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‘City Kids’ Meld Permaculture, Biodynamics and Common Sense at Perennial Roots Farm

By Leigh Glenn

What do you get when you cross a literature major with a philosophy major, 45 acres of land and a desire to grow good food?

You get Natalie McGill and Stewart Lundy, a couple who’ve blended permaculture principles, biodynamics and common sense to create Perennial Roots Farm in Accomac on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. McGill graduated in literature in 2010, following Lundy, who’d graduated two years earlier. The two wed and moved to McGill’s family land, where they planted a small orchard and market garden.

The arable portion, 25 acres, had been in conventional, no-till row crops for 15 years before their arrival, and they spent the first two years mostly observing: What was the land doing? What were the cycles?

The farm has been their classroom — the soil, plants and animals their not-always-forgiving teachers.

Natalie McGill cradles a Kunekune piglet in the pasture at Perennial Roots Farm, Accomac, Virginia.
Natalie McGill cradles a Kunekune piglet in the pasture at Perennial Roots Farm, Accomac, Virginia.

Today — with vegetables, the orchard, pastured livestock and medicinal plants — they say they would have made fewer missteps by interning a season with a farmer. And they now like to save others some grief by sharing their knowledge with farmers and farm apprentices.

Ten Years into Healing

In 2010, “the soil needed a lot of healing,” Lundy says. It was compacted and “rock hard,” according to McGill. But the initial interaction between weeds and animals helped. “Animals were the key to taking back the field and regenerating it,” she says.

The couple spread 20 tons of volcanic paramagnetic rock dust and 20,000 pounds of aragonite with some high-calcium ag lime. They also incorporated biochar and sea salt as free-feed options and let the animals do their thing. Lundy notes that according to Rudolf Steiner, animals eating whatever weeds are there produce exactly the kind of manure the land needs. “They can convert even poor forage into medicine for the land,” Lundy says. “It’s been a miraculous metamorphosis.”

Over time, they’ve witnessed the replacement of horseweed (also known as marestail) and ragweed with goldenrod, a plant that monarch butterflies eat.

When Lundy appeared on a farmer soil-health panel at the 2018 Delmarva Soil Summit at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, he noted that some 90 percent of plant nutrients are locked up in soil, but that bioprocesses could help unlock them; this, in turn, would reduce inputs. “Properly understood, it would revolutionize how we treat plants, soils and fertilizer,” he says.

Enlivening the soil stimulates the roots, helping plants dissolve parent rocks and unlock the nutrients. A familiar example: peel off a bit of moss growing on a rock, and underneath you’ll find grains and grains of sand where the moss has dissolved the rock into smaller pieces. “All plants can do that, if enlivened,” says Lundy.

“[Biodynamic farmer and researcher Ehrenfried] Pfeiffer recommended a full-spectrum quarry assay” with hydrochloric acid, says Lundy. High-phosphorous parent materials and low levels in plants meant the enlivening process was where to focus. Bound phosphorous is not an issue at Perennial Roots, but rainwater leaching of minerals is. The top layer of soil, Lundy says, has the fewest minerals, which are found lower down, in the subsoil. So, McGill and Lundy have taken a multi-pronged approach: in addition to integrating animals and their manures, they shatter the hardpan, apply minerals, utilize subsoil in forming compost and maintain a living, green cover.

For garden prep and pasture maintenance, Lundy and McGill prefer tools that turn, but don’t invert, the soil layers: a 12-inch broadfork, a 16-inch broadfork, a Yeomans plow and a power harrow. To prepare garden beds, they use the Yeomans deep-ripper at 26 inches. Then they broadcast compost, biochar and sea salt and incorporate these with the power harrow. Next, they cover the area with a silage tarp, which acts like a skin, preventing all the “vital gases” — as Alan Chadwick might put it — including carbon, from escaping.

The warmth underneath germinates the weed seeds, which die in the darkness. The tarp also helps the compost, even if not fully ripened, digest into the soil. The result is nearly weed-free beds that may require one to two hours a week of stirrup-hoeing. They sever the tops of the plants from their roots and let the earthworms consume the roots in place.

For the pasture, they use the Yeomans plow — at 20 inches deep in autumn 2019 — in offset strips to allow water, air and light to penetrate the soil. This needs to be timed right ― late summer or early fall usually works ― to allow the plow to shatter the hardpan underneath. Lundy notes that anyone doing this with clay soil needs to be careful, as wet clay smears and worsens the problem. 

Deep ripping helps cover crop roots reach nutrient-rich lower regions more efficiently. It sounds counterintuitive, but Lundy says deep ripping is the first step in developing a no-till system. “Even if you aren’t tilling with machinery, something else will be mixing your soil ― even if it’s just earthworms, pill bugs, and moles,” he says.

The last glaciation missed the area south of the Mason-Dixon line, says Lundy, and the ancient and acidic soil locks up nutrients. Rains washes away what’s unlocked. Applying rock dust — which, because it’s quarry waste, essentially costs only transportation — and mineral solids (SEA-90) has helped. Going by mycologist Paul Stamets, as well as Steiner and Paracelsus before him, Lundy says roots are like a neural network, and soil the collective brain, of plants. Fewer minerals and salts mean there is little connectivity — “no good firing of synapses.”

Ripped pastured at Perennial Roots Farm, Accomac, Virginia.

Ripped pastured at Perennial Roots Farm, Accomac, Virginia.

In 2014 and 2015, they focused on cover cropping for maximum diversity, seeding out 20 different varieties at one pound per acre (instead of 20 pounds per acre of one variety). “Regardless of where it lands, something will take,” Lundy says. “One hundred percent cover is the main thing for us — keeping a living, green cover year-round.” The plants take the minerals into the biological realm [and] recycle them through the top soil, which becomes richer as their roots work deeper every season.

McGill and Lundy also use some of the mineral-rich subsoil to layer into their compost. The thermophilic phase of compost fermentation helps unlock nutrients. Though they’d read suggestions to use topsoil as layering in their compost, they hadn’t heard of subsoil being recommended as a dusting; they’ve found this to be about the best thing anyone can do to create new, mineral-rich topsoil, though, says Lundy. 

Periodic soil tests show cation exchange capacity at 7 ― a result to be expected from southeastern, sandy soils. But organic matter has increased from less than 0.5 percent to more than 3 percent in the areas they’ve been working with, Lundy says. They’d probably have to sample at 6 inches to 10 inches deep to see other improvements, but they’ve moved away from sampling because the plants indicate what they need.

Geology’s influence will continue to hold sway, no matter how many amendments they add. The soil has darkened and loosened, producing more flavorful crops with fewer pests and diseases. They attribute that to “keeping a living soil covered in plants year-round,” Lundy says. “The manures from the animals do help alkalize the soil, and we are moving towards making our own quicklime out of the bones of the animals from our farm. Lime or plants that have a lime-like effect will remain necessary as long as we farm this land.” 

More (Bio)processes

Perennial Roots is mostly surrounded by conventional row crops — corn, soy and sometimes wheat or rye — as well as an older grandfathered-in poultry house, whose owner says that Perennial Roots bacon is the best he’s ever tasted. McGill and Lundy have incorporated large-diameter, construction-grade bamboo into one side of their land to buffer it from biocide drift. And they have tried to increase mycorrhizal signaling by integrating edge shrubs like elderberry and other trees into the field. The elderberries, they say, seem to be a good conduit for fungal species that can draw nutrients to the field.

Something else elderberries are known for — which points to a deep lesson — is surviving in soggy soil without succumbing to fungus. In much the same way, they help to dispel cold, dampness and congestion in humans when consumed. “The idea is, if you have a problem in the garden or a sickness in a plant, if you look out in nature for where that [issue] naturally occurs,” such as something waterlogged, for example, you should “find plants there that thrive at doing the thing you want your garden plants to do.” That is the medicine.

Elderberries can also connect annual field grasses with perennial trees in the nearby 15 acres of woods through endophytes, ectophytes and mycorrhizal fungi, signaling oncoming drought or doubling the size of the root area to boost nutrition. And a garden without elderberries is like a community without elders; there’s no gradation of wisdom, says Lundy.

Looking around the field, someone might be tempted to dig up that pokeberry. But McGill and Lundy wouldn’t intervene. They notice what it isn’t doing: it’s not wilting in the heat, says Lundy. Its leaves are high in potassium. The couple likes to ferment them and then apply them to winter squash to perk up the cucurbits and prevent them from wilting.

These were not phenomena the two noticed when they first arrived. At first they didn’t recognize many of the species on their farm.. But being on the same land season after season, “you just start to notice things you never did before. It’s incredible how your eye changes over time — it’s still constantly changing.”

And not only the sights, but the scents, says Lundy. He referenced Joel Salatin’s aphorism that the smell of manure is the smell of mismanagement. “Steiner said that every organism should retain its odor internally,” says Lundy. “Its stink shouldn’t be out.” Today, he can pick up the scent of a goat from far away. “It’s so clear when something is wrong,” he says.

Standing in a corner of the pasture in early February, Lundy described this land as a “parabolic mirror or bowl” facing the cosmos and collecting sunlight. It’s a closed loop, with the surrounding trees absorbing greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide as nutrients. The work they and the animals and plants have done — helping the roots penetrate deeply — allows the water to seep in during wetter times and allows plants to draw up water through capillary action in drier times. When fog blankets the pasture, it lifts as soon as the sun hits. Where a field is devoid of active plants, the fog hangs and can aggravate fungal problems, especially in a coastal region like this one. “You can actually see the vitality of a place by how quickly the plants breathe out and push, and that carries the fog up,” says Lundy. “Every plant is an exhalation.”

All-in, Together

The two apply the same level of observation to their animals, which today include sheep, goats, chickens, pigs and rabbits. Expense-wise, and in retrospect, Lundy and McGill probably wouldn’t have started with rabbits, chicken, ducks and Mulefoot hogs, but rather with small ruminants and geese, which demand less feed and provide milk, wool and eggs. Ideally, says Lundy, hogs would be there to consume the farm’s excesses, such as whey or food scraps, with their numbers pegged to those resources to “transform a waste stream into profit.”

The common regenerative grazing model segregates ruminants, birds and hogs, one following the other in rotation. Perennial Roots offers a different take, though: all of the species are together and are rotated as a group. This, says Lundy, is more like the Serengeti ― there are no hard lines between animals. They eat supplemental grain — local and certified organic — either fermented in water and sea salt or soaked for 24 hours. The pigs eat about 90 percent of that, the chickens eat some, the geese a little, and the sheep a bite or two before returning to grazing, he says.

Ruminants, pigs and birds range together in the pasture at Perennial Roots Farm, Accomac, Virginia.
Ruminants, pigs and birds range together in the pasture at Perennial Roots Farm, Accomac, Virginia.

Lundy and McGill chose long-ago-domesticated breeds — occasionally bred back with wild strains to boost self-sufficiency — that were already adapted to their climate. Their initial flock of Gulf Coast Native sheep had malformed horns; subsequent generations have formed proper ones. The ewes lamb on their own, and they let the rams mingle among the ewes to increase diversity. They chose Mulefoot hogs, which reportedly were resistant to fungal issues, but this has not proved true; they’re switching to Kunekune, which “can really fatten on grass,” Lundy says. “They’re slower-growing [and] eat less per day ― so much less that the profit margin is getting better even though they’re slower-growing.” And Kune sows are a lot calmer than Mulefoot mothers.

McGill and Lundy cull based on parasite load. Twenty percent of the sheep flock accounts for about 80 percent of the parasites, says Lundy, and have “messy butts” ― though they may be fine in drier climates. The couple believes that selection should be minimal. Who can predict whether certain traits in future environments will be more necessary than at other times? “Nature is not only more complex than we think,” says Lundy, quoting ecologist Frank Egler ― “it’s more complex than we can think.”

One of the new additions to the farm is an automatic fodder system that supplies barley grass and black oil sunflower seed sprouts to the Red Satin rabbits. The rabbits also receive alfalfa pellets. They live in hanging cages, through which their droppings fall to be used for vermicompost. For other animals, the barley is supplemental.

The barley and sunflower seeds are soaked in barrels that include sea salt. This creates a kraut-like effect and removes phytates. The first six days in the fodder system, the sprouts live off of the mother seeds ― sort of like an umbilical cord, Lundy says. At day six, they pull out the barley. The couple is also using the fodder system to germinate seeds, McGill says. The sprinkler runs for 18 seconds once per hour, so they needn’t think about watering. When half or more of the seedlings are peaking up, they move them to the greenhouse and then need only water once or twice a day, Lundy says. They also are growing out cuttings, such as willow, elderberry and fig, to propagate new plants. In the future, they may grow mushrooms in the bottom space of the unit.

Biodynamic Adventure

In 2013, Lundy and McGill had traveled around Italy visiting farms, including biodynamic ones. But a story in Acres U.S.A. about moons and harvest times, and how the moon affects tides and water in plants, piqued McGill’s interest, and she passed it on to Lundy. They read six books about biodynamics but still weren’t convinced. Then they read Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, whose experiments changed their minds. They dove in.

They studied with Hugh Cortney, who’d studied with Josephine Porter, who was a student of Pfeiffer. They learned how to make preps and began to make all of theirs on-farm. Their first batch of horn manure was terrible; Lundy realized that there were quality standards ― if he could do the preps badly, he could also do them well.

“The best place to put 500 [horn manure] is buried under the compost pile, and always surrounded by rich, organic matter. You get 100 percent conversion that way,” he says.

The horn manure prep is meant to stimulate root hair growth, which helps increase carbon capture and sequestration. Silica-related preps — which are analogous to nerve endings at the surface or skin — are meant to increase sensitivity to light and to help enliven the soil and foster nutrient transport.

They had overwintered, in-ground, a couple of terra cotta canisters — one packed with stinging nettles, one packed with plantain. In early February, they opened them to find them greatly concentrated. The nettles smelled earthy and smeared well between thumb and finger. They’ll use nettles for compost and foliar feeding. Lundy says stinging nettles contain 20 amino acids, including the essential ones, and that Pfeiffer said it was one of the plant preps that helped consistently improve flavor.

Farmer Stewart Lundy opens a terra cotta canister of overwintered plaintain to show farm apprentice Austin Pearle-Ojala at Perennial Roots Farm, Accomac, Virginia.
Farmer Stewart Lundy opens a terra cotta canister of overwintered plaintain to show farm apprentice Austin Pearle-Ojala at Perennial Roots Farm, Accomac, Virginia. They will test the prep on lettuce heads from which they remove the leaves as well as places on tomato plants from which they’ve removed suckers to see how quickly and well the plants recover.

The scent of the plantain is too subtle for those with inexperienced senses of smell. It’s a prep Lundy will experiment with. Just as plantain poultices help with cuts, scratches and skin health, Lundy’s instinct is to gauge its stimulating effects for harvesting lettuce. They harvest by the leaf and plan to spray the plantain to help the lettuce recover from harvest. They also will try applying it to tomato plants after removing suckers.

Beyond the preps, McGill and Lundy look at the farm biodynamically, or as McGill likes to say, “holistically.”

“Everything is interrelated — the animals, vegetables, orchard, soil life … it’s a whole-farm organism, a farm individuality.”

“Ecosystem” did not exist when Steiner was writing, Lundy says, but he thinks of “farm individuality” and “farm ecosystem” as similar terms. “As a farmer, you’re collecting sunlight, and we’re prejudiced — plants don’t discriminate between starlight and sunlight. Farming is about condensed starlight to create nutrition and energy for living beings.”

In biodynamics, “the moon is reflected sun forces, in the sense of reflected sunlight,” says Lundy. In soil, moonlight relates to humus, “the starlight of yesteryear,” or what the sun helped to build. Sunlight offers direct photosynthesis. The farmer stands between these two forces, and the farmer who succeeds balances them.

To Market, to Market

Lundy and McGill sell two hours north in Lewes, Delaware, two hours south in Norfolk/Hampton Roads, and 10 minutes away in Onancock. They continue to sell different products and assess their profits to determine their niche.

Predator losses, high feed bills and poor margins for poultry, including Thanksgiving turkeys, means they now raise layers and meat birds only for themselves. Since 2014, they’ve sold all their cuts of pork. This year, they’re shifting to sausage and bacon only because offering all cuts was stressful, and they were always “left with bits.” Customers are still welcome to buy a whole animal and have it cut to their specifications.

Two surprising niches have been medicinal plants and Rosa rugosa. Last year, tinctures of 20 to 30 medicinals made up half their revenue. Lundy doesn’t recommend any and doesn’t give medical advice. Instead, he shares anecdotes from others who’ve used them. And they’ve overcome the thorniness of the divinely scented of Rosa rugosa. From May to the first frost they utilize the petals for jam (and sell them to chefs); they use the hips for tincturing and as pectin for chutney (and sell them to brewers); and they provide some mild stress to the plants by letting the sheep graze them.

Caddy-corner from the roses lies the orchard. Nanking cherries, Asian and European pears, Asian persimmons, crabapples and eating apples, figs, medlar, strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries and blackberries all produce high yields with little tending. The orchard is off-limits to livestock, but the couple keeps it mowed.

McGill and Lundy, who maintain a Certified Naturally Grown designation for Perennial Roots, have launched a Certified Delmarva Grown label for farmers on the Eastern shores of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. It’s meant to signify that the fruits, vegetables or other crops are grown right there.

A consistent presence on Facebook and Instagram lets them share their story and draws customers. Photos of rose hips or persimmons, tomatoes or sausage may prompt people in nearby Onancock and down toward Virginia Beach to show up at a market. Lundy suggests it’s a way to maintain transparency. “The more you can show and the more honest you can be … the more responsive customers will be.”

With various restrictions spawned by COVID-19, McGill and Lundy are having to rethink how they do business. Through social media, McGill has gauged interest in on-farm, drive-through, pre-paid pick-ups during set hours, versus coordinated drops. And Perennial Roots is offering a CSA veg share with a meat option this season.

Lundy says part of him delights at not having to do markets because of the time involved. When people buy on-farm, he and McGill can continue to be productive. Sensing increased desire among people to grow more of their own food, they’ll offer more plant starts this year. They can market some things, like tinctures, online. They’re also resurrecting their newsletter. And in lieu of on-farm classes, they may offer hands-on webinars, where people can follow live instructions to make biodynamic preps, Lundy says. “This year, we’re going to be okay.”