The Promise of Permaculture, Part Two

“Permaculture needs to be based on reality… that’s real design, vs. play design. We need to get real…” —Mark Shepard, author of Restoration Agriculture.

The soil---the foundation of nearly everything.

Rich, fertile, soil, full of life—the foundation of nearly everything.

I was talking to a friend about soil yesterday, and describing that industrial-ag, soil-destruction sequence that I was discussing in my last post. He was really following along with me, and then, after much discussion, asked the question—“So what do we do about it?” Well, that part is complicated. And here’s where we get to the permaculture part, because permaculture is really at the exact other end of the spectrum from that industrial cornfield.

An example—if you take a piece of land, and manage the flows of water across it, and plant it with a wide variety of plants, and quit tilling the soil, and make sure that nutrients aren’t leaving the system, then that system will become progressively richer, more fertile, and more full of life. Life begets life. If left alone, nature will do much of this on its own. But, and here’s the “a-ha” moment that Bill Mollison had a half century ago that led him to develop what we call permaculture today—with just the right interactions, humans can accelerate this process. And, with proper design choices, the system can be made to provide abundantly for people, at the same time it grows richer and more diverse. From these ideas came Bill Mollison’s three ethics of permaculture—earth care, people care, and the return of surplus to the system. By the way, a trailer for a new film about the subject—

Now, I won’t try to explain all of permaculture here (though the trailer above actually gives a pretty good overview), but suffice it to say that permaculture methods can indeed be used to create little Gardens of Eden. The systems can vary in size, from small urban balconies, to homesteads with enough acreage to approach food self-sufficiency, to larger farms run by many people. The dream of the permaculture community is for these paradigms to become the norm, and for the human presence on the planet to become regenerative, healing the planet and all the life on it. Permaculturists typically seem to envision a reduced-energy future, with reduced consumption, much fewer material goods, but with a richer and more meaningful existence.

And, it is at this point in the train-of-thought that I begin to grimace just a bit, because the narrative begins to break down. For those of you that have been with me for a while, you’ll recognize the issue right away, because I’ve written about it repeatedly, from the very beginning. In short, we can’t all be self-sufficient (see post, “The Amish Question“). We can, with lots of work and plenty of knowledge, and if we happen to have land, approach food self-sufficiency. But we can’t be self-sufficient in clothing, and metals, and electronics, and solar panels, and PVC pipes, or electric fence chargers, or window glass, or any of the thousand others things that go into a food-self-sufficient homestead, not to mention medical care and education and government. Now, some of us can approach food self-sufficiency, and that’s good for the planet. The more permaculture yards and homesteads and farms we have, the better (see my post, “The Role of Self-Sufficiency“). But we can’t all spend our lives on permaculture homesteads, we still need doctors and teachers and researchers and people making clothing and shoes and steel, etc. And, those people will likely live in or near cities. City-dwellers can grow some of their food in urban balconies and street medians and empty lots, but this production won’t come close to feeding the urban population. Cities, as they have throughout history, will depend on the countryside around them. Food will flow in, and wastes will flow out (and, in the future, renewable energy will also be made in “the country”, and flow in).

So, it follows logically that we will therefore need farms that can produce food. And they can’t be like today’s industrial farms, because these methods are ruining the soil. What we need is for the ideas of permaculture to be scaled-up, and for the labor productivity of permaculture to be increased. Humans with hoes and wheelbarrows are usually lucky to feed themselves; we need mechanized farming operations that can feed many times more people than it took to produce the food. Fortunately we have some moves in that direction, moves that answer my friend’s question of “So what do we do about it?”.

I can best illustrate this, I think, with a series of videos. The first of these— “The Difference in Tilled and No-till Soils”. If you’re in a hurry, fast forward to 3:30, though what you’ll see will be amazing enough that you’ll want to back it up and get the details.

So, a dramatic demonstration of what tilling does to the soil. Now, here’s a video about the “no-till” part, where farmers sow cover crops, and then “terminate” them just prior to planting their cash crops–

These methods are much better than tilling, BUT, if you didn’t catch it, these farmers are still using glyphosate (“RoundUp”) to accomplish the “termination” part; to kill the cover crop prior to planting the main crop. But, there are other ways to do this—cover crops can be crimped or rolled, they can be mowed, or they can be grazed. Here’s the next step in my series, a farmer named Gabe Brown, from North Dakota, who has become something of a guru in the world of those concerned about soil.

Now, I don’t think Gabe Brown thinks of himself as a “permaculturist”, but he’s getting pretty close whether he realizes it or not. Nearly all of the elements are here—diversity, design systems that imitate nature, earth care, return of surplus. But he’s a large-scale farmer and rancher, and he farms for a living. Now, Gabe Brown mostly uses grazing to terminate his cover crops, but he also still uses some glyphosate (in another video he discusses how how is trying to quit using herbicides altogether, but still uses some, what he described as “one pass every few seasons”). Nevertheless, his system is amazing, and could, and should, be widely implemented. (Among other things, it could eliminate the confinement feeding of beef, and all the environmental damage that flows, literally, from that industry). So, is it possible to farm like this, and completely eliminate the use of glyphosate? It is indeed, and it is being called “pasture-cropping”. It was developed in Australia by a farmer named Colin Seis. Watch him tell his story—

Here we are approaching a system that is natural, holistic, diverse, and can be accomplished without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Again, very close to permaculture.

One last video here, a farmer I’ve written about before, Mark Shepard (post, “An Important Piece of the Puzzle“), who actually does refer to himself as a permaculturist. This one is long, but really explains the entire ball of wax—

So, to sum up—cover crops, mob grazing, plant and animal diversity, care of the soil, pasture-cropping, silvopasture, alley-cropping, regenerative systems, all on a larger scale. These are all being done today, for profit; these aren’t homesteaders trying to approach self-sufficiency. In the words of Mark Shepard, these farmers are “getting real”, and that’s the real promise of permaculture.

Earthworm image credit: “20071017_123755” by yama_hokkaido, Flickr Creative Commons.