As you enter the field of sustainable agriculture, one term you will come into frequent contact with is permaculture. Permaculture is a very complex, systems-oriented topic and is thus difficult to summarize without leaving out any pertinent information. This discussion is intended to be merely an introduction.
In short, permaculture seeks to imitate natural systems and take a holistic approach to sustainable living and growing food. This emphasis on natural design results in a system that can be modified and applied anywhere around the globe (thus its appeal to urban gardeners). No design element is emphasized more than another because the key lies in the interaction of elements. In other words, the whole is larger than the sum of the parts.
The word permaculture was originally a portmanteau word combining permanent and agriculture. It is now considered a combination of permanent and culture, reflecting an expansion of the system into all aspects of society.
Note that, while permaculture is usually organic in nature, it is much more than simply growing things without chemicals. What is typically regarded as “organic farming” is often a prime example of a focus on one part of the system to the exclusion of all others.
A Little Background
The roots of permaculture go back as far as interest in sustainable farming practices. The term itself, however, originated from the subtitle of a 1929 book by Joseph Russell Smith, Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture. The concept of forestry agriculture sparked interest among those seeking ways of making farming sustainable.
Besides forestry agriculture, other ideas and systems from the early and mid-1900s that may have influenced the various renditions of permaculture include:
- No-dig gardening.
- No-till farming.
- Raising fruit trees without pruning.
- Herbicide-free grain cultivation.
- P.A. Yeomans’s keyline plan.
In the late 1960s, Australian scientist Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren began their observations of the rise of industrial agriculture and its consequences. A brief examination of the loss of biodiversity, topsoil, and water quality associated with commercial farming convinced them that a more sustainable system needed to be developed. As a wildlife biologist, Mollison was particularly disturbed by the effect farming was having on natural ecosystems. However, he quickly came to the conclusion that he wanted to respond with a positive solution rather than impotent rage. The result was the term permaculture (coined in the mid-1970s by the scientific duo) and the system it represented.
Permaculture has continued to evolve since its creation. One of the earliest changes came in the 1980s, when the focus shifted from farming specifically to society as a whole.
Permaculture is now popular among sustainable farmers across the world. Elements of permaculture design have influenced many more farmers who do not adhere dogmatically to any particular theory (e.g., Joel Salatin).
The Three Core Tenets or Ethics
- Earth care. This implies provision for all forms of life. The idea is that a healthier earth will better enable humans to thrive. This first tenet of permaculture trickles down into all aspects of the system. While permaculture recognizes that not everyone is in a position to grow all of their own food, it does require that all choose to make purchases that are compatible with a healthy environment.
- People care. This implies that all people should have access to the resources necessary for life. Enjoyable lifestyles free from tedium are also a priority. Permaculture emphasizes that all people have value and should be treated with respect. It also encourages strong community ties, fostered by local trade.
- Fair share. This implies that no one should take more than they need from the system and that all should return what they do not need back to the system. Permaculturists tend to view the third tenet as the antithesis of the industrial model.
The 12 Principles of Design
- Observe and interact. Food systems truly customized to our unique circumstances cannot be achieved without observing how nature works. This demands that the farmer slow down and take time to think, rather than constantly rush from one to-do to the next.
- Catch and store energy. Surplus energy should be harvested and stored for times of need, whatever form it takes. Solar energy can be captured in a cold frame or greenhouse. Water energy running out the downspout can be stored in barrels or cisterns. Nutrient energy in the form of surplus animal manure can be conserved in the form of compost.
- Obtain a yield. Work without an adequate return is a waste. Permaculturists fully expect to eat the fruits of their labor. They may even trade or sell the surplus. They also tend to expect a harvest of intangibles, such as satisfaction with their work.
- Apply self-regulation and accept feedback. No one escapes responsibility for their own actions.
- Use and value renewable resources and services. Examples of this principle include saving seeds, growing mostly perennial plants, and building a house out of local natural materials.
- Produce no waste. Permaculturists are often advocates of recycling and composting everything from paper to dinner scraps to household wastewater. They are also big fans of labor efficiency—the system is typically designed with a view to letting ecosystems sustain themselves with as little effort as possible.
- Design from patterns to details. Stepping back and observing patterns and interactions comes first in permaculture. The details can be filled in as necessary.
- Integrate rather than segregate. Permitting interactions between different parts of the system promotes sustainability. Permaculture seeks to build “guilds” of symbiotic plants and animals rather than a patchwork of “vegetables here, chickens there, and corn field over yonder.”
- Use small and slow solutions. The bigger the design, the more inputs it will require to keep it running. This principle precludes allowing huge multinational corporations to handle the world’s food supply (even the world’s organic food supply).
- Use and value diversity. Diverse food systems are less likely to collapse under pressure than monocultures. Furthermore, diversity within the system maximizes efficiency. Diversity is reflected in the emphasis of permaculture on layers of food production. For example, a tree canopy will be supplemented with an understory layer of smaller shade-loving trees followed by a layer of shrubs such as berry bushes. No permaculture system can ever be labeled “cash crop farm,” “poultry farm,” “pig farm,” etc.
- Use edges and value the marginal. Permaculture practitioners believe that the transition zone from one ecosystem to another is often the most productive part of either ecosystem. This principle is utilized by maximizing the area devoted to edges and borders. For example, a pond might be constructed with a meandering shoreline to increase the amount of area devoted to the transition zone between land and water.
- Creatively use and respond to change. In fact, despite its emphasis on “permanent,” permaculture allows for relatively little permanence, mimicking nature’s pattern of ecological succession. Livestock is rotated, crops are rotated, etc. Even fruit tree plantings are mixed up, with different species and varieties intermingled.
Permaculture advocates often list the following benefits of their system:
- Better quality of life for the farmer due to increased variety and lowered risk of crop failure.
- Beautiful natural landscapes.
- Adaptability to any environment, even an urban backyard.
- Inexpensive production.
- Reduced labor requirements.
It has been noted that a permaculture system is only as good as the designer. Because permaculture is inexorably founded on ethics and observation, the whole system breaks down in the hands of the unethical and the unobservant. The permaculturist must be willing to continually learn, grow, and plan.
Permaculture and agroforestry are not inherently synonymous (although one might think so reading some descriptions of permaculture systems). Permaculture is, by design, adaptable to any ecosystem. But the heavy emphasis on creating forests may present a challenge to those seeking knowledge on practicing permaculture in native grassland environments. Building a grass-based permaculture system will require particularly close attention to nature and some dedicated research.
And, of course, conventional agriculturalists argue that permaculture cannot match the yields of modern farming methods. But they are not the only ones. Some biologists also note that the natural forests permaculturists seek to mimic are not capable of feeding the world—in fact, that is why humans developed agriculture.
Again, this post is merely an introduction to a complex topic. Permaculture is an involved subject in and of itself; plus it takes on a variety of forms as it is adapted to varying circumstances. Farmers of all stripes and beliefs use permaculture, and the system tends to reflect their different values. If you are interested in permaculture, take the time to search for a presentation that will fit with your values, as well as your natural ecosystem.