Why Permaculture? Part II
The Food Journal
June 11, 2015
Imagine being able to live in a sustainable way in all areas of life, achieving energy efficiency, water and food security, and rehabilitating landscape into productive land. These ideas are all part of the matrix of Permaculture Design, a method of planning that can be applied at many scales; from the home garden to city block, to village to farm.
What Exactly Is Permaculture?
Permaculture is an ethically based whole-systems design approach that uses concepts, principles, and methods derived from ecosystems, indigenous peoples, and other time-tested practices to create sustainable human settlements and institutions. Although rooted in horticulture and agriculture, permaculture design is interdisciplinary, touching on a wide range of subjects including regional planning, ecology, animal husbandry, appropriate technology, architecture, anthropology, and international development.
Andrew Millison, an instructor in the Horticulture Department at Oregon State University, and founder of Permaculture Design International LLC, says that permaculture is, at its heart, a design system that employs a wide range of practices to fulfill the goals for a site-specific ecological design. Permaculture builds on 12 design principles that make it possible to create and redesign an environment while using less energy and fewer resources.
There are many ways in which people use permaculture in the design of sustainable agricultural systems. Permaculture principles say to "Use and Value Diversity," so biodiversity is implicit. Another principle is to "Integrate Rather Than Segregate," so polyculture versus monoculture plant and animal systems are used. Another principle says to "Produce No Waste", so composting and nutrient cycling are employed. The list goes on and on.
“The actual practices are very similar with well-done sustainable agriculture projects. But the overall design for a permaculture farm integrates the patterns of nature into the overall farm layout, enhancing wildlife corridors, the hydrological cycle, soil stability, plant diversity, and human social and economic systems. Many naturally adept farmers and traditional indigenous farmers who have never heard the word ‘Permaculture’ will have a farm that looks and acts like a permaculture,” says Millison.
Permaculture and Agriculture
Permaculture employs a concept called "stacking functions," where each element serves multiple functions, and each critical function is served by multiple elements. So, for example, for an agricultural water system the goal of having an assured supply of water for crops would be met using multiple elements: first, having healthy soils with high organic matter content to hold water; second, having tree belts and hedgerows interplanted throughout the landscape to lessen drying winds and raise relative humidity; third, capturing stormwater runoff using swales or diversion drains to soak water into the tree belts and replenish the water table; fourth, collecting water in reservoirs for gravity fed irrigation if possible; and lastly, an irrigation well to use as back-up, or connection to a municipal supply or irrigation ditch.
Those tree belts or hedgerows that are performing all those beneficial functions can also produce a yield of fruits, nuts, firewood, biomass, and provide habitat for beneficial insect, amphibian or animal species. And then the irrigation reservoir can additionally provide a microclimate surrounding them that has the temperature moderated by the body of water and the relative humidity raised around it, giving the opportunity for a higher diversity of yields.
“The interconnections between elements are the hallmark of a permaculture system, and the benefits are tangible in greater diversity of yields and greater resilience to disturbance, like drought, strong winds, pestilence, or extreme cold. The permaculture farm is resilient to stresses, and the farmer has 'right livelihood', where he is making his income and taking care of the land for future generations,” says Millison.
Permaculture designed systems have cascading benefits. From the beginning, Millison says, each part of the system is designed to help support, enrich, and maintain other parts of the system. Human work is reduced not by the use of machines and petroleum, but by intelligent design and proper use of systems already existing in nature.
Rishi Kumar, founder of The Growing Home, an educational center, model of sustainable living, and urban farm located in the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles, says that permaculture is different in this sense because of its much more holistic approach to addressing a problem.
“In our home (1/8 acre), we are able to maintain our small landscape which hosts nearly 70 fruit trees, 40 animals, a beehive, a large variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, medicinal plants and more, with just two to three hours of maintenance work each week. We are able to do this because we have designed intelligent systems that do the heavy lifting for us. Because our soil is not tilled, our soil is rich with worms, which continue till the soil and add their castings to it. Because we have chickens and vermicompost bins, we do not need to spend any time composting our food scraps (the chickens and worms do it for us),” says Kumar.
Kumar is now testing their systems on a slightly larger scale through their urban farm Sarvodayafarms.com. At this farm they are creating systems that restore soil, harvest water, grow food, and generate an income. Meanwhile, the Growing Home is a demonstration site for what the suburbs will need to look and live like in the future, says Kumar.
“We are demonstrating how by using nature's intelligence we can convert the surburbs from places of isolation, material consumption, and ecological damage to living, dynamic communities where people connect, food is grown, and ecological benefit is created. Since 2009, we have reduced our home's use of water by nearly 50 percent, diverted hundreds of thousands of pounds of organic waste from the landfill, reduced our electricity use by 50 percent, produced tens of thousands of pounds of food, created several inches of organic matter rich soil, returned water to the water table, and taught thousands of people in our community and around the world to do the same,” he says. (Click here for an interview with our experts).
Is A Permaculture Farm An Organic Farm?
Interestingly, while some permaculture may include organic farming, organic farming is not an automatic addition. Whereas organic is defined by certain rules and regulations (mostly disallowing the use of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers), a permaculture-designed agriculture system would strive for the health of a farm's ecosystem as a whole, from the crops to the animals to the farmer to the business. Organic farming could be a part of that but on Kumar’s property, the holistic approach includes feeding his chickens organic feed, plus a rich diet of greens, grass, bugs, food waste, and brewery waste. This means that his farm's chickens are not "organic" because they are not fed 100 percent organic food.
“The food waste and brewery waste are non-organic foods that would otherwise create environmental damage if they were to end up in a landfill, but I choose to feed these items to our chickens because they increase the diversity of foods the chickens are eating, divert organic matter from landfill, and prevent greenhouse gas emissions. A certified organic farmer couldn't make that choice,” says Kumar.
In countries like Australia, where permaculture was founded, they have a long legacy of large-scale innovative ecological agriculture. Permaculture was greatly inspired by "Keyline Design", an Australian farm design system that dates back to the 1940's. Keyline Design became very mainstream in Australia for its brilliant water harvesting and reservoir systems, soil improvement methods, and integration of trees and forestry in with cropping and grazing. There is a much greater uptake of permaculture principles by more mainstream farmers in Australia because of that legacy.
In the U.S., however, permaculture has typically been practiced in the realm of the home gardener or small acreage homesteader. That may have to do with the fact, says Millison, that the culture of ecological innovators has tended to be more alternative, which may not appeal to more traditional farmers.
“In the U.S., with industrial agriculture farming most of the ground, there are fewer and fewer people out on the land managing larger and larger acreage. Permaculture is about site-specific design, and making unique design choices for each place to enhance the lives of the people there and make productive agricultural systems and healthy ecologies. Industrial agriculture needs to homogenize practices and treatments in order to make it profitable. So complex and diverse cultivated systems don't fit that model,” says Millison.
Millison says that a lot of the stresses of climate change are really pushing folks to seek sustainable ways of doing things, because they have no choice if they want to continue farming in places like the Central Valley in California. Therefore, the interest in permaculture in general right now is blowing up, and there's a steep exponential curve in interest as people seek answers to how we are going to inhabit this Earth through the next century and beyond.
“The permaculture field is evolving very quickly these days. Media outlets are developing and disseminating information more widely than ever. Young people are fired up and aspiring for good paying work doing permaculture. Universities are teaching it, and investors are putting money into permaculture land developments. I've been at this since 1996 and I see the tide rising quickly now, as the stresses of population growth, climate change, and the great resource grab by corporations and governments all crash onto shore. Permaculture is hailed as a solution and is being embraced by home gardeners, farmers, aid organizations, city planners, developers, architects, regional water authorities, and the list goes on,” says Millison. “The future of permaculture is as a legitimate design science that is widely embraced and used across disciplines to address and fix many of the world's problems.”
Kumar agrees. He says that permaculture has remained a niche field for one simple reason: permaculture looks at systems and problems holistically and designs holistic solutions to those problems, while the current model subsidizes systems (i.e. cheap labor, cheap oil) that are not sustainable and that create the illusion of cheap food.
“As long as these systems remain in place, it will be difficult for permaculture to become mainstream. But as these industrial systems continue to disassemble due to the problems they have created, permaculture and other holistic design and farming techniques will come to the forefront because they are intelligent, creative, and healthful,” says Kumar.
Also, Kumar points out, no one can work against nature. Part of permaculture is recognizing this fact. Humans can choose to imitate the destructive parts of nature or the creative parts. Neither is bad or good, says Kumar, and both are necessary.
“Ultimately, the permaculture ethics of 'Care of Earth,' ‘Care of People,' and 'Distribution of Surplus Back into Earth Care and People Care' need to be adopted for the full potency of this design system to be realized. Unless we can move the human will towards wanting to make a better world for all, then things will continue to degenerate. So in a way, the future of permaculture lies in the human heart and mind. The permaculture design system works. It is a proven and potent tool for healing the Earth and creating an abundant reality. People just need to make the choice to use it,” adds Millison.
Click here to read Part I of our Permaculture series.