tall'. And you say 'Oh, this is a GE-free Zapatista corn.' "

"There are a lot of people out there who are fearful of truly knowing the situation that we're in, because once you know, you have to dramatically change the way in which you live, the way in which you walk upon this land."

"There's a lot of great books now on permaculture and ecological design. You know, ten years ago there wasn't, but now because the scene in permaculture isn't just about agriculture, a lot of people have been using it as a tool and therefore have been now writing books and articles that can be more applicable to so many people."

TreeHugger's first question for Benjamin puts him on the spot: why are you one of the 112 most interesting people to be invited to Berlin (for the Table of Free Voices)?
Benjamin: I do a lot of work in the permaculture field, and I was giving a talk on using permaculture as a means to be best prepared to respond in times of natural disasters or peak oil. Some of the founders of this project (Dropping Knowledge) are part of the community, and after presenting and talking about permaculture and what it embodies, which is taking care of the earth, taking care of the people and setting a limit to the consumption so that we can create an abundance to then add back to the earth and to the people. I was invited because that message is important to share. I felt that maybe someone else should be sitting at the table...people who founded permaculture: David Holmgren, Jeff Lawton, Bill Mollison. But this table is also about diversity...and I feel that through my dynamics, and who I am, I have a lot to offer as well; so that's why I think I was chosen to be here: because I'm young and I offer a different voice.

TH: So did you study the 100 questions, or are you going to be doing it impromptu?
Benjamin: I did, I did look at the questions. I got them a week ago. You know, I manage a small farm, and I milk the goats every day, take care of chickens and geese, and different crops. That's a lot of work. I would have liked to have more time to really study each question, because each question needs the attention; they are a very deep and involved and diverse set of questions. But with the time that I do have, I looked them over. I write a lot so I was taking it as a journaling exercise to write and see what comes and really by allowing the creative force to come through it is surprising what one can tap, inside, and so continually pulling from my training in permaculture, which is a design that follows natural systems. I found myself sometimes perplexed by the questions, because of their deepness, and I pull from nature. Natural systems have a lot to offer, and a lot to show us, and by looking to them first for the answers, then our own nature can come forward and answer them. That's pretty much, you know, that's the organic approach. And I know that there are questions that the answers will come to me, when the questions are proposed, and that will be spontaneous as well. I had anticipated that we weren't going to get the questions before, so I was happy to see them when they came.

TH: Did you find any questions that really struck a place close to your heart?
Benjamin: There was a lot of them that struck close to my heart. I do work with genetic engineering and resistance to that field and there was a few questions that deal specifically with that. And it is interesting, because each question comes from a different place on the planet, and from a different mindset and a different age, generational context. So you have a question about why are we even experimenting with genetic engineering, even though we can see the effects being not so positive, why are we taking this risk? And the next question right after that is, in which case should we take that risk? If it is going to aid us in deformitities? Coming from two different parts of the world with three generations between them. The first one saying "why?" coming from someone very young, who is maybe going to be around for a lot longer to see the effects, and the other one coming from someone who is older, in their later 50's, maybe coming from the stance that this science can help save our planet, it can help feed people. And yet, there's other ways to help feed people, besides messing with Nature's design. Because really, Nature is the prime designer and we still have so much to learn from her and so much mystery that we will never really understand. And we have to relinquish power and kind of be humble in that sense as well, that we aren't God.

TH: In that context, tell us a little about your experience with the Mayan seed project. What types of effects of the expirimentation (with genetic engineering) are you seeing in your experience?
Benjamin: It's a project that is from Schools for Chiapas which is based out of San Diego and deals directly with the Mayan people in Chiapas, and the Zapatistas that have stood up in resistance to the Free Trade Agreement of North America. Schools for Chiapas came in to help them build schools, to help educate the people because they believe in a true democracy and a true education for all and social equality. And their culture has been severly repressed, their indigenous culture. They found out that corn was being contaminated by genetically engineered corn that was coming into their country through food aid. Mexico has an embargo on any kind of gentic engineering food coming into their country. But that was just seeds and things being grown. Corn, coming in as food aid, to be ground up and eaten, was able to come into the country. A Mexican farmer, a Mexican person, sees corn as seed, and the food aid coming in, being so subsidized by our government, was cheaper than their own corn that they could get and so that was seed that they could plant, and there was no knowledge that it was genetically engineered nor that it could contaminate. And the industry was saying "No, there was no way that it could contaminate the corn." Ignacio Chapela, a UC Berkeley professor, did a study in Oaxaca and released it in Science* magazine, I believe it was in 2002, or 2001, where they found the cross-pollination and this genetic contamination into ancient strains of Mayan corn. This was in Oaxaca, but it was also throughout the country. And when the Zapatistas found out about this, this was devastating to their culture and to their heritage, for their culture and heritage has co-evolved with the corn. We all know of the Mayan and Aztec rituals of human sacrifice and the brutality of that, however it was also an intricate part of their whole culture where after a sacrifice, the blood of the human, and the blood of the people was given back to the farmers, to then fertilize their crops. Today we use blood meal and bone meal from animals, but then it was actually from humans, it was from the people, and so there was a direct connection to their people growing with the corn, and the corn co-evolved with the genetics of the Mayan people. So when there is this genetic contamination of a corn, it is agricultural genocide that is also very metaphorically related to the indigineous genocide and human genocide that is happening in that country. Their movement is one of resistance. The mother corn has no form of protection or resistance from this contamination or this genocide. And therefore, the people felt like it was their duty to stand up and defend the corn. So, whether it is one generation or ten generations, they want to get all genetic contamination out of their Mayan villages and fields. Schools for Chiapas helped them set up a seed bank in Chiapas. But then, they had a hard time seeing their culture being freeze-dried, and so they came up with the idea of having a living seed bank that would then be people around the world growing their corn, that then in the future if they had a need to access these strains, that they could have them being grown around the world to access them through a living seed bank. We grew the first grout, in solidarity, in 2003, on my farm in Northern California, that is pretty isolated, it's next to the Pacific Ocean, and not many farms around, so it was a good location. And everyone was asking for 60 seeds, we asked for 500. I got contacted by the organizer, who said "what do you want with 500 seeds?" Well, I am a farmer and I wanted to pull off a good crop, so I stated my intention and why I wanted to be a part of the project. He entrusted me with a good amount of seed, for at that time they didn't have that much seed to give. This is a 200+ day corn, most hybrids are about 90 days. It grows about 14 -16 feet tall, with 4-5 ears. It is a very amazing, spirited corn plant, that is receptive to human interaction--it needs a human interaction to then flower and pollinate. My good friend was telling me to sing to the corn, and I said "Why would I sing to the corn?" He said, "Well, the corn has ears!" You need to sing to it, so... we started signing to the corn and acknowledging it for the spirit that it was and it definitely responded. And after that first year, when Peter Brown, who started the project for Schools for Chiapas, came to our farm, it was very emotional 'cause it was the first large stand of corn they had seen growing out of Chiapas. They came up and had their board meeting at our farm, saw the corn, and really saw that this project was worth doing. Since then, Peter has moved to Chiapas, to focus more in on the work of building schools and saving the seeds, down in that country, and our farm has taken on the responsibility of distribution of the corn from Mexico. We get the corn from Mexico and then we distribute it out to farms, which now it's growing--the first year we had maybe sixty people growing it around the country. This year we have it growing in almost every state in this country, and across the world there is over 300 farms growing this corn. It's about the story, because someone says "Oh my gosh, look at that corn! It's 14-20 feet tall". And "what kind of corn is that? It's growing over the fence." And you say "Oh, this is a GE-free Zapatista corn." And they go "GE free? What's that? Zapatistas? Who are they?" And, they might not get a huge abundance of corn--because they've only planted 10-20 plants. You need about 60 plants, or so, to get a yield of corn, but the story that they tell and the information that they spread, is what the project is also about. It is to then unite people around the world to what the Zapatistas are doing and the indigenous people are doing, which is resisting the agricultural multi-national corporation takeover of our food supply, which should be in our commons.

TH: You tell the story particularly well. So, tell us a little bit about your experiences outside of the corn area, with permaculture in general. So you said you teach largely to high school age kids, what is their receptiveness to hear these messages from permaculture?
Benjamin: Yeah, I teach with high school, but I teach also through some other nonprofit organizations, Solar Living institute in Hopland, California and Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, and also where I live, Ocean Song Farm and Wilderness Center. I particularly like teaching more the youth, to innoculate their minds with the message which is to take care of the earth, take care of the people and to limit your consumption. These are the three main ethics of permaculture: earth care, people care and fair share. The third one is the key, because it's the feedback loop. If we set limits to our consumptions: what we need, what we want and what we have are all different things, and we don't need all of this materialism. Some people think that it is nice to have all of this abuncance, but if we're taking more than we need, we're stealing from others, in the permaculture model, because it's all connected, it's all relative. The air that we breath, the water that we need; you know, we need certain things. Which is one of the questions here, is what do we need as people, what are these dignities that everyone should have? Everyone should have access to clean water and air and food. So if we limit our consumption to just what we need, then there is a huge abundance left over, and if we can return that abundance, return the surplus back to the first two ethics: back to the earth, and then back to the people, that creates a cyclical opportuntiy that allows for the abundance to keep building upon itself.
Our culture, Western culture today, is almost in complete opposition to permaculture. If we look at how we're taking care of the earth, we are not truly taking care and setting aside resources for earth's animals and plants and trees and beings. And taking care of people: we are not truly taking care of the people, in the true sense. It is a very individualistic culture, that is about "me first", capitalism. And setting limits to consumption: you know, I come from America that uses over a third of all world's resources. Our ecological footprint is huge. People talk about China and Asia and "oh, its overpopulation". It is more about overconsumption. It is like 24, or plus, acres of natural resources the average american uses, opposed to the five acres of natural resources the average (East) Indian uses, the consumption is huge. So if we limit our consumption, we might create an abundance and return that surplus, so it is about a fair share. Permaculture is about looking at natural systems and how everything is related, and how we need mutually beneficial relationships between ourselves and our interaction with the natural world. Once people start to realize this deep connection that we can have with the planet, and how everything we do affects everything else and start to employ some of the principles of permaculture; you know, there's many, many different principles people employ but some of the basic ones: seeing problems as opportunities, or problems as the solution; the design is theoretically unlimited; cyclical opportunity; relinquishing power; everything is connected; every element serves multiple functions and every function is served by multiple elements. These are principles that are pulled off of Nature's systems, and when people start to employ those in their lives, it opens up this huge amount of opportunity--especially to the youth, someone who is just stepping into their adulthood, and maturity, it is very empowering and very enlightening--to say "hey, I can make a difference by living this way that's more connected to the earth." And so, usually people go through a permaculture desing course or an intro course and it changes their way of thinking. A lot of people think permaculture is about agriculture. That is a big part of permaculture, providing food, so we can take care of the people and food for the planet, so there is a whole thing about the design yielding food, but realy it's about just culture and it can be applied to anything. So when people see that they can start applying this, then they say: "I am not a gardener and I am not a farmer, I am an activist or I am a investment business planner." Well, if you take these three ethics and you focus in on what you are designing, because it's about designing, and you start looking for natural patterns and using the principles--and the roots of all permaculture is observation, thoughtful and protracted observation, so observation over a period of time then allows them to come up with a design that is in line with our regenerative world.

TreeHugger: I often think of Thoreau's Walden, and in this globalized world, where we know so much about so much, where we have visited so many places, where you are on a farm in Northern California growing Mayan corn, and travelling to India or China or Brazil is a weekly habit for many people. I think about the way Thoreau describes Walden Pond and how you could spend a lifetime just getting to know one acre of land, they way the corn grows, which bugs are using which parts of the plants and I think in some ways we have learned a lot, but we have lost some learning about the things that are closest to us. Can you tell us a few experiences about your farm that you are really attached to, connected to: what does the land there tell you? What are the stories of your farm?
Benjamin: Well, we often say in permaculture that we are on the cutting edge of 10,000 year technology. It is so true what you just said about knowing a place. I have been at this farm for over three years now, going of four and I am just now starting to know the place. First steps, where your water is coming from, how the sun shines, which way does the wind blow, all these natural influences that have their effects on the place. I've been in observance of it, by designing the farm and designing my lifestlye and flow on that farm and on that land, has allowed me to be more connected to it. I have goats. I have four young does that we milk every day, and we walk across the land and I watch their patterns of how they travel. They are browsers, they are not grazers, they have a thirty second attention span, so they eat a little bit of the oak, a little bit of the fir and they won't touch the thistle or the grass. But two months later they touch the thistle and the grass. They touch the things that go to seed when it's at the right time to harvest. It is an intrinsic nature that they have,that they know, that they inherently know. And I often think of our own inherent nature that we possess, and that deep down within ourselves we know so much that we are just needing to remember. When the grain is ripe and when the corn has matured, something goes off inside me. When the hands go into the earth, when the feet walk barefoot across the land, this is a connection that the sole of our foot is reflective of the soul of our Self. If we are walking barefoot, that is an intimate connection with the skin of the mother, Earth, and if we can start to respect the earth that we walk upon as the mother, as the source of which all life comes from, that supports every single step we take: If we begin to understand this then I think that we will choose differently of how we treat her, of how we abuse...of how we steal, really, from other species. Today our ecological situation is really bad. We look around, and we try to also find the signs that we are changing. For those whose eyes have seen the light, I guess, you know I went through New College of California Culture, Ecology and Sustainable Community Program, where it is a holistic education and it's an activist school, so it basically turns you on to everything that is going on in every realm, dealing with energy, education, social systems, the environment, with water, with politics, everything, and it is like my eyes were taken out and washed, and put back in. And once I've seen it, I can't go back. I saw a bumper sticker the other day, that said "If ignorance is bliss, why isn't everyone happy?" It's true, because there are a lot of people out there who are fearful of truly knowing the situation that we're in, because once you know, you have to dramatically change the way in which you live, the way in which you walk upon this land. And that takes a huge dedication, and faith, because once you turn in that direction, if you turn back, it is in defiance of what inherently you know inside is right. And there's instances at every moment that people can make a change, and little things that they can do, even if you see this, as long as you are cautious of what you doing, cautious consumption. I'm not saying everyone should stop consuming or change their life dramatically, it is a long arc, you can't do an about-face; it's a long transition, but you can do little steps each day to work towards a more sustainable, regenerative system. And it's about design, it's about designing your life around care of the earth as primary and taking care of our people and returning that surplus.

TH: Can you leave TreeHugger readers with a couple of titles of books on permaculture that you think could really influence some lives, help people make decisions?:

Benjamin: There's a lot of great books now, out there, on permaculture and ecological design. You know, ten years ago there wasn't, but now because the scene in permaculture isn't just about agriculture, a lot of people have been using it as a tool and therefore have been now writing books and articles that can be more applicable to so many people. Permaculture Activist is a great magazine. Permaculture Magazine, based out of the UK, and Communities Magazine, and a lot of magaziines that have permaculture embedded within them. As far as books go, there is the classic bible to permaculture, which is the PDM, Permaculture: A Designer's Manual, written by Bill Mollison out of Australia, one of the co-founders. The other co-originator of the concept is David Holmgren and he just came out with a book about two years ago, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. That is a really good book for our time, because it takes on permaculture in the context of Peak Oil. What are the principles and pathways we can get to better prepare for it and also, design for catastrophe is one thing in permaculture, so this book takes that on. As far as home gardening and using permaculture in your back yard, Gaia's Garden by (John Todd and) Toby Hemenway, who is out of the Northwestern States. A book that isn't permaculture based but is a book that has really affected me that is permaculture because permaculture is about indigenous wisdom, is Masanobu Fukuoka's The One Straw Revolution. Masanobu Fukuoka is a pioneer in the way of looking at farming with the wild and natural farming. A lot of his concepts and ideas are totally interwoven into permaculture. This book was written well before Holmgren and Mollison coined the term. Just as J. Russell Smith's book Treecrops, a Permanent Agriculture was written at the early 1900's, 60 years plus prior to "permaculture" being coined and yet the subtitle a "permanent agriculture": perma - culture: those are the words where permaculture is derived from. There are so many books; The Earth Care Manual by Patrick Whitefield is also another great book for permaculture in temperate zones.

One thing about permaculture, it is the last chapter in Mollison's book, is: We are a global culture, and therfore, we need to really innoculate everyone to get on the same page. You open up the book and page one, chapter one, states the prime directive of permaculture: The only ethical decision we have to make is to take responsibility for our actions and those of our children, and make it now." So we need to make it now. Or else we are going to destruction and collapse. So Permaculture Activist and many other permaculture publications really focus on giving resources, giving more bucks, more videos, audios. The Global Gardener by Bill Mollison is a classic video, where he goes around the world and looks at permaculture models.

TreeHugger: Benjamin Fahrer, thank you very much.

* The article was published November 2001 in Nature magazine. Due to questions raised about the study, on April 4, 2002, the editors of Nature issued a release concluding "that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper." The full text of two letters criticizing the original research, the response by the authors of the original paper, and the editorial note published in Nature's Brief Communications section are available online (free, with registration):

Suspect evidence of transgenic contamination
Maize transgene results in Mexico are artefacts
Authors' reply to "Suspect evidence of transgenic contamination" and "Maize transgene results in Mexico are artefacts"

See Benjamin Fahrer's answers to the 100 questions of the Table of Free Voices at Dropping Knowledge.