NBC in Permaculture Design Magazine

Justin recently had the following article published in Permaculture Design Magazine. It touches on most of the branches of the NBC story. Hope you enjoy!

About 7 years ago, I signed over the next 99 years of my life. The agreement states that I and my co-signers have the right and responsibility to grow and tend a nut and fruit orchard on 4 acres of earth until 2113, at which point the parties to the lease will consider whether to renew. I’ll be 128 years old by then and mostly made of fluffy humus and fungal hyphae, if I’m lucky. But this beyond-my-lifetime arrangement, made in the spirit of mutual aid and active hope for a perennial culture to live in, has developed into something that gives me a powerful feeling of kinship with future generations, as well as with an interdependent community here in the present. I think I can best begin to explain by way of a love story.

I can’t say precisely when it was that I fell in love with trees: Was it as a kid in New York’s Hudson Valley, picking apples every fall and making forts in the woods? Is it in the Holt bloodline, which in the old language meant ‘forest on a hill’ and still today refers to a basketmaker’s willow copse? Does it go back a few hundred million years ago to some branch-swinging great grandparents? I do know for certain it was in 2010, during a year-long permaculture design course that I realized I was smitten. I’d ride my bike to class in the community garden, recklessly endangering myself as I gazed up at the trees to test my budding identification skills and look out for black locust blossoms or mulberries to gather, then I’d sit in class and marvel at the brilliant resilience that trees and people can make together. This was precisely the balm I needed for the existential despair I felt as I was becoming more aware of the interlocking eco-social crises we’re facing and the all-powerful forces that cause them. By the end of that PDC, the courtship was complete. I knew it would be me and trees, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g for life. But there was something standing in the way of consummation—a little something called “private property rights”. Being a landless renter, how could I start planting some of the billions of trees the world desperately needs? 

That’s when I found the Buncombe County Fruit and Nut Club, also known as the Fruit Nuts. This loose collection of 30 or so people was tending fruit and nut plantings in public parks here in Asheville, NC. With one big meeting in the winter to make plans and a handful of early spring workdays to fertilize, mulch, and prune, the group was (and still is) doing something that I found both very simple and quite radical. They were planting and caring for trees so that there might be a little free food, shade, and shelter for whatever kind of creature may like it. But this little act is also a kind of insurgency of the commons, to paraphrase commons advocate David Bollier. The public fruit and nut trees are a tiny uprising against the atomizing and unjust system of property ownership. Don’t get me wrong – the Fruit Nuts aren’t all that serious. Mostly we get together for the fun of getting together and—since we’ve often taken the plant-persimmons-and-ask-permission-later approach—for the joy of making some good trouble. But this experience growing fruit in public spaces drove home the inherently political nature of the kind of work permaculture was calling me to do. We can equip people with countless permaculture principles and techniques, but without equitable and widely distributed access to land, how can we hope to heal our cultural relationship with earth? I still pined for land to plant oaks on, but I was becoming aware that being a landless peasant permaculturist might just be a better position for stirring up some changes in this system of privatization that is so fundamental to the ecocidal hegemony. 

The Fruit Nut approach eventually hit upon some limitations. We’ve had a hard time getting traction for new plantings and have had to fight to keep the old ones protected from errant weedeaters and the bulldozers that run amok in our rampantly developing city. There was a small group of us who had more gusto for this orchard work than the parks could accommodate and we were puzzling over how to move forward. Then, in the winter of 2013, an opportunity of a lifetime, or rather, of 99 years, presented itself. Bill Whipple, who was the initial rouser of the Fruit Nut rabble, got to talking to one of his longtime customers at the tailgate market. Ileana Grams-Moog (both Bill and Ileana have contributed articles to PcD) had just put her 100 acre property into conservation. With this hungry group of tree enthusiasts in mind, Bill asked Ileana if she would be open to converting a couple of the hayfields to orchards of fruit and nut crops. She was fully on board with the idea, with a few stipulations. She asked that we stick non-invasive plants and that we oblige the ground-nesting birds with our mowing schedule, not mowing until June 1st after they’ve flown from their spring nests. The only rent we would pay would be in the form of a small share of the yields. After consulting with her lawyer, Ileana requested we form an LLC or some legal entity to serve as the lessee. This is how the Nutty Buddy Collective was born.  

Greg standing in some of the first scraps of shade cast by our walnuts and hickories

The five of us who formed the group spent many a winter evening crowded around kitchen tables as we forged the details of our cooperative operating agreement and tried to anticipate issues we might face in the span of a 99 year lease. How do we make decisions together? How do we share the work, yields, and someday, profits? How do we track the investment of our labor and money? How do we share responsibilities and liabilities? If one of the members wants to use a portion of the land for an individual project or experiment, how could we arrange for that? How do we manage and coordinate the work in the orchards? And the administrative work? What happens when someone dies or wants to leave the group? How do we go about adding new members? Our answers to these and many other questions became a four-page partnership agreement that has been essential in keeping up the arrangement. We revisit it periodically for amendments and edits, and refer to it when any issues come up and we need a reminder about what we agreed to. The document basically follows co-operative principles: we earn shares of the profit relative to our labor inputs, we set a minimum annual labor and capital investment relative to other members to ensure everyone is pitching in, we expressly state that all members have equal rights to manage and control the co-operative and that disputes will be settled by an 80% vote, and so on. 

After our first orchard was in the ground and the lease was on the books, a second landowner was quick to sign on with us. Both landowners are trained in permaculture and are motivated by the fundamental ethics of the practice, and also by a strong desire to take action in response to our climate crisis. By the end of 2015, we had a total of 8 acres planted with about 1000 trees and shrubs. I’ll take some space here to describe the orchards and our design decisions that determined their structure. Our first orchard is situated on a gentle section of north-facing slope that rises steeply just beyond our fields. The property is part of the headwaters of Turkey Creek, which flows east into the French Broad. At our first site visit, we found a few large black walnut trees and several seedlings growing at the edges of the fields. Following the land’s lead, we decided black walnuts would be the primary crop here. We laid out a rough 20’x20’ grid and altered the rows to approximately follow contour in the steeper sections of the fields. Planted on the 20 foot centers are black walnuts, hickories, northern pecans, and Carpathian walnuts (a cold hardy strain of Juglans regia). Between this ‘framework’ of nut trees, we’ve got fruit trees and shrubs planted 10 feet from the nuts: mulberry, pawpaw, persimmon, serviceberry, aronia, and a few oddities like mountain ash x hawthorn hybrids and Chinese yellowhorn, as well as a couple rows with Rose family fruits. The pecans are experimental; it’s easy to grow a nice pecan tree here at about 2000’ elevation, but, because the temperature drops so much during summer nights compared to the lower elevations, the nuts won’t mature their kernels. Pecans thrive just 1000 feet down the mountain in Johnson City, TN, where you can find many trees planted by John Hershey and JR Smith a half century ago. We’re integrating a breeding element with the nut production; we plant select seedlings onto which we’ll graft known varieties, allowing a branch or two from the rootstock to form part of the first scaffold so we can test the seedlings for desirable traits. Perhaps our little genetic lottery will turn up a mountain pecan or thin-shelled hickory or a black walnut that cracks out in halves.

Chestnut orchard in year two. The tree in the foreground has its guard placed to protect it from bucks who like to rub their antlers on young trees.

Our second planting is primarily a chestnut production orchard, just a few miles downstream in the same watershed. The site is a steep, over-grazed, east-facing hillside with thin soil and lots of exposure. It’s not exactly an ideal orchard site, but that’s the thing about trees – they’ll grow where other crops won’t. This is precisely the kind of land that JR Smith argued in Tree Crops we ought to be converting to plantings of multi-purpose trees. We followed a similar layout pattern here, but where the slope is too much for safely running a tractor on contour, we turned the rows downhill. Because this site is not as accessible, we went lighter on the interplanting of fruits and stuck mostly to chestnuts. There are a couple rows of select hickory seedlings and one long row of low-tannin burr oaks and high-oil black oaks. We’re experimenting with integrating false indigo (Amorpha fruiticosa) as a nitrogen fixer, planted halfway between the chestnuts. (I’ve been impressed with this woody shrub’s ability to grow with ease in the sod, resist deer browse, and vigorously jump right back up after coppicing). We’re growing the chestnuts from special, select seed and not planning to graft them. This will allow us to test and choose genetics that work well in our local climate. Our next chestnut orchard will be planted with seeds from the best of this orchard. Perhaps by the 99 year mark we’ll be several generations deep into a breeding project that’s developing ever more precocious, productive, and disease-resistant chestnut trees for southern Appalachia. A chestnut grower in Ohio has been taking this very approach for a couple decades now and has seen up to 50% increase in yields from one generation to the next. Imagine what’s possible if we can keep that up for a century.

One of the central goals of this work is to explore solutions to that well-known conundrum of perennial agriculture: tree crops are obviously fantastic, but they’re very slow to give a return on your investment. In start-up business culture, the span of time between when a company receives its initial investment and when it begins generating revenue is known as the ‘valley of death’. We’re crossing this rugged terrain with a few strategies. First, we’ve kept our costs to a minimum in several ways: by working out leases where we pay rent in the form of a share of the yields, by choosing species that are well adapted to the site conditions, by planting seeds which are cheaper and lower-maintenance than saplings, by developing our grafting skills so we don’t have to buy expensive grafted trees, by grafting wild seedling trees early so that we have all the scionwood we need when the orchard trees are ready for it, by doing minimal mowing, by opting for tree guards rather than fencing to protect from browse, and by keeping the complexity to a minimum. The approach adds up to a kind of hybrid or an orchard and forest garden—you might call it a forest orchard. Secondly, and more importantly, we’re spreading out the burden of the work and capital costs by forming a co-operative group. From a permaculture perspective, these orchards serve a variety of functions for our group. They’re a training ground for those of us who are still working on horticultural competency, especially at this scale; a genetic bank, where we’re collecting varieties and growing out lots of scionwood and seed for future plantings; a kind of demonstration and gathering site for potential future lessors and members of the group; and, of course, they produce some food and other products. 

Once planted, our forest orchards don’t require a whole lot from us. A bit of mulch every couple years to keep the sod off the roots, some shuffling of tree guards to keep the terminal buds protected from the deer until they’re out of reach, some light pruning to train the trees upward, and a little amending and fertilizing, and a mow or three every year is basically all we need to do. In the first couple years of both orchards, we spent about 15 to 20 labor hours per acre per year. That number has dropped precipitously to about 2.5 h/ac/yr. And so we kick back and wait ‘til the nuts start rolling in. Or, rather, we start a whole new project.

Raking in the green! Some gatherers bring in truckloads, some just a few boxes of nuts. We encourage folks to bring in more nuts by offering a higher price/trade value for higher quantities.

The next thing we needed to address was what we will do with the 8 acres of nuts once they start producing. There are very few buyers of black walnuts, in-shell black walnuts, and hazelnuts, and no buyers of the other species. Even if we could sell them in-shell to a wholesale buyer, the yield from eight acres isn’t going to generate much revenue at wholesale prices. We’d have to figure out how to process and value-add the nuts. This realization led to a broader insight about the challenges facing perennial agriculture. Many permaculturists, myself included, tend to be preoccupied with the urgent ecological necessity of establishing perennial production systems, and rightly so. But what happens once those production systems produce? The dearth of robust infrastructure and available information for processing and marketing of many of these lesser-known crops is increasingly regarded as one of the key challenges facing agroforestry in the US. This missing piece of the puzzle is especially apparent at the community-oriented, appropriate-tech scale we’re aiming at. So our next move was to sprout a new branch on our nut project tree: the Asheville Nuttery. 

The Carnival of Nuts kicked off a crowdfunding campaign that bought us our first nut cracker. We called in dozens of collaborators and volunteers to help run the nut putt-putt, demonstrate how to clean and cook a squirrel, perform a flying squirrel aerial act, participate in a nut cracking competition, brew a batch of chestnut beer, serve up some acorn cookies, and hickory milk ice cream. We raised a few thousand dollars—enough to buy a cracker that can handle the tough black walnut and hickory shells and to cover a few months of rent in an old greenhouse where we would begin to assemble a makeshift processing facility. Later that year, two supporters offered us zero-interest loans, each covering about half the cost of an oil press. 

Flying squirrel aerialist Anna Bartlett at the Carnival of Nuts

I’m not exactly sure what to make of it, but I think it bears noting that these financial backers and our two landowner-partners are all women. I’ve heard Severine von Tscharner Fleming of Agrarian Trust comment that a ‘magical mafia, matriarchal, mycelial, or otherwise’ is often a necessary ingredient for pulling off land access for small farming. Considering our ‘magical matriarchal mafia’, or as we sometimes call them, our fairy godmothers, I feel enormous gratitude. And as I learn more about the history of common lands and traditional and indigenous agriculture, I see and feel connected to a still living, adapted form of a matriarchal legacy of earth care and community subsistence that is older than capitalism, that acted in grassroots resistance to feudalism for centuries, that is much older still than that, and whose continued survival is cause for some hope for a livable and equitable future. 

In the fall of 2018, we put out our first call for people to bring us nuts and we stumbled our way through stomping on walnuts before we could build a huller. By Thanksgiving, our oil press arrived and we began processing black walnuts and bitternut hickories in our Patriot 600 nut cracker. A graphic designer friend put some labels together, we rush-ordered some bottles, and our super-fresh, expeller-pressed, locally-foraged hickory, black walnut, and acorn oils were ready just in time for the holiday tailgate markets. We had almost 5,000 lbs. of nuts come in that first year, gathered by our crew and 20 or so other people. We’ve grown every year since then, with a slight dip in total nuts in 2020 but a significant increase in the number of gatherers. In order to separate liability and delineate the projects, we incorporated the Asheville Nuttery as separate LLC from the Nutty Buddy Collective at the beginning of 2019. The Nuttery is trying to crack a lot of nuts: what’s an efficient, low-cost way to process every species of nut that is available to us here? what are the uses of the shells, hulls, leach water, and other byproducts? what are the markets for these products? how best to use them in the kitchen? how can we get more people involved and use the work as an opportunity for experiential learning? Although we’re a business and are in the business of generating revenue, our approach during these initial years has been to treat the Nuttery primarily as a learning lab where we’re working to discover and share the pleasures of community-scale perennial staple crop processing. 

The nuts we’re processing often come from the gatherers’ yards and farms, but just as often they come from trees scattered throughout the greater community. We share an open-source map where we and other gatherers keep track of forage-able trees and share notes each year. Whether in public parks, business parks, a neighbor’s yard—the trees in these places, when we bend to pick up their nuts, do a bit of a magic trick. They become a living embodiment of the common forests of old, where the land belonged to no one and to everyone, where one could go and gather what was needed, at only the cost of participation in a communal process of mindful management. When I gather nuts from this decentralized orchard we’re weaving, I get a profound sense of how very possible and right-in-front-of-us the necessary transformation of our cultural relationship to land is. What I’m calling the commons here has a very long history and has taken many forms among different people and places, and I believe it’s a powerful, deep-seated impulse of our highly co-operative and prosocial species that can serve to loosen the totalistic grip that privatization has on our ability to belong to one another and the land. I often think about how it’s a kind of commoning that brought these trees to prominence here in North America, where thousands of years of Native American use of fire to maintain common hunting and gathering lands favored oak, hickory, and chestnut trees, and about how it’s some form of commoning that will bring them back into a central role in the lives of the people here. 

Sorting nuts is Justin’s happy place

Besides developing processing techniques for each nut, there is another, more significant hurdle to running a successful wild nut-based business in the modern market economy. Nut trees operate on their own schedule, giving off many hundreds of pounds of nuts in some years, and basically none in others. This boom/bust mast cycle is the nut tree’s strategy for surviving the hungry seeding-eating hordes, causing a correlated cycle in these animals’ populations, and it could very well foil the plans of the seed eaters who are trying to operate a small business based on nuts as well. Figuring out how to produce acorn oil and then market it is challenge enough, but how do we then hang onto the market for three to five years while we wait for the oaks to decide to produce another big crop? This is a big question we’re working with, and like any permaculturist worth their nuts, we’re looking to see how this problem may also be a solution. This is where our next venture comes into the picture. The Acornucopia Project envisions the development of community nut processing facilities, or nut mills, sprouting up in towns and cities all throughout our region, forming a network of mutual aid that can keep up with the woody wisdom of intermittent masting by trading nuts. For example, if folks in Blacksburg, VA have a big crop of white oaks but no bitternut hickories for making hickory oil, and we have a good crop of hickories in Asheville but no white oaks, we can trade. This distribution of the tree wealth can go way beyond simple one-to-one reciprocity; with several nut mills networked together, a complex web of indebtedness and relationships could emerge that is not only trading nuts, but sharing knowledge and equipment, co-marketing products, collaborating on R&D, and so much more. A robust network like this can improve the market viability of our nuts and stat to coordinate with growers to increase the supply and convert large acreages to nut production and food forestry. 

A hickory creme and acorn flour tart dreamed up by the chefs at OWL Bakery.

The concept for the Acornucopia Project came to Bill in a fever dream in 2017 as the Nuttery was just beginning to gear up for its first season, where he found himself among countless miles of nut trees, stretching into the distance in all directions. Connecting the dots between the nut tree commons, the cooperative network of nutteries, the NBC’s vision for forest orchards with long-term tenure, and adding elements of performance, experiential education, and culinary exploration to bring to life a nutty culture, the Acornucopia Project is an expansive concept of how we might just dream that seas of nut trees into reality. Unlike the NBC and the Nuttery, the AP is not a business. It serves as a brand for the Asheville Nuttery products, as well as those sourced and made in Virginia and West Virginia, where Bill and others are developing another nut mill, but it’s much more of a spirit and a rallying cry than a company or organization. Under this nutty banner, we’ve put on workshops, gone on nut forays with schools groups, hosted multiple course native nut-based meals with collaboration from fine dining chefs, put on a Circus Quercus Road Show, assembled a group of chefs to test recipes, and much more. Bill has recently been exploring squirrel puppetry in an Instagram TV series called “In A World Gone Completely Nuts.”

Bitternut foray with the French Broad River Academy

Having spent four years in the proof-of-concept phase, the Nuttery is starting to focus on digesting and assimilating what we’ve learned up to now. We understand a whole lot more about the processing for each crop we’re growing and are getting a sense of the opportunities and challenges of marketing them. We also have learned some lessons about how to work together in this cooperative way. The ambitious, back-to-back launching of projects stretched and strained some of our relationships, and two of the initial five partners left both the AN and the NBC as a result. The remaining three of us are exploring how we might grow into a more robust worker-owned cooperative with different levels of membership for growers, gatherers, processors, and buyers, forming a dynamic community to share the work and rewards with. As we bring in more members and have greater capacity for planting forest orchards and processing more foraged nuts, we’ll also have a larger and more resilient web of mutual aid to rely on. Ultimately, this kind of work to deepen our interdependence and community collaboration is just our best effort to live up to the example trees give us for how to live long and and live well, for 99 years and far, far beyond. Δ

Some black walnut products on offer at the Asheville Nuttery. Find them at our online store to delight in these native nuts and support our work!

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