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"Every single day I wake up filled."
A conversation about rabbits and composting and the opposite of self-reliance with Ifeoma Ozoma
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Do you have a workplace quandary? Particularly a workplace quandary about whether or not it’s actually time to quit your job, bad or offensive or deadend DEI initiatives, or how to push back against exploitation at a “passion job”…..submit it here, and we might address it on a future podcast episode.
If you follow the business of tech in any capacity, you’ve heard the name Ifeoma Ozoma. Her public allegations of racism and sexism, along with those of former colleagues Aerica Shimizu Banks and Françoise Brougher at her former employer, Pinterest, led to a walkout demanding racial and gender equity at the company. Since then, she has become a powerful advocate for protections for other whistleblowers in tech, and was directly responsible for the passage of the Silenced No More Act in the state of California, which makes it illegal for companies to wield nondisclosure agreements as a means of silencing those who would speak up about all forms of discrimination. (She is also responsible for The Tech Worker Handbook, which offers guidance for tech workers considering whether or not to go public with their experiences).
Ifeoma Ozoma is a force. She is formidable. She has been profiled in the New York Times. I strongly recommend reading more about her and her work, which is empowering workers in pretty paradigm-shifting ways.
She also has a siiiiiiiiick garden. I know a lot about it because it’s the primary focus of her Instagram, specifically her IG Stories, where she documents the ongoing sustainable transformation of her property outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I wanted to talk to her about it because I am a sucker for any and all garden content, particularly the nitty-gritty details of it, but also because people with public personalities often come to be understood, through no real fault of their own, as one-dimensional: a person who known exclusively for [insert major initiative here]. So I wanted to offer Ifeoma an opportunity to get super nerdy about her work with the land — which, of course, is not wholly unrelated, not if you think about it, to her work within the workplace.
If you have questions, please leave them for Ifeoma below — she’s celebrating something big this weekend, but I know she’ll come back to them in the days to come. You can follow her on Twitter here, and on Instagram here, and check out the Tech Worker Handbook here.
First things first: tell me about your set-up, and your future plans for your set-up, in as much detail as you’re willing to share, because us garden and permaculture nerds are here for it. Walk us through your space and the decision-making behind each place, what’s thrilled and challenged you, what’s taught you and and made you rethink what you thought you knew.
I moved here because after growing up in Anchorage, going to boarding school and college in Connecticut, then living in DC and CA for some time, I knew I wanted and needed a few things. Lots of sunlight, very little humidity, and very few people were at the top of my list and I have all of those things here in Santa Fe. It may sound weird to share this, but I also specifically looked for a home in a neighborhood with no HOA and with neighbors who were clearly growing food, because it was important to me to be able to grow and raise a good amount of what I eat without the restrictions (white supremacist in nature but that’s a conversation for another time) that defined a lot of the suburban neighborhoods I lived in, observed, and studied growing up.
I’m on five acres at 7,000ft of elevation (zone 6a) and surrounded by piñon pine, juniper, cholla cactus, chamisa, hawks, owls, bobcats, deer, mountain lions, rabbits, and lots of pack rats (which I didn’t realize were a real thing until moving here). What that all means is that though we have over 300 days of nothing but sunshine every year, I have both predator and weather pressure that required a lot of getting used to before I had what I would consider a successful growing season. I’m up in the hills and the land I have to work with is mostly rock filled dirt. Native trees and plants have adapted beautifully, but with very little organic material to make the dirt useful soil for cultivation (an important difference I learned living in the southwest), I’ve embarked on a slow process of growing many things in raised beds while amending the dirt around me by using a good deal of mulch (both wood chips and living mulch).
First, the raised beds! I started with standard wood beds a few years ago just to see what I could keep alive. What I quickly discovered was that even with months of snow and cold weather, the sun here is so intense that the wood on the beds bleached and cracked before they even hit six months. So, as I can afford it, I’ve slowly amassed a collection of corrugated metal beds that haven’t changed color under the intense sunlight and serve the secondary purpose of helping to keep the soil warm during the colder months because they’re darker and heat up pretty quickly during the day.
During the winter and early spring I use plant blankets and hoops to trap warm air and protect my veggies from snow, but I’ve found that the most helpful thing to include in my beds year round is a heavy layer (at least 4-6 inches) of straw. A feed store in town lets people collect whatever is on the floor for free, and so I use that to fill up my truck bed after buying a bale from them. The bale plus throw away lasts me a year and breaks down over the course of the growing seasons, providing great insulation and retaining water beautifully during the drier late spring and summer months.
I’ve grown so many different veggies and herbs (squash, corn, melons, every brassica, tomatoes [cherry varieties are the best] peppers, tomatillos, mint, sage, chamomile, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, rhubarb, strawberries, the list seriously goes on) over the last few years but my whole life changed when I introduced flowers to my beds. I feel like an ambassador for nasturtiums now because whenever I get the opportunity to talk to someone else who is vegetable gardening about my love of those flowers, it’s hard to get me to stop.
For the life of me, I could not figure out how to keep birds and insects and the wind from decimating my squash and veggies, then I tried planting a border of nasturtium and marigolds. I wanted most of the flowers I grew to be edible, so I could eat them or feed them to my livestock (will get to them soon!), and so I focused on nasturtium because it grows so quickly and the entire plant (greens, flowers, stalks, seeds) is edible and adds a deliciously spicy kick to any dish. What I found was that not only did the nasturtium (and marigold, though I’m partial to the nasturtium) add a beautiful ring border around my beds, but wherever I planted it, I had less damage to nearby veggies from squirrels, harsh wind, bugs (they really don’t seem to like them), and the nasturtium even saved a squash plant during a particularly bad spring hail storm.
As we approach fall, I’m also finding that my prolific nasturtium plants have also done a great job of serving as a living mulch in the beds, ensuring that on the days when I don’t get out to water or it’s especially hot, my sensitive melon and bean plants don’t dry out. I don’t think I’ll ever stop singing the praises of nasturtium!
Outside of my beds it has been a journey filled with blood, sweat, and thankfully few tears to transform the space around me into land that’s hospitable to more than the high desert plants and trees that have made their own way. I have moved thousands of pounds of rock and gravel (used by the person who built the house to hardscape) to allow the dirt to breathe and “weeds” to grow. I’ve then gone through a process of selectively allowing certain native weeds to grow and chopping down and leaving, but rarely entirely pulling up, plants that are bothersome. What this has done is allowed the soil to return because the growing plants and the ones left to compost in place both provide food and habitat for the bugs that then come around and help me aerate the soil.
In just a few years, I’ve turned about one acre of my five into a space where I’ve been able to grow honeysuckle, raspberry and blackberry bushes, currants, and now a veritable orchard of fruit and nut trees, where there used to only be desert plants. The fruit and nut trees I’ve planted this year are what excite me the most. I’ve put in peach, plum, cherry, pear, apple, hazelnut, and walnut and elderberry trees. By letting the dirt heal for a few years and removing gravel and weed barrier from areas that were previously “landscaped,” I’ve created a wild looking forest floor of living mulch which is now a much better environment for the trees.
The weeds bring really important nutrients to the surface and when they get really tall or too close to the drip line of a tree, I just cut them down and leave them in place so that the tree benefits from the compost they provide. I have also applied tons (literally) of tree trimmings mulch — one truck bed at a time because delivery is both expensive and the lists are months long — to the bare areas around all of my trees and bushes and that’s encouraged even more growth while helping to fix many of the erosion issues that had been created by all of the hardscaping the previous owner/builder had done.
Now on to my livestock! I know that animal husbandry isn’t usually considered gardening, but I couldn’t garden the way I do without my animals. I have a flock of chickens I call The Golden Girls and they live in the only fenced in part of my property so I call that whole area Fowl Play (I’m a nerd with a dark sense of humor so it’s both a play on fowl and foul since everything living there will be eaten at some point).
Anyway, the chickens provide eggs and meat for my family, but almost more importantly they provide hundreds of pounds of compost every year that goes to the garden and all of my trees and bushes. Chicken poop is hot manure (can’t be directly applied) and so I compost it first or add it to beds using the hugelkultur method of layering it over logs or large trimmings then under straw and soil. I also feed a lot of the bugs I find in the garden to the chickens, along with any of the plants I have in excess or the weeds I don’t want to eat.
One of the things I’m proudest of over the last two years is going zero food waste — and the chickens are a huge part of that. Anything (meat and dairy included) that isn’t eaten goes to them or the compost pile, and is cycled back to the garden and then back to my family. And this doesn’t just make me feel good, it has a direct impact on the amount we have to haul to the transfer station every two weeks since we don’t have trash or recycling pick up. I’ve also recently added rabbits to my livestock and they provide incredible cold manure, which just means their poop can go directly on the garden without being composted.
It’s hard to say that any one factor has increased the health or yield in my beds, but everything has looked greener and brighter since I started adding a layer of rabbit poop to my beds and around my trees and bushes since the rabbits came home. Talking about breeding rabbits for lean and sustainable meat is the only thing that has brought me online harassment since the time I was doxxed by white supremacists a few years ago, so I’ll save those details for anyone who is interested and wants to talk directly, but meat production is also part of why I introduced rabbits to my little homestead and I’m excited to continue that tradition of sustainable food cultivation which has existed in this country for hundreds of years (and is starting to make a comeback as a response to commercial meat production!).
How you think about water use, drought, and long-term sustainability in the high desert?
Until moving to Santa Fe, I didn’t realize just how different the drought issues are depending on exactly where you are. I did some research on fire history for my area (surprisingly low, though nothing is guaranteed with a rapidly warming planet) and I knew the snowpack was relatively stable, but I didn’t realize just how intense the difference was between my area and a few hours south in southern New Mexico.
All that to say, drought is a persistent issue for everyone in the southwest but not as dire for me as for someone in, say, Phoenix or even Alamogordo. I’m on a community well with a few hundred houses and so we all feel pretty responsible for using water judiciously. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sprinkler on my road and many people have water collection systems for capturing our monsoon rains or runoff from snowfall. I use drip irrigation to establish fruit or nut trees and bushes but believe that anything planted in the ground that can’t survive without assistance after it’s established isn’t meant to be planted here. I’ve also spent many many hours sweating putting down tree trimmings and mulch over almost an acre of land so that I’m helping the land soak up as much water as possible from rain, snow, and dew, without it running off and creating erosion issues or just evaporating before plants can use it.
There are a lot of stereotypes about who embark on this type of work — like a mix of old school “pioneers” and homesteaders + contemporary preppers, often conservative and/or liberatarian tech people building hidden bunkers in New Zealand or whatever, people totally rejecting society or people who’ve thoroughly embraced capitalism enough to have the $$$ to build out their perfect space. What do you embrace, what do you reject?
Haha, I love this question because everyone who is doing real homesteading work every day knows that there’s no such thing as self reliance or the other capitalist bs that self proclaimed preppers and bunkers claim to be. This work is rooted in community reliance and community support and not in extractive practices. I would not know even a fraction of what I do without relying on the generosity of other homesteaders who share their knowledge freely (at great cost to them!) online and in person. The rejection of society that I embrace in this lifestyle is primarily a rejection of the selfish ideals that capitalism prioritizes.
The whole goal of growing food and raising livestock for me is being able to provide food for my family and hopefully neighbors too! Nothing brings me more joy than sharing a dozen beautiful eggs with a friend, trading a pickling recipe, or troubleshooting a gardening issue with a neighbor. The idea of having hundreds of peaches, apples, cherries, plums, pears, hazelnut, walnuts, berries, and elderberries to share with my community in a few years makes every bit of sweat I put into planting my trees and bushes totally worth it.
Feel free to answer this however obliquely you’d like, but how much of this work overlaps with taking future climate catastrophe (or political catastrophe/societal breakdown) seriously?
100% of this overlaps with climate work! It’s impossible to do this work without a keen understanding that climate emergencies and related societal breakdowns make it more and more likely that food supplies we currently take for granted simply won’t exist in a few years.
What does doing this work, and watching it and learning from it, feel like? What does it feel like in the body, and what does it feel like psychological? Some of this is self-reliance, right, and that’s a really powerful feeling — but given all the bullshit associated with (white supremacist) individualist culture, I think I’m also wary of leaning too much into it, too.
Not self reliance! To my earlier point, yes *I* planted my trees and mulched an acre of land, and raise my rabbits and chickens, but I learned all of that from others who shared with such a generosity of spirit that my work is to pass that knowledge on and that is what is fulfilling. It feels like the true purpose of living and that is such a beautiful and meaningful thing to wake up to every morning. The other day, during a work meeting, we started off by going around and everyone sharing what they do to “recharge.”
My answer, which I swear wasn’t a humble brag or meant to be obnoxious, was that I don’t find myself needing to recharge from the life I’ve built at home because every single day I wake up filled. Even if it’s shoveling chicken shit (which is truly disgusting) or pulling weeds I’ve whacked out of my bra and hair, I’m filled with joy doing it because what is more exciting than watching the circle of life every single day and knowing the part you played in it?
If someone wanted to read or learn more about permaculture, what would you recommend?
Oh goodness, I watch, read, and listen to so many things, but my favorite thing to do is to find videos of whatever I want to learn on YouTube. I’ve followed along with everything from butchering chickens to properly planting trees and even learning about what the process might be to dig a well at some point.
One of my favorite channels is Simple Living Alaska, which reminds me of home, since I grew up in Anchorage, but also reminds me of why I live in a place with over 300 completely sunny days a year. Ha. I also listen to The Urban Farm podcast whenever I have a few hours of work outside (most days) and want to learn something while I’m working. I didn’t know anything about foliar feeding (fertilizing by spraying the plant itself with small amounts of very high quality organic feed) until I listened to an Urban Farm episode about it.
I also always have to recommend reading or re-reading the Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia E Butler. Both books have shaped me and my view of the world more than anything else I’ve ever read in my life. I regularly reread them. What I’m doing in Santa Fe is my own very very mini version of Acorn.
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