‘Restoration Agriculture’ Part II: annual monocultures out-calorie perennial polycultures!

In this post, I’m going to complete my look at Mark Shepard’s book Restoration Agriculture: Real World Permaculture for Farmers, which I began in my previous post. My focus here is on Shepard’s analysis of the productivity of perennial polycultures – a subject dear to the heart of many a permaculturist.

In the chapter titled ‘Nutrition and Perennial Agriculture’ (pp.167-183), Shepard writes “The nutrition per acre under restoration agriculture outcompetes corn so much that it’s not even funny” (p.167). Let’s consider this in more detail.

Shepard is actually making three different arguments in this short sentence, two of which I find convincing and one of which I don’t. The first is that a mixed ‘restoration agriculture’ holding produces a more nutritionally complete and balanced diet than a corn monoculture. That’s not something I’ll dispute. Perhaps it’s not something anyone would dispute – I doubt even the most dogmatic proponent of agribusiness-as-usual would argue that a pure corn diet is a good idea. I guess a pure chestnut diet wouldn’t be so great either. But I think it’s true that the mainstream farming system is producing too much of a narrow range of crops which are not nutritionally optimal.

The second argument is that mainstream agriculture wastes a lot of its productivity in inefficient uses: primarily livestock fodder and biofuels. The claim that we need conventional arable annual farming in order to ‘feed the world’ indeed rings hollow when we use so much of its product to feed bio-digesters and livestock that service the demands of the wealthy, and Shepard makes that point convincingly. According to his figures, a corn monoculture can produce 13.9 million calories per acre, but the actual human nutrition derived from it (ie. direct plant food plus indirect food from corn-fed livestock) comes in at only 3.06 million calories per acre. That is a shocking discrepancy indeed, but what are its implications for the calorific productivity of an acre of corn? Zilch. Feed it to livestock, feed it to digesters, dump it in the sea, do any damn fool thing you like with it, but the productivity of a field of corn remains 13.9 million calories per acre. Don’t blame corn for what happens to it beyond the farm gate.

That last point is relevant to Shepard’s third argument, which is that an acre of restoration perennial polyculture outyields an acre of corn calorifically. Calories are important in debating different possible agricultural systems because it’s not an easy thing to get enough energy into the bodies of 7 billion humans, and proposals for agricultural systems that are unable to furnish the necessary calories are not an easy sell. So I’m glad that Shepard has bitten the bullet.

The productivity figure he uses for an annual corn monoculture in his comparison with a perennial polyculture is 3.06 million calories per acre (ie. that proportion of the US corn crop currently used directly for human food – see above). But the one he should be using is 13.9 million calories (the full calorific productivity of an acre of corn – incidentally, I’m mostly just using Shepard’s own reported figures here without corroborating them independently). Let’s now look at Shepard’s perennial productivity figures.

It’s worth pointing out that Shepard’s analysis is not based on actual results from a real live polyculture, but on data aggregated from various sources in the research literature. And it’s also worth pointing out that he’s chosen a maximally energy-productive combination of tree crops, including 86 chestnut trees, 208 hazels and 34 apple trees per acre. He claims a per acre productivity of 1000lbs for the chestnuts, which may not be unreasonable, although elsewhere in the book he states “Out of the thousands of Chinese chestnuts that have been planted at New Forest Farm in the past 15 years, only two of them are bearing” (p.81). This, and a few other considerations, provoke the thought that his reported productivity figures may be a touch on the high side, but let’s take him at his word when he says, in addition to the chestnuts, his system will produce about 2,900lbs of apples per acre, 400lbs of hazelnuts, 400 quarts of raspberries, 5,200lbs of redcurrants and 600lbs of grapes. By his calculations, that amounts to about 4.6 million calories per acre of fruit and nut crops.

There are also livestock grazing on perennial pasture alleys between the fruit and nut crops in Shepard’s system – a dairy cow, a beef steer, two pigs, two sheep and ten chickens, which he estimates will produce about 1,100lbs of meat and 2,100 gallons of milk per acre per year, providing another 1.1 million calories per year. Although he makes some good points about the complementarity of the different livestock species and the high returns from high stocking density, I’ve got to say that I find this an unfeasibly high return of meat and milk to expect to produce each year entirely from a 60x60m plot of perennial forage. But let’s go with it anyway – Shepard’s total system then produces by his estimation about 5.7 million calories per acre.

The conclusion I’d draw from this analysis is that if you choose the most calorifically productive perennial polyculture imaginable and then stretch its projected productivity to or beyond the limit of credulity, you can demonstrate that it’ll produce something like 40% the calories of a corresponding acre of annual corn. So the fact is, despite Shepard’s claims, a perennial polyculture under restoration agriculture is less calorifically productive than an annual monoculture of corn by a distance.

Does it matter? Yes and no, in my opinion. No, because of the following (admittedly simplistic) calculation. Taking the FAO figure of about 3.4×109 acres of arable land globally, and assuming the need for a daily calorific intake of 2200 calories for each of the 7 billion people on the planet, that would require a calorific productivity of about 1.7 million calories per acre – comfortably less than Shepard’s 5.7 million figure. Obviously some parts of the world could probably produce a lot more calories per acre of perennial crops than Shepard’s figure, others a lot less. Anyway, I’m reasonably happy to go along with his fundamental conclusion: yes, we can probably feed the world calorifically (and in every other way) with perennial polycultures. Especially if more people spend a bit more of their time working on them.

But the inferior calorific productivity of perennial polycultures does still matter, if only because there are lots of people in the alternative farming movement – including Mark Shepard – who persist in claiming that perennials outperform annuals on this measure when they manifestly do not. Why bring discredit on ourselves by making claims that are patently false when we don’t even need them to be true in order to justify what we’re doing? That matters.

Shepard draws the following conclusions about his proposed restoration agriculture system (p.180):

  1. It produces more than twice the human calories per acre as an acre of corn
  2. It is perennial and never needs to be planted again
  3. It prevents erosion [and] creates soil
  4. [It] can be managed with no fossil fuel inputs

I’m less sanguine. As I’ve just shown, in fact it produces far fewer calories per acre than corn, though not so few as to undermine its plausibility as an alternative to annual agricultures. Some of it will probably need to be planted again, though admittedly much less than an acre of corn. It will certainly do a better job of preventing erosion (though I do worry a bit about those livestock densities). Creating soil? Well, maybe. And yes it can be managed with no fossil fuel inputs, but then so can an acre of corn. Personally I wouldn’t fancy growing an acre of corn without motorised assistance, but nor would I fancy dealing with 1,400lbs of nuts and 8 or 9,000lbs of fruit.

I’m not sure how the human labour involved in the two cases stacks up. Shepard makes some interesting points about the possibilities, as yet unrealised, of mechanical harvesting in a multistorey perennial polyculture. I think he’s right that this may be possible, though I suspect not easy (surely there will be tradeoffs between the degree of polyculture ‘mimicry’ and ease of harvesting) and probably not especially efficient in terms of energy input/output ratios.

People do tend to wax lyrical about the work-free productivity of forest gardens, fruit forests, perennial polycultures or whatever you want to call them. I’m not yet convinced – I’d like to see some good figures. My sense is that there’s a lot of fiddly work involved in maintaining and harvesting these systems, including managing the successional dynamics of complex polycultures, which tends to go unaccounted in the enthusiasm of their proponents. I think our agrarian ancestors figured out correctly that, in most places at least, the best terms of the input/output equation are to be had from growing annual cereals, in the short run at least. Longer term, that approach has stacked up a host of problems for us, and there’s a lot to be said for moving towards perennial polycultures to remedy them. Increasing calorific productivity or saving ourselves work aren’t, however, among them. That’s why I prefaced this topic in my previous post with that neat quote from the Kansan farmer: “Let us not spend Nature’s accumulated fortune in riotous farming”. My contemporary take on that in the light of Shepard’s analysis would be: “Let us not pretend we can protect Nature’s accumulated fortune while continuing to farm riotously”. Or, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. If we’re going to embrace a perennial polycultural agriculture – and Shepard provides a lot of good reasons why we should – then we must also embrace working harder for less return.

Indeed, one of the attractive features about perennial polyculture is its affinity with smaller-scale more rural societies and a more peopled agricultural landscape. Bring it on, I say. But maybe grow a bit of squash along the way. Maybe make some weaker claims for the advantages of perennials and the evils of annuals. Mark, I’m with you most of the way, but I just don’t buy the simplicity of your mantra ‘perennials good, annuals bad’.

“Let us not spend Nature’s accumulated fortune in riotous farming”: some thoughts on Shepard’s ‘Restoration Agriculture’

The lovely quotation in my title represents the words of a perceptive 19th century Kansas farmer, which I came across in Geoff Cunfer’s fascinating book On The Great Plains. I’ll talk about Cunfer’s work in an upcoming post, but here I’m going to be looking at another book – Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture For Farmers (Acres USA, 2013), which the quotation helps illuminate. I’m writing two posts on Shepard’s book – so I’ll come back to riotous farming in the next one. And to the person whose comment (which I can’t track down) here on Small Farm Future first drew my attention to Shepard’s book, thank you sir.

Now then, first of all let me say that there’s a lot going for Shepard’s book. He has some really nice analyses of what’s wrong with contemporary agriculture, and some great suggestions about how to remedy it – both through farming practices and marketing. And in contrast to some of the more excitable get-rich-quick voices in the alternative farming scene, he’s also refreshingly level-headed about the realities of farming. Bottom line: however you farm, you won’t make money – now get over it, and farm the way your heart says you should. Easier said than done perhaps, but no less true for all that.

On the farming practices I mentioned, Shepard is a big fan of perennial polycultures. A very big fan. I like his commercial focus on planting things for which there’s currently unmet demand – oak and sweet chestnut in particular, he reckons. I think he possibly overstates the extent of this unmet demand, or understates the profound transformation in diets and thinking that’s required if farmers are to pursue this route en masse. But anyway, the point is, if it’s perennial, it’s in. Nut trees, fruit trees, fruit bushes, perennial pastures – these are the good guys of the agroecosystem. Annuals, on the other hand…well, they suck. “Every human society that has relied on annual crops as staple foods in their diet has collapsed. Every single one. Every human society from the temperate zone to the tropics that has relied on annuals to feed itself, is now gone” (p.xix)

Shepard harbours the possibly well-founded suspicion that our society may be next, and he doesn’t want to die wondering:

“The urgency of our times calls for us to plant polyculture systems everywhere and to dispense with naysaying, procrastinating, talking the subject to death, or making excuses as to why we’re not doing this. We must practice what we preach. Do it first, then talk about it” (p.296)

Well, I hope that I demonstrated in my previous post that we’ve planted a whole lot of mixed perennials at Vallis Veg – over 4,000 trees and shrubs by my reckoning, including hundreds of oaks and sweet chestnuts. So I’d like to think that indeed I’ve done it first. And now by God I’m going to talk about it.

What I want to talk about is some traps that I think Shepard and others in the permaculture movement fall into when it comes to perennials. Don’t get me wrong: I like perennials, and I think Shepard’s book is really, really good. I’d (almost) unreservedly recommend it to anyone, and besides I like a fellow who sticks his neck out and pushes a bold argument. If I were writing a measured review of the book, I’d produce something much more even handed. The fact that I’m going to focus on three areas where Shepard errs isn’t because I like to be ornery. OK, well it probably is a little. But more importantly it’s because he directly confronts issues that interest me and that I think the permaculture movement too frequently gets wrong. So let’s look at them one by one – two in this post, and one in the next.

Of Annuals and Perennials

The main case against annuals familiar in the alternative farming movement is that their large-scale cultivation has a destructive effect on soils, and I’m not going to argue with that. But some of the virtues Shepard finds in perennial plants are more debatable. He enthuses about trees and the productivity of edible matter therefrom on the basis of their enormous size – apparently forgetting that most of this bulk is stone dead wood. Useful stuff in itself, of course, but nobody’s idea of a tasty snack. And why do they grow so tall? Well, partly because they’re battling their neighbours for light. Whereas Shepard argues that a 3D woody polyculture gives you much more than an acre of growing space per acre, I’d question the strength of that claim…and I’d question it more for each degree of latitude you travel from the equator. So for example Shepard says that it’s good to mix trees and pasture because dappled shade helps promote grass growth through the hot summer months. Well, no doubt it can (and I’ve got to say I’ve enjoyed developing my ash/sheep silvopasture) – but here in the roiling clouds of 51o22’N, we don’t like our grass too dappled. Of course, big plants can produce big yields. But do you get more yield from fewer, bigger perennial plants in a given area, or from more, smaller annual ones? As I’ll show in my next post, the latter – at least by certain metrics. And just a note in passing on the matter of shade: Shepard correctly points out that some plants are shade tolerant whereas others aren’t. Plant corn under a forest canopy and you’ll get nothing; plant redcurrants and you’ll get something. But the basic laws of thermodynamics still apply. Less light energy coming in means less sugar coming out. The redcurrants in the shade won’t yield as much as the corn in the sun.

A key difference between annuals and perennials, which I’ll look at more closely soon, is that annuals adopt a ‘live fast, die young’ approach in which they invest strongly in reproductive allocation (seeds). Perennials invest in reproduction too (seeds, fruits, tubers), but their lifestyle is different, and more careful: they favour their own long-term survival, rather than riskily punting their accumulated carbon in dangerous sex. They’re the sensible kids of the plant world – while those feckless annuals are screwing around the place, the perennials listen to mama and wait until the time is right. For a perennial, there’s always next year. And since staple crops are based on the reproductive parts of the plant, from a human point of view this difference is quite significant.

Shepard makes the interesting point that perennials, being better established plants at the outset of the growing season than the puny seeds left by annuals, can more quickly throw out new leaf and capture solar energy that the annuals will miss while they’re sitting around waiting to germinate, and therefore produce more annual biomass. Well, this is undoubtedly true in some cases, but I’m not sure it’s always true (I’ve looked in vain for research to substantiate these claims either way). Maybe sometimes those daredevil annuals are programmed to germinate early so as to ensure they complete their lifecycle in the growing season, while the prudent perennials hold back, not wanting to waste precious resources on pointless activities that late frosts will reduce to naught. Or maybe they’ll photosynthesise early but lock the carbon away in various structures that enhance their survival prospects – their concern is with their own survival, not pleasing hungry humans.

So all in all, while Shepard makes a persuasive case for including more perennials in our agricultures, he doesn’t convince me of the unalloyed superiority of the long-lived ones on every conceivable metric. And his comment on the collapse of annual-based societies seems similarly overstated. Doubtless one can identify exhausted annual agricultures as a contributory factor to the demise of many a great civilisation – Rome being an obvious example. But what happened after Rome fell? People carried on growing wheat. Sure, they had to retrench and adjust. Some of them suffered – especially the elites whose writings about the terrible tragedy of their straitened circumstances have come down to us and coloured our contemporary attitude about the horror of civilisation’s end. Still, here we are – still growing annuals, still facing the prospect of collapse, but unquestionably not yet ‘gone’. I don’t want to minimise the worrying levels of soil-destruction that can result from annual cultivation, but nor do I think it should be over-generalised, or inferred that growing perennials is the only solution.

Of Nature Mimicry

Shepard proposes that his restoration agriculture system involves mimicking nature. In particular, whereas annual farming resembles a situation of primary succession on disturbed ground, his system works further down the successional timeline. “The simplistic, reductionistic annual crop system is being replaced by the next successional phase. Like gravity, the process of natural succession is unstoppable, and life on earth is beginning the turnaround….You can’t stop succession. You know this in your garden because you’ve never been able to stop the ‘weeds’ from taking over” (p.298).

I don’t want to get too Freudian, but I think Shepard may have had some early life trauma associated with gardens. He contrasts the hot, sweaty and unpleasant toil of working to raise annual vegetables in his parents’ garden with the cool and pleasant shade of the woodlot, where nature’s bounty was available for the taking. Let me begin my alternative line of argument by counterposing a different experience. I spent a year living in the coniferous rainforest of western British Columbia, and though it’s a landscape I love, boy, after a winter of deep dripping shade and a year of meagre forest mushroom and berry harvests the thought of a sunny vegetable garden was like a warm, productive Eden. And though nature’s bounty was certainly there for the taking in BC’s forests, there was nothing very cool or pleasant about the history of logging them.

The bottom line is that the most productive terrestrial habitats for producing food for humans, as in fact Shepard acknowledges, is treed but open savanna. And this is not some stable, ultimate successional state but is actively maintained either by natural processes (aridity, browsing animals, wildfires) or quite often by human labour (livestock, firestick farming). I accept that there are often good reasons to try to shift agriculture away from (primary succession) annual fields towards (secondary succession) savanna, but there is no ecological law of successional superiority in agroecosystems. If you can’t stop succession, well then many of us are destined to try to scrape a living in mature woodlands, which provide slim pickings for human livelihood.

The fact is, you can stop succession – it’s what farmers have done for millennia, but it requires work. Were all these generations of farm folk stupid, not realising that they could save themselves a lot of work by allowing succession and snacking off its bounty? The simple answer is no, but we need to come back to this later.

Reading between the lines of Shepard’s account of his own Wisconsin farm, in fact you can discern the outlines of a different story about nature mimicry and succession. For example, you learn that 6 acres were planted to annuals as a ‘high-return cash crop’ (p. 273): Shepard’s focus in this example is on the high input costs of the annuals, but presumably the high returns made it worthwhile. Elsewhere, Shepard extols the benefits of annual subsoiling (pp.192-7), and discusses the need to nose-ring his pigs to prevent them indulging in their natural behaviours, which would make a mess of his pastures (p.123).

I don’t question the potential usefulness of such practices, but I do question their fit with the idea of succession and nature mimicry as the basis of successful farming. How do nose-ringed pigs and annual subsoiling exemplify nature mimicry? Perhaps you could say that not everything has to be a faithful copy of what’s found in nature – nature mimicry is an inspiration, not a commandment. OK, but then couldn’t you call a field of Bt corn nature mimicry? I could probably be persuaded that Shepard’s farm is more mimetic of nature than the Bt cornfield, but the whole idea is starting to get a bit slippery and rhetorical. My farm is better than yours because it’s more nature mimetic, except where it isn’t. How useful is this line of reasoning?

A while back I disputed with Ford Denison and Andy McGuire some of their criticisms of nature mimicry and ecological balance concepts current in the alternative farming movement. I don’t want to renounce those arguments. I think Andy’s post in particular goes too far: there’s no natural balance, so anything goes. But in the light of Shepard’s book I’m less persuaded by the usefulness of advancing ‘nature mimicry’ as a golden thread informing agriculture. The concept is just too protean.

I do agree with Shepard though that modern agriculture is following a perilous course, and it could learn a lot from closer observation of nature. One lesson we learn from nature is that there’s no such thing as a free lunch – a sad truth that remains a truth even if it’s been over-promoted by right-wing economists. The basic choice nature offers us in our farming is more natural succession, less work and less food, or less natural succession, more work and more food. But that’s something I’ll look at more closely in my next post.

Patrick Whitefield RIP

I just got back from abroad to hear the sad news that Patrick Whitefield has died. Patrick taught the permaculture design course I took in 2000 which first switched me on to the possibilities of a different way of being to my urbane London life. I’ve joked with him that he was single-handedly responsible for the calamitous decline in my income over recent years, as I traded the life of university academic for that of a veg grower. A decline in income, perhaps, but not in wealth, because I find the life I now lead immeasurably richer in ways that are more important than money, and I have Patrick to thank at least in part for that.

I didn’t know Patrick well, but I kept in touch with him over the years. He visited our holding when we were starting out, and offered us much useful advice. And he contributed regularly, if infrequently, to this blog. It’s a source of slight regret to me that my last discussion with him on here arose because something I wrote thoroughly pissed him off. Well, I didn’t always agree with him about everything, but I always learned things from engaging with him. Characteristically, his intervention prompted me to clarify and refine my arguments to produce something better, and I’m glad at least that the last thing he wrote on this site was an appreciation of me for taking his criticisms in my stride. It’s surely a measure of his zest for his subject that he kept engaging right to the end of his life not only with a blogger like me, but even with a blogger like Graham Strouts.

Patrick wasn’t the intellectual wordsmith sort, but he wrote four great books, each one more subtle and expansive than the last, and he introduced a whole load of people to permaculture thinking at its best. He had an immense knowledge of farming, the countryside and the natural world, though he wore it lightly. These days, to be described as a ‘countryman’ is tainted by conservatism and a faux, twee and touristic version of England. I think of Patrick as a countryman in a better sense, with a huge appreciation of the importance of the rural which was critical and political, albeit grounded in the practicalities of life.

Goodbye Patrick, and thanks for all you gave us. You’ll be sorely missed by many.

Pondering polycultures: or, arguments within English permaculture…

…to affect a grandiloquent paraphrase.

So, first a happy new year to everyone. Looking at your editor’s 2015 workload on and off the farm I fear that my blogging is going to be quite infrequent this year, but let me start with good intentions and something meaty. I’m currently in the middle of a series of posts about eco-panglossianism, but I thought I’d take a short break from it to address the question of polycultures (ie the practice of growing 3 or more different crops together). Last November, Patrick Whitefield took me to task for ignoring or belittling the evidence that polycultures could outyield monocultures in one of my posts, so I want to pick up on this issue in a little more detail here.

To begin, I’d like to reprise what I actually said, which was this:

“biodiversity in the wild usually results from niche occupation by organisms with specialist skills in tapping often recalcitrant resources, whereas human cultivation usually relies on getting high returns from a small number of organisms that respond impressively to high resource availability when humans make conditions favorable for them. This explains why, at least at a given level of the system (a vegetable bed, for example), there is little compelling evidence that polycultures or companion planting are, in general, more productive than monocultures.”

Patrick was unimpressed with this, citing various studies from Altieri’s book Agroecology and others from his own excellent Earth Care Manual which showed positive land equivalent ratios for polycultures. He also accused me of trying to damn polycultures by associating them with the ‘wishful thinking’ of companion planting. And in the course of the debate he wrote, “The longer I practice permaculture…the more I’m convinced that dogma and off-the-peg solutions don’t help at all. Every situation is unique. Every piece of land is unique and so are the poeople who work it. It behoves us to choose the unique solution that will work best in each situation.”

I’m a great admirer of Patrick and his work, though if I might make so bold I don’t think my statement on the general productivity of monocultures vis-à-vis polycultures is negated by the existence of some studies reporting superior polycultural yields. Nor, I think, can my comments reasonably be interpreted as a wholesale dismissal of any kind of polyculture. But anyway, let me try to untease some of the underlying issues.

One way to begin would be to think about my own farming – do I practice polyculture? Well, each year on my 18 acre site I’d guess that there are well over 100 species that I’ve deliberately introduced co-existing, and many more species (in the permanent pasture, for example) that I haven’t introduced myself but am happy to make use of. Compare that with most 18 acre blocks of agricultural land in the vicinity where you’ll typically only find one crop growing at a given time, and I’m inclined to say that, yes, I’m a polyculturist! However, if you were to take any given square metre of cultivated land on my holding, you’d probably find only one or sometimes two crops growing there, so at that level – like a lot of commercial growers – perhaps I’m a monoculturist after all. My point is that scale may be important here. When does a monoculture become a polyculture? There are also scale effects which pose interesting problems for agricultural policy: there has been both tropical and temperate research that suggests increased crop diversity at the farm level may not have much effect on crop yields or wild biodiversity, but this finding is reversed when crop diversity is practiced at the whole farmed landscape level.

Let me make one more generic point before moving on to specifics. My natural sympathies incline to polycultures because it suits my politics: I like the idea of different entities (plants, people, nations) coexisting peaceably and strengthening each other through diversity. I’m also drawn to the idea that certain things (like plant polycultures) may work for mysterious reasons that are too complex for people to understand at present, and possibly ever. But at the same time, there are dangers here: nature works in all sorts of ways (like natural selection) that don’t really suit my politics at all, which isn’t a problem for my politics because human politics are completely different from inter-specific interactions, but it can be a problem if I try to read my politics into the script of the natural world (the same, of course, applies to right-wing ‘red in tooth and claw’ types). And likewise, though I’m drawn to the mystery of a functioning plant polyculture, I think it’s usually a good idea to try to understand as clearly as possible why it seems to work. I’ll come back to these points again at the end.

Hell, I’ll come back to the last one straight away. Let me suggest the usefulness of limiting factors as a way of thinking about polycultures – the most important ones, I think, being space and/or sunlight, fertility, water, pest pressure and labour. So let’s imagine some kind of generic patch of ground for growing crops, with a given soil and climate (seasons, rainfall etc).  I want to produce the optimum amount of crop biomass that I can eat, burn, weave or otherwise make use of from this patch by capturing sunlight, water and nutrients, hopefully in such a way that I don’t deplete the opportunities for doing the same again in the future. Let’s imagine how a few monoculture and polyculture scenarios might play out here. Maybe I can increase my returns by planting a crop mix which makes full use of the year’s solar radiation over time (early/late photosynthesis). Or maybe I could do the same with a crop mix that makes full use of solar radiation in space (canopy and ground layer crops, climbers etc). Again, perhaps I could increase returns by making fuller use of the space available in the rhizosphere – in this instance the ‘space’ available for my crops’ roots is probably a function of the availability of various key nutrients in the soil, which in turn will be associated with my fertility building strategy. Perhaps I can plant some crop mixes that will help with this strategy. Maybe crop productivity in my locality is also constrained by water availability, so I might improve returns with crop mixes that reduce water evaporation from the soil. Maybe it’s constrained by the depredations of a certain crop pest or pests, and again I might be able to reduce this with crop mixes that deter or confuse the pest, or promote the flourishing of one of its predators.

There are surely going to be tradeoffs involved in many of these possible polycultures. Maybe a crop mix will help deter one pest, but promote another. Or it will increase total yield, but also increase the labour needed for establishment or harvesting. And the nature of the limiting factors and the tradeoffs will likely depend on the type of grower and growing space. Someone planting a small home garden will probably be limited for space, but not for labour (it’s a hobby), variable returns from their polyculture experiments (it’s a hobby), or fertility (it’s easy to import external fertility). Therefore a space-stacked, labour-intensive polyculture may commend itself in this situation. A commercial organic grower in a wealthy country, on the other hand, will probably not be limited by space, but will be limited by labour (probably the costliest input for a commercial grower when you’re balancing hourly wages with financial returns to veg growing), fertility (it’s hard to generate enough organic fertility broadscale) and variable returns (you can’t afford crop failure).

To give an example, this year I undersowed my cabbages with a trefoil and white clover mix with the aim of boosting fertility and deterring caterpillars. It was probably successful in this, but it also promoted slugs and, I suspect, water competition with the cabbages during the hot summer, with the result that I lost a lot of crop. Maybe weather conditions will be more propitious for it next year, and my skill in timing the sowing will be better. But then again, maybe I’d be better off just adding some muck and netting the cabbages – I don’t want to lose as many cabbages next year, so I need to be pretty sure that the polyculture is a better solution than the monoculture plus muck and netting. If, on the other hand, I were a poor peasant farmer without access to costly nets or bought in fertility, but with a lot of available labour, then the polyculture solution would probably be best in this situation: many indigenous peasant agricultures have figured out such polycultures over the long term, and in my opinion it’s probably best for poor small-scale farmers to stick to them rather than be tempted by the blandishments of agricultural ‘improvers’ into growing cash-crop monocultures involving a lot of fancy inputs.

So the moral of the story so far, as I see it, is that Patrick is right in saying that it behoves us to choose the unique solution that will work best in each situation. And I accept that in some situations that solution will be a polyculture – though, in view of my preceding comments about politics, mysteries and explanations, I think that when that’s the case it may be better not to make too much of the fact that the solution is a polycultural one as if that’s somehow a good thing in itself, but to appreciate precisely why in that particular situation the polycultural solution deals best with the various limiting factors at play. This minimises the danger of people inferring that there’s something intrinsic to polycultures themselves that makes them the more optimal solution and then seek to apply polycultural solutions willy nilly in other situations. It’s similar to the notion that perennial crops are somehow intrinsically better than annual ones – but more on that in an upcoming post.

With all of the examples I mentioned above, the reason the polyculture works is additive – it’s not that there’s anything mysterious about the combination of the different crops, it’s just that together they make better use of total available resources than a single crop can. Now, with one very important caveat which I will discuss in a moment, I accept that there is evidence that polycultures can be more productive than monocultures – though as mentioned above I don’t see this as being inconsistent with my original comments. Perhaps my experience as a commercial grower is relevant here – organic commercial growers rarely grow polycultures (except in the sense I mentioned above of their whole farms or their rotations being polycultures), I suspect because the benefits of doing so are usually outweighed by the costs at their particular scale of operation. In his book, Patrick writes “Because more diverse systems are more complex they often also require more day-to-day management and more labour than monocultures….They substitute human input, mainly in the form of skill, for heavy inputs of chemicals and machinery” (Earth Care Manual p.266), and he goes on to point out the difficulties of adopting these systems commercially in an economy where the relative prices of human labour and fossil energy are stacked heavily in favour of the latter. I agree. My only slight misgiving, if I may make so bold, is I think I detect a certain sniffiness in these words about the superiority of labour-intensive skill over capital-intensive input. Well, I guess I share it myself, which is why I spent time last year buggering about with trefoil and clover mixes because it felt to me an intrinsically more elegant solution than muck and netting. More elegant yes, but more labour intensive…and not as effective. Now, I’ve long advocated on this blog the benefits of a more labour-intensive agriculture, but I’m inclined to reject the duality of skilled/labour-intensive vs unskilled/input-intensive as a little too simplistic. It’s true that commercial growers often have to adopt more simplified cropping systems than those that may commend themselves in a domestic garden – however, I don’t think it’s true that running a successful commercial growing operation involves less agronomic skill than running a successful domestic garden.

OK, nuff said on all that. I want to move on now from the notion of polycultures as additive in overcoming limiting factors to the possibility of them being interactive. In other words, it’s not just that I can tap a bit more total solar energy per unit area by training a squash plant up a maize stalk but that there is some specific beneficial interaction between these plants (or any other specific mix of plants that you care to mention). This is the essence of companion planting (plant x complements plant y). It really wasn’t my intention to damn polycultures by association with companion planting, but it interests me that Patrick dismisses companion planting as mythological wishful thinking, which suggests that he’s not persuaded that there are many beneficial interactive effects between specific plants – perhaps the mysteries of which I spoke earlier in fact are few.

Well, let me speak up for one such interactive effect, which stands out loud and clear from the article on ‘Polyculture cropping systems’ by Matt Liebman in Altieri’s Agroecology book to which Patrick  refers. This is the association between legumes and various other plants – for the vast majority of the examples of successful polycultures (really, bicultures) mentioned by Liebman in fact are associations between a legume and another crop. This is no mystery, of course – the association between legumes and rhizobia, and thus the ability of legumes to fertilise the soil with nitrogenous compounds is well understood. Liebman states on the basis of studies on sorghum/pigeon pea bicrops that (1) higher gross yields of the bicrop don’t result from the fertilising effect of the legume, and (2) that though association with sorghum reduced the size of pigeon pea plants, it increased allocation to seeds so that seed yields were still ‘quite high’. The first finding seems to relate to the additive effect of complementary root foraging in the rhizosphere in situations of high fertility, whereas the second one is indeed a bit mysterious but perhaps relates to interspecific competition forcing seed allocation – I’d like to read the original paper to get beyond the vagueness of the ‘quite high’ yield, but unfortunately I can’t breach Cambridge University’s paywall.

So, yes, there’s definitely scope for pursuing legume bicultures. But I think Patrick’s suspicion over the ubiquity of interactive effects that he expresses in relation to companion planting is probably well founded. Since atmospheric nitrogen is an effectively unlimited resource once it’s synthesised into soluble compounds, it’s not surprising that legumes splash it around in the rhizosphere, but we can’t necessarily expect such generosity to be widespread in relation to more recalcitrant resources. Maybe something similar can occur in relation to phosphates, as in the current rage for buckwheat – another companion crop I’ve been messing around with in my market garden. And there are doubtless some worthwhile polycultural solutions to pest problems (in fact, Perfecto et al have a very interesting discussion of this in relation to coffee, which I previously discussed) – though according to Ford Denison the evidence for increased yields resulting from polycultural solutions to pest problems isn’t that compelling, and I guess it was this comment that lay behind my original claim and that got me into trouble with Patrick. There do also seem to be some non-leguminous bicrop or polycrop mixtures that Patrick reports in his book and on my blog with increased gross yields – so maybe there is scope for a bit of interactive mystery here after all.  Then again, I’d want to look with a bit of care at the possible reasons: there can be artefactual effects of including a heavy yielder in the crop mix, or it may be something as simple as wind protection which may – may – be better provided by another means.

So by way of conclusion, I’d like to make the following eight propositions for debate:

1. Mainstream agriculture has become too dependent on monocultures of a small number of high-yielding and low labour/high energy input crops such as wheat, oilseed rape and perennial ryegrass.

2. It’s a good thing for numerous reasons to develop a more diverse farmed landscape, including lots of small farms growing many different crops. One of these reasons is that this may improve yields per unit area, but this isn’t always necessarily the case, and sometimes rotational monocropping within an overall diversely cropped farm may be appropriate.

3. Polycultures can nevertheless improve per unit area yields in some cases – usually because, additively, their various components can make better total use of resources.

4. In a given situation, a polyculture may or may not be the best solution – and this will probably depend on the scale of operation and the nature of the labour available. Generally speaking, polycultural solutions are more likely to commend themselves in space-constrained, labour-abundant non-market growing situations than in space-abundant, labour-constrained market growing ones.

5. At a micro level, polycultures are not intrinsically ‘better’ solutions than monocultures, though in a particular situation a polycultural solution may be better than a monocultural one.

6. There are likely to be complex tradeoffs with any type of agronomic solution, polycultural or monocultural: the solution will probably reduce some problems but compound others.

7. Evidence for interactive rather than just additive effects (or, if you will, for the efficacy of companion planting) is limited, but not wholly absent. The most important example by far is the well understood one of legumes…

8. But there are other examples too. Long live mysteries! So long as we don’t get too mystical about them…

Of course, I’d welcome further comments on this. And my thanks to Patrick for stimulating the debate.

 

Of consumers and permaculturists: or, win some, lose some

More breaking news in this post from the vortex of literary creativity that is the Small Farm Future office these days. Editor-in-chief Chris Smaje’s article about the Vallis Veg box scheme (yes, I do occasionally actually grow some plants) entitled ‘Kings and commoners: agroecology meets consumer culture’ has just been published in the academic journal ‘The Journal of Consumer Culture’. I can make individual copies available to my expectant publics once I’ve worked out how to use my author privileges to breach the publisher’s formidably defended paywall.

I’m sure few would disagree that this major publishing event demands a blog post of its own in order to explain the nature of the article, so I think I will leave that to another time. However, it’s not all been a bed of roses in the Small Farm Future publishing empire this year. Today I also bring you news of an article most cruelly spiked. And in future posts I shall then get on with the business of talking about small-scale farming rather than endlessly attempting to showcase my literary output.

Anyway, earlier in the year I published a blog post Permaculture Design Course Syndrome, which garnered a bit of attention amongst permaculturists. As a result of it, I was asked by Permaculture Activist magazine to write an article about the relationship between permaculture and science. It’s always nice to get a commission even if you’re mega busy on the farm, and even if they’re not paying you for it, so I obliged. The editor told me that the article was great, and even asked me to identify pictures for it and track down the copyrights, which I also did. Then a couple of months later he told me that it turned out they had enough articles for the edition, so they weren’t going to run mine. Now, in my original blog post I professed my enthusiasm for what I called permaculture’s ‘cheerful, can-do amateurism’. But in the case of Permaculture Activist I feel the need to omit the adjectives. I’ve spent a good many years bottom-feeding in the lower trophic levels of the writing game, but I’ve never been so badly messed about by an editor before as that. So when it comes to Permaculture Activist magazine, my advice to any aspiring permaculture writer is – avoid!

Oh well. Permaculture Activist’s loss is Small Farm Future’s gain. So I hereby present my article for your consideration. I already posted it on the Permaculture Association’s website, which led to an interesting email discussion with Ford Denison, so I suppose the effort wasn’t entirely wasted. It’s quite long, and I expect few will read it – though the uncharitable thought forms that much the same would have been true had the article appeared in its intended location. Still, any further thoughts welcome below. I’ll also make the article available on this site’s Publications page.

 

Of holism and reductionism

Permaculture & the Science of Hunches

Chris Smaje

 

Permaculture emphasizes holism. It addresses problems through wider relationships and patterns scaled at different system levels, avoiding the reductionism that isolates a problem within a specific sub-system of the wider whole and tries to solve it narrowly at that level only. The science from which it draws most inspiration is ecology, the biological discipline par excellence of relationships, systems, and levels.

Yet what interests me here are some tensions between permaculture as an holistic practice and ecology as a reductionist science. I want to make a reductionist biological critique of some aspects of permaculture’s holism, but also a holistic critique of certain forms of scientific reductionism. The result, I hope, will be some pointers toward improving permaculture’s scientific grounding, without losing the movement’s wider insights. Or to put it another way, sometimes it’s good to be holistic, whereas at other times a bit of reductionism fits the bill, and some subtlety is needed when choosing. My comments below represent my own personal journey in and around the worlds of permaculture and science—apologies in advance for over-generalizations or misrepresentations.

 

A reductionist ecology

 

Biology and ecology confront the incredible world of organisms and their interactions, but there’s no point simply marveling at the complexity of it all—understanding proceeds from reducing it to simpler elements and then building up again. For example, 19th century biologists discovered that soluble nitrogen compounds were critical plant nutrients, and this enabled them to characterize the nitrogen cycle which brings plants, grazing mammals, soil detritivores, and microorganisms into relationship with each other.

A key relationship in the nitrogen cycle is the mutualism between certain bacterial biochemists, who can fix nitrogen into plant-available ammonium, and plants able to take advantage of this skill, such as alders, which are often pioneers in nitrogen-poor soils. It’s tempting to take an holistic perspective and consider such plants to be generous trailblazers for the wider biotic community, which can take up residence only after the generously nutrifying efforts of the pioneering alders. But ecological research suggests instead that the excess nutrient is a function of atmospheric nitrogen’s virtually limitless availability, and the priority of pioneer plants comes mainly from their competitive advantage in establishment and not from their communitarian benevolence (1).

To push this insight to a more general conclusion: biodiversity in the wild usually results from niche occupation by organisms with specialist skills in tapping often recalcitrant resources, whereas human cultivation usually relies on getting high returns from a small number of organisms that respond impressively to high resource availability when humans make conditions favorable for them. This explains why, at least at a given level of the system (a vegetable bed, for example), there is little compelling evidence that polycultures or companion planting are, in general, more productive than monocultures. And it’s why ecologist Ford Denison warns against what he calls “misguided mimicry of nature” in designing agricultural systems (2).

 

From science to scientism

 

The gold standard in science is the controlled experiment. By carefully defining a problem in terms of associations between variables that are then rigorously manipulated, it becomes possible to develop and test causal hypotheses about how the various parts of the universe relate to each other and to the whole.

As a reality check to prevent us from leaping to conclusions on the basis of what we think is probably going on or what we’d like to think is going on, this experimental method in science is pretty much the only game in town. Sure, we can scoff about the reductionism of lab work and how it over-simplifies the complexities of real-world relationships. But nobody ever figured out how to replace biological nitrogen fixation with a synthetic alternative by musing on the irreducible complexity of nature; that trick was figured out in the lab, and then taken into the field. It’s hard to gainsay its technical success. Something like 40% of our food globally now relies on nitrogen fertilizer synthesized industrially using air and fossil fuels.

There’s an obvious catch here, though. The experimental method enables scientists to understand plant nutrition and develop synthetic alternatives, but it doesn’t tell us whether those alternatives ought to be adopted. The widespread use of synthetic fertilizers in agriculture has led to eutrophication in rivers, lakes, and seas and the emission of greenhouse gases, among other problems, which may or may not prove remediable by further technical interventions. The larger point remains: should we adopt synthetic fertilization, or any particular innovation enabled by the scientific method? Science has nothing to say about this.

So when people say that we need a “scientific agriculture” (for which read “large-scale, capital-intensive, labor-light, and biotech-heavy”), or that we must embrace “technological progress,” the concepts of science and technology lose their only true moorings in the experimental method and start to function as ideologies—symbols for the kind of politics, economies, and societies that its proponents favor. In this way, science becomes “scientism”—a political metaphor that has precious little to do with science as a method of enquiry. We might debate, for example, whether vitamin A deficiency in South Asia is best tackled by developing transgenic golden rice or by community agroecology projects, and we might adduce certain kinds of scientific evidence in favor of one view or another. But that pervasive brand of scientism in contemporary culture, which always favors the higher tech solution: golden rice over agroecology, represents ideology rather than science.

Others go further: a long tradition of science criticism questions the distinction I’ve just drawn between ideology and science. In this view, scientific enquiry isn’t some value-neutral enterprise that reveals objective truth, but is a social practice defined by the same ideological blinders that afflict politics and society. The society of scientists is a maelstrom of personalities and power politics no different from any other walk of life, in which some people and some questions get promoted over others for reasons that have nothing to do with truth. Personally, I’m happy to go a fair way along that road with the critics of scientific practice—of the military-industrial complex, the corporate takeover of science, and so on. However, I’d argue that ultimately there is a difference between science and ideology. I don’t think the kind of ecological findings about nitrogen I mentioned earlier can be described as ideological in any useful way, and scientific enquiry is self-correcting in a way that is scarcely true of religion, politics, or ideologies like scientism. In science, ultimately the truth will out, whereas these other modes of thought are almost endlessly capable of legitimating themselves to avoid facing their limitations.

 

Permaculture: from self-legitimation to emergence

 

So much for the critique of science as a self-legitimating political metaphor. The same can be said of permaculture. Many of us in the permaculture movement are attracted politically by the values of a flourishing community, mutual aid, social cooperation, balance, and moderation. I think we’re therefore predisposed to look for these values in the natural world and the wider universe, and to latch on to any supportive evidence that seems to confirm our worldview. I’ve already touched on some ways in which nature doesn’t always play ball with us. I’m not sure it much matters, because we don’t need to model the rules for human interaction after those of the natural world—and in any case, these values have complexities enough in their own terms (anyone who thinks that a commons or a community is a naturally self-organizing entity that maximizes net benefit probably needs to read some more history). But we do need to pay attention to the way the natural world works in our traffic with it as gardeners or farmers because, as with scientific enquiry, we can delude ourselves with wishful thinking about landscape design only for so long.

We can, if we like, describe the relationships between organisms as cooperative in preference to a Darwinian emphasis on competition. But it’s not very illuminating either way to use such singular, determinist labels, and it takes a lot of ideological conjuring to characterize the relationship between, say, lions and zebras as cooperative. Only by appointing ourselves lofty judges of lion and zebra-kind can we afford the luxury of an holistic view that holds the dance of death they enact as the benign unfolding of some larger plan for their self-improvement. If I were an individual zebra, however old or sick, I’d more likely take the reductionist position of not wanting to get eaten.

Nevertheless, the lion-zebra example illustrates the concept of emergent properties, which may help permaculturists escape the dissonance between ecological realities and communitarian ideals. Emergence occurs when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, just as the form of a future cake cannot be deduced from its specific ingredients. The agronomist Andy McGuire, building on the insights of ecologists like Denison, has argued that there are no emergent properties in ecosystems, and therefore human designers can better nature by improving on the genomes of its constituent organisms and combining them in novel ways (3). At one level, as a gardener and farmer, I can scarcely disagree, because my daily practice involves propagating improved varieties in non-natural combinations to give me products that I would never otherwise obtain.

But at another level, I do disagree because there is emergence in nature. Emergence doesn’t require the presence of some mystical unifying force of the kind that accords alders the role of benevolent trailblazers (there are many enthusiasts in the permaculture movement for such mystical forces—I’m not myself persuaded that this is more than self-legitimating ideology). But lions and zebras, while doing no more than following their individual dramas of predation and survival, help create an emergent ecosystem that cannot be derived analytically from its parts. It’s not a community in any meaningful human sense—it’s not cooperative and it’s not necessarily balanced. More important than any such questionably anthropocentric values is its emergent and conditioning form, which I would characterize in the words of ecologists Philip Grime and Simon Pierce, “within all branches of the tree of life, constraints of habitat interacting with the limited potentiality of the organisms themselves have restricted the outcomes of natural selection to a rather narrow range of basic alternatives in life-history, resource allocation, and physiology” (4).

The great inspiration of Denison’s work is his emphasis on the tradeoffs faced by every organism in the context of these limited options that evolution presents, and at a higher emergent level the tradeoffs we also face as human assemblers of agro-ecosystems built around arrays of similarly limited organisms. The essence of a tradeoff is that “having more of one good thing usually means having less of another” (Denison, p. 44), and I’d be inclined to turn this point against Denison’s own argument that “Local sourcing of nutrients in natural ecosystems… is a constraint imposed by the lack of external inputs, not an example of ‘nature’s wisdom.’ ” For while there may be no mystical wisdom of nature, our understanding of tradeoffs suggests that drawing in more external inputs, more good things from somewhere else, usually imposes deficiencies elsewhere in the total system.

Here, permaculture, as an approach in human ecology, can build bridges between the economy of nature and the ecology of humanity. The human doctrine that most strongly motivates the overcoming of local resource constraints is capitalism. Requiring a compound annual growth rate of at least 3% to preserve its impetus, the modus operandi of the capitalist economy is to seek out new global arenas for investing capital and absorbing wage labor, and thus to eliminate any local constraints to its expansion (5). By my calculations, at 3% the global economy will have to grow from its present $85 trillion to $246 trillion by 2050, all else remaining equal. Not all growth necessarily impacts negatively elsewhere, but it’s hard to imagine a tripling of the global economy within a generation that won’t draw down natural capital even faster than at present. And, for many of us, it’s hard to see what benefit this relentless growth ultimately brings to the majority of humanity, let alone the rest of the biosphere.

A basic insight of permaculture is that to get out of this impasse, it’s worth exploring some of nature’s lessons on making do with what we’ve got, avoiding waste, avoiding the total system costs imposed by overcoming local constraints, and finding ways to live more convivially within the parameters of our environs rather than feeling the need to define ourselves over and against them. To be fair, Denison himself writes “we may learn much from studying the adaptations of wild plants that evolved under… constraint” (p.106), and the real force of his complaint about the “misguided mimicry of nature” is not that it’s misguided to mimic nature, but that it’s easy to mimic nature misguidedly. If the permaculture movement keeps refreshing its engagement with a reductionist ecology, it’ll avoid making a lot of unnecessary mistakes of this sort, which mostly stem from too reductionist an approach to various specific practices that have become permaculture’s sacred cows: perennial cropping, zero tillage, swales, mulching, forest gardens, livestock tractoring, and so on. All of these are appropriate in some situations, but not in others (and, I’d submit, often in fewer situations than permaculture education generally conveys).

When reductionist science hitches itself to an expansionist economic doctrine such as capitalism, it easily fosters troublesome hybrid ideologies like scientism. In contrast, complementing science with an holistic doctrine of sufficiency such as permaculture could help us make better design decisions and ultimately enjoy a productive, convivial social ecology.

I accept that in the long run nature overcomes limits, that it’s not in balance, that whole assemblages of organisms rise and fall. But we need to design for the human short-run, not for nature’s deep time, and if permaculture sometimes errs in its vision of nature as a balanced, functional whole, this is a more appropriate fiction for staving off humanity’s fall than scientism’s fiction of humans overcoming all.

 

The science of incremental hunches

 

At present, the scientific establishment is not even very aware of permaculture. If we want to bring more of the benefits of reductionist science into our present practice, we’ll have to do it ourselves.

And herein lies a problem. The experimental method is tremendously costly in time and money. Even quite simple agronomic trials can involve much skilled labor by many people working with huge sample sizes in order to produce worthwhile data. Although there are welcome signs that various permaculture institutions are becoming more interested in formal research studies, it seems unlikely that the movement as a whole can command the resources to do much scientific research, particularly with the small-scale and highly diverse cropping it tends to practice. On this score, I have to confess a poor record on my own part in seeing through various mini-experiments I’ve initiated on tillage and fertilization, polycultures, and pest-repelling intercrops, which have all fallen by the wayside in the face of my need as a commercial grower to focus on production. I’m hopeful that my current experiments in small-scale wheat growing and extensive pig husbandry will prove longer-lived than some of those previous efforts.

But maybe it’s possible to develop a permacultural science more in keeping with the movement’s amateur, grassroots character. Gardeners and farmers always have hunches about what works in their particular situations. We can go a long way towards being more scientific permaculturists if we subject these hunches to a little gentle testing through observation. This is a cornerstone of both good science and good permaculture, albeit a difficult one to master, as it’s easy to observe what we want to observe and allow received wisdom to prevent us from observing objectively. Cultivate true observation as a key permaculture skill—so much more important than the clichéd and outcome-focused permaculture standards of zero till, perennial cropping, and so on mentioned above. We can go further still if we keep good notes, ground ourselves in the rudiments of reductionist scientific methodology, and try to keep abreast of ecological thinking, regardless of how well it accords with our fondest notions about how the world should be. In this way, we can develop a skilled and responsive local practice as permaculturists based on a science of incremental hunches which avoids clichéd one-size-fits-all permaculture design, while remaining true to the wider insights in political ecology of the permaculture movement.

I’m neither a great scientific permaculturist nor an expert commercial grower. But my practice over time has inclined toward traditional mixed land uses from my region—clover leys, annual vegetables, orchards, permanent pasture, and wooded pasture—in other words, local sourcing of inputs and dealing with natural constraints by multiplying the cycling of those inputs. We can learn a lot from the reductionist science of contemporary ecology, but there’s much to learn too in the natural wisdom—the “natural science?”—of tried and tested agricultural systems, a fact which ecological research indeed increasingly reveals (6).    ∆

 

Chris Smaje is a market gardener and small-scale farmer based at Vallis Veg in Somerset, England. Hes also worked in academic research, and writes on agricultural and ecological issuesrecent work has appeared in The Land, Red Pepper, Statistics Views, and the Journal of Consumer Culture. Chris blogs at www.smallfarmfuture.org.ukthe present article develops some themes originally presented in a blog post, Permaculture Design Course Syndrome, at https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=491.

 

References

1. Begon, M., Townsend, C., Harper, J. Ecology: From Individuals to Ecosystems, Oxford, UK: Blackwell (2006).

2. Denison, F. Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (2012).

3. McGuire, A. http://csanr.wsu.edu/dont-mimic-nature-improve-it/.

4. Grime, P. and Pierce, S. The Evolutionary Strategies That Shape Ecosystems, Oxford, UK: Blackwell (2012).

5. Harvey, D. The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, London: Oxford University Press (2010).

6. Perfecto, I., Vandermeer, J. and Wright, A. Natures Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation, and Food Sovereignty, London: Earthscan (2009).

 

Quotes

 

It’s not misguided to mimic nature, but it’s easy to mimic nature misguidedly.

 

It’s easy to observe what we want to observe and allow received wisdom to prevent us from observing objectively. Cultivate true observation as a key permaculture skill—so much more important than the clichéd and outcome-focused permaculture standards of zero till, perennial cropping, and so on.

 

 

 

The agribusiness fail

An interesting discussion occurred on my blog during my summer recess, which I thought I might address briefly in this post. It concerned inter alia the difficulties of earning a living through ‘alternative farming’, the pronouncements of Vandana Shiva, and the promise of sustainably synthesised fertiliser. I’m going to leave the last of these issues to a future post, and say a few words about the other two.

So, Brian Macmillan drew attention to this interesting article which argued that farmers using alternative approaches such as permaculture are struggling to stay afloat economically – a deficiency that author Frank Aragona provocatively called ‘The Permaculture Fail’. Unlike Tom, I found much of the discussion beneath the article quite interesting and well reasoned, though I do agree with Tom at least in part that the peak oil-collapse of capitalism-billions will die nexus can easily be overdone.

I’ve made plain on this blog before that I’m amicably sceptical about a number of permaculture’s sacred cows and, as Brian pointed out, Aragona’s article covered pretty similar ground to my own blog post on some of permaculture’s limitations. But, as I also made clear in that post, I’m not planning to throw out the baby with the bathwater: ultimately, I reject Aragona’s concept of the ‘permaculture fail’ for reasons that are well covered in some of the comments beneath his post. The most telling one, I think, is the simple point made by ‘onoway’: so called ‘normal’ farmers aren’t making any money either. Here in the UK, the Commission for Rural Communities found in 2010 (shortly before the government abolished it) that a quarter of farm households lived below the poverty line, and you can be pretty sure that most of them weren’t permaculturists.

Aragona writes “we have focused all of our energy on biological production techniques, many and most of which are sound, effective, and replicable, yet we have done so on top of a broken socio-economic model”. Well, speak for yourself: personally I only focus my energy on biological production techniques by day. By night I write this blog, in which I tirelessly fix broken socio-economic models. But sheesh, then somebody comes along and breaks the damn things again and nothing seems to change. The fact is that however anyone farms they do it on top of a broken socio-economic model. The alternative farming movement – for example, my colleagues in the Land Workers Alliance and Via Campesina – does a pretty good job of articulating exactly how the model is broken. A better job at any rate than ‘normal’ mainstream farming organisations such as the NFU, who are servants of that model (witness George Monbiot’s mischievous but telling comparison of the NFU’s address – 16 Smith Square, London SW1 – with DEFRA’s address – 17 Smith Square, London SW1). We alternative farmers are hardly alone in wishing to derail the present neoliberal juggernaut without quite knowing how.

Still, I think it’s true that permaculturists are often over-susceptible to illusory get rich quick schemes. The article mentions somebody who supposedly earns $90,000/acre from his farming. Well, I’m sure with skill, luck, hard work and a relentless focus upon non-essential products that might be possible, but with the help of that infallible oracle, Wikipedia, let me now demonstrate mathematically the impossibility of all farmers following suit:

(1) Total area of agricultural land globally: 12.07 billion acres

(2) Total economic output of this land area @ $90,0000/acre: $1086 trillion

(3) Actual total global economic output: $59 trillion

(4) Theoretical total agricultural output as a percentage of total global economic output: 1841%

QED

New ideas emerge in farming for sure, but if you’re aiming to produce basic foodstuffs I’d argue there are few shortcuts: you need to input either a lot of fossil fuel and fancy chemicals or a lot of your own/animal labour to get a financial return, and either way the return won’t be very much. You could argue that we shouldn’t be aiming for a financial return in the first place, as some of those commenting on Aragona’s article suggest. Fair point, though I think permaculturists can also be a bit over-susceptible to some confusions about money. But I’ll spin that particular yarn another time.

Aragona’s wider point is surely right, however – we need to develop some different socio-economic models. Of the various resources bequeathed us by history to do so, I find agrarian populism (leavened with a judicious quantity of Marxism, a touch of neo-Stoicism, an exotic hint of Taoism, a pinch of civic republicanism, and the tiniest half-pinch of liberalism) to be the most promising. And since Vandana Shiva is probably the highest profile advocate for agrarian populism around these days, I suppose I should leap to her defence in the light of the outrage caused by her GM/rape analogy. Or perhaps I should chide her and plead for less inflammatory rhetoric on both sides of the debate. But when you have the likes of Patrick Moore tweeting to GM Watch “You are murdering bastards and deserve to rot in hell for your anti-human sins” I just can’t help thinking “Go get ‘em, Vandana!”

Perhaps that last paragraph wasn’t the most spirited defence of a political stance ever mounted. Truth be told, I don’t think there’s a useful parallel between GM crops and rape (though when you look at what Shiva actually said, it wasn’t in fact quite such a direct analogy). There are certainly some troubling issues around seed sovereignty and violence, however. And though I find myself in disagreement with quite a lot of the particulars of what Shiva says, I like her  capacity – and the capacity of agrarian populism in general – to outrage the comfortable worldviews of Marxists and liberals alike. The mainstream media will wax with outrage and scorn for Shiva until it finds some other outside-the-box opinion-former to demonise. Meanwhile, the quiet and necessary work of articulating a left agrarian populism continues. For what it’s worth, I think Shiva does tend to romanticise peasant farming a little, though to be honest why the hell shouldn’t she? We’ve had two hundred years of shameless romanticising of the urban, and if Stewart Brand can get away with writing “Let no one romanticize what the slum conditions are…but the squatter cities are vibrant” then I demand my right to my jolly nature-loving peasants.

Truth be told, the cupboard of agrarian populist gurus is looking pretty bare these days – Shiva, James Scott, Philip McMichael, Paul Richards, maybe Colin Tudge? I might file an application myself. But whatever my specific disagreements with their respective oeuvres, I think they’re right in their basic contention that the best solutions to our social, economic and environmental problems are to be found from the ground up, and if small scale farmers and small scale communities are allowed to get on with the business of feeding their bodies and spirits, perhaps with a little bit of help from central governments rather than with their active hindrance, then those problems start to look less insurmountable. It’s what you might call the agribusiness fail.

The Green and the Gold: or, Peace to Permaculture

I was about to turn my computer on last Tuesday evening when Mrs Spudman suggested instead we sit out in the field with a glass of wine in the sunset. We watched a fox quartering the slope beneath us, listened to the birdsong die in the rising gloom, saw the first bats of the evening emerge and heard a man walking up the lane beyond the hedge stop, unaware of our presence, and offer a prayer for the beauties of the season. Time well spent, I think.

But when I turned my computer on the following evening after 48hrs of internet exile, I found a huge queue of comments on this old post of mine about permaculture awaiting moderation. The awesome power of the retweet at play, I think. There are now 61 comments beneath this post, comfortably a Small Farm Future record, and so many that I can’t really engage with them all. A sweet thing indeed for any blogger to be able to write, but one tinged with sadness too. For when I do respond to a particular comment, I feel bad about all the ones I could have responded to but didn’t. Oh the blogging life is such a rocky road to travel…

Anyway, I hope some of you permaculturists who kindly visited my site will stick with it, and to tempt you along I’m going to add some further thoughts about permaculture here. But first I’m going to talk about something else entirely in order to accustom you to this blog’s typically digressive, allusive and eclectic (OK, rambling) style.

First up, then, an interesting little debate on the always excellent Agricultural Biodiversity Blog about Norman Borlaug, whose centenary year this is. Was he the saviour or the murderer of millions? Oh come on, however passionately we take up our positions in the polarised world of food politics, hyperbole of this kind on both sides gets us nowhere (and, as I argued here, the fact that Borlaug can be painted both hero and villain tells us something important about the contingency of the intellectual frameworks with which we have to wrestle in food policy). Luigi Guarino of the ABB makes a similar point about the hyperbole involved in both sides of the golden rice controversy. As a walk-on extra in the latter, I’ve certainly felt the heat of hysterically pro-GM ideologues, my badge of honour being the accusation that my scepticism about golden rice was tantamount to me travelling to Bangladesh and stealing wheelchairs from disabled children, or some such silliness that I can’t be bothered to look up to get the proper quote.

That accusation came from a familiar old adversary to this site, Graham Strouts. Much as I appreciate a bit of righteous anger, like Guarino I have no taste for wealthy denizens of the global north parading their egos in the misplaced belief that they’re advocating for the poor, and not much taste either for the crude ideology of neo-colonial agricultural improvement or eco-panglossianism that Strouts showcases on his blog. But I just can’t help coming back to him every once in a while. I think it’s because when you read a celebrity eco-panglossian like Stewart Brand his honeyed words almost tempt you into thinking ‘By God, maybe he’s right’ until you remember to re-engage your critical faculties. Whereas with Graham the seething ideology of it all is only too apparent. The historian J.G.A. Pocock wrote that Sir John Fortescue was “the kind of amateur of philosophy who helps us understand the ideas of an age by coarsening them”1. Well, I submit that Graham Strouts is the Sir John Fortescue of eco-panglossiansm. I said as much to a bloke at a party the other night, only for him to edge nervously away from me. Can’t say I blame him, really. Sometimes my erudite wit scares even me.

Anyway, this lengthy preamble is really just by way of justification to explain why I’m going to engage here with Graham Strouts’ comments about my piece on permaculture, and not with those of the many permaculturists whose thoughtful responses to my blog post are really more deserving of attention. But though Graham isn’t thoughtful, he can certainly be thought-provoking. I’ve already addressed a number of the problematic claims from his post in a post here, and implicitly in an article for Stats Views here – in the present post I’m going to focus specifically on his main challenges to the permaculture movement, namely:

  •  that permaculture lacks substantive content: its design principles are nothing more than banal platitudes
  •  that what I called permaculture’s ‘cheerful can-do amateurism’ is in truth more a ‘gormless can’t do naivety’
  • that specific examples of permaculture principles being thoughtfully applied are required
  • and finally that what he calls ‘these earnest PDC-ers’ should ‘just go to ag school, study science and GET REAL’

1. Permaculture Principles

Most permaculturists, I think, are happy to accept that permaculture offers little that’s new or original. It merely packages (perhaps sometimes over-packages) various useful ideas and design principles from other disciplines and thinkers and presents them in a format that’s digestible for modern urbanites who’ve suddenly come to appreciate the banality of their cosseted and unsustainable existence and want to do something about it, however humble. Sometimes permaculturists forget this, and are apt to make excessive claims about the movement’s originality and its capacity to solve the world’s problems (just as eco-panglossians are apt to make excessive claims about the capacity of new technologies to do the same). As Deano put it in his blog comment “It does sometimes seem to take a while for people to ‘observe and interact’ with the facts, and then accept the feedback, and apply self-regulation.”

For me, the main substantive (though not original) content of the movement inheres in its emphasis on holistic design (but let’s call it lifecycle analysis and input-output optimisation to avoid any spiritual baggage), on pattern language and on biomimicry. The last of these touches on a new front opening up in the eco-panglossian war against human sufficiency and its furious and frightened insistence on a philosophy of human overcoming. But my next few posts are going to examine that issue in some detail, starting with a look at Emma Marris’s book Rambunctious Garden, seemingly becoming a keystone work in the eco-panglossian oeuvre, so I’ll leave that hanging for now.

Banal platitudes? Well, yes, I suppose. But what’s the nature of a banal platitude? It’s something that rings true and commands widespread agreement, but also something that’s difficult for people to get right – which is why they platitudinously resort to them as a reminder to stay on the right path. Quit while you’re ahead. Don’t count your chickens. Make hay while the sun shines. And so on (interesting how many of them derive from agriculture…) In a short permaculture design course it’s hard to do much other than mention the platitude and cite a few examples where it comes into play. But it takes whole lifetimes of agricultural thought and practice to apply them skilfully in specific contexts, make the right decisions and learn to farm well. Wendell Berry has written a beautiful essay about this, framing the issue as that of the ‘agrarian mind’ focused on the practical accomplishment of good work in the specific contexts of the farm2. I think permaculture has done a decent job of generalising some of the lessons one can learn from this ‘agrarian mind’, but it’s a dangerous enterprise and all too easy for students to take away from it outcomes when what they really need to see is processes (that was basically the point of my previous post on permaculture).

2. Gormless can’t do naivety

Well, there’s a lot of that about, to be sure. Particularly in the urban white collar worker who seems to be the eco-panglossians’  archetype of successful humanity, and who generally knows nothing about how to grow vegetables, fix an engine, butcher a lamb, make a fence or do a host of other useful things, but instead relies on artisans to do all of that for them, and naively elevates something called ‘science’ to the status of revelation and miracle.

Trust me on this, as a sometime academic sociologist I once was that archetype. But then I became a farmer – and, yes, my farming was pretty naive and gormless when I started. Still is, really. But I figure the world has more need of second rate farmers than second rate sociologists (it’s tempting to add that it’s also more in need of second rate sociologists than second rate eco-panglossians). Still, my farming is less naive and gormless than it was. To me, that’s the most important measure of ‘progress’.

Anyway, I think a lot of people who do a PDC come to it feeling miserable that contemporary education and economics has so deskilled them that they’re incapable of the basic self-care involved in providing their food, clothes and shelter (Simon Fairlie has written a nice article on this phenomenon of ‘distechnia’ here). If they graduate from their course and go on to grow a crap garden, or make some rubbish furniture out of wood from a skip, I salute them. Maybe their next effort will be better. Give me gormless can’t do naivety over wilful dependence any day.

And let’s not overplay the virtues of professionalism. When I get a professional in to do a job for me, sometimes they do it quicker, cheaper and better than I could. More typically they do it quicker, cheaper and worse than I could, because they don’t care about it as much as I do…and then it’s worth asking why I so valued the speed and cost that I hired them. Surprisingly often they do it slower, dearer and worse than I could – most of my faltering improvements to my skill set as a farmer have come from that realisation. And speaking as both a gormless permaculture farmer and a consumer of professional agricultural products from the shops, I’d say that the food production professionals do it quicker, dearer and worse than me…

In summary, gormless can’t do naivety can be rectified, whereas self-legitimating irrationalist scientism is virtually irremediable.

3. Examples of permaculture in action

Nope, I’m not falling for that one. I reject the tyranny of the exemplar. In the hands of the permaculture proponent it becomes exactly the kind of vapid exercise that I criticised in my previous post – Joel Salatin mob stocks his beef cattle, therefore all permaculturists ought to mob stock their beef cattle. And in the hands of its detractors it becomes a build ‘em up and knock ‘em down hostage to fortune of the predictable sort. There are countless examples of permaculture principles being thoughtfully applied for those who care to see, but I’m not going to play the name game. Oh what the hell – Vallis Veg is an example of the thoughtful application of permaculture principles. Is it a flawless example of permaculture design that others should flock to in wonder and then apply religiously to their own practice? No. But we came, we designed, we made it more productive than it had previously been and we (mostly) enjoyed ourselves while we did it. QED.

4. Learn science, go to ag school, get real

Well I’m all in favour of learning science and going to ag school, though I don’t think this bears any necessary relation to getting real. A ghastly pall of unreality afflicts the discourse of scientific agriculture, and the eco-panglossians are in the thick of its fog. Human problems are social problems and as I’ve argued here and here they are not solved simply by applying science or agricultural technology, which is not to say that the learning of science or agricultural technology is of no use. I would, however, venture to say that the crude techno-determinism and cultish mythologisation of science practiced by the eco-panglossians is, genuinely, of no use.

In a follow up post to my original one on permaculture I mentioned Hirschman’s ‘exit, voice and loyalty’ framework. The debate that the original post prompted convinces me that it was good to voice my doubts, rather than going for loyalty, even if the danger of the voice option is that it risks being gleefully picked up by those who wish to undermine from without the movement to which one still, after all, belongs. For me, that debate demonstrates that, as I wrote in my original post, “there’s enough self-critical dynamism in the movement” for it to retain my ultimate loyalty. Peace to permaculture, I say.

References

1. Pocock, J.G.A. (1975) The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, Princeton.

2. Berry, W. (2002) ‘The whole horse: the preservation of the agrarian mind’ in A. Kimbrell (ed) The Fatal Harvest Reader, Washington.

 

 

Why oil didn’t save the whales, and why this matters for farming

Another week, another blog post criticising permaculture. I hadn’t realised that I was so on message when I posted my own critical thoughts on this recently. But that’s not what my post today is about. The comments beneath the post by Ann Owen on Transition Network were snarled up with claim and counter-claim occasioned by the input of this website’s favourite eco-panglossian, that evangelist for the cult of irrationalist faith-based scientism, none other than Graham Strouts himself, spreading discord through another blog site like some dystopian Johnny Appleseed.

The poor saps on Transition Network have learned the hard way that there’s no point debating with Strouts. And poor Graham thinks people in the blogosphere who aren’t fully paid up members of his own irrationalist cult won’t play with him because of their ideological agenda, rather than the sheer misery of toiling through his rancorous Gish gallops of misleading citation. But all that notwithstanding, I do want to examine this one short statement of his: “Coal saved the forests and oil saved the whales” – partly because it’s plain wrong and I just can’t help myself. But it also illustrates the historical naivety of eco-panglossianism, and therefore – to put a more positive spin on things– it starts pointing towards a more promising ethics for grounding what the permaculture folks call ‘earth care, people care, fair share’ which I will address in future posts.

So, taking the issue of whales, the argument in a nutshell is that the invention of the kerosene lamp, which used cheaper mineral oil, undercut the market for whale-derived lamp oil and thus saved the whales from imminent extinction. Now, it’s true that the catch of sperm whales (the preferred species for lamp oil) declined from the 1850s after the introduction of the kerosene lamp, and that the kerosene lamp was one reason (though not the only one) for this decline. However, it’s also true that the discovery of mineral oil potentiated diesel engines, and that this alongside other innovations of late 19th and 20th century industrial whaling later led to whale catches on a scale unparalleled in the pre-kerosene lamp whaling of the early 19th century. The average sperm whale catch from 1835-45, shortly before the invention of the kerosene lamp, was an estimated 6,000-8,000 animals annually1, whereas the average annual catch from 1965-1975 was about 24,000 animals2. And then there are species such as the blue whale – too fast and elusive for pre-mechanised whalers to attack, virtually none were caught prior to the late 19th century. By the end of that century, blue whales were being caught annually in their hundreds, and by the 1930s the annual catch was close to 30,0003. Whales were used among other things for meat, livestock feed and vitamin manufacture, and it was 20th, not 19th, century whaling that caused their widespread and precipitous decline4. Oil saved the whales? I don’t think so.

There are tales to tell too about coal saving the forest. I won’t dwell on them now, but here in Britain, at any rate, the evidence suggests absolutely to the contrary that large-scale woodlands survived precisely where there was an urban or industrial use for them5. The situation was different in North America, for reasons associated with costs of labour and colonial resource mentalities6 –social facts, it might be noted, not purely technological ones.

The larger point is that there is no intrinsic association between technological development and ecological amelioration. The discovery of mineral oil may have given sperm whales some temporary respite in the mid 19th century, but it was also associated with increased exploitation of other species, the development of a vastly more intensive 20th century whaling, human population increase, climate change and a host of other issues affecting the future prospects of whales and many other things besides. Every human decision, including decisions over how to use new technologies, reverberates into the future in myriad unforeseen ways which cannot be captured by a singular narrative of its beneficial (or for that matter its detrimental) effects. If the whales have indeed been saved (and it’s surely too soon to tell), then it’s a result of contingency – a fluke, you might say (sorry…) – and not because of inherent tendencies of technological development. However, if I were pressed to advance a general thesis about human technological development and species survival then the work of the late David Harris may be salutary. When people are absolutely dependent upon a particular resource, they usually take darned good care of it. When they have other options, they usually don’t. That was the case with whales – the fact that their oil was no longer needed for lamps didn’t mean people weren’t willing to exploit them to the point of extinction for other reasons. Perhaps that’s why there’s evidence to suggest we may be in the midst of an anthropogenic mass extinction event7. And perhaps this points to a problem with the globalisation of resources – a kind of global tragedy of the commons, as in the emerging literature on planetary boundaries that I’ve discussed in more detail elsewhere.

Now, much as the Procrustean ideologues of eco-panglossianism wish to position anyone who questions any aspect of technological development as backward-looking romantics, it ought to be obvious that scepticism over the capacity of more efficient new technologies to solve problems of social justice or ecological degradation in themselves involves no particular approbation of past history or disapprobation of technology in general. I don’t think there’s much doubt that new technological developments, both high tech and low tech, can help to tackle many of the tricky issues we currently face, notably in farming and the food supply. But nor do I think there’s much doubt that technological developments alone will fail unless they are placed within some kind of wider social ethic. Let me qualify that immediately. For, after all, the eco-panglossians do have a social ethic, albeit a curate’s egg of one: part faith-based cargo cult, part sunny side up neoliberalism, part ‘God species’ narcissism and part Whiggish progressivism, all served on a bed of universalist scientism in the belief that the life of ease apparently enjoyed by the privileged few will in the future be available to all through largely unspecified but almost purely technological development. And it’s backed up with blatant misreadings of history, of which Strouts’ whale hypothesis is but one small example. So what I really meant to say is that technological developments alone will fail unless they are placed within some kind of sensible social ethic. And for those affected by the food and farming sector (ie. everybody), it strikes me on the basis of these whale and wood examples that a sensible ethic may turn out to be something less productivist, consumerist and progressivist than the one proffered by the eco-panglossians. It will, I suspect, be more conservationist, producerist and satisficing – and hence demand a smaller scale and more localised farming system. If the meaning of those terms is unclear, I’ll try to explain them in some future posts. Indeed, this post (like all my posts really) is principally a memo to myself aimed at future clarification. But if anyone else is reading it, God bless you.

References

1. http://spo.nmfs.noaa.gov/mfr464/mfr46410.pdf

2. ibid.

3. http://spo.nmfs.noaa.gov/mfr464/mfr4644.pdf

4. Hoare, P. (2008) Leviathan or, The Whale, Fourth Estate.

5. Rackham, O. (2010) Woodlands, Collins.

6. Cronon, W. (1991) Nature’s Metropolis, Norton; Rackham, op cit.

7. eg. Jackson, J. (2008) ‘Ecological extinction and evolution in the brave new ocean’ PNAS, Vol. 105, pp. 11458-11465

Of peasants, pigs, permaculture and Patel…

Christmas is over, I know, but this week Small Farm Future brings you a veritable Santa’s sack-full of snippets from the alternative farming scene.

First up, the latest issue of the brilliant The Land magazine is hot off the press – including an article by one Chris Smaje entitled ‘Peasants, Food Sovereignty and the Landworkers’ Alliance’, which defends contemporary peasant agricultures and the concept of food sovereignty from the derision of Marxists, free marketeers and eco-panglossians. Sounds like my sort of chap. And many of the other articles are almost as good, including a penetrating analysis by Simon Fairlie of the crazy bio-security regimen around pig farming that I mentioned in a previous post, which seems basically intended to squash backyard pig-keeping as a default livestock strategy. I’ll be posting something soon on a new pig project at Vallis Veg.

Second, and sticking with The Land, there are various responses in the current magazine to the criticisms of permaculture made in the preceding issue (No.14) which are relevant to my own little outburst about permaculture in my previous post on this site. They include comments by permaculturists I respect like Deano Martin, Tomas Remiarz and Martin Crawford. Deano makes some nice points about perennial and annual crops which complement my discussion about this with Tom in my previous post. And of course, being Mr Perennial, Martin Crawford weighs in on that issue too. But since this topic is a favourite hobby horse of mine, I’ll come back to it in more detail in a future post.

Tomas says “If the target is poorly thought out, painting-by-numbers permaculture, then I’m all for it”. This is the key issue for me – I don’t have a problem with permaculture itself, so much as the tendency of the PDC process to inculcate various idées fixes in its graduates. To be fair, the result of all forms of education is often a somewhat coarsened parroting amongst its students of whatever its teachers have said which tends to diminish over time as one is enriched by other inputs, so perhaps what’s really important is to subject the claims of permaculture to practical experience (perhaps the problem here being the ‘pyramid selling’ aspect of PDCs alluded to by Tom). In her comment on my previous post, Louise made the nice point that it’s easier to apply given techniques than to go through the full process of observation, feedback and modification. And in The Land another good comment from an organic veg grower called A Grower (what a remarkable coincidence!) described how “being so convinced that it was all the gospel truth, patently obvious failures and untruths, such as the numerous projects claiming to be highly productive that very obviously weren’t, were totally invisible to me through some form of cognitive dissonance”. Which underlines both the importance and the difficulty of that ‘observation, feedback and modification’ stage.

The important thing I think is to be open to critical reflection, which is where the “you’ll obviously never understand permaculture” kind of reaction I got on the Permaculture Research Institute site was so disappointing (research, RESEARCH for crying out loud!) I think the Exit, voice and loyalty framework developed by the American economist Albert Hirschman may be relevant here – when your views come into conflict with the orthodoxy of an institution with which you’re associated you either say ‘bugger this’ and leave, or you decide not to rock the boat and keep schtum for what you perceive to be the greater good, or else you voice your concerns. I guess I’m in the voice camp.

Third thing: and talking of Americans, I’ve been pitching in to more American blogosphere debates on organic farming, this time on Steve Savage’s always informative but usually irritating Applied Mythology site. Steve’s objections to organics seem similar to the ones aired on the Biology Fortified site I mentioned in an earlier post – essentially the somewhat less than purist approach taken by large-scale commercial organics. I can understand conventional farmers bridling at a perceived ‘holier than thou’ mentality among organic farmers which is not necessarily well founded. But it seems to me these anti-organic folks doth protest a bit too much about corner-cutting in one particular section of the crazy corporate world without providing much analysis of how crazy corporateness in general breeds corner-cutting, and without much analysis of the basic agronomic wisdom of much in the organic approach. So I was a bit disappointed that Steve didn’t pick up on this in his reply to me. Ah well, we’ve all got better things to do than hurl our worthless opinions into cyberspace, right?

Fourth thing, and still talking of Americans, I’ve just come across the work of George Lakoff on political metaphors, which I think may hold the key for me in my battles to understand the strange psychopathology of the eco-panglossians. More on that soon.

And finally, tying together such of my themes as The Land, American academics and psychopathology, I bring good news to close in the form of this tweet by Raj Patel, one of my favourite food writers, whose brilliant book Stuffed and Starved is the best single overview I’ve come across of the dysfunctional global food system. Patel has just discovered and endorsed The Land magazine. And given that he’s been identified as the messiah, I reckon that’s bound to help its circulation. Apparently, his family refute the messiah tag and describe him as a very naughty boy. Pah! Pure denialism, as Mark Lynas would say.

 

Permaculture Design Course Syndrome

I wrote a version of this post quite a while ago, and have been sitting on it ever since. Various criticisms of permaculture and permaculturists had been accumulating in my thoughts, but I don’t take parricide lightly (permaculture is, after all, how I got into all of this). Then the ever-excellent Land Magazine ran some critical articles about permaculture, followed by some predictable onslaughts from the eco-panglossian brigade, and I started to feel protective. But anyway, here for what it’s worth is my post on the good, the bad and the ugly of permaculture.

At Vallis Veg we’re fortunate to have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of WWOOFers and HelpXers wishing to volunteer to work on our holding. Often they’re young people with no special interest in farming or environmental issues who are simply looking for a cheap way to travel, and I’ve tended to look preferentially for people who can demonstrate a genuine interest in the work – one such criterion being the possession of a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC). However, I’ve increasingly been noticing what we’ve started to call ‘PDC syndrome’ in some of these volunteers, to the extent that I’m beginning to think twice about taking them on.

PDC syndrome can involve one or more of the following symptoms:

  •  a belief that no till or mulching or forest gardening or polycultures or mob-stocking or chicken tractors or perennial crops or compost teas or various other techniques must invariably be practiced in preference to any alternatives
  •  a belief that whatever Bill Mollison or David Holmgren or a handful of other authors have written is above criticism
  •  likewise, a belief that the way things are done by certain famous permaculturists or on certain famous permaculture holdings must always be faithfully reproduced elsewhere
  • a belief that permaculture has cracked the problem of creating a low input – high output farming system
  • a belief, consequently, that anyone who struggles to make a living out of farming must be failing because they are not properly following the correct principles
  • a slightly superior smile at the sight of weeds, hoes, spades, tractors etc
  • a belief that a small garden crammed with edible perennial things is proof positive that permaculture can feed the world
  • a belief that controlled trials and numerical analysis are reductionist and unnecessary
  • a belief that people who question aspects of permaculture principles are simply nay-sayers who sap the movement’s joie de vivre
  • most importantly, a ready admission that permaculture is not a set of approved techniques or received dogma that must always be applied everywhere but a way of thinking, a broad set of handy design principles, before cheerfully reverting to any of the preceding affectations

I’m exaggerating a little of course. And the good news is that the condition is rarely permanent – it usually fades within a few years of taking a permaculture course, faster if the sufferer takes on a farm themselves (the quickest cure recommended by physicians). Perhaps I’m just being over-sensitive to criticism: God knows there are plenty of things I’ve done on my holding that deserve it.  And in case it seems like I’m putting myself above those who suffer from this troubling condition, let me tell you that I had a very bad case of PDC syndrome myself for a couple of years. It’s not that I feel I have nothing to learn from recent PDC graduates, but I do weary of the judgmental spirit that too often seems to accompany the process.

From my perspective as a small-scale agroecologically-oriented commercial grower, I’d offer the following criticism of the package that many PDC graduates seem to emerge with:

  • a tendency to over-emphasise the role of smart design tricks and to under-emphasise the important but unglamorous basics of sound growing/farming skills
  • a tendency to be over-impressed by the media schtick of various global permaculture gurus who very rarely make a living from producing basic food commodities, and a tendency not to notice what many unsung local farmers and growers are achieving as ‘implicit permaculturists’ who simply apply good design in their practice
  • a tendency to a religious mode of thinking, in which the rudiments of scientific rigour are rejected as ‘positivism’ or ‘reductionism’ and replaced by an overwhelming faith in the views of permaculture gurus as per my previous point
  • a metropolitan disdain for farmers past and present, and a conviction that the way they have done things is wrong
  • an insufficiently fine-grained understanding of agro-ecosystems

I do struggle with these aspects of the permaculture education process – particularly the fixed ideas around what constitutes a ‘permaculture approach’ and the tendency to substitute a religious for a critical mode of thinking, with its concern to enact what X says rather than to think about what X has said, engage with it critically, and then apply what’s useful from it to one’s own situation. But I’m not going to turn my back on the movement, because I think its basic principles are sound when thoughtfully applied, because generally I like its cheerful can-do amateurism, because I usually find the way it imagines different possible ways of living invigorating, and because there are signs that it’s sharpening up its act. The movement could probably have done a better job historically in subjecting its claims to some kind of experimental scrutiny, but the fact is that it’s been a grassroots movement without the resources to do much proper research, especially when the methods it typically adopts are complex and multifaceted (on which note, more news of the Vallis Veg Experiment soon). Actually, I’ve recently been in touch with Rafter Sass Ferguson who’s doing an academic study of permaculture over in the US – his liberation ecology site looks like a really promising project in sorting through the permaculture chaff from the grain. I haven’t had a chance to assimilate what he’s doing properly yet, but his site seems to me to be one of the ‘act sharpening’ signs I mentioned above.

So – well, I do despair of the kind of permaculture-principles-as-holy-law approach showcased by Angelo Eliades and some of his supporters in my debate with him about perennial crops (my key alarm bell phrase: “you’ll never understand permaculture”; its equivalent: “you’ll never let God into your life and you will die an unforgiven heathen”). But I think there’s enough self-critical dynamism in the movement to compensate. I’m not especially proud of my exchange with Eliades, whose condescension got right under my skin – but his condescension does actually raise interesting issues. As I recall, I mentioned that I was a ‘struggling farmer’ and Eliades proceeded to belabour me with comments to the effect that I was obviously struggling financially because I wasn’t properly applying permaculture principles, citing various successful ‘permaculture farmers’ such as Joel Salatin. Now, from what I’ve read and seen of Joel I think he’s fantastic, and the same goes for other permaculture farmers like Sepp Holzer. But I’d like to make three points about the nature of such success:

  • It stems partly from being an innovator and opening up a new market, such as Joel’s grass-fed chickens. Kudos for the originality, but normal market forces apply here. As more suppliers join in to fill the niche, the economic returns start to falter, which is pretty much where we’re now at in the local veg box scheme movement. These innovators haven’t found some golden goose to make food production intrinsically profitable.
  • It also stems partly from being good at self-promotion and marketing a new product. Again, kudos for the success – it’s what you need to do as a self-employed small farmer. And I suppose you could say at a stretch that talking a good game is a permaculture skill. But being good at marketing doesn’t really get to the heart of farm economics or agro-ecology.
  • If I could make so bold, part of the success also stems from a certain credulity among the permaculture public, who too rarely ask tough questions of different farming systems. Joel Salatin’s chicken operation is no doubt very productive, but it does rely on bought-in commercial feed, which enthusiasts tend to gloss over. Sepp Holzer has created an amazing-looking farm with some clever ideas that make people want to visit it, and that alone is worth celebrating, but I think the results are open to question on input/output grounds.

Anyway, one good outcome of my debate with Eliades was that it prompted me to look more carefully at the literature on perennial cropping, with the result that I’ve now formalised my thinking on this in a journal article – all it needs is a home to go to, and I’ll report back on that soon. Perhaps this illustrates what David Holmgren means when he says ‘obtain a yield’. Hmm, guess I’m still a permaculturist at heart.

Towards the end of the PDC I took 13 years ago, my esteemed tutor admonished his assembled students with the words “You don’t know anything”. At the time it struck me as a rather harsh note in an otherwise empowering course, but now I see his wisdom. I know a hell of a lot more now than I did back then, but I realise that I still don’t know anything. I only wish a few more PDC graduates realised they don’t know anything either…