Inviting life and creating vibrancy in a boom town gone bust
by Courtney Llewellyn
Joe Pizzo, a U.S. Marines veteran, had a circuitous journey from his home in Upstate New York back to a small plot of land in Utica that’s been transforming his life.His plan is to use his experiences to help others transform theirs.
“It all started in 2012, with a big transition in my life,” Pizzo explained. Health issues caused by an autoimmune disorder led to him taking control over his diet. “I discovered you can’t be poor and eat healthier. I thought ‘Why is it so expensive?’ We have control over small pieces of land that we can experiment on, grow on” – and that’s what he did.
A lot of what he began to do was self-taught. Through reading farmer, lecturer and author Joel Salatin’s books, Pizzo learned how to mimic natural systems to attain food. Growers can have a positive impact on the environment this way, he said, and one of the most important ways they do that is through rebuilding soil.
He was also influenced by Larry Korn’s “One-Straw Revolutionary: The Philosophy and Work of Masanobu Fukuoka” about the Japanese farmer and philosopher who is widely considered to be natural farming’s most influential practitioner. “It was all about educating myself,” he said. He began his adult education with a two-year degree in engineering before transferring to a school in Colorado for landscape engineering. From there he traveled to Central America and Mexico and learned how farmers utilized organic farming there.
All this led to Pizzo embracing the alternative style of agriculture called permaculture (by definition: A set of design principles centered on whole systems thinking, simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and resilient features observed in natural ecosystems. It uses these principles in a growing number of fields from regenerative agriculture, rewilding and community resilience).
“The whole idea was insane and intriguing to me,” Pizzo said. “I started with the edible forest program, which works from the top down – canopy, subcanopy, hedges and vines, herbaceous level, ground level, then soil and fungal layers.” For example, a grower would start with walnuts, then apples, then grapes, then herbs, then mushrooms.
Now known as White Lion Farms Edible Food Forest, the site is located between Sculpture Space, Utica Plumbing and a major thoroughfare of overlapping state highways. “I see opportunity in Utica, across New York and the Northeast,” Pizzo said. “All the booming industry is gone, there’s poverty – but there’s also a ton of open space. How do we transition it to more useful space? To more beneficial space? I see the opportunity for intentionally designed edible gardens. It’s a no-brainer.”
On just three-quarters of an acre, he currently cultivates over 100 species – all edible in some form. He said his goal was figuring out how much he could grow and how diverse he could be in a small amount of space. He started by planting eastern redbud and hazelnut at the edges, and that hedge slows any garbage from blowing into the rest of the parcel and provides an edible edge to the land. (He noted that hazelnuts provide more oil than soybeans.) The bushes he planted are part of a hybridization program, and Pizzo thinks growers can build up a legitimate hazelnut industry in the Northeast.
Among others, he also grows elderberries, blackberries, northern pecan, black walnut, butternut, heartnut, hardy kiwi, comfrey, apricot, strawberries, sorrel, plum, rhubarb, mint, raspberries, secale, sea buckthorn (which Pizzo describes as “a Vitamin C bomb”), pears, pawpaw, goji berry, persimmon, honeyberry, black currant and much more.
“All this helps build soil, sequester carbon and provide wildlife habitat” in addition to providing food for humans, he said. “We should always be striving to be better and leave the earth better.”
Last year was the first time he harvested the plot, and he plans to keep harvesting this site to donate to local food banks and sell to local restaurants and stores. He wants to provide to those who need it most. The edible forest is in an area of the city where people walk by daily to visit a soup kitchen. He’s invited them in to take what they need – and they do.
This work is all part of a nonprofit Pizzo incorporated, and education is a big component of it. This small farm is just to show and prove this method of growing works. He closed on a 98-acre farm earlier this year in nearby Deerfield, NY, and he’s ready to do this on a larger scale. The goal is to benefit the inner city population as well as fellow veterans in transition – to help enhance their quality of life and their health.
“Incorporating permaculture makes sense for all growers. It’s about design,” Pizzo said. “It’s just as rewarding as traditional growing and once the system is established, you just maintain it. It’s inviting life and creating vibrancy. The systems are resilient, like all of life on Earth.”
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