Broad-scale Permaculture Farming

Back in January I wrote a blog called “Oil and Food Prices” that has been the most cross posted and commented upon at this site.  The content of that post was very simple—the price of food is very tightly correlated with the price of oil.  And the reason for this correlation is also very easy to understand, i.e., a lot of energy goes into getting food from farm to fork.

While this is news to many food buyers, it is a subject that spawned the creation of the Permaculture design system way back in the 1970s when the world was also concerned about oil prices.  The idea was to study how humans use energy to obtain what they need and to devise strategies for meeting human needs without high inputs of fossil fuels.  It is an approach that differs markedly from others in that it isn’t trying to find a 1:1 replacement of fossil fuels with renewable alternatives, but instead aims to design whole systems that have much less need for energy inputs in the first place.

In other words, Permaculture systems aim to break the correlation between oil prices and food prices.

Fast-forward 40 years and we have both good news and bad news.  The bad news is that we are as dependent on fossil fuels today as ever.  The good news is that many people have been developing and refining Permaculture systems so we do have much more knowledge to draw upon.

So I was glad to meet Andrew Millison, a Permaculture instructor in the Horticulture department at Oregon State University.  Together we are teaching a summer course that is described as follows:

For a transition to a sustainable culture, we must design and rehabilitate the broad swaths of commercial agricultural lands into ecologically sound and economically profitable Permaculture systems. In this class we will explore the dynamics of hedgerows, broad scale water harvesting, soil regeneration, animal and crop rotations, habitat restoration, income diversification, transition timelines, and farm certifying organizations.

This course is open to OSU students as well as members of the general public (and you can still sign up). The cost is a very reasonable $300 for the week of June 20-24.  And the best part is that while the classroom time is held on the Oregon State campus, most of the course takes place on beautiful farms, especially Farmland LP’s Fern Rd property.

Energy and Organic Agriculture

Some may be wondering what is the relationship between Permaculture and Farmland LP, which bills itself as converting conventional farmland to certified organic farmland.  Well, organic methods are one of many ways to reduce energy inputs.  A life cycle analysis of actual staple crop production in Canada, for example, found that overall energy inputs in organic systems were 39% of conventional inputs per kilogram of grain yielded, or a whopping 61% lower (see table from this paper below).  (And go here for discussion of a research approach asking similar questions in the US but using controlled field plot studies).

The primary contributor to lower fossil fuel use on organic farms is the avoidance of nitrogen made from fossil fuels, while using biologically fixed nitrogen instead.  In the study referenced above, the source of nitrogen on organic farms was annual green manure crops, such as a clover.

A review paper with the wonderful title Eco-efficient approaches to land management: a case for increased integration of crop and animal production systems makes a strong argument (as I have on this blog) that savings are even greater when legume-rich pasture and crop systems rotate.  Multi-year pastures have a few advantages over annual green manure crops.  First, the cost of seed and fuel to plant the pasture is spread out over years instead of just part of a year.  Second, pasture roots have time to go deeper and condition soil more completely.  Third, soil born disease and weed populations that impact annual crops are not given a chance to grow for multiple years, essentially cleansing the soil for annuals when they return.  Fourth, rotational grazing systems build organic matter and nutrients at a faster rate and to a higher level than does a single season of a green manure crop.

Livestock grazing a diverse pasture in a rotating paddock system help build soil fertility

Permaculture is a design system, not a particular production method, and it emphasizes using natural biological cycles as much as possible.  For this reason it does have an overlap with organic or agroecological farming systems.  But I also see someone with a Permaculture background adding to the potential of a farm.

I can envision Permaculture designers looking at a Farmland LP property and paying attention to the edges of fields more than most traditional farmers would.  A lot of action occurs at borders and they can be useful places for adding value.  For example, planting trees or a hedge row will reduce wind speed across fields.  Less wind means lower stress on plants and animals, such as through less water loss during the summer in crops and by reducing rapid heat loss in livestock during winter cold spells. A hedge row may also shelter and provide food for beneficial insects that end up pollinating crops, and livestock may gain access to browsing forage that balances their diet.

To make farms as resource efficient and productive as possible, while developing greater resilience, is a fabulous challenge.  I am eager to bring as many minds towards this goal as I can and hope many students can come and begin learning and contributing their talents.

4 thoughts on “Broad-scale Permaculture Farming”

  1. You make an interesting point concerning permaculture and its relation to agroecological farming. I think a finer delineation of where and how permaculture principles might be utilized on an agroecological farm would be helpful. We can certainly say that a specific agroecological method is drawn from permaculture or vice versa; but ultimately, they remain very different systems that simply share the fact that ecological principles are utilized. Permaculture emphasizes polyculture, which is not extensively, if at all, utilized in traditional agroecological systems. The example you give concerning edge ecology is an interesting example; but to me that’s more of an agroecological method than a permaculture one. I think a true integration of permaculture and agroecology is best encompassed in the three-sisters guild (corn, bean, squash). If it were planted over a large area, it would demonstrate traditional agriculture uniformity, as well as permaculture-based polyculture.

  2. Thanks for your comments. I can see where you are coming from. Permaculture practitioners tend to work with polycultures and that is rarely done in broad-scale agriculture. The best example where it is, that I can think of at the moment, would be in diverse pastures.

    It is difficult to grow seed crops in mixed systems, but I am interested in exploring this opportunity too. With modern seed cleaning equipment it may be possible to harvest multiple species at once and then separate during processing. This is likely to raise the cost to process, but could lower other costs or risks? Of course the Land Institute and others envision a seed crop system that is based on perennial polycultures. A lot more work should be done to make this a practical reality asap.

    I see permaculture as a very flexible design system that acknowledges we all must make do in the here and now, and so I don’t see temporary monocultures as incompatible. They may make plenty of sense in the local context, both spatially and temporally, though we can work towards something better.

  3. I agree. Both systems provide varying levels of utility and both will be required for a pragmatic approach. When the time comes, It would be interesting to see a cost/benefit analysis of an annual monoculture with rotation versus an annual polyculture of seed crops.

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