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Issues of the Environment: Practicing 'permaculture' at the Cooperative at Dawn Farm

Dawn Farm Cooperative co-founder Jesse Tack
Jesse Tack
Dawn Farm Cooperative co-founder Jesse Tack


  • The Cooperative at Dawn Farm is a non-profit land stewardship, permaculture-oriented farmers cooperative. The Cooperative at Dawn Farm is a diverse group working to co-utilize the 64 acres of Dawn Farm’s land in an ecologically and economically responsible way. The Cooperative’s first priority is a commitment to the stewardship of the land and its relationship with Dawn Farm recovery center for those struggling with addiction.
  • Rather than being “owned”, Dawn Farm Cooperative is open to all and makes land, hoop houses, and shared resources available to anybody who wants to experiment on the land and get familiar with collectively managing a cooperative. The farm coop doesn’t work directly with clients who are in the intensive rehabilitation center, it shares an ethic. Jesse says, “We share a belief about "kicking chemical addiction." Dawn Farm helps clients recover from addiction issues and stay clean for life, and the Cooperative at Dawn Farm helps the land kick the chemicals like fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides to help regenerate soil life, soil health, and total ecosystem services.
  • What The Cooperative Project Is All About (In a Nutshell):

    • Permaculture - water management, food forests, community systems, education, deepening relationship with nature's systems and processes
    • Regenerative agriculture - agriculture that improves soil life and biodiversity over time
    • Active land stewardship practice - what does it mean to manage a piece of land collectively? We are exploring that question actively
    • Eliminate toxins like herbicides, pesticides and inorganic fertilizers while managing the landscape for the production of food and biodiversity
    • Grow and experiment with hundreds of 'tree crops' - nuts, fruits, timber, fiber, fungi, forage, medicine, and more
  • Permaculture is central to all the operations at Dawn Farm including a cob pizza oven, solar dehydrator, food forest, herd of grazing sheep, and a no-dig garden with 100+ varieties of garlic. Rather than take a traditional approach to farming, where men harness the land to grow a particular crop, Jesse Tack, founding Member of the Cooperative at Dawn Farm, says, "We are working creatively with nature to see what nature is asking for or suggesting to us and forming a partnership with nature.”


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to another edition of Issues of the Environment. I'm David Fair with a question for you. When I say the word "Dawn Farm", what comes to mind? Honestly, the first thing that came to my mind is the variety of resources that Dawn Farm provides for addiction treatment and recovery. The series of programs on that front have made a world of difference to so many and enriched our community by setting forth new paths for those with substance use disorder. But there's another component to Dawn Farm, and that's our focus today. The Cooperative at Dawn Farm has a diverse group that works 64 acres of farmland with health and environment in mind. Our guest today is a founding member, and Jesse Tack is here to discuss the holistic approach the cooperative takes to land use in farming. And thank you so much for making time today, Jesse.

Jesse Tack: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

David Fair: Just as recovery is an ever-evolving journey, is it fair to say that, to this point, there's been an evolution of the collaborative since its inception?

Jesse Tack: Very much so. We are a group of individuals in the Ypsilanti and Washtenaw County area that are interested in permaculture, regenerative agriculture, and generally learning how to steward land. We're almost like first-generation back-to-the-landers at this point because none of us come from sort of working the land, so we're keen to learn how to do that. And that's a very ongoing evolution. But we're very grateful for Dawn Farm for allowing us to learn how to do that on their land, which is 65 acres.

David Fair: So, when exactly did the collaborative come to be?

Jesse Tack: 2011 is when it began to sort of percolate in the air. I was running at that time a permaculture-based group out of Ypsilanti called Abundant Permaculture--excuse me, Abundant Michigan Permaculture Ypsilanti, or AMPY for short. And we were doing monthly meetings on everything permaculture: so how to grow food, how to build new economies, how to work with nature in creative ways. And a group of us...well, I connected with a group of people who were already connected with Dawn Farm in doing some vegetable production out there. And then over the next, I would say, two or three years, it formed together into what we now have, which is the Cooperative at Dawn Farm.

David Fair: So, you've mentioned the word "permaculture" a couple of times. For those unfamiliar, can you make that definition for us?

Jesse Tack: Yes, it's always a tricky definition to actually define permaculture.

David Fair: Because it's evolving, too.

Jesse Tack: Because it's evolving, too. Yep. And it covers so much. It's a very wide sort of blanket. But the easiest way to think about permaculture is it's really an intelligent design partnership with nature. So, it's all about recognizing what nature is needing in a given place and a given area of the earth and trying to harness the power of natural ecologies and natural energies to meet human needs. So, it's very much associated with growing food, but permaculture does not have to just focus on growing food. But we would be remiss if we didn't say that's sort of the basis of it, because the whole idea of permaculture comes from the two words "permanent culture". And originally it came from "permanent agriculture", which was about having sustainable agricultural systems that were by design and that mimic the local natural ecologies.

David Fair: It very much sounds like the philosophy that was in place with Native Americans to honor the land for it gives us sustenance. Is that kind of the philosophy behind the entirety of permaculture?

Jesse Tack: Very much so, yeah. I think seventh-generation thinking is something that is very foundational to all permaculture and to the history of permaculture. And, in fact, most of the canon of permaculture or the maybe wisdom gained in permaculture in the early years was really from the study of native peoples throughout the whole earth. And one of the key findings out of the permaculture movement founded by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the late seventies was that there is essentially these implied ethics in indigenous land management, the modern world, and is trying to sort of promulgate those as we, you know, continue to be modern people and use modern things, like machinery or tools or that type of thing. But those ethics that the indigenous peoples sort of emulated--and that permaculture is trying to emulate--are care of earth first. So, making sure that whatever we do, we're thinking seventh-generation into the future, and we're not harming our generations of humans or natural allies a.k.a animals and natural ecologies. The second ethic is care of people. You can't really do a good job caring for the earth if you're harming your people, enslaving your people, etc. So, obviously there are wars. There are conflicts. But the general ethos is to care for all the people that are within your tribe or community or bioregion, not leave anybody out. And then, the third ethic, which is gets bandied about in different ways, but the general idea of the third ethic is to future care. So, we have earth care, people care, and future care. And future care is just about setting limits, recognizing if there's waste streams piling up. That's a problem. Nature doesn't do waste streams. Indigenous people don't do waste streams. They have to use those, quote, waste as a surplus to some other system to give you even more production potentially.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment, and we're talking with Jesse Tack. He is a founding member of the Cooperative at Dawn Farm. Now, I've read you being quoted as saying the cooperative shares a philosophy with the Dawn Farm Recovery Center in that you were both about kicking chemical addiction. Have you found it difficult to effectively farm without fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides?

Jesse Tack: Yeah. There's challenges, I suppose. We're not really coming from the traditional tractor farming with big, you know, 55-gallon drums of fertilizers and pesticides towing behind it. So, in a way, I guess if we were trying to grow, you know, like, acres and acres of corn or soy or something like that, we would probably have had difficulties. Instead, what we have done is allowed the land to just sort of do what it wants to do. And we've helped kick it and push it and prod it in directions that it's already going. So, if you were to leave those corn fields and soy fields alone for 40 years, a forest would emerge. And that's all that we've done on the eight-acre food forest that we helped develop at Dawn Farm. We just planted really small trees that would have probably naturally come there anyway, but we just sort of kickstarted the whole system and let the trees grow. So, we planted about 1500 trees, like chestnuts, oaks, hazelnuts, walnuts, cherry, apple, plum, etc., thinking that, like, those are all human useful trees. So, we want to favor those, but that the land itself just sort of wants to get back to a forested canopy-type system. So, we definitely have experienced slow growth of the trees because of the history of fertilizer, pesticides, and also compaction on the land. But since our goals are not to produce X number of bushels or barrels of corn or soy, it's been a joy to witness rather than struggle to endure.

David Fair: What do you do with the yield that is provided on an annual basis?

Jesse Tack: Well, some yield comes through various types of yields, so we get things like seeds and nuts. This year, we got our first chestnuts. Last year, we got our first hazelnuts. Now, these are small yields. And so, what we would probably do with them other than eat them is to once we have enough that everybody's satisfied, just enjoying the literal fruits of our food forest, we'll kick those into production of growing more hazelnuts and chestnuts in terms of trees. And we might sell those to help fund the cooperative, or we might plant more in some of the other acreage that we have at Dawn Farm. One of the principles of permaculture is to obtain a yield. So, every year that we've been there, we've obtained various yields from strawberries, maybe in the first year. I've practiced growing vegetables out there on a very small footprint, like a eighth of an acre. And so, lots of yields come from systems like that. We have hoop houses that we've been growing tomatoes in and various other vegetables. And so, we've had yields throughout the whole year or throughout our whole time there. We have not fully experienced apples and plums and cherries coming on yet, but we expect that in the coming years. And I should add one thing about yield. One of the endeavors that we do as the Cooperative at Dawn Farm is we help manage a cottonwood stand that sits on Dawn Farm's property. And by managing that, we're actually cutting down some trees and letting some other trees have more space to grow. And what we do with those cottonwoods is we chop them up into smaller bits, and we turn them into mushroom logs. So, we're growing oyster mushrooms on cottonwoods, thereby obtaining other yields.

David Fair: I find it fascinating that in a world of industrial agriculture, as it were, that we were kind of looking to the past to build a new and more sustainable future. As you assess the near and longer-term future of the collaborative, where do you see opportunities for growth and that increased sustainability?

Jesse Tack: Well, there's two other plots of land that are about 8 to 10 acres that are currently in hay production, which we put it into maybe five or six years ago. So, I think it's possible that as we've learned our lessons from establishing our first food forest, we've learned what really grows well, what sort of ground preparation techniques we might want to focus on to get even better yields faster that we might venture out into those plots of land to do a sort of a mimic of what we've done, but doubling down on maybe more productive things. I'm very keen on chestnuts and hazelnuts in particular because they sort of mimic calorically and energetically corn and soy. And there's a huge market for local chestnuts and hazelnuts. Now, on our acreage at Dawn Farm, I doubt that we'll be able to do wholesaling of those types of crops. But, again, it's something that we can model, and we can learn how to do. And I think that the movement of permaculture and regenerative agriculture is moving more toward this agroforestry model where we're actually getting, you know, maybe grow vegetables, like corn and soy, but also animal production, like chickens or sheep in and amongst trees that will produce in 10 or 15 years. And those trees, chestnuts and hazelnuts in particular, will start to take over as the primary form of production and the primary form of making money. Again, we might not do that at Dawn Farm, but we're sort of prototyping how to do this, and we're learning it hands on for ourselves.

David Fair: Well, I'm glad I got the opportunity to learn more about it myself today, and I'm glad we could share the information. Thank you so much for sharing.

Jesse Tack: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you so much for showcasing this work. We really appreciate it.

David Fair: That is Jesse Tack, a founding member of the Cooperative at Dawn Farm and our guest on Issues of the Environment. For more information, visit our web site at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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