Seeds & Ladders. A Conversation with Permaculture Designer Jenny Pell, Pacific Northwest. By Willi Paul, Permaculture Exchange
Seeds & Ladders. A Conversation with Permaculture Designer Jenny Pell, Pacific Northwest. By Willi Paul, Permaculture Exchange

Two Updates from Ms. Pell -

< I > May Hedgerows Workshop

Our partner educational non-profit, The Manav Foundation, is hosting a three-day workshop on hedgerows. We will explore concepts of soil preparation, plant selection, planting techniques, irrigation, and ways to reduce maintenance, with ample time for understanding budgets, phase planning, and time-lines. Each day will include classroom theory, design, and easy-to-replicate hands-on projects.

Instructors: Jude Hobbs & Jenny Pell
Dates: May 18th to May 20th
To register, visit:

< I I > Community by Design, LLC is a new venture dedicated to exploring alternate models of small-scale agriculture. On ~58 acres within 15 miles of Portland, we are crafting an experiment in small-scale farming, land ownership, land stewardship, economics, and community. We believe that by reducing the financial burdens of land ownership and by sharing resources, young farmers will be able to earn a living and create an abundance that will benefit the greater community.

We now have a total of 156 chickens, 12 geese, 2 donkeys and 2 goats on the farm. The animals are a welcome addition and make the whole place more lively (and, in the case of the geese and roosters, much noisier!). The blueberries are starting to flower and we already have 20+ bee-hives on the site. The blackberries are, of course, starting to make a strong comeback so hand-weeding in the blueberry rows is in full swing.

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A big thank you to Carrie Nardello (my favorite SF painter!) for permission to adapt her work entitled: "Spheres."

Interview with Jenny by Willi

Willi: Tell me how you view permaculture and slow money. Do you have a sense of how those integrate in your life? Do you have examples of how that integrates?

Jenny: Yes. One of the projects I'm working on right now is actually a slow money project of sorts. It's a project outside of Portland where we recently bought a sixty acre farm that is transitioning to organic, that is definitely in the slow money category. It's a project designed to support small local farms, initially functioning as a farm incubator. We are trying to attract a series of farmers - maybe six full time farm businesses that would have their own entrepreneurial business with their own client base, marketing, etc, but also sharing extensive resources, leasing land from this property, but not having to buy the land.

So we're looking for long term lease farmers on the site.

Willi: Nice

Jenny: And the idea is that we're going to be leasing the land at market rate so that it will be low lease rates. We're trying to level the playing field for farmers so that they don't have a burdensome mortgage at the same time that they are trying to start a small farming business, which is really hard to do.

The return on the investment is not cash, but rather successful small organic / biodynamic farms, building topsoil, and building capacity for local farm entrepreneurs. The land and the infrastructure, the buildings, all the things that are going in are essentially charitable donations to the project.
We'll be screening candidate farmers starting this spring and summer and unlike other farm incubator projects where they want you to come in for three or four years and then you are more or less launched out of the nest at that point, we are really hoping to attract people that want to stay long term.

Willi: Is this the LLC project on your website?

Jenny: Yes, this is the Community By Design Project.

Willi: Oh, cool. Cuz' you promise a fresh approach to the charter. Can you tell us anything more about that? A charter is a legal document correct?

Jenny: Yes. We are looking at how legal, financial, and social contracts serve and don't serve us from a permaculture point of view. Considering the ethics of "care for people and returning the surplus", how do we write contracts and how do we agree on things that actually support those ethics and are much more transparent contracts.

Willi: Oh, okay.

On this project, some farmers will be residents, and others will live nearby and commute to the farm. For the farmers residents living on site, we need a governance structure set up so that we can manage the residential area and be good neighbors. In addition, for all the farmers, there needs to be protocols for sharing equipment and tools that are really straightforward.

The farmers will belong to a Cooperative - each farming business will be one member, and gets one vote. We're buying the equipment up front as a one-time charitable donation to the project, and after that the management and care of all the equipment will under the purview of the Co-op. Everything from tractors, to the woodshop, greenhouses, road maintenance, fencing, etc. will be managed by the co-op. We are developing systems that allow us to easily keep track of equipment usage so we can simply bill monthly according to hours used on the equipment, space used in the buildings (walk-in cooler, barns) in order that equipment is kept in good shape, blades get sharpened, fences repaired, etc. By forming the co-op we're trying to take out some of the redundancies in equipment that can be very expensive for farmers.

Willi: Right.

Jenny: On the community side we're looking at a governance structure that allows us to make decisions in really healthy ways that also allows us to remain peers and good neighbors, but also get the necessary work done, and embed excellent conflict resolution strategies, etc. We're moving beyond the consensus model, into something that is a little more streamlined, a little more action oriented than process oriented.

Willi: Okay cool, and what is that called? Is it something new or something old that you're bringing back?

Jenny: It's not that new. It's called Dynamic Governance, or Sociocracy, and it originated in Holland in the 1940's, where it was originally designed for an electronics company that wanted to experiment with a more engaged workforce, having more access to the various tiers of management and manufacturing, with the goals of creating a superior product, very satisfied customers, a committed and hardworking workforce, low worker attrition, etc. The underlying concept is governance by "consent" rather than by consensus.

Willi: Got it.

Jenny: In Dynamic Governance people are divided into groups called "Krings". That word in Dutch has two meanings - one is a "circle" and the other is an "arena", a place where people have equal voice, and where things happen get done. And I think the best equivalent in English is probably "spheres of influence."

Within these "spheres of influence" there really shouldn't be anyone in your group that isn't directly involved in that process or that activity. It really minimizes conflict within the group right away.

So let's just make it up. Let's say you were in the kitchen group and I was in the carpentry group; why would you be sitting in on our meeting and offering ideas / actions and vice versa? Of course it's much more involved than this simplistic model - for example there's a double linking process that makes sure that all groups have a link and a voice and access to each other.

Within your group you have a lot of autonomy, a lot of decision making authority to move your projects forward as a group with a lot less meddling. And you don't have to get consensus from the entire group, you're getting consent from within your group.

Dynamic Governance is a series of protocols, akin to Robert's Rules, in the sense that it opens the meeting , you check in, you review the minutes from the previous meeting, etc. When an item is being discussed and actions decided each person in the group is asked if they have a "paramount objection", which is categorically different than consensus, whereby everyone has to agree. You can say "Well, I'm not that crazy about it but I can consent to this, let's try it for two months, see how it goes, and then I want to revisit it."

There's obviously a whole lot more to dynamic governance than that, but that's a very rough introduction. There are lots of resources online, including its history, what kinds of groups are using it with success, and explanations of the underlying tenets of cybernetics, or "the art of steering". It's designed to empower people to take responsibility within their own spheres of influence, accomplish goals without having to bog down the entire group, have clear agreements, and move the entire organization forward successfully.

I don't know if that makes sense.

Willi: Oh yea, it does.

Willi: Tell me if you think that the permaculture convergences, or those meetings, can help lead us to a new form of governance.

Jenny: I think governance is so particular to culture, and that it's trying to bring a successful community process into play. Many of us are working very hard on "social permaculture", on how we can communicate well, get things done, enjoy the process (and not end up in a tedious process), and not have animosity resulting from a governance process that end up feeling like a waste of time.
In the social permaculture world, many people are experimenting with lots of different modalities, and I find dynamic governance to be very promising, and so I'm investing time learning more about how it can work, how to facilitate, and how it can dovetail with the permaculture ethics and human guilds.

Willi: Okay. You've been to convergence cultures in the North West right?

Jenny: Yes, I often attend, sometimes get to be a speaker, and sometimes lead a workshop. Last year I was a speaker at the Convergence in Oregon.

Willi: Okay, can you see the actual convergences and that organization of those yearly meetings as an alternative to some of these other forms that you're saying?

Jenny: Yes, the convergence isn't necessarily about governance. Someone might offer a workshop on governance but the convergence is a way for us as a bioregion of permaculture folks to get together and network and hang out and have a lot of fun together, and also anyone can offer a workshop on anything. It's a way for us to see what everybody else is up to. The keynote speakers are usually showcasing new projects, are expanding into new areas, and have something exciting to share with a bigger audience. I'm not involved in the organization of the convergences, so I don't really know what their process is.

Willi: Gotcha. So I did partake in the North West convergence last year and had a great time and did present as well.

Jenny: It's a lot of fun. We had four or five hundred people last year. The year before we had about four hundred, and the year before that it was closer to a hundred and fifty. What we're finding is that the permaculture movement in our bio-region is growing very quickly, as well as across the US and internationally. We are seeing a critical mass where our ranks are swelling very quickly, and particularly amongst a lot of young people. We work hard to accommodate more and more people so that they can get exposure and get networked.

Willi: Jenny how do you define your bioregion?

Jenny: I would say Cascadia - west of the Cascade Mountains, from southern British Columbia, down through Washington, Oregon, and Northern California.

Willi: Okay, thanks, that's what I thought. Tell us about Occupy and how it may be having an impact on your personal or professional life.

Jenny: I'm not involved in Occupy at all so I can't speak to that. I think what they are expressing is critical, relevant, and I'm behind them 100%. I don't know how it's impacting me personally or my work personally. I just know that I'm really busy, so clearly permaculture is a growing interest where I am.

Willi: Okay, very interesting. Well, how can you grow the permaculture economy within the current sagging one? Do you see any challenges in there?

Jenny: Many challenges but a stunning amount of opportunities as well. Looking at the ethical structure (or lack of ethics in these structures) of the myriad contracts we negotiate, whether social contracts, legal contracts, and financial contracts; I think we all agree that most of these contract are failing us at a fundamental level.

It moves us to really look at the decentralization of our various systems. One of the things I really love about permaculture is that it supports vibrant, healthy, resilient, decentralized groups. Whether you're in an urban city where you see lots of those decentralized zones or whether you're in a rural setting, it doesn't really matter, that pattern scales all up and down at all kinds of levels.

And so how do we in our neighborhoods, move off grids of all kinds. Water is a good example - fifteen years ago it was illegal to catch water off your own roof. How do we push our legislatures to change laws so that we can have access to localized systems? How much water would a neighborhood need, how can we have many cisterns of different sizes, what water-saving strategies can we use, etc.

Urban farming is another great example. In 2010 Seattle declared the Year of Urban Agriculture and they passed laws to facilitate access to urban food - they expanded household chickens from 3 to 8, they opened up all the parking strips to grow food, it is now legal to sell things you grow on your property (produce, plants, seeds), and this year passed a new Cottage Food Law so you can sell specific things made in your non-commercial home kitchen.

To support a thriving local economy we have to look at how we spend our dollars and use our economic contracts with people in a way that's building capital of all kinds - financial capital, social capital, topsoil capital, and so on. A large part of building the local economy and creating small cottage industries is also building skills within our communities. And if you're paying cash, it will circulate enormously throughout your local economy much more than a credit card or a debit card at a store.

Toby Hemenway talks about urban food zones: zone one is what you grow in your garden, zone two might be what you can get from your neighborhood; and if your neighborhood is participating then it can probably be a lot. It could be eggs, and it could be somebody that makes something else from fruit, and as skill sets build and our horticultural pallet expands so our neighborhoods will have quite a lot to offer. Zone three would be what you get from your farmers market, where you have a relationship with the person who grows your food. Zone four would be co-op, and again the smaller, the more local and dedicated your co-op is, the better off you are. And finally zone five of food would be when you have to go to big box stores.

If you can prioritize spending within your community and actively supporting local businesses you will notice new webs of relationships emerging, which include interesting specialties, depth of skills in your neighborhood, friendships, and a more resilient form of commerce.

Willi: Right; So, Jenny or you pro or anti capitalism or neither? Or how does that work for you? How does that work in transition?

Jenny: I really stay away from absolute terms like that, and I would say that I am really pro economics, and going to the root of that word that comes from the household, the "oikos". What does it really mean? We all need to support ourselves, our families, and come back to choosing to support our neighborhood commerce as well. Richness in our lives comes from so much more than money - so to me commerce is a rich tapestry of a gift economy, barter, sliding-scale, and charging full-price. I want to look at our economics in a really healthy way. I need to make a livelihood, I need to earn money, and how do I do that in a way that serves my ethics. Again going back to the principles and ethics of what I do for a living. I'm a designer and a consultant. I charge consultants rates, and I offer a sliding scale that can include barter. I try to scale it according to who my client is, and then I endeavor to spend my money in a really ethical way.

I participate as much as I can in an alternative economy, and pay cash whenever possible. I go to the Barter Fair, I've never had a credit card, and so far have managed to avoid debt. I find that being in servitude too much to the dollar is just not a very fun way to live a life. I've lived on very little money almost all my life, and have had an extremely, extremely rich life, and that's because I have kind of an attitude of abundance, and I know how to live inexpensively.

Willi: Very nice. Let's switch the vibe here. Can you tell me how you're helping create new symbols and songs and myths for the new age? How you're doing that?

Jenny: If I had endless founts of money I would hire people to write poetry and songs in honor of all of these things. Artists have the unique skill of translating what may take me pages and pages of text into a metaphor that people can really grasp - and it's the metaphor that we are hard-wired to remember - the story rather than the explanation. Reconnecting to those deeper patterns, experiencing the artist's vision and interpretation, and allowing those ideas and concepts to resonate within you.

I have a small child, and I raised him from an infant to be an extremely pattern literate, and to understand the deeper cycles of life - and at age 5 he is confident and clear of how that is reflected in himself and the cosmos. The pattern of a brain cell is the same pattern of the universe, the movement of your blood is like that of water on the planet, etc. I think it's a very personal thing, and I find that Permaculture in the Arts is an emerging part of our culture, and look forward very much to watching and participating in that new/old story coming to the fore.

Willi: Nice.

Jenny: As someone who has the great opportunity to speak to diverse audiences I try to infuse my language with those symbols and those metaphors in an artistic way, so that people have a deeper connection to the narrative.

Willi: Right on.
Jenny: It's what they remember, and so you have to pepper your educational opportunities with all kinds of really rich storytelling.

One of the lectures I've been working on for several years is called "Once Upon a Peak Time," and it's walking people through 5 or 6 generations post-peak. I ask my audience to imagine you're sitting around the campfire 200 years from now telling the "epic story of Peak", and how your tribe survived and thrived, and what did your ancestors did at that critical juncture of human-kind. People get really emotional when they realize they are the ancestors, and they have to examine what they are (or are not) doing to move through this Peak Moment. I think every tribe's story is going to be different - from Seattle or Israel, London to Uganda. It's going to be a different story and of course what you choose to do now will greatly impact the future of your descendants.

Willi: Can you give me another metaphor besides the tribe that you do when you use it?

Jenny: Another metaphor that I use a lot is one of abundance and how can you expect the table to be full and abundant if you don't bring something to the table? People in our culture have a bad habit of filling up at the table where someone else planted, harvested, and cooked the food, eating more than their fill, and then walking away without doing the dishes! You need to bring something to the table, and I don't really care what it is, it just needs to be something! You could be a knitter, you could be a cobbler, you could be a seamstress, you could care for children, you could tell stories, you could play music. It doesn't really matter what it is because there's no judgment or standard for what it means. You just have to bring something to the table that's valuable so that you have a place in your community, and that the community needs you, and that you need the community back. I think a lot of folks get distracted by wanting to be self-sufficient, but really I think that's getting off track, that community is more about organic interdependence. You have skills and I have skills and I'm really good at something and you're really good at something, and that it's the intricacies of interdependence that allows us to need each other and to rely on each other and allows us to creatively problem solve.

When I have a potluck I write "Please bring something local and organic" otherwise, people will just go to the store and buy something pre-packaged. Not quite the same. I'm not asking everyone to slave all day cooking, just to have a deeper connection to the food at some level!

Willi: Terrific. I'll ask just one more if you have time? I'd like to know how you see the traditional artisans and artisan skills and projects; how can we make those folks more competitive?

Jenny: That's an excellent question and I'll see if I can address it more as a permaculture answer.

So I personally would rather have one beautifully made, hand knitted sweater rather than thirty from a big-box store. Then you value of that product, maybe know where it came from, perhaps understand its provenance, or its origins / source, then it has some meaning. I would personally rather have a little of something high quality than a lot of something that's junk. And to help and respect and honor the work those goes into things and pay the real price for things. The main reason that things are so cheap these days is that fossil fuels are so cheap. When gas is at ten dollars a gallon it will be different. I encourage people to make choices to support local artisans to allow those people who have those skills to really become valuable members of our community. So it's just a relearning, a reconnecting to the value of things.

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Jenny Pell Bio -

Jenny is a permaculture designer, consultant, and teacher based in Seattle, WA. Jenny specializes in edible landscapes, urban permaculture, and creating "living genetic banks" of useful and valuable plant materials on projects large and small. Recent designs include a 7-acre permaculture target="blank">food forest on public lands in Seattle, a two-acre demonstration garden at Evergreen State College, and a collaborative project integrating permaculture on a 60-acre organic farm outside of Portland, OR. She has a small urban farm in Seattle where she experiments with mixed annual and perennial hedgerows.

Connections -

Jenny Pell

jennypell at