Back to basics: farm aims for sustainability

The Whole Village team.  |  Whole Village photos

Permaculture principles | Members learn 
how to live in harmony with nature

GUELPH, Ont. — Wetland, woodland, farmland and suntrap gardens can all can be found at Whole Village Farm just 60 minutes from downtown Toronto.

The scenario may seem fanciful and the community has yet to achieve the level of sustainability envisioned under its permaculture principles, but there have been successes.

Brenda Dolling, one of the community’s eight founding members, said the 191-acre Caledon farm has been paid for and many improvements made.

Greenhaven, the co-operatively owned, 15,000 sq. foot home with 11 private suites and common areas, is close to being mortgage free.

“Moving to permaculture isn’t as easy as it may look, but it can be done because people are doing it,” Dolling said.

“It is a design system for sustainable living and land use.

She said the project was a response to world crises such as climate change and loss of arable land and clean water.

“Permaculture design tries to create the resources, energy flows and cultures that will succeed oil-based societies.”

The Whole Village property with its brick farmhouse and outbuildings was purchased in 2002 from two Toronto professionals who used it as kind of retreat.

One of the first jobs for the new owners was to assess the purchase for its value. Reputable farmers were brought in to walk the property. Representatives of the Credit Valley Conservation Authority and a landscape architect provided their opinions.

More than 16,000 native trees have been planted over the past decade, some with the idea of growing a forest garden where fruits and nuts can be harvested along with fuel and timber.

Sheltered locations, called sun traps, are being used for crops. A variety of fruit trees, berry bushes and gardens have been established.

The wetland area, designated as provincially significant, hasn’t been touched.

“Everything we’re doing is experimental,” Dolling said.

“We’re trying to grow food for ourselves first and if there’s a surplus we’ll sell it or give it to our neigh-bours.”

The old farmhouse and some of the outbuildings have been updated, using communal work when possible. They’re leased, along with space for a market garden and equipment, to people interested in operating the Whole Village community shared agriculture enterprise.

“It was really important to us to give some young farmers a way to start up,” Dolling said.

Seven farming groups have operated the CSA to gain experience so that they can hopefully establish similar businesses elsewhere. It has supplied as many as 100 families with fruits and vegetables.

Whole Village members also garden for themselves, with varying degrees of success. As well, there are poultry and enough grain grown to feed them.

Greenhaven was built for $2.4 million and incorporates many sustainable features, including a super-insulated shell, an energy-efficient masonry heat system, passive solar, radiant floor heating from a geothermal system, solar water heating and an engineered wetland to treat grey and black water. Rainwater is collected from the roof in barrels for the gardens.

Communal meals are served about five days a week with members sharing kitchen duties. Members also preserve food together and share rides, vehicles and items such as sewing machines and vacuums.

Dolling said environmental permaculture seeks to establish a harmonious relationship with nature, which requires careful observation and experimentation.

Establishing a culture of permaculture when it comes to human relationships may be the greater challenge.

Dolling said it requires much discussion, consensus, mutual support, a focus on common sustainable goals and a great deal of patience.

The fact that many of the Whole Village partners are retirees with a considerable amount of life experience may help.

Members buy shares in the community, which are transferable. In Dolling’s case, these add up to more than $200,000.

There are also monthly fees to cover some of the farm and home costs and pay for food.

“We’re still subsidizing the operation, but we hope the next generation doesn’t have to,” said Dolling, who grew up on a mixed farm near Oakville, Ont., and has returned to her farming roots after a career in education.

Whole Village offers group tours, orientation meetings and permaculture educational workshops.

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