Interview with Andrew Millison, Instructor in the Horticulture Department at Oregon State University and Founder of Permaculture Design International LLC, and Rishi Kumar, Founder of The Growing Home

Permaculture is difficult to define. There are many definitions out there on the web. How would you define it?

Millison: Permaculture Design is a method of planning that can be applied at many scales; from the home garden to city block, to village to farm. It 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.

Kumar: Permaculture is difficult to define because it is quite amorphous and presents itself very differently in different situations. I think of permaculture as a system of thinking, which draws upon the wisdom of indigenous cultures and balanced systems to create dynamic, productive solutions to a variety of problems.

How is permaculture different from other sustainable agricultural practices?

Kumar: Permaculture is different because of its much more holistic approach to addressing a problem (side note: permaculture is not an agricultural system, but a design system that can be applied to any problem). 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.

As an example, my farm's chickens are not ‘organic’ because they are not fed 100% organic food. Most organic chickens are fed a low-nutrition diet of corn and soy, because that is the cheapest organic feed available. I, however, choose to feed my chickens organic feed, plus a rich diet of greens, grass, bugs, food waste, and brewery waste. 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.

Millison: Firstly, permaculture is not a sustainable agricultural practice. Permaculture is a design system that employs a wide range of practices to fulfill the goals for a site-specific ecological design. 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.

What are the benefits?

Millison: Depending on how you are using the permaculture design system, there different kinds of benefits. For farmers, resilience would be number one. Permaculture employs a concept called ‘stacking functions’, where each element serves multiple functions, and each critical function is served by multiple elements. So 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. Then 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 also 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.

Kumar: Permaculture designed systems have cascading benefits. From the beginning, 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. 

For example, 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).

We are now testing our systems on a slightly larger scale through our urban farm At this farm we are creating systems that restore soil, harvest water, grow food, and generate an income.

How does applying patterns found in nature to the design and construction of human and natural environments help better achieve a sustainable living system?

Kumar: Most problems humanity is dealing with today were solved by nature millions of years ago in ways much smarter and cheaper than we can imagine with our advanced technology. An example of how we think: How can sunlight be converted into energy? Engineers spend thousands of hours trying to solve this problem with solar panels, solar condensers, etc. Nature designed the tree millions of years ago. Trees converted sunlight into energy very easily. That energy can be harvested and used very easily. Trees produce no waste. Trees do not require minerals to be mined from the Earth. Trees do not need complex industrial processes to be recycled. The UN just completed a study that the cheapest and most efficient way to soak carbon up from the air is not through a complex industrial process, but through the planting of trees.

Millison: One of the crucial environmental errors of our civilization was to impose a grid of property ownership on a non-gridded landscape. The 'property boundaries' in nature are ridges, hilltops, streams and shore lines. This means roadways that channel water and fences that delineate management blocks are placed arbitrarily in relation to natural patterns of water movement and biotic communities. Permaculture seeks to fix this problem by creating geomorphic designs, where the layout of roads, fences, buildings and vegetation conforms to the natural shape of the land. The benefits to geomorphic design are numerous.

Regarding water, the hydrologic cycle is restored where water moves through the watershed in more natural patterns, and lines of water movement as well as steep slopes are kept vegetated, keeping streams, creeks and rivers healthy for humans, wildlife, and replenishing water tables. Regarding energy, buildings are placed in relation to the movement of the sun, maximizing passive solar gain and minimizing energy use. Regarding wildlife and agricultural areas, fences and fields are placed in the spaces between the critical habitat of riparian areas, so wildlife corridors are kept intact as the connective tissue of nature, and farm and other natural systems can be in a harmoniously patterned relationship to each other.

I’ve read that permaculture is a process that respects nature, rather than working against it. Can you explain what this means, and why this is important?

Millison: It's about recognizing the patterns of nature, and designing to enhance natural systems through your design choices. I have discussed ways this can apply to a farm layout in the previous answer. When we recognize and respect the hydrologic cycle and the branching pattern of water flowing through a watershed, then our design response will work to enhance and benefit the hydrologic cycle. The opposite of that is to disturb the hydrologic cycle with our actions, like deforesting steep hills which cause erosion and stream siltation, or placing a road where it shunts polluted storm runoff directly into a creek while dehydrating a slope, or over-pump from an aquifer and drying up an adjacent river. When we respect and understand the patterns of natural systems, then we make design choices that enhance these natural systems and recognize their natural capital. A farmer/ecologist is a potent combination for this work!

Kumar: No one can work against Nature. All humans are part of Nature and it is impossible to do something unnatural. 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, both are necessary. Currently, however we have lost our balance and are imitating the destructive part of Nature too much. We are a hurricane, tornado, flood, and volcano combined. What permaculture does is imitate the creative parts of Nature. How does a Nature turn barren land into a forest? How does Nature build soil? How does Nature harvest water?

Why has permaculture remained a niche field in agriculture? And do you foresee it becoming more mainstream in the future?

Kumar: Permaculture has remained a niche for one simple reason: permaculture looks at systems and problems holistically and designs holistic solutions to those problems. Industrial agriculture, subsidized by the government, by cheap oil, by slave labor, by wars, externalizes its costs and its problems to society, creating the illusion of cheap food. As long as those subsidies remain in place, it will be difficult for permaculture to become mainstream. As you know, however, these subsidies are starting to unwind as people realize the high cost of industrial food and as that cost becomes more apparent through rising health care costs, wars, climate change, etc. 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. In fact, your sending me these questions to answer is a prime indication of how quickly industrial food is failing and alternative, ecological techniques are rising.

Millison: In the U.S., permaculture has typically been practiced in the realm of the home gardener or small acreage homesteader. That may have to do with the fact that the culture of ecological innovators has tended to be more alternative, which may not appeal to more traditional farmers. 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. We find a much greater uptake of permaculture principles by more mainstream farmers in Australia because of that legacy. 

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.

But a lot of the stresses of climate change are really pushing folks to seek sustainable ways of doing things, because they literally have no choice if they want to continue farming in places like the Central Valley in California. So the interest in permaculture in general right now is completely 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.

What is the future of permaculture?

Millison: 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.

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. Large scale agriculture will see it as a solution to water problems, and that could be the doorway in to re-patterning large monoculture systems into geomorphic, biodiverse, and profitable landscapes that build soil and enhance communities and ecosystems. Small farmers will continue to see the innate logic and practicality of the permaculture design system and attain the profitable self-reliance that gives them a sense of freedom. 

But 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.