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Author: Leah Verdugo


Finding home: Leah Verdugo ’23 at Earthship Biotecture

Nov 09, 2023

Upon my arrival I was overwhelmed by the openness and beauty of the mesa. A week in the academy consisted of Monday – Friday first half of the day class room and second half hands on job site. We covered the six earthship principles which are, building with natural and repurposed materials, thermal and solar heating and cooling, water harvesting, solar and wind electric systems,  contained sewage treatment, and food production. Along with lectures we were able to see these functions being put in place and the two construction sites we worked at, U3 and the Refuge. We were able to work with adobe, power tools, concrete, can walls, and bottle walls. I worked with many power tools and on creating a bathroom bottle wall with mortar that gave me a new found confidence in my physical ability. Actually getting your hands on the build site gave me the opportunity to take the earthship concept and other natural building ideas into my realm of real possibility, by learning how to read designs and physically take on these builds. All these building techniques that felt so far away and abstract all of a sudden became very comfortable to me. My time in the academy made a lot of abstract off grid living practices come into full view and the lifestyle became more digestible and at the same time doable. One of the most enriching parts of the academy was networking with people from all over the world and listening to how they’re making tangible big changes towards an off grid lifestyle. Some are doing it in community and some solo, but either way there was lots of talk about logistics, material and permitting while creating space to potentially help one another on builds. It was beautiful to see how the students, staff, and greater earthship community come together to help on international builds and help spread information about where the best places to build are.

During my second month here after the academy I was able to choose a department within earthship I’d like to work in and at first I was thinking about the job site but once I came here it became apparent that the greenhouse / food production was what I really wanted to do. The indoor greenhouses act more than a space to grow food and medicine, it is a primary source of heating, and assists in the water filtration within the household. Built within the greenhouse holds a gray water pump and passage so you must work with the greenhouse to maintain the balance of water flow within the house. Within the greenhouse the main elements to pay attention to while designing the space are plant archetypes / guilds, greenhouse styles, micro-climates, zones of use, and maximizing growing space.  For the most optimal working greenhouse you will have water filtering plants at the start of the greenhouse, primary resource consumer, bushes or shrubs, pest indicators, low maintenance / hardy, ground covers, vining, and unique / novelty. It’s important to identify the micro-climates in the greenhouse and place the plants accordingly along with placing the water loving plants closer to the water source. 

I worked for the visitor center’s greenhouse, the community’s compost, and watering / pruning some of the student housing greenhouses. I was also responsible for collecting all the student housing / classroom compost and management of the redistribution of finished compost to the greenhouses that needed soil care. I did a lot of work “acting as the elements” by clearing out dead matter, watering every morning the leaves from above,  and adding finished compost. I quickly saw the way pests build up in spaces where there’s not as much exposure to wind and outside competing factors. I prepared an oregano compost tea that I’d spray on the fig trees that were infested with mealybugs and aphids. Otherwise I went in often just manually killing as many as I could see. I divided my time in half so I could work on prepping the outside space of the visitors center for future annual beds and additional native plants.

It is incredibly dry out here and while doing outside landscaping and compost it felt like most things tended to preserve and dry out instead of decompose and turn into good soil / compost. Also gardening in the greenhouse was a lot different from farm work just because inside the plants aren’t exposed to the elements the same way the outside plants are so I would have to act as the rain, wind, and decomposition. Without an outside person constantly deadheading and adding compost / ferment tea to the soil the dead matter will build up very fast in the greenhouse. Also I did a long with redirecting the plants with string and just moving them away from the glass. It almost felt like every day all the leaves of the larger plants would all of a sudden be pushed against the greenhouse glass. Although this is very cute because what they want is to be closer to the sun it’s virtually suicide because the glass gets very hot and fries them.

Overall through the connections I’ve made, knowledge gained about building earthships / maintenance, and the personal and physical growth this co-op experience has been really quite beautiful. The magic of the mesa opened up a jar of new possibilities in my heart and rekindled my love for the south west. With this greater understanding for what it takes to build and live in an off grid natural home I have honed in on my personal plans and have begun to think about how I might go about actualizing my ideal lifestyle. Taking what I want to incorporate and leaving what I don’t, I am getting a better picture of what is in my realm of possibilities for the area I want to settle down in. I am grateful for being able to work hands on, on build sites, in the greenhouses with the gray water systems and with the desert climate and outdoor growing conditions.



Returning to Nature: Verdugo ’23 at the Antioch farm

Jun 28, 2022

Here on the Antioch Farm, small-scale production coupled with farm-to-kitchen organic approach is the main objective. This was intriguing coming from the concrete jungle of Los Angeles where the idea of small-scale farming was merely a fantasy for me. With an ever increasing demand for better food and the rise of health and wellness related topics, going back to buying fresh, locally produced food is getting more popular. At Antioch, the food forest and the annual gardens and even the main farm are utilized to explore different permaculture and organic farming principles. During this co-op I set my mind to further explore what it means to work on a small-scale farm. While working hands-on I was able to get an intimate feel for some of the disadvantages and advantages that came along with it. Small-scale farming is very hard work and consists of a lot of manual labor, it does provide a lot of benefits in comparison to regular farming practices, such as food security, improving the health of communities, producing high quality food, and at the same time improving the overall quality of the soil.

A normal day on the farm for me consists of harvesting, washing, and weighing all the crops and eggs that are collected in the morning. After dropping whatever yield we collected for that day at the birch kitchen we head back to the farm and begin any weeding and any other of the daily tasks like transporting starts, seeding and watering. Chicken duty at night and in the mornings has also been part of my routine. In the morning the chickens are usually so excited to see me and run to me like exited dogs wanting love and affection except this isn’t the case, they are more excited for their food than my love, compared to at night the chickens and geese are more so filled with dread as I walk up to their pens as this means it’s time to go inside

the pens for the night. Lets just say my patience was a skill I wasn’t expecting to be sharpened by this co-op as much as it did while trying to get the geese inside their pens at night. Because the Antioch farm is operating as a small scale farm there’s usually a bit more manual labor because tractors and other heavy machinery is rarely used with most of the work around crops is done by hand. It was really rewarding for me to see the food being used in the kitchens and it gave me a newfound respect for where our food comes from. So often we take for granted how exactly our food came to be on our plates but after working hands on with our crops it’s given me perspective and a strong desire to eat more ethically and locally grown foods.

There’s been a strong disconnect within me and probably many others having to do with the rhythm of the natural world, the seasons and where we have a role in all this. After living so long isolated from nature it has left me with a deep yearning for knowledge on how to live more in harmony with other humans and the natural world. I learned that instead of being merely a consumer and separate we can be active participants in the healing of the land we are on and all other beings we share the space with. Being able to wake up everyday and go out to the farm has given me the privilege to slowly close this gap. Growing food is more than just putting a couple seeds in the ground waiting for a yield taking and consuming, it’s watching nature’s patterns, knowing when to intervene, when to take a step back and remembering to stay grateful.  Overall this co-op experience left me with not only just skills I hope to implement on future personal small scale farming projects but a deeper appreciation for the food systems that are in place and a deep appreciation for nature and remembrance of how we fit into the collective systems that are currently present.