With a passion for environmental education, Marty Castriotta and Ellen Denny have turned their farm on Orchard Hill in Alstead, named Village Roots, into a place where visitors can learn about more than just the land and their practices to build the property for future generations – they have also built a working example of how the ideas and theories of permaculture can thrive in an agricultural setting.
“Ellen and I both have backgrounds as environmental educators. So, there is a layer of education with the farm, but the goal has always been for a family farm based on feeding the community,” Castriotta said. “The bulk of our business is producing food but we also do workshops on permaculture.”
Those permaculture practices are at the heart of Village Roots. Although the farm primarily produces organic pasture- and forest-raised animals for consumption, including chickens, heritage turkeys, pork, beef and lamb, the structure comes from a constantly evolving process of refining permaculture practices.
“At its core, permaculture is a design process that can be applied to building, practices, municipalities, agriculture and more,” Castriotta said. “We use it to design our space, including our farm and homestead. It puts things in relationship with each other and is a way to maximize efficiency.
“With permaculture, every element on the farm needs multiple functions and every function needs multiple elements to support it. So, we are building an ecosystem that at some point a human could step away and it should keep yielding,” he continued.
“We graze our animals on 10 acres and try to mimic a grassland. They move every day and, for example, the chickens follow the herd animals while the pigs are in the forest eating acorns. We are also building a forest garden near the house that has multi-function plants. Where we have a hole in the system, like where we are bringing in grain, we planted 60 mixed fruit and nut trees.”
With items like the fruit trees Castriotta and Denny planted, although they do not have an immediate impact on the farm or its productivity, eventually they will contribute to a more complete system, and thereby more productive land years or even decades down the road.
For now, Village Roots focuses on raising its high-quality animals for meat, growing some seasonal greens in spring and fall and produce for special events such as weddings that are requested in advance.
“Very seldom can you find organic, pasture-raised chickens. Many farms do one or the other, but not both.” Castriotta said in thinking about what sets Village Roots apart from other small-scale meat producing farms. “Our birds are always on grass and receive organic grain on top of that… I would put our chickens alongside any other chicken out there. And our heritage turkeys are the same way.
“The sheep and the cows just eat grass and they are taking whatever is there in the pasture and turning it into meat. The pigs are on compost and forage in the forest. The increase in topsoil in the pasture increases the grass and the nutrients in it and then the nutrients in the animals.”
For the customers of Village Roots, the practice of putting the land first to benefit the animals makes a big difference and many clients are appreciative of the farsighted vision that Castriotta and Denny have.
“Lots of people say they want to buy animals that are humanely raised,” Castriotta said. “They are also starting to catch on to the idea of nutritionally dense food and what is put into it makes a difference. And for some people that I wouldn’t normally expect to be our clients, they seek us out because they like the way the food tastes.”
Getting the positive feedback from customers is one of the most rewarding parts of running the farm, according to Castriotta. That, and seeing the steady improvement that has occurred over time as they have increased the efficiency of the evolved systems.
On the flip side, Castriotta mentioned, with a bit of humor, some of the challenges that he and Denny face in running Village Roots, “Sometimes it feels like we hold all of it all the time. Like at 11 p.m. when the sheep get out and you just have to get your boots and your flashlight and go.”
In the end, the lure of living a lifestyle that matches their livelihood is what matters most for the couple. As they go forward, Castriotta and Denny are looking forward to building a barn where they can host their own farmstead and to finding additional ways to engage with the public.
For now, the community has multiple ways to seek out Village Roots, including buying shares with their meat CSA or frequenting their Facebook page to stay on top of workshops or local farm dinners they might be hosting. Plus, every other year, Castriotta and Village Roots hold a 90-hour permaculture design course that focuses on design and systems and results in an internationally recognized PDC certification.
To learn more about Village Roots, visit online at villageroots.org or Facebook at facebook.com/Village-Roots-Permaculture-386059738202187.