I haven’t written a blog post in a very long time. Being both a father to a small child and the man behind the show of a market garden takes an incredible about of time and dedication over the course of many seasons. I have a lot of topics that I’d like to discuss in more detail, but those will need to wait for winter.
Still, I’d like to take an evening to write what I hope is a balanced response to Curtis Stone’s article “What Permaculture Got Wrong- Dispelling Five Common Myths,” recently published on Medium. I’m a big fan of Curtis, in fact, his willingness to share so much about how he makes his farm, Green City Acres, work helped inspire me to launch a market garden as the primary economic engine of Lillklobb Permaculture. Whenever I have a question about something I can “ask Curtis” by way of his extensive YouTube channel and find an answer.
Something I really appreciate about Curtis is that he constantly reminds his audience about the importance of context, which is the distinction between finding “an answer” versus finding “the answer.” I, for one, think that Curtis has made a tremendous contribution to the world of permaculture through his contrarian emphasis on fiscal independence, industriousness, and no-frills market gardening.
Speaking for myself, I have plenty of problems with the “permaculture community.” I think I share many of Curtis’ frustrations. As my farm changes over time, it is quite likely (and I’ve talked openly about this in the past) that the word “permaculture” is going to take a backseat. Not because I don’t believe permaculture is valuable- in fact, I believe it is is one of the most valuable tools humans have available to build a better future- but because I care more about the core ideas permaculture promotes than the word itself.
If I truly want what permaculture design produces to become commonplace, perhaps it is better if I don’t use the word to differentiate myself from everyone else.
With that said, let’s get back on track.
From here on out, I’m assuming that everyone has read Curtis’ article.
While the word permaculture began as an amalgamation of “permanent” and “agriculture,” those developing it fairly quickly came to the realization that the design system was applicable well beyond the borders of the agricultural or even, more broadly, land management domains. It is more accurately defined as an ethical design system aimed at producing “permanent cultures.”
I’ve recently developed a new model of looking at permaculture as a voluntary value structure that 1) produces action intended to bring human directed systems in line with natural systems, 2) it must be consciously adopted and applied, and 3) it delegates the interpretation of the ethics to the individual. Here’s a poor audio cast along with slides from my Introduction to Permaculture course I created this past winter explaining the idea in (some) more detail.
The two primary reasons for my reframing of permaculture are that I share the frustration of permaculture becoming a “nebulous term” with Curtis as well as the paralysis of analysis that locks up many newcomers to permaculture. I think one of the biggest causes of this trend towards an amorphous description of permaculture is that, let’s face it, movement permaculture is dominated by very liberal people who have issues with the borders, definitions, and hierarchy. Most people I’ve encountered in the permaculture world are almost flamboyantly allergic to the very idea of defining anything, let alone coming to a conclusion and sticking with it for a while. Hence the aversion to defining permaculture. Which is rather ironic given that the only word that has – pardon the pun- permanently stuck with permaculture is the word permanent itself.
I believe this same view of the world also helps explain the hesitancy to action on the part of many folks interested in permaculture, which is in my estimation, unfortunately, not helped along by things like the permaculture flower. Anyway, you’ll need to listen to the (admittedly poor) video linked above to get a fuller picture of my thoughts on this.
To his credit, Curtis does mention that permaculture is “also commonly referred to as a design system,” but I think he gets it backwards: permaculture is design system whose unpacked portmanteau is really of secondary consequence.
I mostly agree with Curtis’ points here, though I strongly disagree that the five myths have been aimed at replacing or fixing conventional agriculture by leading figures in the permaculture world.
1. The Self-Sustaining Farm
This section is mostly about the idea of a forest garden as being a replacement for production agriculture. I don’t think anyone is truly advocating forest gardens replacing agriculture.
From my perspective, a forest garden is a type of garden that falls under a higher order of ideas called “agroforestry.” Agroforestry, or, the deliberate combination of trees, shrubs, and other perennial species in agricultural settings. Farms utilizing agroforestry- across climates- can reach land equivalence ratios of 1.4. That means by establishing agroforestry systems, farmers doing it well can produce 40% more with the same amount of land. This can be accomplished with tree crops between row crops, silvopastures, wind break establishment, or many other things of which forest gardening is just one concept.
Agroforestry is well documented across climates, cultures, and economic development levels. It works on small scales as well as large ones. Mark Shepard’s New Forest Farm is just one example of a farm using both permaculture and agroforestry (there is a lot of overlap, but permaculture is better identified as a design system rather than a set of techniques or concepts). His family’s farm is rather extreme in its design goals and orientation. More conservative agroforestry applications certainly produce food and, as mentioned above, do so better than so-called conventional farming.
Speaking to the idea of a self sustaining farm in general being a myth, one would be hard pressed to look at Gabe Brown’s ranch or Allen Williams’ work (https://joyce-farms.com/pages/dr-allen-williams ) and not find some truth.
Lastly, I totally concur with Curtis that farming is hard and consistent work. It is often grueling, mentally and physically, and takes an enormous toll on relationships inside a socioeconomic system that is largely service based where most people simply do not comprehend the dedication farming takes.
2. The Lazy Gardener
No rebuttal to offer as I think he nails this one on the head.
3. Mulch Everything
There’s a lot of truth here- but a few notes.
1) Mulch can’t be spread by a machine. Indeed, it can. Here’s a wonderful example of some scaling up with mulch in Brazil. The grass is being simultaneously cut and applied to mulch a large scale agroforestry system (not a forest garden) to great effect (starts around 8:00). The folks behind Syntropic Agriculture have put out a call to engineers to help design more and better tools that work with these kinds of systems so we can mechanize more of the work.
2) Mulch is just a nuisance (in a multiple rotation context). Yes, removing mulch can be a pain in the behind as it saps away at the clock. However, it needn’t always be so. It depends on the crop, of course, but if the second succession (for argument’s sake), is set to be transplanted by hand rather than direct sown, there can be little reason to remove the the mulch at all. Getting the spacing dead accurate may be more difficult, but ones fidelity to the prescribed pattern depends on your crop management practices (how you plan to irrigate and weed, for example).
Utilizing a “soil health” (cf Gabe Brown, Ray Archuleta) approach to market gardening, the need to add amendments during the growing season should be diminished. I will note that yes, this is where my inexperience and novice status as a market gardener really shows, but I have done my fair share of studying soil function and biology and my understanding is that regular applications of fertilizer and compost are artifacts of the soil health practices of the farmer rather than existential realities. Gabe Brown’s farm is just one prime example of how, over time, one can develop a system where outside inputs are indeed unnecessary.
How well this translates to high turnover market gardening, with multiple successions per season and high vulnerability to challenges of pests and disease given the scale and plant species, remains to be seen. My context allows me a lot more freedom than most have. Hopefully I can find a middle way on my farm and in my context because I believe integration of animals, diverse cover cropping, minimizing soil disturbance, and keeping the soil covered are the way millions of years of evolution have built soil and the ecosystems that emerge above them. We’ll need a few years to reach the verdict there, but I’d like to at least finish this growing season before writing in more depth about the approach I wish to develop.
3) Mulch keeps the soil cool (in the spring). Indeed, (http://notillveggies.org/cover-crops-and-soil-temperature/) it does in the spring- but by how much and when? For those early spring transplants started 6-8 weeks before going to the field, exactly how much time does one lose in maturation? While for direct seeded crops the difference may be more noticeable, I do wonder if the difference is enough to justify the lack of residue given the importance of protecting soil from the elements. It is important to note that residue (mulch) is a critical element in no-till approaches to farming. By protecting the soil with residue, microorganisms are better able to utilize the entire soil profile rather than seeking shelter below the solarized zone. Healthy soil stays warmer in the autumn and can lead to large differences in soil temperature that can extend the growing season beyond tilled soil. So I guess the biggest question is whether one wants to lose a few days in the spring or gain days in the fall, along with all the other benefits of using biological material to protect the ground.
4) Pest habitat creation. This is definitely true, especially with slugs and snails in my climate, but habitat for pests is also habitat for many beneficials as well. How we will overcome this challenge remains to be seen.
Although I’m defending mulch quite a bit here, I will say that we mostly use compost as the “mulch” (which I don’t like to do on principle that compost’s main function is aiding soil biology, letting a portion be solarized bothers me, but I do it) and only in a few places are we experimenting with leaves or cover crop residue. Finding the balance in our specific context and with our wildly changing weather is what I’m after. For example, 2017 was the one of the coldest starts to the season in 30 years (snow fell in mid May) while this spring saw our region of Finland as the hottest spot in all of Europe! We had almost 8 weeks of drought and extreme temperatures, so we began mulching even the compost layer with leaves to keep the temperature down and the precious irrigation water in.
Do our crops have slugs and snails? Yes, very often. The plants don’t have much damage at all, given that they get plopped into the ground as super strong transplants. But having pests is also a fact of farming, with or without chemicals. There will always be pests (I’ll address this later when Curtis does).
5) Use the crop as mulch. I agree whole heartedly here. An integral part of the soil health approach is to use diverse living roots as much as possible to build soil- indeed I would argue that this is the key turning point from the “old” organic approach of using dead organic materials to “feed” the soil (where humans are primarily responsible for soil fertility via inputs) to the “new” soil health approach of active soil building by living organisms- plants, fungi, bacteria, etc- where the input of decomposing organic materials is important but secondary. The “diverse” living root is hard to accomplish in this style of market gardening, given the incredible rate at which even small polycultures become too complex to manage- at least for novices- or in a situation where there isn’t much room to experiment, but surely the idea of dense living plants covering the soil is optimal.
4. Swale Everything
I agree that swales are over prescribed and I came to that conclusion after my PDC with Richard Perkins (pre Ridgedale) who is a strong proponent of the Keyline system of farm design. We have a few future hedgerows on the farm that will, for all intents and purposes, look like swales (given the landform), but really are simply mounds for planting trees rather than true water harvesting features.
Still, I think swales certainly have merit even in cold temperate climates when done well- but that’s the thing. I don’t have the same confidence in knowledge and design as someone like Ben Falk who seems to have the swale thing pretty well figured out. Though I’d love to see some updates on their larger research farm and its design (nudge nudge, wink wink Curtis!)
In my climate and on my farm, I think the best water harvesting strategy is simply to build deep living soil, which improves the entire land base rather than invest in “must have everything is awesome permaculture features” so many get enamored with.
5. No Pests with Beneficial Insects and Plants
Oh Lord. I get this all the time. I’ve never quite understood the obsession with companion planting for very specific, yet extremely difficult to measure goals like pest reduction. Especially when you find people consulting companion planting charts made from someone on another continent.
Human beings are probably the only species that routinely lays waste to the entire living populations of an area. Almost all other creatures, because they don’t have access to our species’ unique biological and cultural toolkit, are simply incapable of such madness. Besides, niche predators (like many, but not all predatory insects are), by definition do not have anything to eat other than their narrow range of prey.
What that means is without “pests,” you won’t have any predators. Simple ecological understanding also tells us that the population of predators will always be (unless you are talking about humans and that is really a whole other topic) lower than that of the prey due to the loss of energy as you move from up one trophic level to another. That means there is going to be a lag time between the start of pest trouble and the predators being able to increase their population sufficiently enough to turn the tide. But like tides, the cycle will go around and around. Eliminating pests in the field is clearly not possible, even with chemical weapons.
Heck, the same applies to the pests except in really poor agricultural situations, which, as Curtis has already said, aren’t natural in the least bit: there have to be more primary producers (plants) than primary consumers (pests) or else the system crashes.
That said, any square meter of bed space in the market gardens at Lillklobb will be at most 12 meters from perennial habitat- be it woodland or the 300 linear meters of hedgerows I have planned. The primary function of the hedgerows are to provide yields from perennials (and annuals), serve as windbreaks for the more tender annuals, gently suggest to people to use the planned access routes and not walk into growing beds, and also to provide habitat for beneficial organisms especially predators. They will take years, probably 7-10, to mature once planted before any impact can be seen.
Ultimately, I agree with Curtis here. Relying solely upon natural predators for your pest management strategy is probably a losing bet. In my view, commercially successful farmers need to adopt as many of the approaches Curtis outlines in his article as they see fit in order to do their due diligence.
That said, there are numerous reports and trials coming out that show farms utilizing a regenerative approach have quantitatively less pests than those that insecticides. Here’s a very recent publication that also looks at something super important for commercial growers: the link to profitability.
I think the science is catching up to the possibilities here and we have a lot left to learn.
With all of that, I have to say again that I really appreciate Curtis stirring the pot a bit here. I’m constantly looking outside of my comfort zone to learn new things. People with different perspectives are desperately needed in the permaculture world. In time, I think the impact of Curtis’ work will be seen with many new small farms establishing a solid economic foothold so they can dabble in more eccentric things. At least that’s my plan.
Thanks for reading!