Midwest Permaculture provides relevant, useful, and inspiring permaculture learning experiences. Our work is to assist in bringing permaculture thinking into mainstream culture. We know it is possible for all humans to live abundantly well while also leaving the planet in better condition because we were here.
Chronicle of a Work-Trade Program
One scrappy idealist’s venture into the world of permaculture
“This permaculture summer of mine was magical for me in a lot of ways, and beginning my journey with the work-trade program was certainly a beautiful way to get started on that journey.” Coral
Perhaps you are an experienced permaculturalist and manage an amazing piece of land or you educate others in the ways of the swale. Or perhaps you have a PDC and are eager to learn more. Or maybe you’ve recently begun this journey and are looking at what Midwest Permaculture has to offer. A Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) is a good investment but it can be kind of expensive. If you’re a young 20-something like myself you may not be able to drop a thousand bucks for a week-long training. Fortunately, Midwest Permaculture provides another option: their work-trade program.
It’s an excellent excuse to get your hands dirty and your feet wet in actual hands-on permaculture while you prepare to take the course. For many of us, including myself, hands-on learning-by-doing is the most effective way to learn. If you are anything like me—young, broke-ish, with a passion for saving the Earth—then perhaps you would like to hear what a work-trade experience with Midwest Permaculture is like.
Traveling To Stelle
As I drove out towards Stelle, Illinois, where my work-trade program was set to take place, driving through Indiana and Illinois I observed the vast emptiness of the endless stretches of corn and soybean fields. I couldn’t help but notice the disconcerting irony between the monoculture desert and the permaculture I was supposedly coming here to study.
Finally, after driving for hours through the empty void of the formless land, Google Maps told me to turn left, and there it was: Stelle. A little piece of American suburbia in the middle of nowhereville.
But here I was, in this weird community—Stelle. I got out of my car and went up to the house that was supposed to be the address of Bill and Becky Wilson. Their yard looked like the Garden of Eden, which is something I suppose you should expect from people who teach permaculture design courses for over a decade. I knocked. Becky answered the door and greeted me.
“Did you recognize our house from our yard?” she asked. I chuckled because it was true.
After exchanging greetings with Bill and Becky, I went ahead to move my stuff into the intern house, where I would be staying for the next month. I was to share this house with two other girls, who coincidentally were all around the same age as me.
One of the other girls was already there in the intern house. Her name was Brie. She hailed from Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she had just finished a degree in anthropology and Spanish. The next day, the other girl arrived. Her name was Hunter, and she had just finished her sophomore year of college at Principia College. She was fascinated with ecology, and had brought with her a particular affinity for studying native bees and pollinators for prairie restoration.
We 3 work-traders (from left to right): Brie Brown, Hunter Benkoski, and myself–Coral Thayer
During our orientation, we were given a tour of the Midwest Permaculture project here in Stelle: nine acres owned by the Center for Sustainable Community, a nonprofit based here in Stelle. On it there was a community vegetable garden, which we would be tending often during our work trade. We passed by a pond, from which nutrient-rich water was pumped into the garden.
Next we came upon a small cabin—this was an “Earthshelter,” a tiny home designed from mostly natural elements found on the land itself.
Little did I know that by the time my month was over the three of us would have mostly finished the limestone patio deck in front here.
Finally, at the edge of the nine acre property, was an old apple orchard that had been planted a long time ago when Stelle was founded as an intentional community in the 70s. Some of the apple trees were still bearing tasty food, but it was obvious that the trees were growing old. A small grove of young fruit and nut trees had been planted at the edge of the orchard, a food forest to replace the aging apple trees.
Hot Water Shower with Rocket-Stove Heater
On the other side of the orchard, there was a large rectangular structure, a shower. Bill said that eventually they were planning to open up the land as a campground on Hipcamp, which is a website much like AirBnB, but for camping, where travelers can pay a small fee to pitch their tent on your property. Anyway, Bill told us that they were trying to use the HipCamp website as a platform to get people here and show them the Good News of permaculture.
Outdoor shower stall with the hot water rocket stove. Notice, the fire is burning but there is NO SMOKE! Awesome.
“So here,” he gestured to the rectangular structure, “is a showerhouse. During your time here we’re going to build a plumbing system and a rocket stove to heat the water so that campers can see an off-grid, easy way to get hot water.”
How a Rocket Stove Works
A rocket stove, I later learned, is basically like a really efficient oven. You get a small fire going, but because of the way the rocket stove is built, the fire gets really hot really fast. And as the fire gets hotter and hotter, air is sucked through the stove. Because it’s so hot, everything gets burned up and there isn’t any smoke.
Heat from the fire then fills up a thermal mass, which stores the heat from the rocket stove. In this case, the thermal mass is the water tank. A separate water line brings cold water to a copper coil running throughout the water tank which picks up heat, sending warm water to the shower stall. To learn more, Bill explains the basics of rocket stoves here.
As the month of the work-trade program commenced, I learned many things and got many hands-on experiences that I might have missed if I had simply taken a PDC course. In today’s society, we seem to prioritize the credentials you receive from classroom learning over actual hands-on experiences.
Brie applying a foliar spray to a young plant guild
But there’s something special about being a sort of “apprentice” to a trade, even if it’s only a short-term month-long program. I learned a lot more about permaculture from the work-trade program than I would have if I only took the class. In addition to building a rocket stove, we got to work in the community garden, prepare and spread foliar sprays, build a stone porch for the Earth Shelter, learn how to thresh garden-grown wheat, and burn brush piles (my personal favorite).
This ‘happy hour’ consisted of separating the wheat berries from the chaff of the wheat we harvested from the garden.
Stelle – Experiencing Real Community
But beyond the practical learning component, there was something very special about doing a work-trade program in Stelle that went beyond horticulture. While we three girls were in Stelle, we learned a lot about what it means to live in a community and have strong relationships with others in your community. We attended the Stelle community dinners, and talked freely with our neighbors. You see, Stelle is a village. It began as an intentional community in the 70s and even though it stopped being an intentional community, there remains a deep network of meaningful relationships that we tend not to experience in most cities, not even in most small towns.
Talking freely with our Stelle neighbors was an easy and regular part of our experience.
It was the spirit of the Stelle community that perhaps inspired the three of us work-traders—myself, Brie, and Hunter—to open up to each other. Within that short summer month, the three of us became trusty friends. In my whole life, I have never experienced that level of connection with a small group of females in such a short amount of time.
During this time, Brie lent me a book of hers. It was the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. It is sort of a novel, but mostly a philosophical treatise, but anyway it was an incredible book to read while doing a permaculture work-trade program in preparation for a PDC. If you haven’t read it, and you have an earnest desire to save the world like I do, then I encourage you to read it yourself. Frankly, I think it’s an important book that should make the permaculture reading list.
I can’t remember the last time I went climbing in a tree with friends.
A Wonderful Experience
This permaculture summer of mine was magical for me in a lot of ways, and beginning my journey with the work-trade program was certainly a beautiful way to get started on that journey. Being young, able-bodied, and relatively financially lacking, a work-trade in exchange for a PDC was more than a bargain. I know that there are those of us out there who are interested in permaculture, but maybe we can’t afford to take the design course, or maybe we want some hands-on experience before we can feel comfortable doing design work. A work-trade program may be a good option for you. I can’t promise that your work-trade experience will be as fulfilling or as magical as mine was, but nothing can ever be futile if it is done with an earnest heart and an earnest desire to make the world a better place.
All we can do is listen to the words of Henry David Thoreau:
“Go confidently in the directions of your dreams!”
Our home aquaponics system. Prefect for winter greens.
Winter is almost over, yet at the beginning of this season we were determined to bring more greens into our home during the cold months. We focused on microgreens and experimented with several methods. We used two mixes from Johnny’s Seeds, one was mild and the other spicy, mostly brassica mix.
Fresh and nutritious addition to any dish.
First, sprouts. Simple, straight forward, you just need a sprouting tray or jar with a mesh lid. You get sprouts in a few days after keeping the seeds moist and rinsing them. Downside is that you often can’t rinse off the seeds and the whole mix sometimes gets slimy.
Microgreens in a tray.
Next, microgreens in a shallow tray of soil. The temperature needs to be warm enough for germination, so grow under lights or a sunny window. You can seed them profusely by scattering them thickly over the soil. Sprouts come up in a thick mat, and you can snip them off as you need them, and you can continue to let them grow. Less mess than sprouts and the seeds stay separated in the soil. One rinse and you’re ready to go.
Aquaponics Microgreens – 5 days
Last method was to sow the seeds directly over the gravel in my indoor aquaponics system. We have a 12” x 24” unit with grow lights that fits over our 50-gallon fish tank. This method by far is the easiest. I sprinkle the seeds over the gravel and cover the trays for one day with a damp paper towel. Within 3 days I have short sprouts that I can harvest with a scissor and within a week I have big sprouts for a whole salad. I also can grow lettuce, parsley, celery or any leafy greens quite easily in this system.
Microgreens mixed with lettuces and leafy greens.
Though our aquaponics system is no longer being sold there are a wide range of units out there for sale on the internet as well as plenty of do-it-yourself systems shared on Youtube.
Go and have some fun exploring but whatever you do…give this a try. We look forward to greens every winter now.
Since it is March however our fish will soon be moved outdoors to our 100-gallon system with three good-sized growing beds. More on that coming up in a later post.
Environmental Landscape Designer (inner and outer landscapes)
Bridget’s work focuses on the inner and outer work of authentic, sustainable living (permaculture). While utilizing her diverse skills in horticulture, floristry, fermentation, permaculture, yoga (RYT), nutrition, education & marketing, she looks for those pathways that provide a holistic approach to human awareness and culture repair.
Bridget shares her passion for impactful-loving service through work as an educator and designer through here business Resilient Spirals LLC. She travels providing design services, consultations and a range of workshops. She is the creative inspiration of ‘Adapt’, a permaculture game that she designed utilizing the principles so aptly described by David Holmgren within his website PermaculturePrinciples.com.
We were delighted and honored to have Bridget attend one of our PDC courses as a part of her journey. You can connect with Bridget by emailing here at ResilientSpirals@gmail.com.
Teaching at the IPC in India
Having fun with classmates at her Midwest Permaculture PDC course
Sharing and consulting with David Holmgren about her permaculture game
Sharing an early version of the game with Vandana Shiva
Below is the full conversation between Bridget and Midwest Permaculture’s Milton Dixon from October of 2017. (28 minutes)
PDC Graduate Series - Bridget O'Brien Full - YouTube
Sometimes, the PDC course is a perfect fit for those looking for practical knowledge about living a meaningful life and creating purposeful work in the world. Ian was one of these people and as such he has attended 3 of our PDC courses along with completing the Advanced Permaculture Training in Teaching.
By his third PDC we could easily see how Ian’s teaching abilities supported his passion for the subject and we invited him to take on some responsibilities as a co-teacher at our Cal Earth PDC, 2017. His contributions were spot-on and seamless.
Knowing that permaculture is going to be a part of his life’s work he also recently developed a training called the Internal Landscape Design Workshop which revolves around an individual’s personal journey. As he says in the video:
“I think we all need to do this individual work and figure out… how do we live our lives in an authentic way…”
Their Work? The suburbs were originally designed to be car centric, resource intensive places for people to live and commute to work. This design has caused a dependence on oil and the automobile, transformed nature into pavement and buildings, and created a culture of stress and competition. The time has come for a suburban permaculture redesign!
The Resiliency Institute’s vision is of suburbs where people are connected through strong social networks, foraging in edible forest gardens and food forests is a daily community activity, cooperatives of all types exist, social equity & justice are integrated, renewable energy is available to everyone, and so much more.
Permaculture provides the ethics, principles, and design strategies to achieve these transformations, creating economically, environmentally, and socially resilient communities.
Michelle, Jodi and their support teams teach people how they can transition their personal, business, church, or school lawns into edible landscapes that grow food security.
Fruit tree guilds and edible forest gardens throughout the community to grow food security. All as part of creating resilient community.
Food security in Dupage County, pursuing adoption of sustainability goals by local citys.
Focusing on reaching out to the community in the suburbs. Where most of the consumption is and where change needs to happen.
They believe that the way to affect change is to create an alternative that people are drawn to.
Connecting to our senses and our awareness of them. That increases our ability to design to our senses.
Jodi took her PDC and made Michelle take her own. Their organization has worked to make permaculture understood in the chicagoland area.
Forest garden project. 1/3 acre, on county property, along the prarie path.
Projects take a while to mature. Small and Slow process.
Turned an expensive design for landscaping into a practical and reproducible demonstration of a fruit tree guild. The simple and productive design connected users of a food bank to where food really comes from.
Sold fruit tree guilds as a package, along with educational programming.
Installing fruit tree guilds all over Naperville.
Finding opportunities to work with landscapers to make small portions of designs edible.
Working on permaculture’s vocabulary problem, aligning the language of permaculture with city planners. Swales & raingardens = stormwater management.
Pulling together organizations to promote solar energy.
Creating something that is different from all the examples. Forging a new path is the way forward, and transition to a permaculture life.
Have held three types of courses. Edible wild plants, over 200 plants identified. Bioregional herbalism, how do we use the plants around us to nourish ourselves, learning from plants directly. Permaculture Food forest course, apply permaculture on the small scale to inform the larger.
Found that one day a month for 10 months is most doable for people.
Getting people over the hump of just doing something. Making use of all the mistakes they made to show it’s OK to make a mistake.
Educate about how to do something and provide people the opportunity to do it right then, doing it as part of the process.
If people can see what a guild can be, if it can be commonplace in the landscape, then people will understand them and want their own.
Recognise that we get to choose what we do in the time we have.
What is Hipcamp? Some describe Hipcamp as the Airbnb for campers.
For those who just want to get away and camp for an overnight, a weekend, or more (but are not thrilled about staying in a state park campground or other commercial operation) … …Hipcamp connects you with people who own their own property and are happy to have folks come and camp on their land.
Hipcamp at Bending Oak – and yes, you can bring your puppy.
Now that our permaculture site, Bending Oak, is in its 4th year of development we are ready to share our progress. One way we’ve chosen to do this is by joining the Hipcamp family.
Consider booking a stay with us and come see/learn more about what we are up to… or… just come and chill. Jim Penrod is our site project manager and will be there to welcome campers. He is a graduate of our trainings and has already worked with us for over two years so he’s wonderfully qualified to show campers around and talk permaculture if you’re interested. He can also just leave you alone.
A few of the features you will find at Bending Oak:
The half-acre pond we designed and the barn we constructed from used shipping containers.
Several tent platforms to choose from or just set your tent up on the ground.
Three separate camping areas waiting for you to choose from.
An outdoor shower stall…
…with hot water provided from a wood-fired rocket-mass heater.
Composting Toilets Tucked into the Woods
Hand and Dish Washing Stand in the Common Area
This is the common area next to the barn for gathering with other campers if desired.
The barn has a 1.6KW solar electric system and rainwater harvesting cisterns for clean-filtered water and all of the electricity one needs to keep their computer, batteries and phone charged.
A young fruit orchard with vegetables growing within a diverse cover crop.
Swimming off the End of the Pier
Come for a camping trip!
We’d love to have you enjoy Bending Oak.
10 a.m. to 3 p.m. includes lunch. Price – $20 Call or email to let us know you are coming. Becky@midwestpermaculture.com
Workshop will be both out in the field to identify plants and pollinators and indoors with a presentation.
For those interested there will be a casual introduction to Stelle during lunch and then a follow-up tour after 3:00. No additional charge.
Caron Wenzel is the owner of Blazing Star, a restoration and agroecological consulting firm with expertise in teaching and prairie plant seeds. She is a certified permaculture instructor and writes for Garden and Greenhouse magazine.
This Workshop is Sponsored by: Center for Sustainable Community and Midwest Permaculture Both of Stelle, Illinois
Here is some information about the progress we are making with our outdoor shower house projects. With campers coming to our Stelle (Il) and Bending Oak (Youngstown, OH) projects this summer we want to have a way that they can take a warm shower using current sunlight (scrap wood) to heat the water. (More on solar vs. wood burning hot shower water systems below.)
The goals for our shower houses are 5-fold; 1. Non-permanent and portable 2. Knock-down for winter storage 3. Inexpensive (easily available or recycled materials) 4. Easy to assemble/duplicate 5. Attractive (Has to have a welcoming factor)
The first concept we came up with that cost the least turned out to be more of a job to construct than first imagined, may not hold up in a hard wind, and frankly, looks a bit tacky (to me). But the price is right at $65.
Prototype #1 – Tarp and T-posts
This next design actually meets all 5 of our goals if one feels that $200 is an appropriate price to pay for materials that will likely last two decades if stored away during the winter months. We have yet to build this but here is the basic design:
As soon as we build one of these we will post the pictures here and share of our experience of building and using it.
Share your own ideas if you’d like.
About Solar vs. Wood Burning
We, of course, considered passive solar collectors for heating shower water but this requires regular/reliable sunlight (not here) and showering when the water is warm (not after dark or in the early morning when many like to shower).
Using the embedded solar energy stored in wood gives us greater control (heat water whenever you wish) and by using the rocket-stove design we can burn the least amount of wood, for the greatest amount of heat, with no smoke and minimal pollution.
Here is a cross-section of the rocket-stove prototype we have designed and are experimenting with. We will share more on this when we’ve tried a few more modifications here as well.
Tim is a Graduate of:
PDC Course #53 – Feb. 2015
at Midwest Permaculture, Stelle, IL
PDC Graduate Series - Tim Wadle - YouTube
Opened a business Sweet Greens in Cleveland, OH, -a supply store for indoor growers
Transforming his 12 acres in suburban Cleveland
Working to open the eyes of residents and city regulators about the opportunities around urban food growing.
“As Bill and Becky said at the PDC, if we wish to create a more compassionate and sustainable world (a more permanent-culture) we need to live it and share it.” Tim…
As such Tim has redoubled his efforts at working with people throughout his community. His desire is to support residents and city officials in revisiting the assumptions regarding the growing of food (plants and animals) in the urban environment. Everywhere he turns now he can see the opportunity for beauty, production and abundance. This has also inspired Tim to begin working with schools to bring exciting ideas to young minds.
The PDC inspired Tim with many ideas for increasing production in his own expanding garden areas while also reducing some of the work. For example, various techniques for holding moisture in will reduce the need for watering.
Other techniques minimize space or stack functions to get greater production out of the same amount of space.
There is even a home for small livestock on Tim’s property. Turkey’s will scout a garden looking for bugs before they go after greens so their visits to the garden are on the shorter side and monitored but bennificial.
Another key concept from the PDC that inspired Tim was the session on the 8 Forms of Capital. Money is certainly not the only measure of abundance. Tim’s greater awareness of the resources that are flowing around him all of the time has inspired him to look for various ways to harvest these and put to productive use.
Tim at his PDC Course in Stelle, IL
If you’d like, here is the entire interview I did with Tim. I enjoyed getting to know him immensely… Milton
Scott is a Graduate of:
PDC Course #62 – April 2016
at Heal the Planet Farm, Koshkonong, MO
PDC Graduate Series - Scott Miskiel - YouTube
Sold his legal practice in Arizona and retired early to pursue a life more meaningful to him.
Moved to Missouri and is establishing his own permaculture homestead on 6 acres. Just got the URL… Inwood Gardens LLC.
Has already provided legal, permaculture design and managerial consulting/services to Heal the Planet Farm.
When Scott Miskiel took the PDC with us it gave him the clarity and courage to flip his life 180 degrees from being a lawyer to pursuing a life of meaning, purpose and real consequence.
Having always loved the rolling hills of Missouri, he and his wife Cheryl decided to look for property in the same area as Heal the Planet Farm and found a lovely 6 acres which had a small home and barn already on it. It was love at first sight so they purchased it.
Turn-key Cabin Home with New Front-Yard Fencing
Since he was moving to the area he was hired by Heal the Planet Farm to assist with various tasks.
Annual and Perennial Garden Bed Layout
He and Cheryl are integrating into their new Missouri community near Mountain View and have already begun the earthworks and fencing for their new homestead and permaculture life.
Hugelkultured Swales already underway
Below is the full conversation between Scott and Midwest Permaculture’s Milton Dixon from January of 2018. (35 minutes)
PDC Graduate Series - Scott Miskiel - Full - YouTube