Brock Dolman and Olivia Rathbone on the Sowing Circle at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center North of San Francisco
In 1994 a group of seven friends began living and farming together after taking over an 80-acre, 1974 organic farm 70 miles north of San Francisco that had been left to decay. They set up an intentional community around farming and wildlife restoration, as well as water management and permaculture, raising their families & learning by doing during a long-term restoration process that will hit its 50 Anniversary soon.
One of the first actions taken in the founding of the Sowing Circle community was an agreement made by all partners that each owner’s “share” in the company that owns the land would not be linked to the land’s market value.
The group worked with the previous landowner to create the first Organic Agricultural Easement in the country which protects in perpetuity the organic gardens and orchards from any development or any use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Today their Occidental Arts & Ecology Center (OAEC) is one of California’s oldest organic farms and their Sowing Circle one of its most-enduring intentional communities. At the start, they wanted to put to practice their ideas of permaculture, water management, and wildlife restoration.
The idea was to live like the land-based communities that predated them- like the Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok-, much like an old-growth forest. “Until recently, the majority of human settlement has functioned much like an old-growth forest,” writes OAEC kitchen manager Olivia Rathbone. “Humans... have long had the skills and knowledge to actually increase the biological carrying capacity of the land rather than deplete it, to render the concept of 'waste' obsolete.”
Today, their kitchen waste is composted, either directly or via their chickens. Their human waste is sent through one of three commercial-grade composting toilet systems - one of which involves mycelium - and which are being monitored by the county and state as testing grounds for more widespread use. Tree clippings (for fire management) become mulch. Their greywater is recycled in the gardens and even their seeds are saved in a very extensive heirloom seed library.
There’s a long history of land-based communities here, after the Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok cane Italian and Portuguese homesteaders in the late 1800’s and finally, from 1974 through 1990 the Farallones Institute established their Rural Center here (a counterpoint to their Integral Urban House in Berkeley) where scientists, designers, and horticulturists lived together and experimented around appropriate technology and sustainable design. Their cluster of 5 300-square-foot passive solar cabins (financed through the state’s Office of Appropriate Technology in the seventies) called “Solar Suburbia” is still the main residential cluster, though they have been enlarged to 700 to 900 square feet.
Brock Dolman moved here in 1994 as one of the seven founding friends of the Sowing Circle. His advice to those hoping to start their own intentional community or permaculture practice: listen to your predecessors rather than trying to follow trends or recipes for design. “It’s really taking our cues from what is the genius of nature that has been in that place for eons and eons and eons.
It has adapted to the conditions: temperature, moisture, soil, availability, slopes, aspects, the traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous people's interacting with that landscape over time. Why we would disregard those clues and impose an idea that we happen to make up because we think we have a better idea. I think our sense is that that's just human hubris and folly."