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!
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?)
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.
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.