Seeking Sustainability

a young man and woman eating dinner outside on their farm

Photo by Amanda Bloom


Terry O’ Neill and Amanda Holley have been farming for years, growing everything from beets to olives to artichokes in northern California, Washington state, Connecticut, New York, and Puerto Rico.

Before returning to a harsh spring in Corinna, Maine, they spent this past winter farming at a private residence and waiting tables at Vibra Verde on the Puerto Rican island of Culebra, a place where bananas are shipped in from Ecuador when they grow in droves only 17 miles away on the mainland. Save for the island’s ample breadfruit, papaya, and avocado trees, Culebra’s food supply depends primarily on the comings and goings of the ferry traveling from the port town of Fajardo.

Though the two have been working temporary jobs as nomadic farmers for the past several years, O’Neill, 30, and Holley, 27, practice permaculture, a long-term, low-impact method of farming that focuses on sustainability, self-sufficiency, and long-term food production. Rather than tilling and deconstructing the earth, soil is built up with layers of compost, grass clippings, and sawdust, rendering it low-maintenance, high-yield, and dense with nutrients and beneficial microbes and fungi. In permaculture, trees, animals, plants, soil, and tending farmers all work symbiotically, and if even one tenet of permaculture – observation, energy storage, and diversity of species, to name a few – is disregarded, the entire concept of permaculture falls apart.

“We’re trying to to kickstart the farming revolution,” said O’Neill in Corinna this past summer. “We carry it with us wherever we go.”

Mushrooms have been a powerful ally to O’Neill and Holley, both on and off the farm. In regards to permaculture, mushrooms can quickly break down organic waste into soil, and the two have made great use of a few medicinally potent species found in Maine’s forests, specifically chaga, turkey tail, reishi, and shiitake. O’Neill explained that chaga, a hard, black mushroom that grows in birch forests in Maine and parts of Russia, has 100 times the amount of antioxidants as blueberries, and all four of the species they carry have been shown to boost immunity, reduce inflammation, and even treat cancer. Since 2012, Holley and O’Neill have been crafting and selling mushroom and herbal teas, tinctures, epicurean oils, kombucha starter kits, and salves as B.L.Tea (Buy Local Tea) at area farmers markets and online.

O’Neill and Holley spent most of 2014 farming at a private residence in Corinna, where they lived in a 5000-ease SoulPad, a 16.4-foot-diameter canvas tent made in the United Kingdom. They erected their tent atop a wooden foundation, hand-built with lumber they towed across the still-frozen ground back in April. Throughout the spring, the two assembled a well-stocked outdoor kitchen with $38-worth of two-by-fours and a tarp, built an outhouse for free with salvaged pallattes, and began to farm the slowly thawing land. By the time the growing season began to wane in late summer, the property was home to pigs, ducks, ten German Shephard puppies, and a cornucopia of vegetables, flowers, and herbs.

The early spring still felt very much like winter in Corinna, and the lingering effects of the polar vortex did not make for an easy transition from the tropical climate of Culebra. But after years of farming in milder climates, Holley and O’Neill decided to make a go of it in Maine due to the state’s ample supply of the paramount resource: water.

Between 2005 and 2012, while Holley and O’Neill farmed throughout California, the Colorado River was dropping by several feet each year, and towns literally sank as the aquifers below were compromised. Between the large agricultural farms in the dry, southern area of the state and the diversion of water to parched urban centers, Holley and O’Neill called the growing environment for what it was: unsustainable. They departed the Golden State for the Northeast a few years ago, and now, as 2014 nears its close, California is suffering one of the worst droughts on record.

Water security was also an issue in Culebra, along with difficult-to-farm clay soil and heavy heat, but Holley and O’Neill still felt compelled to foster food sovereignty on the island, where the age-old tradition of cattle farming and fishing had fallen by the wayside. In a matter of a few weeks, Holley and O’Neill cultivated impressive crops of spicy mustard greens, tomatoes, melons, and peppers on a six-acre property. The land was located outside the reach of city water, but even that made little difference – Culebra’s water travels via a pipeline in the ocean from the rainforests on the mainland, and the neighboring island of Vieques has its fill of water before reaching Culebra. With three people living on the property, expansive and thirsty crops, and rain-catching water cisterns in need of repair, Holley and O’Neill decided to move on as the dry season approached rather than watch while the water supply ran out.

Though Maine’s winters are tough and its growing season is considerably shorter than that of Culebra or Northern California’s, the state offers Holley and O’Neill the water security they’ve been seeking. Close to 13 percent of the state’s area is comprised of water, and annual precipitation rates range from a low of 35 inches to a high of 56.

As October folded into November and Maine saw its first snowfall, Holley and O’Neill moved into their newly purchased farm about 30 minutes from Corinna. Fibonacci Farm, their 17-acre property in Cornville, is a protected piece of farmland under the Maine Farmland Trust, and it’s teeming with healthy American chestnuts, fruit orchards, Jerusalem artichokes, raspberries, and asparagus.

“We have an amazing and fortunate head start on the piece of land that we have settled on,” Holley said. “We’re thankful every day and we promise to work really hard to protect this land and to lay in complete harmony with it.”

By next year, Holley and O’Neill plan on bringing the existing perennial beds back to full health, cultivating oyster and shiitake mushrooms, tea herbs such as lavender, rosemary, and lemon balm, and storage crops of carrots, beets, onions, and potatoes. Two dozen guinea hens will serve as tick control and as a source of meat and eggs.

“We don’t want to change the land; we don’t want to modify it or orient it for our own purposes,” said O’Neill. “If permaculture taught me anything, it’s to adapt to the world around you because it saves energy in the long run. This year is about observation, small projects, and adapting to what we have here. The rest will come.”