In Conversation with Marc Doll and Jen Banks-Doll

 In Alumni, Career & Business, Featured, Verge Permaculture, Why Permaculture?

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In 2015, Marc and Jen decided to shake up their lives. They had come across permaculture through friends, and after completing their PDC’s they decided to leave everything behind to embark on a year-long road trip across North America with their two daughters. Throughout 2016, they volunteered at 16 farms, attended workshops and conferences, and gained hands-on experience with animal husbandry, rotational grazing, medicinal plants, seed planting, and a host of agricultural skills. Many of their musings and learnings can be found on their blog called 4 Wheel University: www.4wheelU.com

We had a chance to chat with Marc and Jen in the fall of 2018 to learn what they’ve been up to since their life-changing trip, and to talk a bit about the shift from their city lives in Calgary to their homesteading ones on Quadra Island, British Columbia.

Key Insights from a Year-Long Adventure

Marc: Being on the road for so long reinforced just how little you need to be happy. It seemed like the less stuff you have around, the easier life is. We had more time to concentrate on what’s important — that was definitely one of the takeaways from the trip.

Missing a single fork? We knew. In regular life we could lose a dozen forks and not even think about it. But on the road everything we had we knew where it was because everything had a place and a purpose.

Jen: I think the travel was really crucial in providing me with an overview. I appreciated being able to go big and see in-person the many diverse ways of farming. Even now when I’m planting seeds for winter crops, I think back to how other people did it on their farms. There’s no substitute in seeing firsthand how different farms do different things, from the mundane to the unique and complex.

For example, we visited someone who has written books and is famous in the permaculture world, and we met him as a real person and saw how everything isn’t as perfect as is portrayed or imagined. This made him more human, and suddenly you feel less bad about your own failures, because in agriculture there are always going to be failures that aren’t your fault. You know this in your mind, of course, but seeing that in-person somehow made it seem more OK. You still really want to succeed, and I’m not saying that failure is inevitable, but you learn to take mistakes in stride and keep going. We’ve already had some failures this past summer and fall, but I think we’ve done pretty well precisely because we’ve learned from seeing other people on our trip, even famous permaculture gurus, make mistakes and failures. That was enormously helpful.

Another thing that proved helpful from our trip was that we became accustomed to living in other people’s spaces. Whether or not we were living in our VW bus, we were still on someone else’s property, going by their schedule, trying to meet their needs. It taught us that we needed to work with others in order to be productive. If we’re truly going to cut our carbon emissions by relying on hand tools, we’re going to need plenty of people power. Living and working with various people in a farm setting helped me see how great things could be, but also what things to be careful about and perhaps do differently. I’m been meaning to write a post on what we learned as WWOOFers in terms of living and working with others. There’s lots to dig through there.

The Trip as Transition

Marc: As a bit of background, last year we purchased a 40-acre farm that was part of a homestead. The land was home to a heavily neglected former farm; they had attempted 20 to 30 years ago to turn the main field into a runway, so all the topsoil had been scraped off. All of that now has to be regrown and rebuilt. So our challenge is how to make the space fertile again, which is personally very exciting. One of our main focuses of the trip was on soil fertility and how to do exactly what the farm now requires of us, which is to take something barren and restore its fertility, not simply by dumping NPK on it, but by using animals, composting teas, and other natural processes. That bit dovetailed quite nicely in our present situation.

Jen: I think a lot of people can do a 180 in terms of going from living in the city to living in the country and making that change very quickly. My sister did that, and we see people right now moving from Calgary to Quadra doing that. I think Marc would have had no problems with that approach — he had a clear vision on what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go. I was more uncertain. I didn’t know whether this life would suit me, if I would be happy. I’d always lived in the city and had always pictured myself in the city. I also really wanted to travel, and I knew once we bought a farm and got animals we wouldn’t be very mobile, at least for a while, until we could find other people to help us.

So we managed the transition through travel, which I think is one of the unique parts of our story, and one I hope might help others if they’re thinking of shaking up their lives. We highly recommend doing it, both as a learning experience and as a way to manage the shift from one way of living to another. There are so many people out there living the life you think you want to live, so go out and meet them to experience that life in bits and pieces before you fully commit. It helped me a lot.

Settling Down on Quadra

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Marc: Jen and I have always been attracted to islands. We visited quite a few in our travels, big ones and small ones. Even before we decided on a specific place we thought an island was the best bet. There’s something about the human brain, I think; we’re apes, smart ones, but still apes, and we still crave that sense of place. We found that the geographical features of an island seem to create a unique sense of community. You’ve got that defined border that allows the brain to form the “Us,” yet there seems to be less of an impulse to create a “Them”. We liked that from a community perspective. Another appeal of islands is from an uncertain future perspective — there are finite resources on an island but also finite drawdown of those resources.

Jen: There’s a culture of self-sufficiency on islands that’s attractive. You can’t just go to Home Depot. Here on Quadra there are so many super handy people with gardens because you have to be that way if you’re living in a place like this. I think the island setting attracts people who want to be more independent and self-sufficient, homesteaders, like us.

As someone from the East Coast, there’s also the ocean. When Marc and I got married, I thought that if we ever left Calgary I would want to move to the coast again. Even though our farm now doesn’t have ocean views, I know it’s close-by.

The Farm So Far

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Our 8-bed fenced garden.

Jen: Someone asked me awhile back if there were any surprises since we bought the farm, and I said no. I truly believe we went into this with our eyes open because we learned so much from our travels. We had been looking at this particular piece of property for months, and sussed out what the main issues were going to be. I think we’ve been pretty prepared for what has happened, which is a lot. I’m not saying it’s not sometimes overwhelming because it is! There’s a lot of deal with and a lot of it is new, but our experiences and mindsets helped us handle the issues. We moved to Quadra almost a year before we bought property, so we had a great sense of the place and the community. We also made a lot of connections before we bought as well, which in hindsight was a good idea, because now we’re so busy we don’t ever leave home, but we don’t feel isolated. People come to us because we’ve established those support networks.

Marc: Right now things are a bit overgrown with scotch broom and blackberries, so we have a herd of goats as part of the plan to restore the land. We’ll start with the goats and then likely work up to sheep and potentially cows later on. Jen’s milking them and we’ll be upping our milk production and cheesemaking shortly.

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The girls helping to remove the sod.

The farm itself… I would call it magical. Everytime I’m looking for something I seem to find it, or if I need something the farm mysteriously provides. It’s a bit spooky how often this happens. One time my brother came by and I was telling him how often this happens and he made fun of me. A bit later I find this old-fashioned produce scale, and so he ribs me and says all I need now to start a farmstand is a cash register that goes ka-ching! Later on I’m cleaning the workshop, opening the last box I hadn’t gotten to. I open it up and inside was a toy cash register. I took it to my brother and said, “Don’t mess with the island, man!”

Local Food Security and Community Building

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Our friend Pete operating the press.

Marc: I’ve been involved making local food security presentations at something called the University of Quadra, and at the local Garden Club. It could be a three-day workshop but I changed the format to an hour-long presentation, exploring what kind of framework Quadra can work towards to become more food secure in the future. Permaculture is quite prevalent here, and lots of people practice it to various degrees.

Jen: I do think that people were very receptive towards permaculture, there’s always a lot of discussions afterwards. Food security’s not a new idea for them; it’s just we’re new blood who are bringing in new energy and getting more people motivated to do things. I think it’s a good fit for what’s happening here already.

Ultimately, we want to bring other people into what we’re doing here. We were fortunate to be able to work and save up a nest egg that allowed us to purchase this land. We’re hoping we can help others by giving them access to land and serving as an incubator for their learning journeys through the agriculture world. We have a vision of having others become part of the process here, because one of the key lessons we learned from our journey is that anyone who tries to do things in isolation is doomed to fail. It’s truly through community and building community that you find success. That’s one of the reasons we chose Quadra, for that sense of community.

Funny enough, my previous career was community engagement. So here we are, simply doing it once again.

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Looking forward to the new year and the adventures it brings…

Want to learn more about the Bank-Doll Family’s travels and farming adventures? Here’s a video on how they left the 9-5 lifestyle to start a start a sustainable permaculture farm:

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  • Amanda Tolan

    This was a great interview, Rob, exactly what I needed to hear right now! My husband and I are planning on doing something very similar to Marc and Jen this spring/summer. We have been wanting to get out of the city for a long time now, and finally last year we just decided, ‘what exactly are we waiting on?’ We were both unhappy and it was fear holding us back. So now we’re working on doing a few house upgrades, then planning to put the house up for sale in the spring. Our area of choice is the West Kootenays. We have gone camping there for the last few years, and love the people, the community vibe, climate, and support for local entrepreneurs. So our plan is to work on farms while we’re transitioning and looking for our own property to build a farm and eventually an orchard and cidery. We had both thought about living on the West coast also (my husband grew up in the Vancouver area), but the threat of a potential earthquake there made us think twice about that. 😉

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