Re: Farm scale permaculture, sustainable? Long reply.
In a message dated 1/15/97 9:54:06 PM, firstname.lastname@example.org (Mark
>Snip... Others have chosen other paths. Grazers are useing various animals
>efficently harvest permanent pastures. Biological farming maximizes
>biological activity in soils by carfully ballanceing many minerals insted of
>few. They reduce the need for nitrogen, horsepower and ultimately crop
>land as the yeilds are high and consistant. Small farmers are finding
>better ways to market more directly to the consumer through producer coops
>and CSA's All farmers have an economic insentive to lower input costs.
>Permaculture, HRM and other design systems are natural allies of this kind
>of agriculture. I will certianly be using these ideas when I build my farm
>(at least the house should be sustainable). I plan to start nursery work
>this year and looking for land soon, so if people have ideas for plants and
>critters for Zone 4 North America, drop me a line, (esp. Tamworth or Herford
>hogs or Dexter cattle) . If your from SW Wisconsin I know great seed
>Also, where the hell is my electric tractor?
A farmer is no more inept than a city person who doesn't know what to do with
a bushel of wheat. DON'T PUT WORDS INTO MY MOUTH!
When grazing is self-contained, it will be sustainable. When your
"efficient' grazing is shipping the results to a city, it is just more
efficiently mining the soil. When the curse of all farming, tillage
soybeans, stop being trendy in organic markets, a great deal of soil will be
saved. Permaculture can make farming less destructive, whatever name it goes
by. Possibly it would be wise to call it something else. No one on this
list is living sustainably or we wouldn't have computers. I don't think that
we have given much thought to sustainable computer manufacture. And how many
use the same computer they had only 5 years ago. My Mac plus is collecting
dust in my daughter's attic. My car is more sustainable in that regard as we
routinely run cars over 20 years old.
The point isn't to call farmers "inept." The point is to be sure we mean it
when we say sustainable. We don't have all that much time to become
sustainable or it will be done by Mother Earth.
My personal strategy, and I share it only as something we chose for
ourselves, is to develop our permaculture design to the point where it can be
self-sustainaing and Earth-sustaining when the time comes. As long as
Cynthia uses the truck to drive 20 miles for her midwifery job, we aren't
sustainable. As long as I get information on the net, we aren't sustainable.
As long as we have an electric pump for our water, we aren't sustainable.
We like to eat out, for goodness sake! We are going in that direction.
It IS possible for us to sustain this land and greatly reduce the burden on
Mother Earth that we cause by implementing our permaculture design. Only
with the collapse of industrial society and the cash economy can we become
sustainable beyond that. Our water buffalo (planned, not here yet) will not
do for transportation 20 miles each way on a regular basis. Until then, we
may still have mortgage payments, we are unlikely to give up entirely on the
grid, we will probably continue to buy our clothing or at least he fabric
(Cynthia can sew anything from tents on down), and we will probably indulge
ourselves in foods that we dont grow merely to indulge ourselves. This is
not sustainable either.
When this comes up in my permaculture classes, we look at the process of
succession. Some vandal comes along and clears and plows the land to grow
crops. Then justice prevails and he is struck by lightening. The land tries
to recover. She does not sprout up the mature forest that may have been
there. No, we get annual weeds, then grasses & forbs, and so forth, step by
step building the route back to the efficient mature ecosystem. Is a weedy
field sustainable? No, it is still losing soil. But the process that throws
up the weed is sustainable because it moves us toward a truely efficient
sustainable ecosystem. There is a sustainable ecosystem in the future.
We can move our little 8 (soon to be 12) acre piece toward sustainability,
bringing in critical species, building chinampas, developing aquaculture,
bringing in grazers, etc. So long as we accrue efficiency and storage
capacity on the land, improve the cycling of nutrients, work toward efficient
utilization of rain and surface water, etc., and CONTINUALLY REDUCE OUR
DEPENDENCE on outside resources (that is, slow down the rate at which we rip
off other ecosystems), we are in a sustainable development process, even
though the current stage, like the weeds in the field, is unsustainable. The
minute we stop taking steps toward sustainability, we are no longer in a
sustainable development pattern.
Because a farm can never be sustainable, it cannot be in a pattern that leads
toward sustainability. Therefore, the development or design itself, no
matter how much it reduces the damage done by the farm, is never a
A farm can never be sustainable because it requires large energy subsidies to
transport products to people outside the farm. It can never be sustainable
because it exports nutrients, e.g. hair, hides, flesh, blood and bone in the
case of grazing. These are very high nutrient products. The main exceptions
to this point are crops such as honey, some fruits and some flowers, that
contain virtually no mineral and only carbohydrate--eg they are made almost
entirely of sun, water and carbon dioxide. Since these are continually
replenished, the export of such crops does not deplete soils, though it is
still unsustainable because of the transport energy required. There is also
a high waste factor in exporting food. Since people who love their land will
import products to replace the exported nutrients, their farm is also
unstustainable because it exploits other ecosystems--raids them for
nutrients. A notable exception could be modest withdrawals of sea weed by
coastal dwellers, though the effects on the local ecology need to be looked
at closely. Certainly the use of seawater in remineralization is
sustainable. Finally, farms aren't sustainable because the farmer is trying
to manage more land than s/he can intimately relate with. The farm becomes a
control phenomenon, rather than a participation phenomenon.
OK, what DO we do. Well, we keep the current system, because that is what we
learn from Mother Earth. She doesn't overthrow the field and immediately
reinstate the forest--at least not seen on a human time scale. We can make
the farming food system better--that is what I understand Mark to be trying
to do. Permaculture design principles can help. But we design to replace
the farm system with something that is the next step toward sustainability.
I've not seen any useful discussion anywhere of what that step is. Instead
we get bogged down in defense and attacks on farming, etc. That would seem
to be a useful function of this mailing list.
Drawing from my, admittedly limited, observations of Mother Earth over some
57 years, I'd say that we need a grab-bag of strategies. A bunch of weeds.
Well I have discussed this, mainly in the US, Canada, Mexico and New
Zealand, but I've not done a good job because the concept of successional
economic systems hasn't caught on. On the other hand, some of the examples I
mentioned have been instituted, no doubt inspired by many sources of
Ooops, I've skipped a step. We can't fix farming separate fromt he economic
system in which it is imbedded. Farming is the basis of capitalism--where
the idea came from, but it has been left in its own dust in terms of the
spread of this scarcity philosophy. (Communism and socialism are variants on
capitalism--lets skip that debate, please.) So long as we are bogged in the
industrial model of economics, where there are producers and consumers, and
where each enterprise is a separate linear system, we are lost. The
pressures of the current economic system are so powerful that we have to
replace it with something more sustainable. Hence economics in permaculture.
Our design, then, needs to specifiy the succession of economic alternatives,
such that not only will they prepare the way for economic arrangements closer
to sustainability, but also that they will be safe from predation from the
pestilance of capital-based, or industrial, economies.
Agriculture has become industrialized. Look at the patterns the farm
buildings form in the US midwest. They resemble other chemical factories.
I'm not at all smart enough to say exactly what the succession design to
sustainable economies will look like. I'm pretty sure that they will be a
lot more decentralized. We will start closing loops, restoring cycles, and
putting natural systems back into place. Mega concentrations of people will
dissolve. Where they will go I cannot say, except that if they go to the
countryside we are all doomed. (We all die anyway, of course. Somehow, all
of us doing it at the same time is deemed more catastrophic? Curious, eh?)
What else will happen? You tell me. I'm running out of steam on this one.
One thing I neglected above that needs to go in here is the issue of waste.
This is mainly a problem of English-speaking North America and related
political entitites (e.g. Hawaii), though others have begun to approach us in
this regard. As a generous estimage, half of everything in the US and
similar economies is wasted. This is a government figure. Theoretically,
then, half of us don't need jobs if we get good at harvesting waste. This
was clear to me long before permaculture was coined as a word. I rate myself
as one of the most effective scavangers of the world, up there with crows and
lobseters and hyennas. Whe