Redefining farms, from roots to animals

Originally published in Buffalo Spree magazine, May 2012

Organic garden, social network, and community in one, Joshua Reis’s budding farm operation on Buffalo’s East Side has permaculture ideals at its heart. When purchasing 226 East Utica from the city for $1, Reis set out to create a deeper, more meaningful place than an urban farm alone.

Originally from New Paltz, New York, Reis is a massage therapist, yoga instructor, personal trainer, and permaculture enthusiast. His childhood was spent in a community at the Center for Symbolic Studies in The Catskills, where he was introduced to native culture, mystical philosophies, and farms. The community was, Reis says, “a farm of ideas.” Sweat lodges, walking on hot coals, and spiritual study are not typically part of a sixteen-year-old’s existence, but they laid a foundation for Reis’ life, which includes a fervent interest in permaculture.

As Reis explains it, permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems that have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It harmoniously integrates landscape and people to create economically and ecologically sustainable local communities. Through hands-on experience and education at the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute, Reis’s training runs the gamut, from soil building to utilizing appropriate technologies, with education from the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute and through hands-on practice.

What Reis has designed here in Buffalo is not a farm as most know it. For starters, Reis and girlfriend Emily Gaines operate a nonprofit organization, the Capoeira Cultural Arts Center, from a renovated house on the property. African drum and dance, yoga, and the Afro-Brazilian martial art, Capoeira, will be practiced and offered.

After his formal studies, Reis traveled to Panama, Costa Rica, Columbia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, where he often “WWOOFed” it. WWOOF, an acronym for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is a network linking volunteers with organic farmers. In return for help, hosts offer food, accommodation, and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles. Reis chose Brazil to practice Capoeira, which looks like breakdancing and sounds like folk music. With roots in African slavery in Brazil, Capoeira’s history is as complex and breathtaking as it appears. It utilizes dance, song, and combat; the last is thought of more as play than fight.

Reis hopes to get neighborhood kids involved via both the expressive arts, and in learning how to grow and cook food. Neighbors may not recognize the gardening design, but Reis trusts they will find it inviting. There are not rows of beds; instead, keyhole shapes enable gardeners to easily access plants for tending, picking, and interaction. They also allow more room to grow food.

“There are no straight lines in the natural ecosystem—it’s moving,” says Reis. “‘Creating edge’ is a hot term in permaculture because there’s a culmination of things that happen at edges. Animals come up to the forests, natural fields butt up against water; there’s a lot of action.”

Native farming follows the seven layers of a natural ecosystem: overstory canopy, namely large trees; smaller trees, which can sustain part shade; shrubs; herbaceous layer; ground cover; root crops; and climbers. The perimeter of Reis’s property boasts fourteen fruit trees—ten varieties of apples and four kinds of pears—utilizing “espalier,” the practice of pruning and growing trees in a shapes manageable for picking. Reis plans to cultivate hearty perennial vegetables, which require less attention than annuals, and mushrooms, including giant stropharia and shiitake, for both food and medicinal purposes.

Reis knows which plants are symbiotic when planted near each other, so his garden forms an ecosystem rich with mutually beneficial relationships. This companion planting minimizes the need for external energy to feed plants, and the integration of animals achieves a closed loop system, where no other energy is required to sustain it.

Reis’s garden is evolving as he explores which farm animals to integrate into his ecosystem. A first step involves linking together a chicken coop, simple greenhouse, and a cordwood sauna. The sauna will heat the greenhouse, while chickens will weed, fertilize, and graze inside. Reis aims to have his chicks set up within the system this summer; he’ll also use a chicken tractor, which is essentially a bottomless cage.

“Chicken tractors are perfect for a small number of city chickens,” says Katy Skinner, owner of “The chickens can scratch and eat off of the ground, and you can drag or roll your chicken tractor around the yard if you want. Without a cage bottom, the manure goes directly onto the ground and becomes fertilizer.”

Monique Watts, director of development at Elmwood-Franklin School, credits her council member, David Rivera, with helping achieve legislation to raise chickens in the city in 2009: “He and his staff looked at all the angles and worked on an ordinance that was user-friendly for the neighbors.”

Now, Reis is part of a group hoping to achieve a similar agreement for raising other animals, including goats and bees, which aren’t yet qualified for the city. Reis says a collective is working on the task, and he wrote a personal letter to the city, noting templates used elsewhere. Goats will keep invasive species at bay because they eat everything, explains Reis, who also appreciates their craft, such as goat cheese.

“I decided to stay [in Buffalo] because it is so wide open and it can reinvent itself,” says Reis, “but it’s just slow to catch on to other ideas. I really think there’s enough open land to have rotational grazing, as they would in a natural landscape. They graze, poop, fertilize the land, and you can grow the next year. Then they move to the next property in this cycle of building the soil and providing food for the community. I know it’s far off to have cows in the city, but one day …”

About Nina

Nina lives in Buffalo, NY. An adventurous home cook, she loves to eat, cook, bake & enjoy life. She writes/blogs about food, tweets adventures & other passions.

22. September 2012 by Nina
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