Teal Farm: Living the Future Now
When my friend Greg and I drove to Teal Farm, we crossed the border from the New York State town of Paradox. In the month of February Lake Champlain was still dotted with icehouses, with the fishermen inside making the most of a golden afternoon. As we drove over, a double rainbow mirrored the arc of the high bridge, and we felt we were crossing into a fairy kingdom.
Teal Farm comprises 1296 acres in the shadow of Camel's Hump, the highest roadless mountain in Vermont. It is the realization of a unique yet broadly compelling vision at a grand scale in beautiful surroundings; in short, a magical place. Or in the words of its founders, the LivingFuture Foundation, Teal Farm is a "future-looking farm, ecological preserve, and residence seeking to prototype perpetual agriculture and energy systems capable of meeting regional food and energy needs within the tumultuous conditions of global warming, fluctuating energy supplies, and an oil-dependent global economy."
Melissa Hoffman was working as an editor and writer for What Is Enlightenment? magazine in New York City and felt the need to bring her transformative vision into practice. "I'd been exploring a lot of these issues of the evolution of culture," she said. "It felt necessary to create a physical structure capable of supporting and expressing the ideals of the forward movement of human culture. We're getting smart enough to know that a century of industrial design is not conducive to our survival. How to deal with that is a monumental question that requires a systemic response, but also a response defined by something deeper than a desire to fix a problem."
After several years of preparation, the first fruits of that vision are coming this spring. Hoffman acquired the land with funding from a family foundation and found the rest of the resources she needed locally. Amy Siedel, a biology professor at the University of Vermont and Middlebury College who is writing a book entitled Early Spring: Waking to a Warming World which examines global warming in her landscape, became her partner in running the foundation, and Paul Goodhouse, who has been caretaker of the property for 18 years, lives on and helps maintain the property while providing his deep knowledge of the landscape. A custom homebuilder called Birdseye Building, located in Richmond, Vermont, helped design and build the completely remodeled farmhouse and a brand-new "energy barn," while the farm was planned by a unique firm called Whole Systems Design in Moretown, VT.
When we arrived at the house, Melissa greeted us in the farmhouse kitchen with a spread of local cheeses. The giant hearth at the heart of the house is a masonry heater constructed of New Hampshire granite; fire it up for a few hours in the morning and you can bake bread, while the solid stone retains heat for 24 to 36 hours.
Local maple, salvaged glass and stone are the materials that define the house, while the superinsulated walls are stuffed with recycled denim. There are compost toilets and a radiant heating system. It is warm and cozy inside even on a freezing day. Melissa and Amy take us through the house with obvious pride in every detail. "Beauty is a big part of sustainability," says Amy. "You save what you love."
The "energy barn," constructed of salvaged Douglass fir, combines a 15 KW system of solar panels and superinsulated tanks for holding water heated by the sun and by quick fires of cordwood. "Heating with the sun is anathema – nobody does that in Vermont," says Siedel. Downstairs, the six tanks, with copper coils inside, look like relics from some industrial syrup mixing process. The whole shebang is controlled with a futuristic looking software program that gives animated representations of every area of the house, every piece of equipment, every ambient temperature. Soon the front hall will have an "energy dashboard" giving off the same information for users to enjoy. Eventually, the farm will be completely self-sustaining and even export energy to the state's grid with an energy system combining a wind turbine, micro-hydro, and biodiesel.
All of this may be familiar to enthusiasts of transformative technology, drawing on the work of Bill McKibben, Amory Lovins, and other "bright green" theorists. But even more captivating than the human habitations, these buildings exist as only one part of an entire regenerative ecosystem designed by Ben Falk, of the unique landscape architecture firm Whole Systems Design.
"The landscape can provide a lot of information," says Ben Falk. He's standing on an east-facing slope, pointing out a constructed waterfall. When the thick snow underfoot starts to melt, Hoffman will be able to glance out her kitchen window and tell from the sight and sound of the water's flow just how far along the spring thaws have progressed. Falk's firm, Whole Systems Design, wrote the 100-year master plan for the soil, water features, plants and animals on the site-from the willow trees to the algae in the ponds. It's a prototype for sustainable, fossil-fuel-free food production. Beginning this fall, they'll harvest wild rice and cranberries from the wetlands, hickory nuts and mushrooms in the 1000+ acres of forest, plums and gooseberries in the orchards, and grains and strawberries intensively on rotated sites. Perpetual agriculture at Teal Farm looks less like the monoculture fields of traditional agriculture and more like an enhanced wilderness. In place of "conventional organic farming" – monocrops with intensive, albeit natural, fertilizer and pesticide inputs – permaculture transforms the entire landscape and puts in "guilds" of different plants that work together to support each other and enhance the soil. Food comes from orchards, gardens, ponds, bogs, annual vegetable and seed gardens, hedges and terraced hillsides. Nitrogen-fixing plants, crop rotation, and grazing animals will restore the soil; Food will be dried and preserved on site, seeds saved, and new varieties introduced.
In transforming our destructive relationship with nature, Teal Farm stealthily challenges traditional, sentimental environmentalism. Falk calls mainstream environmentalism, with its "nihilistic" approach of minimizing human impact, one of "the largest hurdles we face toward being a good community member of the earth again." Falk doesn't believe in "invasive species," for example. "If you're building a complete food system, you need foreign plants. And as the climate shifts, species will move anyway. A nativistic approach won't work." At Teal Farm he is testing a cross of the American and Chinese chestnuts to replace a species that has nearly succumbed to fungus, and planting oaks and hickories north of their native range in some of the warmer spots. With the predicted warming in this region, the master plans include introducing a whole range of species like umeboshi plum and goji berries.
Further, Falk points out that when the earliest white settlers lived in Vermont two hundred years ago and were dependent on local food systems, the now-wooded hillsides were entirely bare and covered with grazing sheep. The trees that stand there today are there because of the destruction of tropical forests and other equally valuable landscapes in poorer countries where Americans' food is grown, grazed and flown to us.
What makes Teal Farm so inspiring is its concrete attempt to put a real structure in place for the real threats humans face because of climate change and peak oil. One can easily imagine an estate like this becoming a city of refuge if we extrapolate from today's food riots and $100 a barrel oil. They have already had impact on Vermont's laws as they fought to make it easier to install a wind turbine over a neighbor's NIMBY objections. "We're really wanting to inform and inspire further design," says Hoffman. "We envision a lot of people coming here to learn and benefit from the experience and take it farther."
Ironically, the lavish scale – $700,000 for the agriculture system alone – and private funding from a small group of people may make it seem less attainable than other more communal efforts, yet the LivingFuture Foundation has been successful and inspiring in putting a prototype of the highest level of ecological integrity and beauty into practice.
If this country were different, one could imagine such installations being funded by our federal government in every state and every growing region in the country in order to hasten our adaptation to the changes we all know are coming. As things stand however, Teal Farm is one of a scattered archipelago of permaculture and renewable energy infrastructures, a green necklace of utopias across strip mall America and around the world, and it will be only as successful as the number of people who find out about it and find out what we can do in our own lives as well.
Photo by Greg Kirmser