A Visit with T-Burg’s Edible Acres

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Tompkins Weekly 7-14-21

By Cathleen and Eric Banford

We recently interviewed Sean Dembrosky and Sasha Kellner-Rogers of Edible Acres, who dare to honor nature, their own well-being and the reality of today’s challenges. Edible Acres is a permaculture nursery and forest farm research space in Trumansburg focused on hardy perennial plants and low- and no-tech solutions.

Dembrosky and Kellner-Rogers start off by addressing today’s challenges directly.

“It feels like each year things are a bit more tenuous around overall food stability,” Dembrosky said. “Watch the southwest, and most of the fruits and vegetables that people rely on are coming from that area, and there’s pretty much no water there. It feels pretty critical for as many people as possible to grow as much food as possible right where we live. We need to work out the kinks on that and how distribution will work, and sharing, abundance, value-add and preservation.”

Highlighting the need to grow food locally, Dembrosky and Kellner-Rogers offer some advice.

Sasha Kellner-Rogers and Sean Dembrosky. Photo provided.

“If folks are in a rental situation or have limited space, containerized gardening is a reasonable way to get something going,” Dembrosky said. “You have more control over what’s going on. In consultations, I’ve seen that people want to take advantage of the margins of their property, the edges or where invasives are. To me, the mowed lawn is the place for growing food.”

Dembrosky continued, “Leaf bags in the fall, piles of wood chips, looking on Craigslist for straw or manure or other soil building materials to start, getting the lawn reduced and the garden increased seems like a place to begin.”

“There are also people who have a lot growing where they live who don’t recognize it as food,” Kellner-Rogers added, noting the abundance of wild plants growing everywhere. “So, another good place to start is learning to identify food that’s already growing and you have to do nothing to make it a reality.”

Dembrosky said that this year will likely be a “mast year,” or year when trees and shrubs produce bumper crops of fruits or nuts, for black walnuts and hickories.

“And most of us probably live within walking distance of masting acorns, black walnuts or hickories,” he said. “There’s wild apples, elderberries growing in ditches, so many foods and medicines already growing right where we are.”

Dembrosky and Kellner-Rogers make most of their income from land-based living, with their nursery accounting for most of that.

“I don’t think I would have predicted where we are right now a few years ago,” Dembrosky said. “By taking small steps, getting feedback from the system and not investing thousands of dollars in plants or infrastructure, just very slowly, gently increasing what we’re doing until it felt like it was starting to gel and make sense. That seems to address self-care and regeneration, without going big on infrastructure to get some particular vision. We feel like the vision will reveal itself and evolve over time whether you like it or not.”

Kellner-Rogers added that “if you’re feeling pressure to make a living from regenerative aspects and you want your self-care to come quickly, that seems difficult.”

“I waited tables for a long time, and worked my interests outside of my way of making money, to eventually take over my way of making money,” she said. “There’s this fundamental lie of having to make money at all; to have to operate within that lie is difficult. We sell plants, but plants shouldn’t even be monetized. How do you find a way within a system that you know is absurd to do a thing that gets you an absurd thing that you need to exist? The best-case scenario is that we’re making a living, and the value of plants isn’t actually represented by the monetary value that we give them, but we are able to live our lives somehow through that.”

Dembrosky said that often when new businesses are founded, the main focus is on keeping them profitable.

“But I think that an almost more important aspect is what does it look like to reduce what you are spending money on, cut out expenses, do without?” he said. “What ways can you pull yourself further away from the consumption machine, so that you have less overhead that you need to address? If you can reduce what you’re spending on, what comes in goes further.”

They also rely on the barter economy to connect their work to the community.

“Any time there’s an exchange that looks like it could happen, we offer up the idea of longer-term barter or some sort of higher value exchange,” Dembrosky said. “It might not work out, and we just go to money, which is fine. If you have good expectations and track stuff, it seems to work out pretty well.”

Kellner-Rogers said that she and Dembrosky try to maintain a life with a healthy balance.

“It can be more stressful or have more labor at certain times, but overall, we keep a balance in our life,” she said. “Most everything we do is about caring for ourselves. Even when we’re working in the yard, it feels like we care for ourselves, for the Earth, and for other creatures.”

“We don’t really take time away from what we do in an explicit way, but I don’t think we have to,” Dembrosky said. “It feels like there is enough nourishment in the day-to-day hustle of the things that we are doing, that self-care is just embedded in the day.”

Dembrosky said that one of the main ways they build soil is the composting they do with their chickens.

“We try to not disturb the soil very much, and we try to put all of our planting beds on contour with deep swales to hold as much water as possible,” he said. “There’s a lot of natural mimicry going on, which makes it hard on us from a convenience stand point to access a lot of our garden plants. A 4-by-8 bed might have 20 different species in it, some will serve the nursery. Some will be foods we eat, and some will be wild friends who do pollination support. We’ve found that the most density with the most diversity of plant beings gives us the most resilience. And always blanketing the soil with a cover of whatever we can get for free is as far as we take it, and it’s turned out to be pretty productive.”

Dembrosky related that this global pandemic has really served as fuel for them to continue to do the work they are doing.

“We’ve tried to make more connections by donating trees and plants to different groups doing food forest work in the area,” he said. “We’d like to increase that more. I think just focusing on having an overabundance of nursery stock that could be distributed on an emergency basis when people are ready for them feels important.”

Dembrosky ended with this hopefully observation: “The narrative that isn’t presented outwardly through the media is that there is a huge increase of people growing way more food and medicine for their community and their families right where they live, and that’s a good reason for optimism and to keep doing the work that we’re doing.”

Learn more about Edible Acres at edibleacres.org.

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