[permaculture] The Trouble with Permaculture

John D'hondt dhondt at eircom.net
Tue Jan 28 07:50:28 EST 2014

<<What you say strikes right to the heart of the mattter Jason.
But we have complications here in Europe. To be recognised as a farm we need 
to maintain 14 livestock units on our land consisting of cattle and sheep (6 
sheep for one livestock unit). We have also been working towards 
permaculture for almost 30 years and because of this we now loose our only 
subsidy in the government's drive towards more industrial farming. More than 
40 % of our acerage is under trees and shrubs and that made we just lost our 
only subsidy or about 1/3 rd of our gross income.
This means that we will be haemoraging losses for every livestock unit we 
produce from now on. And because of our weather conditions (climate is gone) 
there is no way we can grow high value plant-food-crops enough to survive 
We find ourselves on a sinking permaculture ship.

John in Ireland

Ann Owen’s article on Resilience.org and Richard Perkins in Permaculture
Magazine give very short shrift to the level of thought that the topic of
the role data, or lack thereof, plays in permaculture. I hope to hear
others thoughts on this. I’ll offer mine.

First, it seems an underlying assumption about why permaculturists need
good data is because we are having a hard time convincing farmers to adopt
permaculture. I’m not sure there is commonality among permaculturists of
what that would even look like. Are we talking farmers giving up their row
crops for hugelkultur mounds, sheet mulch, pastured poultry, food forests?
Or are we talking about farmers adopting permaculture as an integrated
design system? I would hope the latter. That way we can evaluate whether
the above techniques would even make any sense on a farm scale.

Second, if we are looking at permaculture as a design system, what does it
look like to have data on that? How does one compare a farm designed using
permaculture to one that wasn’t? Does it come down to crop yield to labor
ratios solely? I would think this is a rather limited view on yield, as
most permaculturists I know would consider quality of life for the farmers,
ecosystem health, ecosystem services, and many other factors. For ecosystem
services alone, any ecologist will tell us, they are very hard to quantify.
I think most of us would agree that the lack of viewing agricultural
practices through a lens of ecosystem impacts and services is what has
gotten us in a lot of trouble to begin with. So how do we quantify that
kind of yield, and all the other theoretically unlimited yields to be had
out there?

Last, a story…I had a consultation on a 30 acre integrated animal/vegetable
farm last week and ran directly into the issue of farmers adopting
permaculture. When I bluntly asked the farm owner what he was looking to
net financially, he said, ‘we aren’t netting a profit, we just need to stop
losing money’. As he said that, we both swallowed pretty hard as we hit
upon the deep sadness of what it means to be a modern day farmer. It was a
candid moment as we looked over the rolling farmland. For many farmers it
is more a question of how to keep doing what they love without going into
debt to do it. To a large degree farmers are underwater. They can’t
consider an alternative to what they know because their slim margins can’t
support the risk. It’s easier for a farmer to say, ‘permaculture is for the
birds’, than to consider it seriously, because they actually can’t consider
it, seriously! We’re in a state of triage for farmers and the planet. The
question is how do we stop the bleeding using permaculture design?

Unfortunately, this is what we are up against, and it takes a tremendous
amount of creativity to solve these problems, not just data. I don’t doubt
the value of data, as there might be some surprises in there, but we can
make some pretty educated guesses about what the data at this point will
tell us, i.e. that we have a lot of work to do to improve marketable crop
yield in permaculture designed systems. So is data what most
permaculturists really need to focus on? I tend to think we need a longer
period of wide-eyed enthusiasm to try out all the crazy ideas we can come
up with to see if they work, and if they do, document them, then replicate
them, then document that. Its apples to oranges in a way; comparing
something that has had some 40 years to experiment with versus 10,000.
Patience with those overly zealous permaculturists who think they can save
the world might actually serve us, as they might be the ones to find that
bigger kernel. What’s it gonna hurt, our chance to reach farmers with
permaculture? I haven’t been wide-eyed enough to believe that for a long
time now. There are much bigger issues preventing that. I do believe
permaculture as a design system has a very good chance to solve some of
those bigger issues, which might be what most permaculturists should focus

Jason Gerhardt

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Boulder, CO 80306
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