Permaculture Dreams

We are definitely on a roll with permaculturalists coming out and taking pot-shots at their own movement.
Here is another one, from Hugel-Kultur expert Paul Wheaton.

Wheaton grew up with commodity farming and “knowing what a challenge this was, what a risk it entails”, he wanted something else.
He turned to Permaculture, and, acknowledging the slipperiness of any definition of the term, has come up with his own original:

Permaculture is a more symbiotic relationship with Nature, so I can be even lazier.

This seems very much in keeping with the notion that permaculture offers a magic solution to the problem of having to work for your living: if only we apply the principles of Mother Nature, food will just fall into our mouths.

“I don’t like “sustainable’ ” opines Paul ‘it means ‘barely not dead’.”
Which is a fair point- like permaculture “sustainable” is another weasel-word which is rarely defined, but is put to use to mean anything you want it to.

What does Wheaton want from permaculture design?

“I’m shooting for something like a lush jungle. Here in Montana, I see mono-crops like wheat which is a type of grass, but a sparse type; it looks very unhealthy to me….
I just kind of feel like, when you have a lot of diversity, then you get a lot more yield per acre; plus it is a joy to be around- I think we would all prefer to spend time sitting in a garden than to spend time sitting in a wheat field.”

You’ve gotta love this- “I just kinda feel like…” is good enough for the self-respecting Permie, no need for troubling with all that boring old peer-reviewed studies and science, no sir! And diverse plantings of questionable yields have just got to be better, because you know, no one wants to hang out for fun in the middle of a 1000 acre monocrop of wheat or soy. I guess not, and I know exactly how he feels, since I also tend to prefer sitting in a garden designed for the purpose of recreation, or a natural woodland or out on the mountains, rather than pic-nicking and hiking on huge industrial farms. Still, you could speculate that large fields of arable crops might bring pleasure to the farmer- the pride and satisfaction of a job well done, a sense of purpose that he is actually feeding the world perhaps- but what do mono-crop farmers know anyway, right?

Wheaton does admit that it is however hard to make comparisons between “something called permaculture” and industrial farms, as there are not many permaculture demonstration sites. Hmm, I wonder why that is, 35 years after the concept of this more “harmonious” farming method was conceived?

“There is some sort of connection” Wheaton continues- “is this my true function? Perhaps THE true function- to have this symbiotic relationship with Nature… you dont get that in monoculture, it feels more like I am making Nature my servant, my slave.
In Monoculture- it feels like I have made Nature my personal Bitch.”

So I think we are clear about that- permaculture is more “harmonious with Nature” and feels much nicer because it is diverse, so it must be better.
But the main thrust of this discussion is that this True Path of permaculture, which Wheaton calls “Brown permaculture” is being corrupted by something even more vague:
Purple Permaculture, which might also be referred to as Hippie Permaculture. You know the kind: holding hands singing songs, worshiping the Earth Mother, talking to the fairies, that sort of thing, and Wheaton is annoyed with the Purples because he feels it alienates the mainstream farmers who he is trying to inspire with Brown Permaculture, and understands when their response is:

“Get the Hell off my Land! Im not going to make more money blowing rainbows out my arse!”

Wheaton thinks that American permies tend assume PC includes some kind of Earth Worship. I can attest that this is just as common over in Europe. The Brown/Purple divide mirrors closely Peter Harper’s “Cult” vs “Smart” permaculture.
According to Wheaton, some practitioners and teachers say they wont use the P-word anymore “because there is too much Fairy Dust on it.”
So now we are more likely to hear the terms “regenerative agriculture” (which includes the controversial mob-grazing of Allan Savory) or “carbon farming”, and agro-ecology.

“I want to make it clear: PC does not include holding hands and singing songs.”
This is woo-woo and metaphysics. Wheaton thinks it is fine for people to have whatever beliefs they want, but there is an issue when people say there is no PC without the Purple. He acknowledges there are many schools of permaculture;
but on the other hand, the purple people don’t like earth-works with large plant machinery, which they see as an overly aggressive intervention into Mother Nature, (“That’s not PC, where’s the love man? where’s the heart?”) even though as Wheaton correctly points out, earthworks formed one of the main chapters in the Permaculture Designers’ Manual.

So what techniques can traditional farmers start using, if they want to transition to permaculture? Wheaton feels strongly that the main hook to get farmers to move away from evil monocrops is not holding hands and singing songs but perhaps surprisingly, the promise of making more money.

He talks about one conventional farmer he knows who loves herbicides, and has 160 acres RoundupReady alfalfa; he also grows some hay and wheat but little else.
Wheaton proposes that he try a 2-acre trial: he should do his earthworks- swales and damms -then plant diversity- “lots of different things so plants can all start together.”

“I predict you can make more from this 2-acre plot than all the rest of your farm put together!”

It should be possible anyway to achieve this after 6-7yrs. If your income from these 2 acres is 10x that per acre as the rest of the farm, it might be worth increasing the area put under this diverse permaculture system.
He goes onto tell us that this guy grew huge garden one year, but his family wouldn’t eat it, they preferred take-out pizzas, which poses a problem if you want to fulfill the first PC injunction of growing your own food.
The solution? You need a cook, and this is supplied through a move to some kind of communal living.
Apparently, the actual farming- increasing your per-acre income tenfold- is the easy bit- “90% of the challenge is with people”. No kidding! As someone who has in their adventurous youth participated in a couple of intentional community experiments, I can tell you if you get past the dish-washing rota without serious fracas, you may have solved 90% of the people problem.

Wheaton’s claim that income per acre can increase tenfold just by implementing something-called- permaculture might raise a few eyebrows, his next substantive claim seems truly extravagant:

The average income for 1000acre farm in the US is just $14,000/yr; while Permaculture guru
Sepp Holzer is pulling in $1m/yr just from the food he produces on 100-odd acres!

Touring the Krameterhof 2004

Touring the Krameterhof 2004

A quick Google search suggests that US farm incomes may be many times Wheaton’s estimate:

In fact, most farmers are wealthier than the average American, with a household income of $87, 289 in 2011 – 29 percent higher than the $67,677 average for all US households,” wrote The Week magazine.

Could it be true that Sepp Holzer is a Permie Millionaire? Wheaton himself indicates elsewhere that Holzer’s income is from multiple income streams, including expensive tours around his Krameterhof farm in Austria (I attended such a tour myself some years ago, but it was part of an organised group on a longer tour so I don’t know how much it cost) rumored to cost up to $100 a head (quickly mounts up with daily tours of 20-30 people), rented chalet accommodation and of course the ubiquitous permaculture courses.

(As an aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Sepp Holzer, in a group of 30 other permaculturalists making our way to the European Permaculture Gathering in Croatia in 2004. Sepp was a garrulous character, and we gleaned his wisdom and explanations through an interpeter. We spent several hours winding our way up the zig-zag paths, admiring the view and the trees and a great deal of diversity. The famous ponds were especially impressive. As the day wore on we tired and began to ask when we could stop for a rest. Sepp responded numerous times by promising us refreshments just around the next bend. Numerous bends later, we finally reached the top to be greeted by exquisite chalets set amongst beautiful mountain scenery and more of Sepp’s constructed ponds. We were grateful indeed for drinks and delicious cakes- and too tired and hungry at the time to be any more than just a little annoyed that we had to pay extra for them! The waitresses in the cafe were the only signs of anyone else working on the land that day; it was early in the summer, and although there was evidence of vegetables planted along the swales, it was impossible to gauge from this one visit how much was actually being produced, how much inputs were required, or how much Sepp was turning over, but the general vibe was certainly profit, not self-sufficiency, the produce manly vegetables, fruit, some meat. We had spoken to locals in the pub the previous night, they made it clear that Holzer was generally disliked amongst farmers in the area. Was this jealousy? or because he was making more money selling a false image of farming than they were by actual farming?)

Cashing in: luxurious holiday chalets on Sepp Holzer's farm

Cashing in: luxurious holiday chalets on Sepp Holzer’s farm

Leaving aside the profit motive- which would seem to contradict the fundamental ethic of self-reliance, which is what most people feel permaculture is supposed to be about- Wheaton comes across as no more than a Master of Waffle. He pretty much starts by admitting that there is no real definition of permaculture, and gives no details or evidence to back up extraordinary claims of increased productivity, again admitting that there are few if any demonstrations of the concept. His claims of easily achieved riches from following the Path of Permaculture seem ludicrous to the point of dishonesty. Even if it were possible to profit so highly from just 2 acres, this will certainly not be a lazy option, but will involve labour-intensive micro-managing of resources, and begs the question, if everyone were to do this, the actual amount of land farmed would dramatically decrease, so who in fact would grow our food? The truth is, in the US at least, year by year, one acre and and one farmer is feeding more and more people each year.

No farms.  No food.  No future.

We actually need farmers with big machines farming large areas of monocrops, otherwise we just won’t produce enough food. The kind of techniques Wheaton then goes onto discuss like Hugelkulture- a kind of extreme raised-bed system with polycropping- are really garden techniques and cannot substitute for lagre-scale farming. In particular, gardeners, however productive, generally do not produce much in the way of high-calorie staples such as wheat, rice, corn. We need farmers to do that.

In truth, for all Wheaton’s bluster about how we can do without the Purple Hippy Permaculture, I cannot see much difference in what he has to offer. We might as well be holding hands and singing songs for all the good it will do.


6 thoughts on “Permaculture Dreams

  1. I am currently getting into permaculture and look at it less as a form of relgion, for my God is Jesus not Nature. But I instead look at it as an method for efficiency. I look at is as a way of trying to make a system that lets nature work form me rather than against me. This works out if you are trying to meet your basic necessities but not so great when it comes to making money. The reason why is because the more you rely on systems that depend on elements of nature the more you have to diversify your products. This usually means that you are incapable of sustaining a noteworthy stream of any particular food which is not how grocery stores stock their shelves. A noteworthy example of permaculture would be subsistence farming from our past and i guess present as well. So I plan on using it to design systems for people that would help them meet their food, water, shelter, and energy needs or supplement them as best I could with as minimal labor as possible on their part. This would allow a person the ability to stretch out any regular salary they make further. They could also be given the freedom to leave a hostile work environment without fear of meeting his family’s most basic needs. Now as far as GMO I personally feel that it is the future but that doesn’t mean we do not proceed with caution or with respect to other peoples wishes. People have the right to eat what they want and that means you cannot openly pollinate your genetically modified plants. To protect the patents on GMO plants companies should make sure that they are not capable of producing viable seed. This makes sure that the company can make it’s money back and then some, the customer always gets the newest GMO plant breeds, and nature is preserved. Though the truth is the Eco-terrorists and large agricultural corporations are cultures of hate and greed respectively. And I for one will take what good they were made for and discard the rest like so much dust in the wind.

    • You are a bit mixed up on GMOs- most GMOs are open-pollinated- the seed is perfectly viable and can be saved for re-growing- but some are patented, so this cannot be done under terms of the patent, not because of designed-sterility- otherwise, there wouldnt be lawsuits fo farmers doing just that, ilegally (but viably) saving their own seed. However, this has nothing to do with GMOs- many other non-GMO crops are also patented. The first US patents on hybrids were in the 1930s. Conversely, there are plenty of GMOs which are Open Source and not under patent, including the forthcoming Golden Rice and the Hawaiian Rainbow Papaya.

  2. Skepteco you misunderstood Marshal. He did not say that GMO’s were not open pollinated. His statement was one of caution, GMO’s have been proven to ‘escape’ and cross pollinate (pollute) non-GMO’s in their vicinity. Marshall feels the company should be using terminator seed technology to prevent the cross pollination issue and maintain the control (and economic potential) of an unproven technology.

    • Yes I may have misunderstood- he is indeed saying they should ensure GMOs dont set viable seeds, which could be a reference to GURT (Terminator).
      However you are wrong to say GMOs have been proven to “escape”- can you provide any evidence for this? what does that even mean, “escape” ? Why would pollen from a GMO crop “escaping” be any more problematic than from non-GMOs, which has been happening for thousands of years? in other words, farmers have developed a range of techniques to deal with cross-pollination- which is not normally a problem unless the crop is grown to save the seeds, which requires specialist processes to ensure viable seeds anyway. so why should there be a special issue with GMOs?
      You are also obviously incorrect to say GMOs are an “unproven technology”. You might as well claim that farming itself is “unproven” !.

  3. the definition of escape is…break free from confinement or control. In this case it is the second, control, that is the issue. While the seed companies made no effort to confine their product in a way I feel was malicious forethought, knowing and desiring the spread of their patented product at the expense of farmers who saved and replanted their own seed.

    The case of Percy Schmieser from Alberta Canada is an example of the form of pollution caused by GMO pollen escaping. He was a farmer who saved his seed and used it to replant every year a product that was particularly suited to his micro climate. His neighbours under contract to Monsanto planted round up ready seed, the pollen of which blew onto his land and pollinated his resulting in a cross containing GMO genetics. Percy has since lost his court case, and his seed.

    The special issue with GMO’s is twofold, the first of which is choice. Farmers have always had the choice of going through the ‘specialist process’ to save seed from year to year, selecting for the qualities they find useful and developing seed suited to their climate. This choice is quickly being stripped away in favor of placing greater control of the seed and therefore food supply in the hands of a few individuals.

    The second aspect of choice is that of the consumer, we all relish our ability and right to choose and rally against any lose of such ability. Monsanto in particular has made the dual argument that GMO’s are no different then, and very different from non-GMO’s. These arguments are being used to remove the choice of the individual consumer to buy and consume or not the products that use GMO’s.

    Before I get into the second ‘special issue’ I feel I need to clarify what I see as the two classes of GMO. The first class, the round up ready seeds are a result of ‘natural selection’. They were a small disaster for Monsanto who turned it into a victory. After years of spraying Roundup on fields of corn and soy, (and now accelerated for other crops in a lab setting) several plants evolved to become resistant to this environmental pressure. While I do not advocate the use of this class of GMO due to the fact I do not advocate the use of roundup, the method of production is a ‘natural selection’ process, that has been used ever since we started saving seed many generations ago. The second class the true genetically modified through the process of manipulating the code of two separate species in a very non natural combination such as BT corn poses even greater risks. The holistic effects have been studied in laboratory situations under double blind and controlled situations that don’t exist in a natural environment. Both beneficial and deleterious effects have been proven (and unproven) in these environments often to the benefit of the proofer. The speed in which these products are developed and released into the market shows a short sighted desire of profit over risk. The ability of these products to perform, to produce has been proven but the holistic effects on the human and environment are too soon to tell and so are unproven.

    So the second special issue with GMO’s is the conflicting reports of deleterious effects such as cancer growth and other associated genetic changes. The wide spread use of GMO’s is now only 20 years old, too short a time for the eventual ramifications to be fully expressed. The technology was a great leap forward and therein lies the rub. We jumped over the progression that would allow us to make small changes, and therefore smaller mistakes and lessons learned. So while the controversy continues as to whether or not there are serious deleterious ramifications associated with GMO’s they will remain unproven.

    One final thought, I am interested in what you think are the specialist processes associated with saving seed,

    • You are misinformed about most of this, and just repeat anti-GMO tropes with zero supporting evidence.
      Saying GMOs have only been extant for 20 years and therefore “unproved” is a bit like saying the internet is only 20 years old and therefore unproved. There is no plausible biological process by which GMOs can possibly be significantly different or more risky than any other breeding method, because mixing genes in a way unknown in “nature” (itself misleading since transgenes are in fact common in nature and part of the evolutionary process) is part of ALL plant breeding. Far more genes are mixed randomly, with zero testing, with mutagenesis than with transgenes, the latter being tested and regulated to death.
      Here is a list of over 600 safety studies proving GMOs to be safe. More than 2 trillion meals have been eaten with GMOs with not a single case of negative health impacts. On the other hand people regularly die from “natural” E.coli poisoning, more common on Organic foods.
      Schmeiser did not suffer accidental cross-pollination- he saved seed that had accidentally fallen into his field, and then grew them out the following season because he saw they were a better seed. Schmeiser wanted to grow RR soya because it was better. He was happy with Roundup for weed control. His gripe was he did not want to pay royalties on this improved seed. Schmeiser is PRO-GMO- he supports transgenic varieties. You need to be clear on the distinction between GMOs and seed patents, they are not the same thing. There are also patented non-GMO RR varieties. Patents on seeds have existed in the US since the 1930s. There are ZERO cases of farmers being sued for accidental cross-pollination.
      The specialist processes for seed savers obviously involve taking steps to avoid cross-pollination. Modern farmers and growers save little of their own seed because of this risk, and because most commercial growers will use hybrids and other improved seeds which, even if open-pollinated, are hard to breed true without going to extra expense to ensure the traits are not contaminated. Again, this is not an issue about GMOs.

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