This title may sound contradictory but I’d like to persuade you that it actually makes more sense. Desertification is spreading around the world.
Because the world is turning into a desert, high deserts like those present in Nevada will be less susceptible to the effects of climate change such as wildfires and sea level rise. The world is turning into Nevada, but Nevada itself is already there. This means we can take advantage of the opportunity to build the kind of life that will be possible in the future global desert by starting now in the existing deserts.
Climate collapse is also driving migration in the United States and around the world. This trend will continue to accelerate and grow as conditions worsen. The biosphere is already collapsing. Even if we suddenly change course 180 degrees and get serious about fundamentally changing everything about society and the economy; it’s too late to avert the next few decades of disasters which will themselves speed up the process. Desertification is perhaps the least terrible of the disasters that’s coming, and one of the easiest to embrace now.
Xericulture is not going to make you a rich farmer. It’s not about capitalist profit motives. Instead, it’s about learning to conserve rather than consume and produce enough to thrive and share.
Perhaps the most important reason desert farming is the right place to learn about living sustainably is the fact that being away from readily consumable resources means being forced to consider the inputs and outputs of your community and to use your resources carefully, conserving rather than consuming.
Blue Gold: Water Capture and Reuse
In Taos New Mexico, The Eathship Academy builds permaculture homesteads from recycled materials. In a region that gets just a few inches of rain per year, these homesteads are sometimes constructed like funnels to catch and store that rainwater…
Greenhouse aquaculture allows the earthship residents to grow fish in their homes, using the liquid waste products from fish and humans to feed their food crops. This technique (called aquaponics) also allows bacteria, plants, and fungi to continuously clean and recycle the limited water supply.
Desert Food Crops
There are many food crops that thrive in deserts. One example is Indian Rice Grass, a historical staple food of the high deserts of the Americas.
Less Water + More Food
According to research from Cal Poly, this kind of closed-loop aquaponics system conserves 99.75% of the water. This means it uses 90% less water compared to conventional farming techniques while actually growing more food and allowing all of it to happen anywhere, even in a greenhouse in the desert.
Simple filtration systems allow the water in the fish tanks to be reused as potable once again for showers or drinking water. Using staged mesh filters as described here makes most of the filters permanent and eliminates the need to replace disposable filters. Sediments collected by the mesh fitlers goes into the compost process.
Black Gold: Composting
There are three main inputs for the compost loop. First, human solid wastes. Second, fish solid waste which is automatically filtered using simple techniques. Third, green waste from food crops. Together these three inputs form the next generation of compost. This compost allows future food crops as well as serving as a product to be sold or donated to neighbors and other communities.
Regenerativity Is Built-In
I hope a theme is evolving in your mind while you read this. See how each form of waste becomes useful and is leveraged as a valuable asset rather than something to be discarded? See how these simple techniques and systems manage themselves with very little work from the community members? This is the thesis of closed-loop regenerative design in intentional communities. More than just being a sustainable process, the wastes actually create new value for the community; this means that the community can actually be regenerated rather than burdened by its outputs.
Born of Necessity
Desertification is spreading to cover the globe. The biosphere is collapsing, and it’s going to take with it the economy we rely on to provide for our needs. Even America is seeing the effects, and it’s likely to get a lot worse in short order.
Embracing these techniques and methods now gives us an advantage once society begins to realize it is collapsing along with the biosphere. People say we should be the change we want to see; but beyond that, we can be the survivors we want to see. We can model how to minimize personal impact while also modeling how to survive the collapse of capitalism and the biosphere.
Embracing desert permaculture now will put us in a much better position as things continue to get worse around the world and at home.
Another huge opportunity for Xeriscaping and Xericulture is the fact that all the lessons we learn will apply to human colonization on Mars and beyond. Turning sand into soil and using it to grow food while conserving water and reusing it as many times as possible is exactly what those colonists will have to do. The challenges we face in the desert and during the climate apocalypse are the same challenges that will face the humans who leave the earth.
If we build an off-grid permaculture community in the desert, there would be lots of natural advantages such as access to lots of solar power.
If you want to live off-grid, you will need things to get started. Producing those things can help others get started. Producing better more sustainable alternatives to existing products makes your work an act of justice.
Here is a working list of products that I think these communities could produce with huge natural advantages.
Being in the desert means having low humidity. This means that dehydrating foods is a much simpler process and there is a natural advantage for producing these goods for export.
Starting here is also advantageous because it allows you to develop a sales funnel while importing foods to dehydrate, and then later growing those foods yourself.
Jerky is a popular item across the nation and the world. It sells for ridiculously high prices in every grocery store and gas station. The market is huge and undercutting it would be easy. A pound of beef costs just a few dollars, but a pound of jerky costs ten times that.
Fruits and Veggies
Bananas, oranges, apples, and other fruits and vegetables are popular dried snacks. Hikers, backpackers, campers, burners, and many other groups crave these snacks and you can provide them.
There are many materials that can be recycled to produce great local value. Here are some examples. Composting is a good way to create new arable land. If you’re living on sand or rocks in the desert, adding compost lets you garden in the ground or raised beds.
Ashes are a valuable addition to compost which increases the potassium and allows better results for your plants.
Composting takes time and space. If you have a few hundred acres in the desert, you are in a good position to take vegetable waste from restaurants and cafes in nearby towns and compost it.
This produces a lot of heat for up to a year. It could easily be used as a heat or power source by running pipes to collect the extra heat produced by the composting process.
When the compost is done, it can be sold as valuable soil or used to grow more plants.
This is one of the most exciting projects I will be working personally on.
Generally speaking, most food doesn’t like to grow in deserts. As a result, we are creating enclosed and carefully defined environments for closed cycle aquaponics. Growing food crops in this way means building special lighting cycles, special temperature and humidity environments, and other factors in order to grow lots of food.
Also keep in mind that we are only trying to initially grow enough food to feed 30-50 people.
In logistics, just-in-time inventory means we always have just enough to fill our needs when those needs arise. One of the major fallbacks of using ancient agriculture techniques is that you get a lot of crops at one time per year. For example, if we were to plant a whole field of lettuce in the spring, then 26 weeks later, we would have lots of lettuce. We would need to store it throughout the rest of the year and slowly work through it until it has all gone bad or been eaten.
Just-in-time offers a radically different way of producing crops. Imagine that each week, I plant one head of lettuce. In 26 weeks, the first one will be ready to harvest. The following week, the next one will and so on. We always have exactly what we need and no more. There is no point at which we have way too much food and it needs to be stored for months. We eat the current set of crops each week, composting any leftovers. Then next week we will have a whole new fresh set of crops to eat.
This model doesn’t work in corporate-scale agriculture because they are growing with the natural seasons rather than in carefully controlled ideal growing environments.
I think this tribal-scale agricultural strategy will be a huge improvement over traditional techniques that will allow a small group to produce a reliable and endless supply of fresh vegetables. Simply scale what I have explained to more crops, and automate the planting and harvesting. All of these techniques and technologies are already in widespread use, just not in this way. It will mean we can always have all the fresh vegetables we need without ever needing to store any extra crops because of the time of year.
This technique focuses mainly on salad greens and other short-lived food crops. (Kale, arugula, lettuce, cabbage, spinach, wheatgrass, bok choy, chard, broccoli, cauliflower, etc) There are over a thousand known edible leafy green plants and we should really be exploring which nutritious options are the easiest to produce en masse using novel techniques and technologies as described here.
This technique deliberately excludes perennial/ ever-bearing crops like strawberries and tomatoes which continue to produce indefinitely.