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Podcast 032 - Helen Atthowe on Sustainability and Efficiency  RSS feed

 
Adrien Lapointe
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Summary

Credit: D. Logan

In this podcast, Paul debates with Helen Atthowe about how sustainability and efficiency as we currently measure it cannot coexist. Helen has decades of hands on experience working directly on sustainable farming in Montana in addition to having been able to learn directly from Fukuoka. She has also been active as a Missoula County Horticultural Extension Agent who trained Paul as a Master Gardener in 1996. She currently works on a 2000 acre, 60 crop conventional organic farm.

The discussion begins with a statement that Helen has been thinking on the matter of sustainability vs efficiency and how the organic farm she is working on currently is extremely efficient. Their yield averages equal or better than fields using chemicals. It is not, however, sustainable. It is her belief that to move to a sustainable model of agriculture, we have to have a smaller population. Several truly sustainable models are mentioned, but Helen believes that they are not as efficient by the fact that efficiency is measured as yield per acre.
Paul and Helen disagree about the idea that sustainable agriculture won't be able to match the yields of our current system. Paul believes that acre for acre, permaculture can produce more food per acre than a monoculture. Helen believes, based on her experiences, that perennial plants require too many resources to be locked away and lower the yields over annuals. Wes Jackson is mentioned in relation to the work on trying to improve the yields of perennials. Annuals put more energy into producing seed since they don't need to survive afterward. The increased difficulty on the grower of stacked systems is mentioned.
Paul counters that some plants can be stacked in a polyculture to be equally productive as they would be as a monoculture. Helen notes that this is called Overyielding, but only holds that same efficiency in specific combinations. She believes that mimicking natural systems can come close to it. Paul feels that if permaculture systems can be optimized and stuck with for the required time to get moving, it can pull even.

Fukuoka's productivity is mentioned as a measure of how it can be done. Helen notes that there are no major farmers who've been able to match Fukuoka's production with the same techniques. Paul states that Fukuoka said not to do it exactly his way. Helen admits that without grains, her system did better with vegetable production, but wasn't as sustainable. She wasn't able to match traditional yields consistently because of the amount of energy that was tied up by the nature of biology. Helen wants to work with techniques to see how far they can be taken, but doesn't believe it will be enough for the population at its current level.
Paul counters that people said Fukuoka's system could never work, but then did. While alive, he was a top producer of rice per acre, though it is countered that the numbers immediately dropped after his death and that they stopped doing it exactly as he had and have started adding manure to his fields. Paul feels that the key is that he was told he could not possibly do it, but then went on to have rice production higher and a bonus crop on that same acreage. The philosophy is more valuable than the techniques. One of Paul's important measures is to compare with those in your own area, where the soil and climate are similar.

Helen agrees that we can compete with neighbors, but that it can't forever when your hands are tied on bringing in outside inputs. Paul must disagree, based on his own knowledge of various growers and documentation. It is his assertion that because Fukuoka consistently produced his high yields, it is possible but that we just aren't doing what is required. Paul's local agriculture is not using the land effectively and even disallows gardens.
Helen clarifies that she sees a lot of armchair activists who talk about food systems without experience, whereas she has had her hands in the dirt for 25 years. She knows firsthand how lean the eating can be if you only eat what you can grow or trade for. Years of experience are the only reason she is able to manage it if and when she wishes. Most people will at most do some and fill the gaps with the local coop, farmer's markets or other stores without thinking about what it takes to get that food produced and to them. Only eating truly local is biologically complex. She says it is possible, but not with the current population. Helen also hates the idea that we would use every piece of 'wasted land' just for food production.


The conversation turns to lawns and how out of hand they can get. The implication is that instead of going into wild places, extreme lawn space could be better used. Paul wants more carefully measured permaculture systems that track costs, yields, etc. Helen agrees that more studies of biological and economic efficiencies.
After discussing the system further, Paul brings up that economics can be a more accurate measure than yield. He forwards that there may be more food per acre, but it is so unliked that it's only worth very little per pound. Money is a measure of how much that product is actually wanted. Paul thinks that permaculture can win on almost any measure of efficiency at its peak. Cancer is mentioned as one cost that gets ignored with modern agriculture. Paul relays a story of how he helped someone years ago who had been spraying carcinogens to deal with aphids for years and whose sister was in the hospital for cancer. He speaks of how he struggled with the requirements of the Master Gardener program he was there as part of and the limitation not to favor organic in suggestions.
Helen agrees that we need to change how we think. Again she notes that the only way to have a system working the way it needs to be sustainable is with a lower population. Fair and sustainable mean we have to shift what we expect. Paul doubts that most people who say 'sustainable' realize how hard it is. He thinks he is more optimistic than Helen, but also notes he has far less hand's on than she does.
Paul feels Fukuoka proves it is possible, but only if you are willing to fight hard to make it that way. He notes this includes fighting against even his own interns. Paul holds up sepp holzer as another who is managing to do the same sort of examples. Helen suggests Paul do exactly the same sorts of things and notes that now that she's sold her farm, she plans to go even further than before and try to do it without animal inputs. It is stated that very few people actually do create a teachable example of permaculture despite how many say they intend to.
Paul asks a question that is deftly sidestepped by Helen and when called on it, replies “I think you're asking the wrong question.” Paul states how he is trying to help people transition from conventional into permaculture. It is expressed as two languages and needing an interpreter as a go between for it to work. Each side uses different words and different metrics. He mentions his farmer's Roundup-Ready alfalfa field and it leads to a discussion of how the cost of alfalfa is going up and how it is connected to many farmers moving towards cover crops as a way to save costs.


Paul disagrees that permaculture can't match traditional and forwards that it can even do more. He poses another question to Helen about the permaculture production levels and how far they fall short as currently practiced. Helen's response is focused on understanding the land itself. If you add inputs from anywhere else, the levels will always be better than those places which stay within the biological limits of that area. When she limited herself to localized inputs, she couldn't get the same yields as an organic farm that was pulling in massive numbers of outside inputs. This included when she applied Fukuoka's methods. She did not measure it numerically to be certain of how far her attempts were from the alternate farm.
She feels that there are some years when your system will match, but over the extended period of years, inconsistency will lead to lower averages. She originally set out to use organic and agroecology to match the traditional farms, but has since come to believe that it isn't the correct question. Instead, she wants to find a fair and equitable biological system based in reality. She wants people to pay attention and focus on reality.
Paul believes that we can keep up with an expanding population and that Fukuoka proves that it can be done. Helen pokes a little fun about Paul needing to get started on the practical application of his knowledge, though they both agree that each has experience in areas the other does not yet. “Don't listen to anyone else, listen to the land.” Paul points out that Helen used to feel Permaculture was mostly 'flowers and rainbows'. After seeing a productive permaculture, she recognized that her own activities did fit into it. Most systems she had seen previously were ineffective and poorly executed.
Exposure to this farm in Panama opened her up to permaculture. Taking what she has learned, she intends to apply it all into her new forest farm. Helen's site, Veganic Permaculture, is noted, along with richsoil.com and permies.com. Paul states that he feels the forums are the single most important thing he does and that he needs to emphasize it more.

Resources

The One-Straw Revolution
Amazon.com
Amazon.ca
Amazon.co.uk

Sowing Seeds in the Desert
Amazon.com
Amazon.ca
Amazon.co.uk

Relevant Links

Helen Atthowe's Website
The Land Institute Website
Helen Atthowe: goddess of the soil Thread at Permies
Masanobu Fukuoka Thread at Permies
Perennial Plants Thread at Permies
Food Forest Thread at Permies

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Erik Little
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Helen is a very data driven person. I wish she would update her site a little bit...she has at least one broken link.
 
Brent Paschall
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[DISCLAIMER: I'm very new to permiculture ideas. My total knowledge so far is from watching a few geoff lawton videos, reading gaia's garden and about 1/3 of Permiculture Design Handbook and listening to Paul's podcasts for the last several months. I'm working on "catching up" on the podcasts from the beginning, and this is the first one I've felt a strong urge to speak up about.]

I found this to be a somewhat discouraging podcast. I'd be curious to hear what others thought about it.

Helen was trying to make the case that when it comes to total food production per acre, agriculture with many inputs (organic or not) always wins against the closed-cycle, no inputs system that is in many ways the ideal of permiculture. She did a pretty good job making the case, especially considering her very extensive experience on a Fukuoka-style no-till, few-to-no-inputs farm and on a quite large organic farm with significant inputs. She seemed to be saying that annuals put more of the available resources into making food, and perennials had to devote more resources into building permanent plant structures that could survive the winter. Therefore systems that grow annuals with inputs have a huge food-production advantage over system that grow perennials with no inputs that can never be bridged.

Paul did not agree, and focused on Fukuoka's success in no-till no-input rice farming many decades ago, and the fact that permiculture is still in its infancy and has not reached its full potential.

Two things came to my mind:

1. First was the inherent advantage that perennials have in gathering resources from the soil. A previous podcast mentioned the "Dirt" movie that had footage comparing annual's 3 foot roots with perennials ten-foot root system. When you are going 3 times as deep, I'd like to think you have access to at least twice the resources, so you might not need as many inputs to produce the same amount of food.

2. The other thought that came into my mind was this passage from "Gaia's Garden", pg. 168 (1st Ed.) "Trees' ability to produce soil-enriching leaf litter, fill the earth with humusy roots, quell temperature swings, hold moisture, arrest erosion, offer tiers of habitat for animals is unparalleled and in the forest garden they're on our side. As for productivity you can't beat trees. An acre of wheat provides a mere i to 2 tons of grain, an acre of apple trees yields 7 tons of fruit, and an acre of honey-locust trees explodes with 15 tons protein-rich pods—without annual replanting." I remember that thought really grabbing my attention when I read it, and really causing a paradigm shift for me that with permaculture, I'm tapping into a very advantageous method of food production.

Unfortunately, Paul didn't bring up either of these thoughts, so I didn't get to hear how Helen would have responded to these arguments.

Helen is one of the most research, fact-based contributors to the podcast. She also has tons of experience from a broad range of agricultural practices and philosophies. So what gives? Does Toby Hemingway's statement in "Gaia's Garden" need lots of qualification? Is Fukuoka a fluke? Do or do not perennials have access to more nutrients than annuals?

And the worst part is that Helen over and over tells us that we have to either continue high input farming or we must reduce the human population. I already had five children, was that really a mistake, ecologically speaking?!

Is it necroposting to want to have a conversation about this?

 
Adrien Lapointe
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Location: Kingston, Canada (USDA zone 5a)
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Welcome to permies Brent,

To address your 2 points:

1. y understanding is that deep rooted perennials will have access to more minerals, nutrients and water than most annuals. I don't know if that is the case for all perennials, but it definitely is true for trees vs. annuals. Another advantage of perennials is that they don't have to develop a brand new root system during one growing season, hence they can concentrate on other things like producing fruits or nuts.

2. I could go on and on about this, but I recommend you look at Mark Shepard's stuff. He is basically doing that. Growing staple food from trees without inputs and at the same time growing some other crops in between the alleys.

My personal opinion is that Helen is thinking in terms of annual agriculture and hence cannot see how it can be low input. If you look at agroforestry practices, I believe it is possible to feed the current world population without destroying the environment.
 
Brent Paschall
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Thanks for the welcome. I've been lurking a lot, but this podcast forced me to get out and post!

I hadn't thought about annuals having to regrow their basic footprint every year. That is a good point.

 
John Polk
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When comparing annuals to perennials, I think that we must recall Aesop's Fables, particularly "The Tortoise and the Hare".

If you plant an acre of Apples next to an acre of tomatoes, you will be eating tomatoes every summer for several summers before you see your first apple. If your ground was poor to begin with, the trees will need more inputs to begin their evolution than will the tomatoes.

However, if the trees are planted with proper spacing, you can still grow perhaps 80% as many tomatoes under them while developing, and 30-40% once fully matured. Many orchards are planted with strawberries under the new trees. Most strawberries have a commercial life span of about 3 years. By the time they are exhausted, the trees are reaching maturity. No ground was wasted in the process.

Once your trees have reached their productive stage, they will provide more nutrition than the field of tomatoes. And, there is space under the trees to continue growing annuals for summer consumption.

Aesop is vindicated: Slow and steady wins the race.

 
Earl Mardle
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Unlike Brent, I find Helen inspirational, mostly because she is driven by a hard-nosed desire to get to the facts; we live so much of our lives in fantasy but in the end, and quite soon, there will only be the facts and if they don't add up, those whose numbers fall outside the sum will not eat. Her stuff on nitrogen fixation is a revelation and I'm trying to figure out what I need to do differently because of it.

When we first started gardening on 1,000 sq/metres with a permie bent about 7 years ago, we had only harvested our first peas when my wife observed that "sustainability is hard work". We have been working on bigger and bigger canvases since then, we are now up to 10 acres and still having a ball watching the landscape slowly become something different; but we are always clear that we have no idea whether even a perfect permie execution is in fact "permanent" and, there is no question in my mind that the hard work ingredient is never going away. Like Helen, I'm also certain that it depends on population.

The one thing that nags at me about any implementation, even Fukuoka's, that allows nutrients to leave the landscape is that it has to find some way, eventually to close that nutrient loop. One way is to make sure that all the people who live "off" the land also live "on" it. That might mean a community of maybe a couple of thousand even, whose humanure is consciously and deliberately returned to the growing system and whose access to to the product is integrated with their contribution to its production. That also means walking distances for all participants and, essentially, either hand tools or methane-fueled engines at most.

The biggest challenge is to reduce our offsite acreage as far as possible, meaning that buying in anything has to be looked at in terms of our ability, at some point, to replace it inside the property gate or in exchange with a near neighbour, none of whom are permies yet.
 
Sue Rine
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Oh I loved this podcast and the to-ing and fro-ing of ideas and challenges.I really like Helen's determination to deal with reality. I'm hopeful that we can cope with increasing population but I'm certain we can't do it at the level of a western lifestyle for all.
Anyway, the comment that really got me to plunge in and post was the idea of sustainability meaning a closed system. As another poster said, hat would mean everybody who lives from the land also living on it and returning their waste to it. Also, who says how big that piece of land should be? If I own 500 square metres/yards of land and all the inputs come from that area, that is a very different thing from owning 100 acres and parts of that land being harvested to build the fertility on another part of that land....and then selling; some of that production off the land will eventually deplete it. Since the fertility in the sea, at least in part, has come from the land, doesn't that make it sustainable to collect seaweed and return some of that fertiltiy to be recycled? I'm really interested in what is or is not sustainable and in what the realities ofcal eating and suchlike are. At some point those realities will become inavoidable and if we have fooled ourselves we'll be in for a shock. And is it even possible not to fool ourselves, given that we don't see the consequencesof so much of what we do or consume.
 
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