Cheyenne and Sean Zigmund are natural-born teachers whose enthusiasm for their subject whets your appetite to learn more—in their case, about being self-reliant and doing so by using permaculture techniques. Unlike many teachers, they practice what they preach, are constantly learning themselves and eager to pass along their knowledge. Their schoolroom is Root ’N Roost Farm, located on 2.5 acres about two hours from Manhattan.
The two met at nearby Apple Pond Farm, in Sullivan County, New York, where Cheyenne was interning. “I was interested in farming on a homesteading scale, not as a business, but was always interested in animals and the environment,” she said. Born in New Zealand from American parents, she would come to the States every couple of years to visit relatives. After she spent the year at Apple Pond and returned to New Zealand, she decided that working there in the psychology field, her college major, was not for her. “My heart was here,” she said.
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In 2010 she returned and met Sean. He had come back to the home where he grew up, to help his ailing mother. They looked at life the same way. “We have a real passion for doing things for ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we want to do absolutely everything for ourselves, but knowing how to do it is important to us,” Cheyenne explained.
Sean’s interest in permaculture began when he volunteered at a farm in Vermont, on the days when he wasn’t working as a computer systems engineer or playing in a rock band. “I wanted to grow my own food. In the Burlington permaculture group, we would do projects together. I read a lot and wanted to learn more. Then I realized that I could work remotely doing IT work. I could be anywhere that had an internet connection.”
In 2008 he took a long road trip in a diesel van converted to run on waste vegetable oil. He traveled 35,000 miles in 13 months. Of that, “32,000 was on waste vegetable oil. I ‘woofed’ on farms and worked in different places, from Alaska to the Mojave Desert,” he said.
The word “permaculture” is short for “permanent agriculture” and refers to agricultural ecosystems that are sustainable and self-sufficient. Bill Mollison, considered the father of permaculture, defined it as “a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.”
Back in New York, Sean started transforming the land around the family home when he wasn’t working part-time in the IT field. After he and Cheyenne met, she started coming over to help.
He had built a couple of chicken pens, had a small hoophouse and a few raised beds. In the beginning, Cheyenne came once a week, then more frequently, and in 2013 they were married. Together, they decided to build the farm using permaculture methods and called it Root ’N Roost, a kiwi phrase referring to nesting together—in their case, to fowl roosting, pigs and plants rooting, and the two of them putting down roots as farmers.
At first glance, you wonder what is going on. “We are not the most prim and proper farm,” said Cheyenne. “We don’t landscape, we don’t even mow our lawn. There are piles of stuff everywhere. You have to get used to the idea that permaculture is not pretty in a traditional way, but it can be pretty in a rambling, rustic kind of way.”
Added Sean, “It’s kind of a Sanford and Son site—we collect an extreme amount of material out of the waste stream, things we think we might need. I make money sometimes hauling stuff away.” Most of the buildings and fences are built from recycled materials. Sean scours Craigslist and junkyards for items he thinks they can use.
The Do-It-All Couple
If anything, the permaculture rustic look and Sanford and Son piles have been good for business. People today want to do more with less. The couple utilizes every square inch of their 2.5 acres and are leasing 18.5 more. They have built four hoophouses, three chicken coops, are raising pigs along with chickens, ducks and turkeys, and have a CSA and farmstand where they sell fresh produce.
They supervise several interns per year, do off-site consulting, conduct educational farm tours and hands-on workshops, bringing in experts to teach some of the classes. A solar water heater provides hot water for their home and solar panels generate electricity for the farm. Last year, a composting toilet for visitors and a cob oven were built in workshops. And they installed an innovative rainwater catchment system to provide water for the large hoophouse.
They attribute their success to a win-win situation. “It just exploded,” said Sean. “People want to work and learn a process; we get labor back from people doing the workshops, and everybody wins. Our workshops, tours—everything that we do educationally— are very reasonably priced.”
Added Cheyenne, “Sean worked off the property to finance some of the projects, like the hoophouse. That’s really how we managed to build up so fast. I was here to manage.” She didn’t mention how good a manager she is.
They are developing a system that is almost a closed loop, i.e., they want the land to provide most of the necessities for the farm and themselves. But they are not rigid about it. “We want to support other local farmers. We buy products from outside like bananas and coffee, which can’t be grown in this climate, for example, and use technology. We have medical insurance, do some homeopathic things but go to the doctor—normal, commonsense things. At the same time, we are trying to grow as much seed as we can, grow forage crops for animals so we can eliminate a lot of input from the industrial agricultural system,” said Sean.
We marveled at how well thought out their plans are. They think not only about how they will use an area come spring, but also next year and five years from now. When I asked Cheyenne to describe this process, she said, “We always have a plan…for example, we had the pigs running through a field that is now a vegetable garden. We put them in there to root, eradicate weeds, fertilize and till it up so when we went in to form the beds, our work was much less. Then we moved them to the next place we wanted to plant after putting in a forage crop.”
A Growing System
A “petal garden” is one of this year’s projects. “There are a lot of negatives to having row beds, especially with water. All of the water we use for irrigation comes from the pump we have in the stream, but it went dry the last two summers and we have to use municipal water coming off the house,” said Sean. He continued, “We need a better water system, we need storage. We have a design for a greenhouse along the north side of a garden area that has water storage attached to it. We will catch the water and store it in barrels, and build a ‘petal garden,’ so-called because each planted unit looks like a flower, with the center being a 55-gallon water barrel and the beds being petals. A hose 3 feet high will come off the greenhouse storage tank and fill a barrel. It will have a four-outlet manifold around the barrel with drip tape attached to each manifold to feed a petal. Once in place, we won’t need a pump and we can store 2,500 gallons of water to get through a three-month drought.”
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Livestock is key to the farm’s success. The animals till and fertilize the crops, provide meat and eggs, and are a big draw for the tours that Sean and Cheyenne give.
“To be profitable, we found that people really want meat—fresh pork, chicken, turkey, duck and fresh eggs. We are not only growing animals as egg layers or meat birds, but also to sell live to people who want to raise their own,” explained Sean. “We teach people how to do this—what they need to know about shelter and bedding, how to grow forage crops, etc., and that adds to the profit pie.”
They also conduct slaughtering classes three to four times a year and have a poultry processing center. Now and again, they meet people who can’t handle the slaughtering. “Some people get into farming and think it’s great, they want to raise all their own animals. All of a sudden they develop a friendship with this wonderful, intelligent creature and some can’t do meat after that. For me it was the opposite because if I can raise the animal, then I know how it was raised,” Cheyenne said.
Sean talked about what good drawing cards the animals are, especially for kids. “When adults come here for a tour, they are interested in the greenhouse, but kids want to see animals. When I do an analysis at year’s end, I look at animals, feed costs, number of tours, classes and people who also bought stuff at the farmstand, which they would not have done if they had not been here. I am still trying to figure out how it ties together. Financially it does.”
They see room for improvement and are devising ways to grow all the feed for the animals themselves so they don’t have to buy it. “The number of animals we have are too many for our land base. We realized that we were raising so many for our customers that we were losing sight of our own goal to be raising animals sustainably without bringing in feed. There’s always a balance between making money, spending money and bringing things in from outside.”
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This year they are going to let the birds breed on their own. “We started incubating. Our goal is to scale back to the breeders that we want to keep alive, some egg layers and some meat birds, so we are not spending a significant amount of money through winter,” he added.
Their goal is to expand to about 17 acres, have a draft horse and a cow. (When they need mechanized equipment, they rent it.) The framework for their solar home is already up. At present it serves as a shed where recycled materials for the project are being stored, and the solar panels on the roof provide power for the farm. This year they plan to put up an off-grid shower for the interns that will use heat from a compost pile to heat water, and build the “petal garden” greenhouse.
They are committed to their lifestyle. Sean put it this way, “We have the opportunity to make the choices we want for the future, rather than going down the beaten path. We opted to slow down, grow things ourselves, catch and store energy ourselves.”
Whatever you think of permaculture, do yourself a favor if you are near Sullivan County and visit Root ’N Roost. You won’t regret it. And in the evening you might have the pleasure of hearing Sean and his band, When Pigs Fly, at a nearby watering hole. For more, visit rootnroost.com.
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This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Spring 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.