Unschooling Agriculture. Taking Steps Towards the Permaculture Farm with Grant Schultz. (PVP069)

“You do have to jump on it; you have to go now because tomorrow might be too late.” Grant Schultz


Permaculture Voices Grant Schultz


Let’s start with two different sets of people. Both involve thinking about life and the way of the world, but the two stories involve dramatically different people.

The first is a group of scientists representing the National Science Foundation of China and some peers from the US, UK, France, and Germany. This group recently met to discuss the resource constraints that we face as a growing planet and how they could monitor the flow of those resources so we can better understand the “crisis” that we are in.

The other group, two young brothers, one 12, one 9, who are unschooled and live on a farm in Vermont. They are creating their future and understanding the world in their own way.

These two sets of people are seemingly unrelated, but both tie into the general theme that underlies a lot of the permaculture movement. Getting more permaculture onto the landscape to deal with the climatic problems that we are facing, and the rising discontent of people with their corporate jobs who see permaculture and the land as an outlet from the corporate world that they are fed up with.

The problems that we face in the world today are numerous. I know it, you know it, and scientists like those ones who met in Beijing know it. And one thing I am not trying to do is complain about problems. I am all about solutions. But I do think it is important to know what high level people within the science community are talking about.

In a recent article by John Crawford posted on the World Economic Forum, Crawford talks about that meeting of scientists in Beijing and their quest to create a map of our planet’s life sustaining resources. A map that be used to help identify problem areas and where contribution areas can fit in..

This would literally be a map of all of the processes and interactions that matter for sustaining life, including the flow of energy, nutrients and water in the landscape; competition between animals, plant and humans for these resources; losses in the form of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere; the role of soil in recycling nutrients; and the feedbacks between life and the physical environment including climate regulation and environmental engineering.” Posted on World Economic Forum.

If it sounds really complex, it is because it is. And it is being taken on because the stakes are high. Between the growing population, the way that the climate is becoming increasing unpredictable, and our blatant waste of resources people are getting worried. Not just people like us, but a lot of people in really high places. And a lot of those worries are justified.

Crawford describes the significance of our current situation as he sees it as, “we have about 10 years to identify solutions for basic human needs such as energy, food and water, and to mitigate the risks associated with climate change and further degradation of natural resources. We have 10 years because many solutions will take at least a decade to take effect, and because we have only 20 years before the perfect storm of food, water and energy shortages makes landfall.” Posted on World Economic Forum.

Energy, food, and water are big concerns, and the stability of those resources are paramount to us as a planet. We face a lot of challenges in an increasingly chemical world that operates within, and/or causes, a whole bunch of climate variability. These are high level problems and it means that people are getting involved on all levels of the food chain and lots of money will be spent on studies just like the mapping project that was discussed in Beijing.

Possible solutions to these problems run the gambit from the ultra simple to the ultra complex. There are the technological fixes and the laboratory biological fixes that we are throwing at the problem; from in vitro meat (lab created meat grown from cell culture of animal tissue), to growing plants hydroponically in skyscrapers, to GMO’ing everything. Sure on paper these things work. But is that the world that we really want to live in? Billion dollar solutions that are still energy and resource intensive; they aren’t regenerative and they require constant inputs. Yet these are one set of solutions that many people see as viable solutions to our current resource crisis.

I, like most people listening to this show, want to take these ideas out of the lab, get the creativity onto the land, and just farm better using systems designed for our biome. Systems that mimic natural analogs yet provide us with the resources that we need to survive. Think woody perennial polycultures that regenerate the land and make it better over time. Systems that harvest, store, and maximize the utility of the water resources that we have. These are the systems that we need to create more anti-fragile landscapes in an ever changing climate. These are the systems that Mark Shepard has made famous through Restoration Agriculture. I am talking about real world agriculture systems that can produce some real food on serious scale in a regenerative way. Broadacre systems that produce food, fiber, and fuel in today’s modern world, using modern equipment and modern distribution systems, and support modern people.

As Mark Shepard says in his book Restoration Agriculture, I do not propose that we all go back to living in mud huts or living like pre-civilized cultures. I propose that our modern culture adopts a new approach of how we obtain our carbohydrates, proteins, and oils – our staple food crops. I will explain how mankind can achieve all of the benefits of natural, perennial ecosystems. This can be done by creating agricultural ecosystems that imitate natural systems in form and function while still providing for our human needs.”

But there is only one problem.

There aren’t a lot of these agricultural ecosystems on the ground right now.

So how do we get more systems on the ground so we are prepared for the problems that the scientists in Beijing deemed so critical?

We need more of these systems on the ground. And to do that, we need more farmers taking on these types of systems. But that starts a chicken and the egg conversation. To get more farms you need more farmers, but to get more farmers you need to show that these farms make economic sense, you need models, and you need training – all something that is very minimal right now, so we need more farmers to pave the way.

That ties into today’s show with Grant Schultz who is developing his own regenerative agricultural system in the heart of corn and soy country Iowa. Grant’s farm is VersaLand. And while he is doing great things at VersaLand he is just one farm. Just 145 acres. A drop in the bucket. 145 acres surrounded by tens of thousands farming the old way. Still Grant is a pioneer and he is helping to pave the way to get more regenerative systems onto the land. He will tell you it hasn’t always been easy, but he has found his stride and is making it work.

Grant is one person out there doing it, but we need a lot more people to take a few steps into the uncomfortable zone and take on this challenge to make a significant difference in the world of agriculture. And I think that the time is right and these people are out there.

Let’s revisit those two brothers I talked about earlier. Their names are Fin and Rye. They live in Vermont and they are growing up as ‘unschooled’ kids – think ‘self directed, adult facilitated life learning in the context of their own unique interests’ as their dad Ben Hewitt says. They spent their days outside of the classroom and going wherever their interests take them. We aren’t talking about video games here. These kids are outside exploring the world around them and learning in the process.

Their dad describes it as, “This is what I want for my sons: freedom. Not just physical freedom, but intellectual and emotional freedom from the formulaic learning that prevails in our schools. I want for them the freedom to immerse themselves in the fields and forest that surround our home, to wander aimlessly or with purpose. I want for them the freedom to develop at whatever pace is etched into their DNA, not the pace dictated by an institution looking to meet the benchmarks that will in part determine its funding. I want them to be free to love learning for its own sake, the way that all children love learning for its own sake when it is not forced on them or attached to reward. I want them to remain free of social pressures to look, act, or think any way but that which feels most natural to them.” via Outside Magazine

Acting the way that feels most natural to us.

Loving learning for its own sake.

That is the kind of freedom that many of us don’t get. We went a different route.

Most of us went to school from K-12 and then onto some form of college. Many of us then went on to work for someone else’s company and we still do. Yet, many of us aren’t happy with that part of our lives. The statistics literally show that 80% of Americans are unhappy with their jobs. And ironically I think this is one regenerative agriculture’s biggest strengths. The strong desire to break from the corporate world, reconnect with the land, and rediscover who we really are.

Grant says he sees a lot of people coming to his farm looking to break free from their normal role in society and go back to nature, back to the land. Programmers, desk jockeys, cube slaves, worker bees – many want out of the matrix and for many of these people the logical out to make this a reality is farming.

It isn’t just Grant seeing this. Joel Salatin has told me that he gets a large portion of his internship applications from people in their 30’s; people that are college graduates and are sick of working in the corporate world and want to do something with their hands.

The supply of new want to be farmers, isn’t a problem. Supply is high.

I think we are in the perfect storm right now for regenerative agriculture and permaculture. The economy isn’t great and we have a huge number of people dissatisfied with their jobs who are looking for a fulfilling and creative outlet – people that want to work and make a difference. The environmental side of things is a mess. So much so that we have big scientific meetings in Beijing talking about it. We have a food and water crisis brewing that is legitimately viewed as a looming global problem. But all of these crisis’s have created an opportunity. An opportunity for permaculture to step to the plate to be the solution that it has always claimed to be.

The tools are there. And this is the hard part of the game now because it is early in the game, but it isn’t as hard as it was 20 years ago or 10 years ago. Forward progress will be made, but I think it is going to take some balls and strategic planning.  We need to realize that we are pioneers forging a new path and we don’t have a ton of models to refer to and to fall back on. But there are some – Mark Shepard, Darren Doherty’s work, Peter Allen, Kevin Woltz at the University of Illinois, a handful of others, and of course Grant.

It won’t be easy, but the path is there. It is just a bit of a bumpy, winding dirt path right now, not a smooth asphalt road straight into the future that most of use are used to. For some of us it is time to adult unschool and put the boots on the dirt and hit the path. And it is on that path where we live between easy and dangerous where really feel alive and are at our best.

So if you want to go for it, there is no better time. The perfect storm is here and like Grant says, “You do have to jump on it; you have to go now because tomorrow might be too late.”


  • “Focus on amassing knowledge and not pursuing distraction if you are trying to transition from whatever to an agricultural career.”
  • “You do have to jump on it; you have to go now because tomorrow might be too late.”
  •  “Does your market support your practices?”

Starting a new VersaLand – What would Grant do?

  • Know what makes you truly happy first, independent of the land.
  • Have a transition plan in place for transitional income.
  • Figure out… Is it a career or a hobby? And at what scale?
  • Educate yourself on what you want to do.

What to do to get early cash flow going the first year?

  • Start a value added enterprise.  Build cash and a customer base.
  • Alley cropping.  Annual, immediate income – first year.
  • Use the subsidy system against itself – cost share for regenerative practices.

Working with the grant system:

  • Grant was able to get $141,000 in grant money and cost share.
  • The system can be difficult to navigate at first, but once you learn it is easy and attainable.

“We have about 10 years to identify solutions for basic human needs such as energy, food and water, and to mitigate the risks associated with climate change and further degradation of natural resources. We have 10 years because many solutions will take at least a decade to take effect, and because we have only 20 years before the perfect storm of food, water and energy shortages makes landfall.”John Crawford - World Economic Forum

“Without a coordinated global effort, it is hard to be optimistic about the prospects for international security, economic stability and human well-being.

Managing the interconnected insecurity of water, food and energy requires a new approach, and this requires joint efforts across an extraordinary breadth of expertise. This new science will pull in the best of businesses and governments to deliver coordinated solutions around the world. Scientists are good at innovating, businesses are good at pragmatism and delivering on time, and global governance is required to create the appropriate environment for change wherever it is needed. Working together is essential if we are to implement real solutions in time.”

Saving the Fragile Later that Supports Life on Earth by John Crawford


“We Don’t Need No Education.  At least not of the traditional, compulsory, watch-the-clock-until-the-bell-rings kind. As a growing movement of unschoolers believe, a steady diet of standardized testing and indoor inactivity is choking the creativity right out of our kids. The alternative: set ’em free.”Ben Hewitt - Outside Magazine

Fin and Rye drying foraged chokecherries. The boys know where to find wild mushrooms and berries, "and lord knows what else [they] are eating out there," Hewitt writes on his blog. Photo: Penny Hewitt

Fin and Rye drying foraged chokecherries. The boys know where to find wild mushrooms and berries, “and lord knows what else [they] are eating out there,” Hewitt writes on his blog. Photo: Penny Hewitt

 “There’s a name for the kind of education Fin and Rye are getting. It’s called unschooling, though Penny and I have never been fond of the term. But “self-directed, adult-facilitated life learning in the context of their own unique interests” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, so unschooling it is.

It is already obvious that unschooling is radically different from institutionalized classroom learning, but how does it differ from more common homeschooling? Perhaps the best way to explain it is that all unschooling is homeschooling, but not all homeschooling is unschooling. While most homeschooled children follow a structured curriculum, unschoolers like Fin and Rye have almost total autonomy over their days. At ages that would likely see them in seventh and fourth grades, I generously estimate that my boys spend no more than two hours per month sitting and studying the subjects, such as science and math, that are universal to mainstream education. Not two hours per day or even per week. Two hours per month. Comparatively speaking, by now Fin would have spent approximately 5,600 hours in the classroom. Rye, nearly three years younger, would have clocked about half that time.

A stubborn calf. Fin and Rye also take care of their own dwarf goats.   Photo: Penny Hewitt

If this sounds radical, it’s only because you’re not taking a long enough view, for the notion that children should spend the majority of their waking hours confined to a classroom enjoys scant historical precedent.”

The Case for Setting your Kids into the Wild by Ben Hewitt in Outside Magazine..

Pollinator Profit at Versaland

Mulching Trees at Versaland

Keyline Snowmelt at Versaland

Farmscale Permaculture at Versaland

with Grant Schultz, Darren Doherty and Daniel Zetah

The Workshop Link



October 2-5, 2014

Iowa City, IA 52240

Do you want to plan, install, and operate large-scale permaculture systems for maximum resiliency and economic stability?   Ready to learn from international experts in tree crops, keyline design, and multi-species grazing?

We’re all in a unique place in history.  Our motivations are clear: live an enjoyable life, earn a living from a sustainable and regenerative source, and build security while facing an uncertain future.  The only reliable way to fulfill these goals, for ourselves and the greater world, is to scale-up permaculture.  Farmscale Permaculture is the process of rolling out scalable systems that feed lots of people and rebuild ecosystems – changing how Earth looks from space.

Hosted at VersaLand, an emerging 145-acre regenerative savanna actively transforming a degraded monocultural landscape into an abundant agroecosystem.  You can see it happening with your own eyes.

It’s possible, it’s being done, and it’s easier than you think.

This course presents advanced material outside of a typical Permaculture Design Course (PDC), and is focused for those who will create abundant farm ecosystems.  

This course is for those that are ready to change how Earth looks from space, starting tomorrow.  The Farmscale Permaculture course teaches a broad scope of skills and concepts you MUST HAVE.

  • Holistic Management a working introduction to the management philosophy that works with nature
  • Keyline Design Hosted on-site of one of North America’s largest developing Keyline systems.
  • Energy learn how to modify your infrastructure to operate more efficiently and utilize renewable energy sources
  • Specialized Machinery view and operate the specialized machinery to plant, maintain, and harvest a multispecies agroecosystem including tree transplanters, custom row mulchers, and electric tractors
  • Polyculture Crops Silvopasture and agroforestry.  Forage to fruit, apples to seaberries.
  • Buildings Farm workflows and building site selection, portable structures, and material selection.
  • Water for landscapes, people, and livestock.  Adapted water delivery systems from reticulated pipelines to large-scale dams.
  • Infrastructure Roads, fencing, pipelines, and power.  Where, why, and how.
  • Soils Building, understanding, and regenerating
  • Buying Land from the big picture of geography to the fine points of contracts
  • Economics & Cashflows get in-depth enterprise budgets and profit modeling tools for stacked enterprises available nowhere else.
  • Resiliency Learn the tools and techniques that cultivate self reliance, vibrant livelihoods, and resilient health.
  • Multispecies Grazing learn the fine points of co-grazing and leader-follower grazing groups of multiple species (also, when NOT to graze)
  • Health Medicinals, herbs, and food medicine, wildcrafted and cultivated health for you and your family.
  • Appropriate Technology from low tech to high tech.
  • and more…

MORE info on the workshop at VersaLand.com


Podcasts Related to this Episode:

034: Permaculture 2.0, Designing a Profitable Broadacre Perennial Farm with Grant Schultz

040: Designing Systems That Will Work Before AND After SHTF – Passive Systems vs. Brittle Complicated Systems f. Ben Falk & Grant Schultz

039: The Future of Agriculture – Changing the Concept with Mark Shepard

b005 – USDA Microloans and more. What they have to offer beginning and established farmers.




Ten Acres is Enough on Amazon

For more on Grant visit:


Versaland on Facebook

You can contact him via VersaLand HERE.





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Comments 4

  1. Diego and Grant, thanks for the inspiring episode.

    I think that there is a lot of dreamers out there and everyone of us dreams about better life but only few will act and actually pull the trigger.

    Well the information is here and probably a lot of those tech workers are listening to this thinking about doing it.

    You couldn’t done it better than this with the actual steps for making a transition: know what makes you happy, have a plan for transitional income, decide what you want to do with the land, educate yourself and most importantly take risk and do it.


  2. Thanks for the great episode he mentioned a great book in the show and here is a free link to a electronic copy if anyone would like to read the book including you Diego!


  3. Can I say that I heartily agree about the concept of ‘unschooling’. I experienced it twice, once in a gap year between school and college, where I went to a school in Austria and was free from all need to take exams. My interests followed playing the violin (as I had a fantastic teacher out there), reading the classic german literature in a way I never had done for my mother tongue, immersing myself in a foreign language to the extent of dreaming in it, going ski-ing and much more. I learned more in a year than in 14 years in English schools, primarily, because I was interested, was making the choices myself and wasn’t coerced by exam pressures.

    The second time was more in the nature of work, taking a winter working in a ski resort. I absorbed everything to do with how a travel agency works, how hotels succeed or fail, how alpine snow patterns develop through a winter season etc etc. In four months I absorbed more than I had in 3 years of a PhD in terms of self-directed learning. It was epic. The next six months I did likewise in a niche book shop, where in addition to reading various somewhat religious texts (as they were inventory to be sold, so I’d better have read them), I also absorbed a huge amount around the permaculture scene (notably Viktor Schauberger, Bill Mollison and EF Schumacher).

    If children learn for learning’s sake, then when they are ready, they will decide what they want to do with their life. If they are constantly told what to do, what to expect, what to want and what to feel, they may decide simply not to do anything. Oh they’ll feign things, cover up and say what others want to hear, but actually commit to doing something?? Maybe not……

    It’s not for everyone, not for every child.

    But if your child shows signs of independent thought, then they need a ‘schooling’ that caters for that. Most schoolteachers are fairly controlling if truth be told. It takes a special kind of teacher to stimulate curiosity and then let children run with it…..

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