Farm scale permaculture, lets get those feet on the ground

Elfpermacl at Elfpermacl at
Wed Jan 15 09:37:50 EST 1997

To be sustainable a food system must:
1) Generate more energy than it consumes,
2)  At a minimum not deplete its resource base; preferentially build it up
against difficult times (for the resource base),
3) Avoid depleting off-farm and out-of-bioregion resources.  (E.g. by
creating strip mines for limestone, fossil fuels, depending on financial
subsidies, etc.)

I have never seen a farm that meets all of these requirements which most any
organic garden can meet quite easily.  I am not sure if I have ever seen a
farm that meets ANY of them.  

These are not arbitrary requirements.  To be sustainable, something must be
able to keep going the way it is going indefinately.  (Not that it has to, it
just has to be able to.)  

I'll grant that there is a fuzzy zone where gardening and farming blend
together and I suspect that a thousandth of a percent of all land in food
production would be a high estimate for the area of such lands.

Sustainable agriculture is a nice myth, a story to head people in a less
destructive direction to buy time to get permaculture on the ground.  It also
is good propaganda to keep farms in family hands.  The idea that people won't
be hungry if they are farmers, as Mark Ludwig suggests, disregards facts.
 The last big gobble up of farms by agribiz, superficially seen as a credit
crisis, saw US farmers on food stamps.  They no more knew what to do with
their wheat and corn and soybeans than if it had been vegetation from Mars.
 The dairy farmer who lived next to me in Massachusetts for a decade or so
didn't have a vegetable garden, didn't know how to slaughter his own beef,
and depended on me for eggs (which I swapped for milk.)  He could at least
drink the milk.  And he knew how to catch the trout in the creek.  He
anticipated the breakdown in society and suggested that we blow up all the
bridges around and become an hidden self-sufficient island.  Well he's dead
from other causes and we never got far with THAT idea.  

Are we afraid that too many sensitive farmers are reading this list or can we
cut the bull and stop with the "sustainable agriculture" hype.  It's a nice
idea whose time will never come.

Lets bypass the issue with the phrase "sustainable food systems" so Mark can
go play at permaculture on farms and still be part of the gang.  (This sounds
sarcastic on re-reading--we should all be playing at permaculture--its fun!)

Finally, there will be flames and disagreements 1) that my definition is too
stringent, 2) that it is irrelevant, and 3) that it leaves out other
attributes, like a living for the farmer.  If you think about it, you can see
that every addition will be a subcategory of the three criteria or else not
strictly necessary for sustainablity.  For example, a good living from
farmers is subsumed under not depleting one's resource base.  If farmers
aren't a resource for their farms, they should run for office where they'll
be out of the way.  Having said that, it is reasonable and predictable that
people with axes to grind, such as more money from farming, will make that a
separate category and put it at the head of the list.  Like Murphy and God
(who may be the same),  politics is everywhere.

The economic issue is one we in permaculture need to be careful about,
however. There is no reason why sustainable food systems must have money
aspects.  A garden that produces food from found resources and saved seed,
for example, is independent of cash.  While cash is the common denominator in
Western society because it is a way to control people, we can deal with it
without granting it exaggerated status.  Its handy when its there and we can
use it, then, to not need it in times when there is less or none.  Most
discussions on sustainability see cash as essential as say, water.  That is
giving up before we begin to design.

For Mother Earth, Dan Hemenway, Yankee Permaculture Publications (since
1982), Elfin Permaculture workshops, lectures, Permaculture Design Courses,
consulting and permaculture designs (since 1981), and now correspondence
permaculture training by email. Copyright, 1996, Dan & Cynthia Hemenway, P.O.
Box 2052, Ocala FL 34478 USA  YankeePerm at  

We don't have time to rush.

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