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Ocean Hour Farm
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  • Case Studies
  • Land Use , Permaculture , Whole Systems Design

Applying Permaculture Design Methodology for Land Use Planning

DEFINITIONS

Whole Systems Design: A way to create solutions that optimize the entire system rather than assessing part of the system in isolation.

Permaculture Design: A design methodology rooted in traditional ecological knowledge and patterns in nature. When applied, it results in a design that works with Earth’s natural systems rather than against them. 

PROJECT OVERVIEW

Starting Point: The prior land occupants, the SVF Foundation, used the 43-acre farm for cryopreservation, freezing heritage breed livestock embryos. The land was heavily used for livestock grazing and intensive animal care for the past two decades. Their work was completed, and the land was sold to the current occupants, Ocean Hour Farm.

End Goal: Living demonstration of integrated regenerative agricultural practices appropriate for the bioregion.

Ocean Hour Farm explores the critical connection between soil and ocean health. Through protracted and thoughtful observation and witnessing all four seasons, the farm team, along with partners at 11th Hour Racing, Occidental Arts & Ecology Center (OAEC) and The Schmidt Family Foundation, formulated plans to work with the available resources and develop an intentional hub for whole systems design in Rhode Island.

The first step was a thorough site assessment to determine how to organize the land units to support regenerative agricultural trials and provide educational opportunities. After the site assessment, we delineated the land into distinct sections based on what was already on site, such as water bodies, shelters, rock outcroppings and what we want the property to host, including rotational grazing, polyculture perennial food production, and space for regenerative agriculture trials. Combining this information with knowledge about our temperate climate, we also considered what the site is capable of now and in the future. This case study aims to provide insight into how we made decisions about land use and give a high-level overview of what each land unit does.

SITE ASSESSMENT WHAT DO WE HAVE?

Observations include essential information about the current makeup of the land and how it might change in the future.

Location: 41° North 71° West

Size: 43.2 acres, broken into two lots

Watershed: Aquidneck Island’s surface, ground, drinking, and coastal waters are closely interconnected and highly vulnerable to nutrient and bacterial pollution. 

Historical Land Use: Aquidneck Island was a gathering place for Indigenous communities; the property became farmland in the 20th century and, most recently, was used to care for and preserve heritage livestock.

Soil Type: Ocean Hour Farm has Canton and Charlton fine sandy loams as our parent soils, which are considered good for agriculture. This information is essential since parent soil is the foundation for any ecosystem. It is unchangeable and informs all decisions. Luckily, these parent soils easily produce amazing topsoils, perfect for regenerative farming. They are well-drained and include up to 20% stones, boulders cover, and rock outcrops. Water can pass through the surface layer and subsoil at a moderately rapid pace and, in the substratum, at a rapid pace. Available water capacity is moderate, and runoff is medium. The soil is extremely acidic in perennial wet areas but otherwise is medium acidic.

CURRENT CLIMATE BRIEF

Climate: Classification: Temperate oceanic
Growing Season & Zone: USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7a. The growing season typically lasts 220 days, from around April 3 to November 9. Average last/first frost: May 11 to May 20/ Nov 1 to Nov 10. Growing degree days approximately 2800.
Precipitation: Annual rainfall approximately 54 inches per year
Sunlight: 15 hours, 8 minutes during the summer solstice; 9 hours, 13 minutes during the winter solstice
Chill Hours: Approximately 2,000 hours spent below 45°F
Record High / Low Temperatures: 98°f / -9°f (The temperature typically varies from 24°f to 79°f and is rarely below 11°f or above 86°f)
Prevailing Summer Wind: Southwest (Newport, RI, is known for its cooling ocean breezes that make for a pleasant summer.)
Prevailing Winter Wind: Northwest
Average Ocean Temperature: 69°f (20.5°c)/38°f (3.3°c)

CLIMATE RISK & ASSESSMENT SUMMARY

Future Climate Analog: Cambridge, Maryland (Based on the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science map for anticipated climate in 2080.)
Temperature: Trending warmer; anticipated shift from 7a to 7b on USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map.
Precipitation: Wetter summers and drier winters
Extreme Weather Events: Increasing frequency and intensity, including more hurricanes, destructive storms, storm surges, extreme heat, and wet bulb days. Flooding risk is high, particularly with high rainfall in short periods and rising sea levels.

VISIONING – WHAT DO WE WANT?

It’s simple: we want a healthy ocean and thriving soil for everyone! Specifically, we want to demonstrate how a farm can improve ocean health through intentional land management practices that build healthy soil and support biodiversity and clean water. We want to build community through collaboration and partnerships and enable visitors (students, scientists, farmers, and partners) to interact closely with the watershed through the lens of permaculture practices. With our staff, partners, and community, we want to create ecologically sound, socially just systems for our homes, organizations and communities.

Utilizing the scale of permanence, we considered (in this order) the climate, landform, water, vegetation & wildlife, access, microclimate, buildings and infrastructure, patterns of use, stewardship, and aesthetics as we began planning to implement changes to the land.

Initial Sketch Parcel 1- Utilizing the scale of permanence, we considered (in this order) the climate, landform, water, vegetation & wildlife, access, microclimate, buildings and infrastructure, patterns of use, stewardship, and aesthetics as we began planning to implement changes to the land.
Initial Sketch Parcel 2 - The sketches, created by the design team, helped those less familiar with the property and permaculture, envision the future.

PLANNING – HOW DO WE ACHIEVE THE VISION?

In this phase, we combine what we have and what we want into site-specific plans. For this case study, we are looking at the overall landscape of Ocean Hour Farm and sectioning the land into units that will benefit people, animals and soil for years to come. These units are based on what is already there, be it a pond, a rock formation, or a barn, and consider how to transform them to match the vision.

We look to the scale of permanence to inform our decision-making. For example, it would be difficult to change our parent soil, single-handedly change our climate (even though humanity is doing this globally), or move the pond or the large rock formations on site. We are better off considering concepts and plants that fit the land’s unique landscape.

All of these considerations led us to create the following land unit map.

The first design divided the land into eight units based on initial observations.

Rethink, Review, Redesign

Design is an iterative process. A final design is robust when many people review and provide constructive feedback. For this project, the design team gathered input from staff who know the land well while also spending more time observing the land and looking through historical records. The feedback process resulted in two fundamental changes to the land unit map.

First, we swapped colors on our maps to make them more distinct. The simple switch to make the bodies of water blue allowed quicker recognition by those not on the property daily. This small but essential change made the map more understandable for stakeholders. 

Second, by taking time to investigate historical photographs, we discovered that there had been a pond dating as far back as 1939 that had vanished by the late 1990s. The pond was located where we had initially sited our annual vegetable production. This discovery informed us to adapt our design. Since water had collected in this area for decades due to the overall topography of the broader landscape, it was likely to continue doing so into the future. Although the pond filled in, the water was still flowing. However, instead of concentrating surplus water in one location, the water was spread thinly across the entire low area, creating compacted and highly acid soils unsuitable for annual vegetable production. This change was particularly crucial because intense rain events will become more frequent due to climate change. Ultimately, this observation allowed us to avoid spending time, energy and resources designing and installing a garden that would struggle and inevitably need to be relocated. A true testament to the power of designing in advance! 

In addition to resighting the annual gardens, we discovered a new resource to work with! Some may have seen this wet, acidic, compacted soil area as a huge problem. But when working with nature, we see a potential problem as a potential solution. We have water! This area can be reshaped to displace the surplus water to where we want it, allowing the rest of the area to have reliable passive irrigation for free. To understand how much water and when, we conducted a year-long water table assessment with a third-party contractor, Ecotones, to inform our new design. 

While we awaited the results of the water table assessment, we paused any interventions that could potentially be within the future path of concentrated surface flow resulting from the redesign of the assessment area. Instead, we focused our phase one work on areas outside this potential flow line so that we would not have to undo our work in the future.

Ultimately, a possible problem became an opportunity thanks to the permaculture design process. We accepted feedback from the landscape and adapted our plans to use the land better.

The second iteration, designed a year later, reflects the team gaining more profound knowledge of the land and spending more time observing the space. This design includes thirteen land and water units. Many of the initial land units were broken down into more detailed systems that function within the larger system across the farm.

What do these land units mean? 

Some land unit names are easily recognizable; others, we’ve combined words or concepts to represent what we intend to do with the land. These definitions correspond to the second land unit map.

  • Waterbodies: Ponds that contain water throughout the year for all or most years
  • Wetlands: Areas of regular seasonal pooling of water, including ponds and marshland
  • Ledge Woodlands: Native habitat for plants and wildlife that is ‘rewilded’ and allowed to evolve naturally
  • Habitat Buffer: Mixed-use wet area with perennial plantings for water quality protection and wildlife habitat
  • Pollinator Meadow: Perennial flowering grassland focused on native plants and wildlife habitat
  • Perennial Pasture: Perennial flowering grassland managed with rotational grazing of domesticated animals, including sheep, cattle and chickens
  • Grazable Ledge: Supplemental forage and pollination on shallow soils with rock outcroppings
  • Silvopasture: Integration of trees in pasture for supplemental forage, fodder, protection and shade
  • Windbreak: Foragable wind and snow breaks to enhance wildlife corridors as well as create shade and privacy
  • Alley Cropping: Productive tree rows integrated into rows of other perennial and annual crops
  • Food Forest: Edible perennial polyculture production
  • Biointensive Agriculture: Annual food production with integrated pest management and soil building
  • Biodiversity Landscaping: Beautiful, diverse mass plantings and wild-looking landscaping to create habitat for pollinators and birds

The design process is ongoing, and while we are not yet designing version three, we are already considering tweaks. For example, our annual production area may become smaller as we produce enough crops for our staff and donations to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center and Sankofa Community Connection. For now, we are keeping this land as a grazing area, as it will be easy to convert into production or another land use type when the time comes.

Implementation—Making it real!

With all the planning and mapping completed (for now), it was time to take action. To determine where to start with such a large project, we prioritized an immediate plan that would significantly benefit our vision and neighbors.

We started implementation with a relatively easy-to-install section of the habitat buffer in a pasture area. This area was so moist that the sheep were unwilling to graze, forcing us to mow, and the farm equipment often got stuck in the mud. The stormwater runoff would also run into the road, creating black ice on a fairly busy street in the winter. 

We installed native wetland plants and woodchips inoculated with mushrooms, creating a large carbon sponge to absorb and filter water before reaching the pond along the road. These changes significantly reduced the mud in the field and the ice on the road.

November 2022 - Prior to Habitat Buffer Installation
May 2024 - Habitat Buffer after one and half years of growth

Resources

The primary resource needed for the design process was human knowledge. This included knowledge of the land. Many of our staff have worked here for 10+ years and have a strong understanding of permaculture and regenerative agriculture. We also utilized design software, sticky notes, large printed maps, pencils, public sources mapping data, and historical records.