Permaculture in practice: A Cortez-area ranch is hosting a workshop on sustainable agriculture


Grant Curry indicates the height of the saplings he planted last year along the top of the swale. Most are now close to 6 feet tall. Photo by Sonja Horoshko

A visit to Hannaniah’s Rest Ranch west of Cortez takes visitors on a gravel road to the head of Trail Canyon at the last electrical pole in the line.

Remote, rural, and waterless, the ranch is the site of a huge working permaculture swale, an earthen berm. Ranch owners Grant and Kathy Curry carved the meandering 3,800-foot structure across the sage-covered desert with a bulldozer and lots of sweat last year.

It resonates with the familiarity of a giant childhood sandbox where summer hours are spent in the company of peers drawing “S” shapes with a stick and using plastic shovels to hump up dry sand to hold water poured from a red bucket.

This place conjures that memory and brings it to life in the adult-scale agricultural project the Currys built into their sloping 80 acres. With no water on the land, they have engraved a restoration project supporting their belief that a cluster of perennial and edible crops will someday provide good nutrition for their family and friends.

A swale is basically a hump of earth. Water is absorbed near the base when it collects, for example after a rainfall, delaying runoff just enough to soak the land before it travels on. The delay causes a plume of swelling earth underneath that increases the nutrition and arability of the soil by amplifying access to scant rainfall.

The banks of the 15-to-20-foot-high berm shape and hold the water course in place. Plants growing on the bank seek the moisture, stretching their roots down and increasing in size and strength. The Currys’ swale has become the site of a future forest. They planted 600 trees after the swale was completed last year.

“The saplings were only 2-3 feet tall when we planted them,” Grant Curry said. “We slipped tubes over the trunks to protect them from deer, but also because trees shut down in the wind. They will not grow when the wind is blowing.”

Many of the trees are now 6 feet tall.

According to Curry, the swale project took only three days to complete because they studied the application of permaculture theories to their site carefully. Now, it is possible for them to share their budding success through workshops and events they present at their ranch and through their Permaculture Provision Project organization.

This month they are offering a two-day weekend convergence of sustainable-agriculture information, diverse techniques and inspiration, on May 23 and 24 at their ranch. The speakers include local, regional and well-known practitioners who will expound on eco-technology, harvesting and holistic practices that function in the local rural landscape.

A “gourmet weed” event is a highlight that will be hosted by Katrina Blair of Durango, author of “The Wild Wisdom of Weeds,” a New York Times-reviewed book that focuses on 13 edible weeds that provide a complete food supply and are a source of medicinal components.

Blair will lead participants on a wildweed walk during the day in addition to offering a slide show featuring the wild 13 perennials. They include purslane, thistle, dandelion, amaranth, dock, lambsquarter, and other familiar names. Her catering business, based at Turtle Lake Refuge, is preparing the Saturday night dinner. “We use the weeds in hundreds of recipes, like pestos, pies, deserts and chais. We’ll be using local foods and some seeds, roots and some of the weeds we find.

“If we can open our eyes to see the wisdom found in these weeds right under our noses, instead of trying to eradicate them as invasive, we will achieve true food security.”

Blair told the Free Press she collects seeds and sends them along with the order when people buy the book from her Turtle Lake Refuge website.

Another presenter will be David Temple, owner of Trees of Trail Canyon, a local source of large specimen species.

“Mature 25-to-30-year-old trees are more effective at carbon capture than saplings because they offer more leaves, more surface and shade canopy,” Temple said. “Maintaining the old ones is very important.”

Temple is a Colorado native and one of the nation’s few board-certified master arborists. Silviculture, the focus of his talk at the convergence, is a forester’s term, he explained.

“It’s the study of ecosystems in groups of trees, like a forest rather than individual trees. I am an arboriculturist. I study the individual tree and its health.”

He said 40 percent of the trees in Cortez are mature elms, which are very important to the health of the community.

“Cortez has a unique location in the high desert and could be an oasis if planning was more proactive, more biodiverse,” he said. “The value of trees in an urban environment is much greater because the work they must do is exponentially larger. In an altered landscape where the pollution is greatest, such as a town or city, the contribution of the individual tree is much greater than in a forest.”

Cindy Dvergsten, a certified educator with Holistic Management International, will offer an overview of holistic management, which goes hand in hand with permaculture. “Permaculture provides an innovative set of practices and tools based on ecological principles and holistic management provides a means of making sound decisions about the human, natural and financial resources we manage. People who learn and practice both are far more successful in managing for long-term sustainability.”

Dvergsten focuses on decision-making that is environmentally, socially and economically sound. Much of her work takes place on the Navajo Nation.

“I have worked with Navajo farmers and ranchers, mostly at the grassroots level, introducing holistic management since 1997.” The most extensive project was called Kéyah’ Be’ Iina’ (Land is Life) based in Hard Rock, Ariz., a community on the Navajo-Hopi partitioned lands.

The project was sponsored by Heifer International in cooperation with Holistic Management International and provided training in the Hard Rock area as well as for the Choctaw people in Oklahoma. Dvergsten helped write the handbook, “Sheep and Wool Production on the Navajo Nation.” Through experience she has learned to appreciate the complexities of Diné agriculture and ranching.

“It is very difficult to understand and work through the myriad of barriers imposed on the Navajo people, especially those who raise sheep, who desire to be good stewards of the land. Holistic management makes sense to agro-pastoral people who manage with the ebb and flow of nature. Traditional Navajo sheepherding practices, for example, kept their flocks moving constantly with the seasons from low to high country; seldom staying in any one place long enough to overgraze.”

At that time the land was healthy, and there was a robust economy based on sale and trade between various tribes and with traders, she added.

“This natural way of managing grazing came to an end with the creation of the reservation and the current grazingpermit system, which destroyed traditional land and grazing stewardship, which forced people to stay too long in one place promoting overgrazing, continuous de-stocking of Navajo lands and over-resting, which is equally damaging.”

Dvergsten owns Arriola Sunshine Farm Navajo Churro Sheep with her husband, Mike Rich. They are well-known for their flock of pure churro sheep.

The Currys have assembled more than 27 experts on sustainable community and agricultural practices, a network of projects, classes and events. Also:

  • Joel Glansburg is slated to speak on “The Permaculture Mind…The Pattern of Regeneration.”
  • Roxanne Swentzell will present “The Food Experience.”
  • Jude Schuenemeyer will update the gathering on the local Apple Restoration Project.
  • Neil Bertrando will tackle “Largescale Land Restoration.”

Many more topics and experts are scheduled. The convergence will also provide a taste of exotic food at the dinner Saturday night. For tickets and information go to www.permacultureprovisionproject. org

From May 2015.