Neo-peasantries: from permaculture to permanent agriculture

Over the coming posts I’m going to start slowly moving towards my next big theme: the practice and politics of a neo-peasant agriculture. But first I need to prepare the way with a bit of context, and one context is permaculture. The word is a contraction of ‘permanent agriculture’, so in that sense seems close to the kind of sustainable farming and society I seek. But it’s also a movement with a distinctive literature and community associated with it, a movement in which my own route ‘back to the land’ was originally forged. Yet now I’m not so sure how much permaculture (the movement) is likely to deliver permaculture (permanent agriculture). I’ve started to think that peasants or ‘neo-peasants’ are a more promising vehicle for permanent agriculture than permaculturists. That at any rate is what I’ll address in this post.

Framing neo-peasant agriculture in relation to permaculture may not be the best way to start this cycle of posts, but it’s uppermost in my mind after a series of readings and interactions recently – Dan Palmer’s interesting article on Christopher Alexander and his ‘challenge to permaculture’; a re-reading of what I think is a very important ‘state of permaculture’ article by Patrick Whitefield; a fascinating article in New Left Review about the enrichment of objects; and, a lively set of exchanges on Resilience.org regarding my letter in Permaculture Magazine, some of which degenerated into the kind of pissing contest that represents the permaculture movement at its doctrinaire worst.

That contest was initiated by Rick Larson, whose opening gambit to me was “My backyard is much more interesting than your simple tilled smallholding” – an assertion I find interesting for several reasons that I’ll come to. Rick’s major beef seems to be that mixed semi-commercial small-scale farming-cum-horticulture of the kind I practice is not the way forwards into a sustainable future, especially in its (in fact, rather minimal) use of tillage. As it happens, I largely agree with him, for reasons that I sketched in my review of Jean-Martin Fortier’s book. On the other hand, I also doubt that the backyard, no-till, perennial-heavy polyculture of the kind practiced by Rick would feature too heavily in such a future either. What I would say in favour of commercial farming is that it helps to concentrate the mind on inputs and outputs. Given that most backyard growers don’t furnish anything even close to their total household food requirements and tend to think of time in the garden as recreational, a spell working in commercial agriculture can be salutary in appreciating what it takes to feed a household, and also on how backyard methods might scale.

Anyway, let me now try to show why I think moving towards a sustainable neo-peasant agriculture may involve plotting a course away from permaculture as it’s typically now understood.

1. The limits of biomimicry

 A typical farm – even a traditional, small, mixed, organic one – doesn’t look much like a natural ecosystem. It thus stands indicted in the eyes of a certain kind of permaculture thinking, because nature provides the gold standard for efficient design.

But, as previously discussed in much more detail on this site, I’ve come to question that ‘certain kind of thinking’, largely as a result of books by two ecologists – Ford Denison1 and Phil Grime2. In brief, Denison argues that organisms are evolutionarily optimised by natural selection in ways that ecosystems aren’t. So there’s no reason to assume that the structure of natural ecosystems necessarily optimises the parameters sought by humans as they design their agro-ecosystems. Therefore, there’s a danger of what Denison calls the ‘misguided mimicry of nature’. The point is not that biomimicry is inevitably misguided. It’s just that there’s no reason to assume that a more biomimetic agroecosystem is necessarily a better or more efficient one simply because it’s mimetic.

Grime shows how organisms conform to different types across the axes of habitat disturbance and resource availability. Natural ecosystems commonly display low disturbance and low resource availability, selecting for more sessile, resource-conserving, stress-tolerant organisms. There’s an intrinsic appeal to mimicking such ecosystems because they’re robust and they get by with few inputs. But they’re also slow-growing, low in output and well defended from cropping and/or predation. By contrast, typical agroecosystems, and also a few natural ecosystems, are high disturbance, high resource setups. Productivity is high, but so are input and management costs.

A perfect solution would be to create an agroecosystem with the best of both worlds – low input, stable, robust, well-defended, but high output. Unfortunately, perfect solutions don’t exist. Both Denison and Grime emphasise trade-offs – if we try to maximise one thing (like food yield) we generally lose other desirable traits (like stress tolerance). As Thomas Sowell put it, “There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs”. I think this insight needs wider promotion within alternative agricultural circles.

2. Production functions: or, thinking like a celeriac

Take a look at this picture of the recently transplanted celeriac in part of my (no till) market garden (just try to ignore the lupins, comfrey, hornbeam, sunflowers, rhubarb and grasses OK?). Rick Larson calls this a ‘monoculture’. Well, maybe. Given that celeriac occupies only 80m2 (or around 0.1%) of a 7.3ha holding with well over a hundred other introduced species, and it won’t grow on this spot again for at least another six years, I think that’s stretching a point. But call it what you will. I think what’s more interesting is why I, like most commercial growers, generally avoid intercropping at the fine-scale, whereas a lot of backyard permaculture gardeners prefer it.

Small farm monoculture

Rick’s answer is that I’m ‘locked in’ to a detrimental system. To my mind that substitutes easy censure for more careful thought. I think the reason most commercial growers opt for these ‘monocultures’ is because labour is our key constraint – the labour involved in efficient planting, weeding, irrigation and harvesting, and the labour involved in planning crop quantities and rotations. It saves work if you don’t mix the crops up too much. But on a garden scale, space is often a more significant constraint than labour. It makes sense to cram in lots of different plants in a given area, and take advantage of their different growth habits and other properties that enable the gardener to make the most of limited space. Different trade-offs in different situations.

An economist might frame these considerations as a production function, a kind of input-output equation. So the inputs might be things like land area, soil quality, water, compost or fertility, human labour, mechanical or fossil energy inputs and so on. And the outputs might be things like food to eat or food to sell, the pleasure of working hard in the garden, the pleasure of not working too hard in the garden, as well as undesirable or negative outputs – soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, water drawdown and so on.

I don’t think there can ever be a single, ‘right’ solution to that production function – not for an individual and not for a society. We can trade-off labour inputs, land area, mechanical energy and so on in endless ways. I think most of us in the alternative farming movement would agree that we need more human input and less mechanical input into farming, but that only puts some vague boundaries around a few parameters.

But what I think is in the minds of the permaculture polyculturists is the notion that there are interactive effects when you put plants together. I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere in a debate about polycultures with Patrick Whitefield that was sadly truncated by Patrick’s death. The basic point is that by planting, say, carrots alongside onions you expect to get better total yields, or the same total yields for less work, than if you planted them in separate blocks. But the truth is that the evidence for most of these interactive or ‘companion planting’ effects is poor, or at least highly contextual – something that’s discussed in more detail by Denison in his book and by me in my aforementioned post. And even when there is a demonstrable effect (eg. onions deterring carrot root fly), trade-offs are still in play. Should carrots be planted with onions? Well, it depends on the extent of the fly problem, the balance required between carrots and onions, the costs and efficacy of the deterrence vis-à-vis other deterrent methods, the labour costs, and so on. Is interplanting always preferable to monocropping? I think Patrick got it right when he wrote “any blanket statement…is almost certain to be wrong or at least only right in certain places and at certain times.”

In the excellent article from which I’ve taken that quotation, Patrick offers a mea culpa for the emphasis in his own early permaculture teaching on stand-alone ideas like swales which he taught because it differentiated permaculture from more traditional ways of working the land. I think this is an important insight, and I’ll say more about it below. For now, I’d just like to suggest that trade-offs abound – trade-off free improvements and genuinely interactive effects not already widely practiced by farmers and growers are rare. Rick says he finds the ‘monocultures’ of the kind I practice less interesting than his approach, which is fair enough. Different strokes for different folks. What interests me is whether a given garden polyculture offers any agronomic advantages over single crop rotations – not necessarily the case just because it looks more ‘natural’. The current evidence is weak. My advice to the budding backyard permaculturist would be: experiment with new things by all means, but treat traditional farming systems with some respect. Don’t assume they’re necessarily misguided. Maybe even allow them to challenge some of your assumptions. People have been doing this kind of farming, and thinking about how to do it better, for a very long time.

3. Designing from wholes to parts: or, check out my wineberries!

Designing from wholes to parts is the lesson of the influential design thinker Christopher Alexander, which Dan Palmer has recently argued should be better incorporated into permaculture. Some of the respondents to Palmer’s article argued, correctly I think, that this kind of thinking is already part of the permaculture toolkit – as in David Holmgren’s admonition to ‘design from patterns to details’. But what are the ‘wholes’ we’re thinking about when we do our designs? Typically a house and yard, perhaps a farm or community garden. These themselves are only parts. Few people other than government planners are really planning holistically at landscape-regional-society-wide levels, and for the most part not even them, increasingly subordinated as they are by a neoliberal ideology that claims the best kind of planning is no planning at all (except corporate planning).

Though it’s true that the ‘patterns to details’ message is well known in permaculture, ‘details to patterns’ thinking nevertheless seems to me surprisingly widespread within the movement. On Resilience.org I was criticised for admitting I didn’t have swales, raised beds or forest gardens on my holding – the implication being that they’re so obviously appropriate in every situation that I couldn’t have tried them and was therefore just offering empty criticisms from the outside (the definition of a ‘swale’ in the discussion turned out to be a path where the topsoil is dug out and heaped up alongside – in which case examination of the photo shows that in fact I do have swales on my holding. If the definitions of forest gardens and raised beds are equally fluid, I probably have them too, so perhaps I am a proper permaculturist after all…)

Criticising someone for not having specific landscape features is pretty absurd without detailed knowledge of their land and their thought processes about it, so I don’t think it’s worth wasting time on rebuttals. But I’d like to make a hypothesis about its underlying motivation. Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre argue in an interesting recent article3 that deindustrialisation (ie. the relocation of the mass production of cheap industrial artefacts away from the wealthy countries of the global north) has led to a change in the way that we in these wealthy countries articulate our identities in relation to the things around us. Specifically, we try to imbue things with enriched and particular value, making ‘exceptional objects’ of them. Boltanski and Esquerre trace the rise of practices such as stamp collecting in the 19th century, and the rise of public interest in the trappings of celebrity lifestyle or ‘stylish’ living more generally as a part of this process. These are signified by various rare and special objects and experiences, of the kind endlessly repackaged in TV home makeover shows and the like.

Green or radical-minded people may not have much truck with such things, but it feels to me that the suburban permaculture garden, with its carefully curated polycultures of unusual plants and its special design features recognised only by those ‘in the know’ – the swales, herb spirals, keyhole beds and so forth – are basically involved in these same practices of self-distinction. I’m not saying that they’re entirely lacking in any other rationale. It’s never a bad idea to play around growing backyard vegetables. But it strikes me that such processes of lifestyle distinction are often part of what a permaculture garden is about. Patrick’s admission that he taught about swales because they were ‘different’ seems of a piece with this. My own exemplar is the Japanese wineberry. I planted one on my site around the time I did my permaculture design course, mostly I think because it was the ‘in thing’ (possibly because Patrick enthused about them in his forest garden book, a popular tome at the time). I’m sure there are those who’d hate to be without their wineberries, but I’ve never been able to get too excited about them myself – I’d rather have raspberries or blackberries (but everybody knows about them…) When I see a Japanese wineberry now, it’s a bit like a masonic handshake or a clan totem, a surefire sign that the person who planted it did a permaculture design course circa 1999.

There’s nothing wrong with having a funky garden. But I’m not convinced such gardens will pass the test of permaculture as ‘permanent agriculture’, of provisioning people sustainably and well long-term. Perhaps there might be backyard permaculturists reading this who will holler their dissent. If so, I hope they’ll convince me I’m wrong. To do that, they’d have to provide some plausible information on how much of their yearly calorific, protein and other nutrient intake they furnish for themselves from their garden (by plausible I mean something more specific than saying “a lot”); how much of the fertility inputs and, perhaps, water are furnished from their site; how much of their time they spend working on it, and so on. There doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of good data out there on this in the permaculture movement. Mark Shepard4, to his credit, has provided some information about productivity on his perennial polyculture farm (or at least on a theoretical perennial polyculture farm), arguing that it outperforms a corn monoculture so much that it’s ‘not even funny’. But, unamusingly, his own figures prove the opposite, as I’ve shown here.

I don’t issue this challenge because I think my own small mixed semi-commercial farm in any way escapes from the same critique. Let us speak honestly – there are vanishingly few people in mainstream agriculture, in alternative agriculture or in backyard permaculture who even approach a ‘permanent’, locally self-provisioning agriculture. At best, we’re playing at being neo-peasants. And I’m not criticising anyone for playing. Play is good. Play is how we learn to do things for real. All I’m suggesting is that we should recognise it for what it is, avoid making exaggerated claims for what we do, and try to play nice with other people so our play builds up instead of knocking down (I’d add that constructive critique can be a worthwhile part of nice play). Play is also context-specific: I think Patrick’s ‘any blanket statement’ comment needs to be taken seriously. Which brings me to the matter of my “simple tillage” criticised by Rick.

We first need to remember that many of the plants which now dominate the human diet are disturbance-adapted, high resource-demanding, weed-susceptible types. That doesn’t mean that tillage is essential for growing them, but it does mean that alternative methods have to mimic what tillage achieves. I’ll assume that permaculturists aren’t going to do that with synthetic fertiliser and glyphosate, and I’ll further assume that they won’t do it by importing compost or manure from offsite, since this only displaces the dependence on tillage to unseen acreages elsewhere. What that basically leaves you with is some kind of permanent fertility-building sward on your holding, which you access via livestock or directly through cutting and composting. Both feasible, if probably less efficient than tilled leys. Maybe it would be possible to go with the Elaine Ingham/compost tea sort of approach, with extremely careful attention to onsite nutrient cycling. I’m not sure, I think the jury’s out on that one. Or, if you live somewhere with a cool, moist, temperate climate, little wind and water erosion and heavy, fertile soils, you might come to the conclusion that a bit of judicious tillage makes sense. I live in such a place, and that’s a conclusion I came to, along with many generations of peasant farmers in this region. Perhaps we’re wrong – but I think somebody who wants to make that case needs to ponder Patrick’s ‘blanket statement’ point and also the various trade-offs involved in the decision. Certainly, everyone I’ve come across locally who grows significant quantities of edible crops without tillage imports some of their fertility, which makes it difficult to wax too purist about the evils of tillage. Ultimately, I’m not (yet) convinced that backyard no-till polycultures which grow only a small proportion of a household’s food can scale up as a generalised permanent agriculture.

4. Playing with the state

Another consideration is that in designing food production systems we often focus on plot-level productivity and neglect the political relations within which plots are embedded – the Green Revolution mistake, which is all too easy to replicate in agroecological thinking. For a backyard permaculture plot in the UK, state policies are fairly indifferent – though they are making it increasingly hard for people to get a backyard plot in the first place. For a small-scale agroecological farm, on the other hand, the policies are mildly hostile. But in both cases, in the UK there’s an enormous fund of wealth, infrastructure and other implicit subsidies that we scarcely notice, many of them derived from the past and present plunder of other people in the world. You’d have to be an ascetically saintly hermit to avoid drawing down on this fund – in fact, I think it’s impossible. So again, while I don’t criticise myself or anyone else for doing so I think we should be aware of it. The situation is different in many past and present peasant societies. There, the state is wholly hostile, predatory, and given to extreme exemplary violence. When people say ‘nobody wants to live like a peasant’ I think the answer has to be ‘well, it depends on the nature of the state they’re involved with’. What will future states look like? What can we do to try to make them supportive rather than destructive of a permanent agriculture? That’s got to be part of the design process. Rick and I are lucky to be able to work with the growing systems we find ‘interesting’. In peasant situations where you have to produce almost your entire livelihood locally in the face of a state that offers you less than nothing, an effective agriculture becomes more important than an interesting one. I’m sure there are things to learn from interesting contemporary agricultures. But I think there are also things to learn from effective old-fashioned ones.

5. Conclusion

 I don’t know if such a thing as ‘permanent agriculture’ will ever exist. I certainly haven’t seen anything that I’d be happy to apply the label to, though there are some agroecosystems that come close – particularly low input-low output traditional peasant ones. Such traditional societies are often also attuned to the dangers of egocentrism and self-importance, and seek ways to undermine it – which is worth remembering, I think. These traditional agroecosystems don’t look much like many backyard permaculture gardens that I’ve seen in the UK or North America, and they don’t look much like my holding either. I plan to use them as a rough model (though only a rough one) for my outline of a neo-peasant future.

My last post on these matters earned me accusations of hypocrisy. I’ve tried here not to claim to be anything that I’m not, but if I’ve failed I apologise. The longer I’ve farmed, the less certain I’ve become of how best to do it. When it comes to farming skills, I don’t think I’m necessarily the sharpest blade on the power harrow, so maybe Rick and those permaculturists who’ve told me that I’ll ‘never understand permaculture’ are right. But nemesis lurks in even the funkiest of gardens…

Anyway, my challenge to myself and to anyone else who wants to advocate for a given type of agroecosystem is this:

  • Can you provide a sufficient account of its input and output costs relative to other systems that you disfavour for you to convince yourself (and, more importantly, others) that it’s unambiguously superior?
  • Can you examine your heart and be sure that there is no ego or self-aggrandizement in your analysis?

I think that’s a tough challenge. I’m not sure I’m equal to it. But I aim to give it a go.

References

  1. Denison, F. 2012. Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture. Princeton Univ Press.
  1. Grime, JP. 2001. Plant Strategies, Vegetation Processes and Ecosystem Properties. John Wiley.
  1. Boltanski, L. & Esquerre, A. 2016. ‘The economic life of things’ New Left Review, 98: 31-54.
  1. Shepard, M. 2013. Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers. Acres USA.

48 thoughts on “Neo-peasantries: from permaculture to permanent agriculture

  1. Wow, this was not a shot across the bow, this was a broadside.

    1. I couldn’t be happier than to have Christopher Alexander added to this blog.

    2. Over on Resilience, that Rick guy was really acting like a dick.

    3. Between this and the resilience article there are a lot of links to read through.

    For myself, I am trying to figure out how to do a no-till cover cropping system in a backyard. I don’t want to buy a tiller, and lots of the cover cropping systems use various machines that are just ridiculous for a home gardener. We live in a very mild climate so winter food crops and cover crops are quite possible.

    But maybe I should just bring in compost and pay for the peace of mind. I haven’t google searched for the conversation between you and Charles Dowding, but I am very interested in it.

  2. From my point of view permaculture is a fertile soil that attracts all sorts of people and it serves its purpose at providing some sort of counter-ideology and a first set of basic land skills. Moreover, it is a good recruiting agency for other movements, i.e. for the neo-peasant workforce, as other transmission models are broken. Some “permaculturists” will become good city gardeners, others good farmers as well as some will recant-it all together. Permaculture is just a starting point that can’t possibly have all the answers, and in some respects, like large scale farming and cattle raising, not even some of the essential ones.

  3. I have been thinking about this for quite a while because we have a 3,5 hectare plot of land available and try to manage it in the best way. For a decent reply on your article I have to carefully consider what to write because I don’t have the answer (yet?). We try to establish a low input-low output way of doing things and succeed quite nicely but of course we don’t aim to scale this up to a “farm that provides an income”. We steadily try some things and keep what works here. So some parts of our land will look like John Seymours ‘The complete book of self-sufficiency’, some will resemble Mark Shepard ‘Restoration agriculture’ and some Patrick Whitefield ‘how to make a forest garden’. Some of it comes from my 76-year old neighbor who has farmed this land all of his life. One of his most quoted sayings is : “You’ll figure it out eventually.”
    I think the answer lies somewhere in between those practices and will try to post a more detailed post when I’ve figured it what I’m trying to say.
    Thanks for all the nice work.

    • I like that “you’ll figure it out eventually”. We had an old neighbor when we first moved out to the farm (now passed). I was desperate for him to tell me “how” to do it. He never gave a clear answer. He’d always say, “well, some could do it that way”. Maddening, but correct, no one best way to feed yourself, your family or your neighbors.

  4. I quite agree. I like the altered mindset (efficiency is not simply about the money sum), the ‘observe and interact’, with the assumption that every farm, every garden, every family will be slightly different as it adapts to its situation rather than keeping rules and the working with nature rather than imposing alien structures on it, but increasingly permaculture writing seems to be about creating a new dogmatic orthodoxy. I’ve stopped subscribing to the magazine and I’m focusing instead on Via Campesina, which offers a breadth of interest.

  5. Good post indeed!

    The way I see it is that permaculture (the movement) has gone the same way as veganism for instance. They have become a religion for many. Fanatical. Militant. Questioning their beliefs is offensive and supporting that questioning with facts regarded as an open act of war. Facts get bent, twisted or dismissed to suit their beliefs. The early pioneers in the fields get messiah status and their early writings become bibles.
    I have my own food garden, yes. And I often get the question if I do permaculture, because of the mixing of plants, the raised beds, part forest garden etc. Answer; No, I do not. I have mixed plantation, because I like the diversity (personal esthetics) and have very limited access to useable soil surface (necessity). I have raised beds, because the ground here is rock hard and I hate digging it up or breaking my back doing so (practicality and ease of use). I have a forest garden bit, because that is all that piece of land can be used for. Rocks & trees make lousy crop growing, so I might as well plant berry bushes and such in between them. They seem to be doing well.
    So yes, I do use some of their keythoughts out of practicality and that, to me, should be a decisive factor, along with productivity. I do not see why keyhole plantbeds are more practical that straight beds I can access from all sides and why should I waste firewood on hügelculture beds? I need that to stay warm during winter! Perennial edibles on this latitude would give a very monotonous menu and a farm is per definition an intrusion into local ecological systems, yet we need those if we are not to starve to death. Or at least the vast majority of us.
    I tend to go more toward the biodynamic spectrum, if i have to use a label (yerghh). A more holistic approach including animals; how can I provide for my family with as little disruption of the world I live in as possible. And maybe even give something back.

  6. Permanent sward, yes – but what’s the optimal height at which to cut it for one’s fertilizer needs to be met?

    It’s such a relief to actually have to decide what to do as one working part of an agroecological system, rather than playing comfrey-fondler in the backyard.

    (The answer: I’ll probably stick with Voisin.)

  7. Comfrey-fondler is straight from the Leigh Phillips book of insults. 😉

    I have a friend who got her Master’s writing about Permaculture. She got shirty with me misunderstaning permaculture when I was demurring about our tidy and straight garden rows.

    She gets quite cranky about that, because, she says, Permaculture is about zones. And so, having your productive annual veg garden behind your house, in zone one, is quite fine by permacutlure.

  8. Chris, excellent post putting a lot of good thoughts in one place. Highlights for me:
    1. Nature is often not a good model for agriculture and “There are no solutions, only tradeoffs” (great quote)
    2. Monocultures in rotation are often (always?) better than polycultures.
    3. In annual cropping agriculture, the whole changes every year, negating any possible benefits of designing from wholes. I suppose this is where the permaculture focus on perennials comes in, but the trade-off, as you have mentioned, comes in food production.
    4. Policy matters to farmers, but they don’t make it.

    Still not sure about your Neo-peasant agriculture. Few will aspire to be a neo-peasant, but perhaps you’ll address that in future posts.

  9. For several years I have been measuring the amount of soil tillage carried out by burrowing rodents (western pocket gophers, voles, ground squirrels) on my farm in the Sacramento Valley (California). I calculate that if their activity were evenly spaced, the entire top foot of the soil would be tilled in 23 years. There are other reports of heroic tillage by earthworms (Darwin) and ants (Wheeler). The soil is not still–it moves around with frost, tree falls, water, and the activities of non-human animals. Like much of ecology, the significance comes down to a question of scale–inch by inch with ants, yard by yard with rodents, acre by acre with small farms, and section (640 acres) by section with industrial farms. I have made several attempts at no-till and strip-till approaches for annual crops but they haven’t worked for me. I till about 20% of my land each year; the balance is in perennial crops. This is a working farm, not a hobby farm. And incidentally, on the subject of scale and tillage, I bet you would be hard pressed to find a permaculturist who doesn’t have a spade in his shed.

  10. Thanks for all those comments. Oh dear – I didn’t mean it to be a broadside…well, perhaps I did. Anyway, I’m glad that it struck a chord with some folks. And I agree with the comments about permaculture turning dogmatic and quasi-religious, but perhaps still not to be rejected outright. Interesting as always to hear about the different strategies people are following on their land.

    Andy, I’m not sure about neo-peasantries either but I think it’s the least-worst option – ie. a trade-off!

    Mike, good point about natural tillage – and I’m impressed at your on-farm research. How did you go about measuring and calculating rodent turnover?

    • When I hear the word ‘peasant’, I immediately think of Baldrick. And perhaps it’s time to add another chapter to that timeless character with his peculiar development over the ages:
      The clever one to his imbecilic master during the middle ages, then getting overshadowed by Blackadder (who we can assume started benefitting from education beyond a peasant’s reach) in later times – and today, perhaps another reversal of roles, with things to be learned moving out of the classroom and into the crafts again?

  11. Here, here, a nice take down of sacred cows, Chris. Why is it that we humans are always looking for those magic beans to get us out of the mess we make? Perhaps it is my own embarrassing political past, which I don’t regret, that makes me skeptical of gurus. I still recall with amusement visiting a local permaculturalist. She was drumming up business, at a $1000 a pop, for her design certification course. In her back yard she had these cute curved raised beds, some companion plantings, a “food forest” (nut and fruit trees), etc. etc. The others (all suburbanites) all made appropriate enthusiastic mutterings.

    I laughed, which did not endear me to the host. Hell, even the most modest home in our valley provides in a similar space a hell of lot more food for their family. And they do it in a pretty old-fashioned way with a kitchen garden. Can it be improved? Yes. Do you need to spend a $1000 bucks for a certificate? No.

    Lock and load, and keep ‘em coming.

  12. The sound of spanking echoes over the fields…

    In my experience (and yes, I’m permaculture “certified” whatever that means), not only should the challenge be in regard to ‘design from patterns to details’ but also ‘apply self-regulation and accept feedback.’ This is one I rarely see put into practice by permaculturists of the more dogmatic persuasions.

    Great piece Chris – every movement or discipline becomes dogmatic and moribund in the absence of effective criticism, and nobody that I know of has offered such consistently thoughtful and well informed critiques of permaculture and related approaches as you have. I very much appreciate that. It’s helped me to question my own assumptions and presumptions.

    Please, keep up the good work!

    I’m very much looking forward to your explication of the neo-peasant approach. In particular, I’m interested in your take related to how to plan for a future in which the nature of the State is as uncertain as it is now. As you put it:

    “There, the state is wholly hostile, predatory, and given to extreme exemplary violence. …What will future states look like?”

    The US, at any rate, much like past declining empires, seems to be headed toward the kind of State you describe here – the extreme exemplary violence is of course already on display, primarily in communities of color. I’ve long thought that any sort of quasi-sustainable ag would be made very, very difficult in a corporate controlled militarized State where the dogs have been more or less let off the leash. Expatriation, if possible, seems to be one reasonable response.

  13. Thanks for those further comments. Good to hear I’m not alone in my scepticism towards some of permaculture’s wilder flights. I’ve set myself an ambitious goal to design a plausible peasant agriculture and economy of the future, huh? I expect what I come up with will disappoint, but it’s worth a go I think.

    • As Browning put it:

      “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”

      I’m looking forwards to the journey, Chris.

  14. Thanks for the thoughtful post. I am fond of saying that Permaculture gave me a leg up with providing a language and a process for what was already happening with our home and family, and I am further fond of saying that I tend to be against orthodoxy in all its forms. I cringed when I planted my first Hardy Kiwi…that pigeon-holes me as a true permaculturist! No herb spiral yet, though.

    We are a homesteading (have sometimes called ourselves “peasants”) family in Virginia, USA that is sincerely trying to produce our diet from the land (not 100% there yet, but closing in). We do use some edible forest garden techniques, alley cropping, mixed animal and plant systems, and, yes, some tillage. Watching the soil heal and develop with appropriately timed and executed tillage mixed with cover cropping is as eye-popping as watching a soil collapse from indiscriminate tillage is dismaying. I have tried both, as well as mulch-based systems and perennial ground cover systems, all imperfectly and on small scales. I agree with the notion of trade-offs and the right strategy at the right time. Keep those minds open and working, alert and playful! We need the whole of them.

    At our place, we aim to learn a broad variety of strategies to use in the ever-evolving system that incorporates developing soils, changing climate, maturing plants, as well as changing needs, developing knowledge, and evolving understandings of health and nutrition. How could a person think they could adopt a fixed set of practices and strategies that would be a sustainable system for the indefinite future? To me, the point is rather to re-engage with the soil in whatever ways we can, and at whatever entry points are available and appeal to us. From there we make it up as we go along (with heaps of respect for the ways of our progenitors); if we are lucky we do so in community with a band of fellow humans trying the same thing, which is what our species has been doing for rather a few millennia by now. The concept of permanence in permaculture meets emotional needs for security for some, (and they react to any threat to that security) but is deeply paradoxical in practice, and the theorists I’ve read acknowledge and embrace this as dynamic equilibrium on a scale large enough to integrate some level of respectful human-generated disturbance.

    I took my PDC from some local teachers and Dave Jacke, who left me with a deeper respect for the resourcefulness of species and ecosystems, and also this gem: “I don’t care if you call it Permaculture or not…just so you do the work.”

  15. I was introduced to ‘permaculture’ two years ago and started a PDC in January. I pulled out, however, because not least I felt the movement was a cult (‘quasi-religion’) where we, the course participants, were empty vessels to be filled with the one and only truth.

    Yes, I do have something of a forest garden and hugel beds but I also till my annual vegetable patch, otherwise it would compact like crazy. Ie the mulch method did not work. And how do you eradicate couch grass without digging?

  16. Chris- Another essay full of ideas and posers. ( poser meaning a question that is hard to answer quickly)

    Some reactions:

    human tendencies- At least in western cultures, we seem to want to focus on the micro level, instead of systems thinking. It’s not only agriculture where this causes problems.

    impatience- much of the hand wringing and animus is because we humans want the answer now. We are constrained by not only the annual seasonal cycles, which limit our experiments and data collection to once a year, but for long lived “permanent” agriculture- it may be centuries before everything shakes out. This leads to the need for:
    dissensus- like Darwinian selection, it is actually good for many different styles, methods, and approaches to be set out on. Let the chips fall where they may. And again, mimicking nature for good or ill, there will be winners and losers.

    civility- The main thing here is to recognize and respect all the other practitioners, as long as they are not trying to impede your plans. Where I live, ( I’m just a few miles from Mark Shepard) it is a real patchwork of conventional farming, woodlands, organic, Amish, hobby farms, permaculture, and other quirky experiments, and in general, we seem to get along.

    I think the final arbiter will be what systems work best with extremely limited fossil fuel inputs. I use the end of fossil fuels as a lens to determine paths forward. Logistics at all scales will then govern the best approach for efficiency and obtaining a good yield. I strongly doubt that there will be any urban centers with 10,000,000 people in them in 200 years.

    For the record, I read Holmgren’s book, and that was sufficient for me. I feel no need to go after a PDC and get a piece of paper or join an inner circle. However, whether it’s the permaculture community, or any other umbrella coordinating entity, someone should be taking notes so obvious good ideas can be added to the toolbox, and shared widely to be validated through replication.

    Looking forward to your neo-peasant definition.

  17. Thanks Steve et al. I can go along with that. Some bottom line cliches to take from this post and discussion? Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, let a hundred flowers bloom, pride comes before a fall, play nice. What do you reckon?

    • To your list of clichés I’d add – chance favors the prepared mind. As one evaluates all the tradeoffs before him a wealth of experience serves mightily.

  18. Following your footsteps into the Resilience discussion, I just found Gene Logsdon is gone. Too heartbroken to write. Patrick last year, now Gene… for people like that, there is no replacement.

    Back to hermiting. 🙁

  19. Looking forward to your description of neo-peasant agriculture.
    The only one I know about was the Maya (and some parts of Amazonia) canal and farming systems. You throw all your refuse into the canal, some of it is eaten by fish et al, and some sinks to add to the muck at the bottom. Humans eat some of the fish, and periodically lift up the muck to incorporate into the soil.

    The Pueblo Indians had a pretty fine-tuned dry land ag, but I have not come across exactly how it worked, apart from the fact they relied on redundancy and microclimate creation.

    • I hope it’s not too disappointing – it’s going to be based around good old-fashioned organic mixed farming, with a lot of hands on deck. There’s much to be said for incorporating aquatic elements, but that goes a bit beyond my analytical comfort levels. However, I can promise you some fish…

      BTW, yes sad to hear of Gene Logsdon’s passing. Both he and Patrick left a fine legacy.

  20. No camellónes, no suntraps?
    Don’t tell me Baldrick could grow his turnips in straight rows! It’s taken him years to perfect his Turnippy Knotty Appearance Garden.

  21. A bit on permaculture… I found the hard way that raised beds don’t work well in Colorado — they dry out too fast compared to an even bed. Another “magical tip” among permies was — put the chickens in the greenhouse in the cold weather, they’ll heat it. Turned out while this was being taught, nobody actually tried it to see how it worked. (While you have the chickens there, nothing else will grow.) But I have heard people are experimenting with Chinese greenhouses that have a ditch for rabbits in them. Rabbits like to be cool, and to dig burrows. But what happens if they start digging under your beds and pop up here and there and everywhere? I suppose you could lay a lot of hardware cloth down under the beds.

    My beef with permaculture was it’s love of planning, straight out of landscape architect’s office. Nature does not plan. It evolves. It brings forth emergently.
    https://leavingbabylon.wordpress.com/2012/03/11/permadesign/
    For those so inclined, my blog has a series on “unplanning” — feeling our way toward proceeding by moment to moment unfolding (as Alexander calls it). Glad folks are discussing this now.

    Permaculture had to do the magic dance in order to pull people into it. I don’t hold it against them. But now is time to evaluate and get real.

    I was especially taken with Alexander’s emphasis on centers, and in particular on identifying at least one center that has a special, perhaps even sacred, feel to it. This center is to be let alone, and the future developments pay great attention to enhancing this center, and not damaging it. I think there are probably several special centers on each piece of land… the ancients spoke of ley lines crossing… maybe so. Regardless… Alexander’s writings are rich with hints and possibilities.

    I am not clear, Chris, what the problem with biomimicry is. Can you explain further?

    • As with most groups, I think it’s a mistake to treat ‘permaculture’ as a monolith, and bash it on that basis. Sure, some permaculturists are as insecure/arrogant/ignorant as that kool-aid drinking Rick character who inspired the post – but most that I know (and I know quit a few having sat on the steering committee of the local permie guild for a spell) are not. In fact, one of the things I’ve found most refreshing about my permie friends is their willingness, eagerness even, to experiment and see what happens – to find out what works, to try to creatively wrap their heads around the permie principles, even as they unwittingly perpetuate the patterns of the broader culture. Newer permies, in my experience, tend to fall prey to the ‘syndrome’ but often grow out of it as time passes and experience grows.

      It’s unfair and worse, inaccurate, to tar the entire movement as dogmatic and cherry pick evidence to prove it, even though many strains of dogmatism are assuredly apparent and troubling, and thus the need for well informed criticism like that offered in this post to be taken seriously by permies. But I think it would be more useful to make more nuanced statements like ‘here’s my beef with those permies who can’t seem to understand that herb spirals don’t make sense in semi-arid climates’ than ‘here’s my beef with permaculture.’ That’s like saying ‘here’s my beef with vegetables’! 😉

      After all, permaculture includes folks like Rafter Sass Ferguson, who has called for more scientific rigor and peer reviewed studies in the area of permaculture, which I think would be of tremendous value, and Tony Hemenway, who I believe is an awfully thoughtful and open minded permaculture teacher, and many, many more who are doing really good, promising work. As with any movement, especially one still on the fringes, there’s always a battle for the heart and soul, and there’s always different agendas and personalities and ideologies pulling it in different directions.

      Ultimately, for me, permaculture offers something that makes it incredibly valuable: explicit ethics that go a long way toward offering a guide to the kinds of changes we all want to make. Forget about herb spirals that go in the wrong direction here in Colorado – or for that matter chickens in greenhouses or any other permie scheme that turns out to not work as advertised.

      The heart of permaculture for me is: earth care, people care, fair share. Standards against which we can measure ourselves and our activities and their outcomes, as tricky as that might be. Standards that not only go beyond yield, but even beyond soil health and common notions of “sustainability” (whatever that is) to embrace the whole planet and everything in and on it.

      I don’t know of any other of the other promising agricultural approaches – like organic or agroecology – that starts with ethics in this explicit fashion. This is what, to my mind, sets permaculture apart. Let’s not lose that in the glare of the reality of too-rigid ideologies among some permies.

      Chris, that’s one thing I’m interested in understanding about your neo-peasant framework – is there an explicit ethical basis for it? What are the incentive structures and in which direction do they propel the adherents, ethically speaking? And so on.

      • Well I’d go along with most of that. As I said in my earlier post on ‘Permaculture Design Course Syndrome’ http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=491 – in which I also nodded to Rafter’s work – I don’t propose to abandon permaculture. But I think there’s a problem with PDCs that needs addressing – they turn out too many people who think like Rick and not enough who think like Rafter.

        I’m not sure I agree that permaculture is the only agrarian approach with explicit ethics, though. Or at least politics. There are deep traditions of agrarian populism which get little airplay these days but which constitute my point of departure on this blog, and are also manifest in the work of groups like La Via Campesina and the food sovereignty movement. So yes, there’s very definitely an ethical/political basis for the neo-peasant framework. I’m planning to write a good deal about that later in the year, but first I want to lay out the framework in more specifically agricultural terms.

    • Good to hear, Helen! 🙂

      All: I think that if we think neo-peasant, we gotta consider peasant, especially the kind that did not ruin the land. After more reflection, besides Mayans and Puebloans, I think of China (Farmers of 40 Centuries), and Amazonia, which hit upon “slash and char” and created rich soil that grows perennially where before only poor tropical soils prevailed.

      There can be no peasant ag without returning everything back. I think it’s a mistake to scoff at those who import compost or its precursors, because if you sell your produce, unless your customers are sworn to bring back their kitchen cuttings and their humanure, you gotta import it from somewhere else.

      Both China and Amazonia were religious about returning everything back to the soil, begging travelers to deposit their black gold while passing one’s outhouse, and so on. But Amazonia did the best work. They incorporated low-heat char and pottery shards into the soil, thus providing porous bits where the good tiny critters could shelter. Um?

      • Yes, there’s little virtue in scoffing at the importation of compost, though whether the way we import it is sustainable in the long run is an open question. But nor can I see the virtue in scoffing at tillage, and then devising ‘no till’ systems which rely on imported fertility generated by tillage farming elsewhere.

  22. Chris, thank you for some of the most sensible, realistic and humble analysis of small scale farming.
    There is one incredibly important theme which I haven’t seen you address when discussing potential neo – peasant economies, namely rural industry, or dual economy. In my part of the UK, the central Pennines, it was an integral part of the peasant experience from the late middle ages until the 19th century. I would go so far as to say that the purely agricultural subsistance peasant family didn’t really exist in these upland areas. I’m sure this varied across the UK, but the point is that non – agricultural activities can’t be ignored in a discussion of neo – peasant futures. I would be really interested in your thoughts on this and to see it enter into your coming analysis!

    • Thanks Hywel. Yes, industry is an important point. But are you referring specifically to industries allied with agriculture and/or subsistence like tool, machinery & clothing manufacture? Or to industry in a more general sense as an additional employment necessary to balance the household budget? The latter is easier to make provision for (because more general) than the former…

      • Definitely the latter, though of course there is a whole world of overlap. I’m wary of peasants, land-workers, small-farmers, whatever words you want to use, being defined solely in agricultural terms because you’ll miss a load of fascinating and important interactions.
        For example, rural textile production (for the market) clearly began in upland Yorkshire in the late Middle Ages as an activity which supported subsistence farming, but by the 18th century the situation had reversed: every clothier was also a small farmer as a ‘top up’ to their industrial income and a safety net against periods of slow work. I reckon that this was more a shift in emphasis and identity than a change in actual agricultural practice: these people are no longer peasants in the history books, yet certainly practiced a low input-low output non-commercial farming out of necessity rather than pleasure. Arguably ths small farming also facilitated the culture of precariousness of industrial wage labour – it allowed early capitalists to keep wages low and for this labour pool to become an ‘economic regulator’ (not in the modern sense 😉 – providing a little stability to a rollercoaster economy of slumps and booms.
        Landholding patterns up here reflect this past. Farm sizes are tiny: 5-50 acres is the norm. Of course there are very few farmers of any kind left, but those that there are follow the tradition of dual economy, albeit in more modern ways.

        I guess that a large motivation for me wanting this to be part of any conversation of the future of small farms is that an economic model of neo-peasantry based on purely lowland growing conditions will probably not be very relevant to large parts of the UK. Agriculture up here in these windy, wet hills is a risky business, and people have had, and do have, the sense to mitigate that risk by engaging in other economic activities alongside. Diversification is not a new concept.

        • After watching the BBC Tudor Farmer series, I’ve worked my way through Edwardian Farmer and now Victorian Farmer. They show farmers as pursuing other forms of income from small scale mining, lace making, preserving fish etc.

          Many of the farmers in our area have off-farm income. Contracting and transportation are popular. Also working in local businesses, for the local council and so on. A few run tours, road-side stalls, … Firewood keeps a few people busy.

  23. I should clarify: economic models of a neo-peasant lowland agriculture would be extremely relevant to the upland situation and absolutely welcome, they might just not be directly transferable. No offense meant!

  24. Interesting points – and a problem for neo-peasant politics in keeping that agriculture-industry relationship you describe historically in Yorkshire from going off the rails. Something I’ve been thinking about a bit and plan to write on.

    No offence taken – I’ll be writing a bit about upland farming soon, but the upland-lowland issue needs much more analysis. Unfortunately I’ve found it hard to get at quantitatively from DEFRA figures, certainly on a regional level, because the only definitions are basically cropland, permanent pasture and rough grazing. As the middle term, permanent pasture can mean a lot of different things…

  25. Thank you for all your excellent thoughts on this blog and the excellent forum you’ve facilitated in the comments.

    Having explored permaculture about as far as I want to in the last few years, I’m glad that’s not where I began. It’s hard to imagine that permaculture would have been very helpful to me, and I think I share goals and visions rather similar to your own, which is to say also very similar to permaculture. I do appreciate things about permaculture, especially the interest in some permaculturally branded folks of exploring unconventional ways of doing things, particularly including ways that aren’t readily scaled up and commercialized (where agricultural university and organic research frequently falls so short) — humanure systems come to mind as a strong example — but I have yet to see any moderately impressive example of permaculture really feeding anyone (by calorie counts), let alone offering any potential to make a living feeding anyone else (especially not in any calorie significant way), all for which there seems to be a wildly disproportionate amount of money being made on books and workshops, etc., etc.

    You’re probably familiar with the best examples of permaculture as far as realizing a truly alternative way to manage land and feed oneself, and I’d be interested in hearing about the examples you find most impressive. Especially given permaculture’s emphasis on diversity and minimal mechanization, it seems that permaculture ought to be at least as compatible with self-sufficiency as commercial specialization, and so I think permaculture really ought to be judged on the degree to which it has succeeded in enabling people to gain independence from conventional and commodity-organic food. I’m all for hearing about acorns, but first I want to hear about the person that has found it worthwhile to collect and process enough to replace the calories an average family gets from wheat, for example, and then I want to hear him tell me how his family finds them gastronomically satisfying after eating them at that rate for a few years. Or chestnuts or any other substitute/combination of substitutes for grains and tubers. Or include grains and tubers, but tell me how this person grows his own grains and tubers in a permaculture way that’s efficient enough to continue doing the work to feed himself and his family by those methods year after year. I’m not holding my breath.

    • Really nicely put, Eric, and totally legit questions that I’d love to see some of the ‘big names’ in permaculture take seriously as a challenge. This bit of yours in particular really struck a chord in me:

      “I have yet to see any moderately impressive example of permaculture really feeding anyone (by calorie counts), let alone offering any potential to make a living feeding anyone else (especially not in any calorie significant way), all for which there seems to be a wildly disproportionate amount of money being made on books and workshops, etc., etc.” – especially PDCs!

      • Yes, these are the kind of tough questions that permaculturists (and the alternative ag movement more generally) doesn’t sufficiently ask of itself. I think there are some fairly direct trade-offs between productivity of worthwhile food on the one hand and labour input and environmental damage on the other, which haven’t really been solved by permaculturists or by anyone else. I’d argue that the closest we come is usually in relatively low input – low output traditional mixed organic systems. But I agree with you on thinking in terms of independence from conventional and commodity-organic systems, where there are certainly things to learn from permaculture…

        • A handy tool would be a calculus of sustainable agriculture. So in an agricultural environment characterised by soil type, micro and macro nutrients, climate, organic matter etc application of x quantity of y input parameter (labour, money, nutrients …) will achieve outputs from a solution space characterised by parameters such as profit, soil carbon and nutrient drawdown or replenishment, crop yield and so on. Farmers and agricultural scientists already do this to some extent for the outputs of interest to their situation and research.

          While a holistic, formalised, objective, detailed approach like this would be possible, it would take a lot of trials just for one climate and crop to get statistically valid metrics across a wide range of input and output parameters.

        • I think you make a good point, Christ, that my point should apply to the alternative ag movement more generally and not just to permaculture. I think any claims any branch of alternative agriculture makes about offering a better way to farm and to eat falls pretty flat when that movement contents itself with producing just limited food groups and specialty items, making no attempt to provide or to seriously work toward providing a more or less complete diet.

  26. Yield must be of some importance, if for no other reason than the fact much effort no return is on a continuum from disheartening to disastrous.
    However, we wouldn’t need to get so uptight about yields (considering there is currently enough food to feed the world population), if proper nutrition and population growth were dealt with appropriately. In this extent, I think GM vs. permaculture – for the sake of argument – is a false paradigm.

  27. I did a permaculture design course with Patrick Whitfield back in the early 90s. I really enjoyed it – good venue, nice venue, interesting ideas. Over the following few years I thought about this whole permanent agriculture thing a little more. Bill Mollison was an Australian and the ideas he developed, he developed in the Australian context where an inappropriate agriculture had been imposed by immigrants with disastrous effects for soil and sustainability. In the UK we had a relatively permanent agricultural tradition going back hundreds of years – small mixed farms. I’m sure it can be improved upon but it must surely be the starting point. Agriculture is always location specific – ideas cannot be imposed upon a location (without massive energy inputs anyway) – I think we’ll get nowhere without the humility to listen to history. Some agrarian societies have sustained themselves over long time periods (some haven’t) but they’ve always done it by developing practices that made best use of the location in which they worked and not by adherence to a ‘model’.

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