Planting for a Future

Planting for a Future


By Al Markowitz

In my last article on the state of our worsening climate reality – a subject not given nearly the attention needed in this election season – I focused on solutions. One of the more important solutions I wrote about is Permaculture farming as a way to re-sequester carbon to the soil. Given the climate impact of industrial agriculture this really deserves more attention. Agriculture, upon which our food supply depends, is particularly susceptible to the impact of unpredictable weather including too much rain or too little and the draining and poisoning of our limited aquifers by fracking and overuse. That we have not yet suffered drastic shortages of food is due largely to the global market that allows us to have apples and grapes year round. Other parts of the world are affected by climate stress as well as food shortages. The globalized market, while important for transporting needed nourishment, is neither democratic in distribution nor a long term solution.

Monoculture is the limitation of crops to a few species which dramatically increases the risk of blight and crop failure. The Irish potato famine is a good example of this. Without seed diversity, crop diseases rise. Giant corporations, increasingly monopolized globally, enforce monoculture and control a limited variety of seeds that farmers must purchase from them. Farmers, once independent, are increasingly sharecroppers subservient to them as well as to banks. If farmers attempt to save their own seeds at the end of a season they face ruthless prosecution.

Though genetically modified seeds are patented and sold to farmers, there is ongoing resistance to the corporate ownership and limitation of species and crop varieties by mega corporations like Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto, (recently purchased by Bayer.) Seeds have a long history of being valued as essential to our survival. Heirloom seeds are kept and exchanged by gardeners as well as farmers who want to protect us against the dangers of monoculture and to perpetuate traditional crops. This is a struggle that affects our food security and our future as well as the freedom of farmers. An important documentary on this called, “Seed: The Untold Story” will be showing at the Naro Cinema on Wednesday, November 2. Dr. Tom Ellis will be one of the people speaking to this issue after the movie.

Most of us know very little about where our food comes from or about agriculture. Permaculture being an important alternative to industrial agriculture, which is heavily reliant on oil derived fertilizers and insecticides, I thought I’d interview someone who is informed on the subject. Dr. Tom Ellis, head of the English Department at Tidewater Community College is such a person. He has studied environmental issues as well as making an in depth study of permaculture. He is well known and respected in our area as a leader, teacher and Gaian Buddhist philosopher. I asked him the following questions:

What do we mean by “Permaculture”?

“Permaculture” is a portmanteau word coined by two Australian agronomists and activists, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, around 1978. It originally denoted “Permanent Agriculture” but has since expanded to mean “Permanent Culture.” The simplest definition of Permaculture I know is “applied ecology;” that is, the direct application of principles derived from the study of biological systems to the design of human support systems: gardens, communities, and landscapes. Bill Mollison, who passed away on September 26th described it thus, “Permaculture is the conscious design of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems” Another synonym for permaculture is “regenerative design,” since permaculture designers strive to emulate the regenerative properties of natural systems, so that once a design is in place, it can breed ever-increasing abundance for future generations.

At its core, Permaculture is founded on three ethical maxims: Earth Care; People Care; and Fair Share. These in turn reflect a Gaian understanding that humanity is a part of, and not apart from the biosphere, and that our first ethical obligation is to nurture, protect, and restore our shared biological support system: our topsoils, our biological diversity, and our water. Caring for people involves expanding our sense of community to include everyone: family, community, society, and everyone else. Fair Share means setting limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistributing the surplus to promote both Earth Care and People Care. Spiraling outward from these three core ethics are twelve essential principles of permaculture practice, all derived from the close study of ecological systems: (1) Observe and Interact; (2) Catch and Store Energy; (3) Obtain a Yield; (4) Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback; (5) Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services; (6) Produce No Waste; (7) Design from Pattern to Details; (8) Integrate rather than Segregate; (9) Use Small and Slow Solutions: (10) Use and Value Diversity;(11) Use Edges and Value the Marginal; and (12) Creatively Use and Respond to Change. 

Why Permaculture? Can it work on a large scale producing enough to feed us?


One thing Permaculture is not is a top-down, policy-level reordering of the socioeconomic system. It proceeds, like Nature herself, from the ground up, starting with topsoil and gardens, moving up to landscapes and communities, and finally—ideally—leading to a fundamental reordering of our cultural priorities. In his spiral chart labeled “The Permaculture Flower” Holmgren relates the evolution of permaculture design to all seven domains of human culture: (1) Land and Nature Stewardship (which always comes first); (2) Built Environment; (3) Tools and Technology; (4) Culture and Education; (5) Health and Spiritual Well-Being; (6) Finances and Economics; and (7) Land Tenure and Community.

It will not work “on a large scale” so much as on a large number of small-scale, locally adapted gardens, food forests, and community projects. But because a food forest, for example, takes advantage of every vertical layer of forest from the ground-level to the canopy to grow foods, it has the potential to dramatically increase yield-per-acre while simultaneously sequestering CO2 and building topsoil. This may sound too good to be true, but I have seen it with my own eyes, on Joel Salatin’s spectacular permaculture-based cattle farm outside of Staunton, where his yield is four times that of his neighboring industrial farmers, yet he uses no fertilizers, pesticides, or antibiotics, and all of his pigs, cows, and chickens are rotationally grazed on perennial grasses, resulting in a net regeneration of topsoil and sequestration of CO2. 

You have organized and led study groups on this locally, could you tell us about that?


I have only just begun with this initiative, getting an “Earthrise Book Club” underway on a monthly basis at the Slover Library to discuss David Holmgren’s foundational book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. I am also starting a Permaculture Club at TCC, where my long-term goal is to create a demonstration permaculture garden project on one of our campuses, modeled after the ongoing, Presideaward-winning student project at UMass-Amherst, which you can see on YouTube. (This probably will not happen on my watch since I am retiring at the end of this year, but I have already appointed a colleague to take my place). 

Are there any examples in our region of Permaculture farming being put into practice?


Yes. There is a man named Jay Ford who, along with his wife and newborn child, has established a Permaculture farm on the Eastern Shore called “Shine and Rise Farm.” Jay has a superb presentation which he gave at ODU and again last May at the Slover Library, called “Farming for the Future.”

The best-known Permaculture practitioner in the state, and possibly in the world, is Joel Salatin, whose Polyface Farm, outside of Staunton, has become a world-renowned paradigm of Permaculture design, featured in Michael Pollan’s best-selling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and also in numerous documentary films, such as Food, Inc. and Fresh. I had the privilege of meeting him and chatting with him at some length, during a day-long Permaculture workshop I attended at his farm last summer.

How can people learn more and become involved locally?


First, I would recommend, for anyone interested, that you go to YouTube, and watch any one of a series of superb video clips by Permaculture luminaries such as Geoff Lawton in Australia, Toby Hemenway in Oregon, or Bill Wilson of Midwest Permaculture. Then, if you wish to get more involved, go to “Earthrise Book Club” on Facebook and see when our next meeting is scheduled.