I just dropped the price of
the permaculture playing cards
for a wee bit.

 

 

uses include:
- infecting brains with permaculture
- convincing folks that you are not crazy
- gift giving obligations
- stocking stuffer
- gambling distraction
- an hour or two of reading
- find the needle
- find the 26 hidden names

clickity-click-click

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conventional ag vs. permaculture  RSS feed

 
paul wheaton
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From the big black book "Permaculture: a designer's manual"  by Bill Mollison.

This, to me, is the key ingredient on why permaculture beats the socks off of conventional agriculture.  To really appreciate this, you need to buy the big black book.  But I will attempt to skim the surface here.

One last thing about the big black book:  I have read a lot of permaculture books, and if you are thinking of doing any thing on a scale of more than three acres, this book is the THE BEST.  By far.  Oh sure, this book has lots of stuff on urban permaculture too, but no other book comes close when talking about larger scale stuff.

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paul wheaton
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paul wheaton
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Posts: 22631
Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
bee chicken hugelkultur trees wofati woodworking
 
paul wheaton
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Follow this link for more info about purchasing this excellent book.

I'm pretty sure that this stuff was drawn up something like 40 years ago.  And while one might be able to debate  a few particulars, I think the overall picture is rock solid.  In fact - I think sepp holzer has proven this to be utterly true.



 
                          
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There are huge inputs in conventional ag, but those guys make more money as well. 

It's a slow but steady kind of thing that we do. 

We sell some wood and maple syrup from our land.  It pays the taxes and allows us to keep doing what we're doing. 

I see it as a sustainable kind of an enterprise. 

It's not a get rich quick scheme though. 
 
paul wheaton
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My impression is that corn farmers with about a thousand acres earn an average of $14,000.  That's their net after all of the expenses and getting their subsidy check.
 
Nicholas Covey
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Yeah, if you're lucky and the Gods of Monsanto smile upon you , you'll make $14000...

Many farmers ironically enough break even on most enterprises. And the bad thing is that many are slaves to the system and cannot leave lest they lose their land, their savings, and (sic) their livelihood. Conventional ag is a sham. I should know, I was raised under it. I watch my father do things every day that he has to do to get by, but which are detrimental to getting ahead and breaking free from the system. In the 1970's he was able to make a comfortable living, but the price of the commodities he was raising then is comparable to their market prices today, and the overhead has increased a thousand-fold. But he's stuck in debt, trying to hit a year where he happens to raise a decent crop when the market is high and get it all paid off.

I'm working with him on some keyline designs to try and increase his grazing season on one farm and prove to him that there's a better way than row-crop farming(he's from Missouri, you have to SHOW him). And I'm planting an excessively sized truck garden, so hopefully I can start generating some revenue from that and prove that to him as well.
 
paul wheaton
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What if your dad set one acre aside and tried something permaculture-ish?

 
Nicholas Covey
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I'm working on that as well. His issue is the conventional ag takes so much of his time that even considering something else is taking away from the rest of the operation. I will give him credit though, he is pretty innovative. Two years ago he had a giant roller built that he pulls behind a tractor and compacts the first half-inch of topsoil and reduces erosion and increases germination of soybeans. I loaned him a copy of my "salad bar beef" book by Joel Salatin, thinking he would be more apt to make changes in the way he grazes cattle versus how he grows rowcrop, and I think it gave him some ideas.

Last year he also planted a patch of teff grass and mowed it for hay. If his figures stay together on a larger scale, the grass grows so much faster than the "native" fescue that he can reduce his hay acres 15% and spread the cattle out more, which eases up the biological impact and is easier on the cow's health. If I could get him to run chickens with his cattle like Joel Salatin does, he wouldn't have to worm the cattle near as much either. Muscovy ducks could reduce the flies to manageable numbers, and guineas would reduce the tick population to nil. The cattle would be healthier than he's ever seen them. As it is he doesn't feed them grain but finishes on grass, so that's something.

I'm also trying to get him to look into bio-diesel as at least a supplementary fuel supply. Burning 6000 gallons of diesel a year is a MAJOR expense, and something like 10 acres of sunflowers would take a huge dent out of that pretty quickly.

Like I said, I'm trying. Big ag, monsanto, and the USDA have blinders on him and all the farm magazines downplay permaculture and alternative crops so much its sickening. The best thing I can do is show him it can be done, and get him to try something on his own.

I have no doubt that there will be a revolution in agriculture soon because of all the negative propaganda in the farm magazines. If it wasn't a threat, it wouldn't be worth mentioning. The general public is now looking at alternative sources of food which are cleaner, more humane, more environmentally friendly, more community friendly, and most importantly more healthy. That can't help but trickle down. All you have to do is look through craigslist to see that people are both wanting and supplying those needs. Transition will take some time however...
 
Neal McSpadden
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Best of luck Quittrack.  Getting parents to listen to children can often be challenging.  I've heard it called the powder-butt syndome.  Once someone powders your butt, they don't much care for your opinion .

Still, it's always worth trying to improve the soil, thus improving the life upon it (including our own).
 
Nicholas Covey
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Well, my take on it is this: I stand to inherit about 2000 acres if all goes well. It is in my best interest if I can get him to a place where the land is payed off and the soil isn't depleted.
 
Fred Morgan
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One thing I am currently doing with someone younger than I is that I know how many sheep I can graze per hectare ( - if he can improve that number, whatever is above it, we share 50/50, after expenses.

I don't have the time or inclination, nor to be honest, the education to figure out how to do it, but he does. I have the land and workers and organization, he has the enthusiasm and ideas.

For those of you needing to work with an older generation, you might try this. After all, for me, I can't lose.  And he couldn't buy the land and sheep, and fencing, etc, etc.

I wouldn't want to enter a partnership, because that gets ugly - I own all the sheep, but the profit, we split, after my first 8.

I also make money from butchering and selling to restaurants.

 
Fred Morgan
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Let me point out that I do believe things are as dire as Paul was indicating. Let me explain why and perhaps explain my qualifications to do so.

Let's say that someone with 1,000 acres only makes 49K a year on average.  Also, subsidize according to what I just researched are more likely to go to large farms, not small ones. And 1,000 acres is a lot of land - heck, I don't even have 800 yet... (but that is about to change)

Now, good farm land normally is expensive. Lets just imagine though for argument sake that each acre has a value of 1,000 dollars. This means that if you merely made 50K a year, you would do just as well in an investment that returned 5% a year. Land appreciation really isn't that much since if it isn't a bubble, it keeps up with inflation. If you were lucky enough to be near a town, of course you will do much better if sold as development land.

So, why bother farming if all you get for your money is 5% a year? There are investments that will do very well at 5%, without the risk of crop failure, like farming.

Another factor that is not being considered is that is the land better or worse at the end of the year. This is depreciation of the asset. Conventional farming can be very hard on the land - and so this results in the soil requiring more fertilizer and more pesticide, year by year. You may well decide that the extraction from the land equals as much, if not more, than the economy, which means in essences, a farm owner is merely using up the asset over time - not generating income.

Now, my qualifications. I buy land in Costa Rica that generally through mismanagement has resulted in no longer being able to support a family. I plant trees and run sheep - among other things. With several years and a lot of investment, I can create significant income, while improving things. But I would say most farmers in Costa Rica are merely extracting what is there, not generating anything.
 
Giuseppe Birardi
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Anyone knows what he means with "Permaculture: 70% cropland devoted to forage farming"?

great book anyway.
 
Travis Johnson
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The biggest difference in my experience in treading the waters constantly between permiculture and conventional farming, is that Permiculture is...in terms of conservation, an investment, where as conventional farming is more of a disinvestment. Still I often find myself gravitating to conventional farming methods depending on the result and the timing.

A great case in point was this summer. I got a grant to do some major swale work, do some biomass planting, and build an access road. Since this was a USDA-NRCS grant, I had to meet certain requirements to get the funding. There was no getting around it, I had to use chemical fertilizers to meet my PH, and NPK requirements in a timely fashion. Now I know what chemical fertilizers do in negative terms to the soil, and for the last 20 years or more have relied on liquid dairy cow and sheep manure to get what we need, so this will stunt those efforts, but the decision was easy.

For the last 20 years this farm has invested in its soils thorough permiculture type ways. While this year by using chemical fertilizers was detrimental and thus a disivestment soil wise, the pay off next year will be a lot less soil erosion and then a continued tradition of soil investment through manures.

This was no different then my thinking in 2011 when I got divorced. I sold a lot of lambs and breeding stock off, knowing my farm would take a hit the following year on lamb numbers, but got through the tough time to stay afloat to fight the battle latter.

What I often see, and feel it is a mistake, is both Permiculture and Conventional farms sticking to their guns until they drown. I have seen this on BOTH sides. In my case this summer, yes I could have applied manures over a 3 year time span and got the grant money and my NPK where it needed to be without over-applying manures, BUT I also would have continued to lose tons of soil to erosion. What is the point of of doing manure only and not having any soil left to farm with?

The point is, I think with careful thought, treading back and forth between the two may be the best farm plan.



 
Ray Moses
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Are any of you actually farmers? I ask as a full time farmer with only a farm income how this information about how profitable we are comes about because I do not see the same situations discussed here as the standard. I have yet to see permaculture designed sites even begin to show profit. I see many farms that grow perennial crops with non conventional methods be profitable but they are not permaculture designed and they make money growing conventional crops. Just seems a lot of putting down us farmers.
 
Travis Johnson
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I am a full-time farmer, with a family of 6 with no outside income. My wife does not even work in town like most conventional farmers, the entirety of our income stemming from raising sheep or managing our woodlot.
 
Ray Moses
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Good post Travis, I have just read your post and it had stated what I was thinking. Glad there are a few farmers here to moderate the extreme opinions.
 
Todd Parr
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Ray Moses wrote:Are any of you actually farmers? I ask as a full time farmer with only a farm income how this information about how profitable we are comes about because I do not see the same situations discussed here as the standard. I have yet to see permaculture designed sites even begin to show profit. I see many farms that grow perennial crops with non conventional methods be profitable but they are not permaculture designed and they make money growing conventional crops. Just seems a lot of putting down us farmers.


I don't know that I see "a lot of putting down us farmers", but I think most people here think there is a better way than the one that is used by most commercial farmers currently.  Nope, I'm not a farmer.  I am curious why you are on a permaculture forum if you think conventional farming is the better way to go and the opinions here are "extreme"?  As an aside, I think Mark Shepard's New Forest Farm here in WI may be something you would find interesting.
 
Kyle Neath
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Are any of you actually farmers? I ask as a full time farmer with only a farm income how this information about how profitable we are comes about because I do not see the same situations discussed here as the standard. I have yet to see permaculture designed sites even begin to show profit. I see many farms that grow perennial crops with non conventional methods be profitable but they are not permaculture designed and they make money growing conventional crops. Just seems a lot of putting down us farmers.


I have a feeling you might be misreading some of the posts here. I think the most important is that Bill Mollison's diagrams in the beginning of the thread serve as an example for comparison, not a quantitative measurement. The diagrams exist to explain the differences between permaculture and conventional farming, in a theorized world that Bill Mollison created for the purposes of presentation. It isn't a case study of a working farm. The second is that you are completely right — permaculture has yet to prove itself as a reliable, economically superior agriculture model. There are definitely examples of profitable farms, but nothing on the scale of conventional agriculture. And that's sort of the point — most people experimenting with permaculture practices are trying to prove these theories that Mollison diagrammed.

I think Paul's $14,000 comment isn't too far off the mark. It may be not representative, but it is definitely true for many corn farmers. Farming finances are incredibly contextual, seasonal, and variant. There's a good post from the Iowa Corn Grower's Association comparing a good year and a bad year. In the good year, the farmer took home $50,000 for 1,000 acres. In the bad year, they lost $25,000. But then again if you tweak the definition of income, the farmer would have made $900,000 and $800,000 respectively. And that's the struggle when we talk about farm finances — you need very specific, regional, seasonal definitions for what you mean when you say income in order to compare apples to apples.

Personally, I'd love to see more analysis on this subject. We have plenty of anecdotes, but these numbers are so complicated and nuanced, they're just not even close to sufficient. My own working theory is that permaculture practices have the potential for much higher employment and higher profit per acre, but will never be able to eclipse the income that conventional agriculture has proven.
 
Travis Johnson
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Ray...I do hope you stick around and read a lot of the posts on here. When I first got on here I felt kind of left out with nothing to offer and sometimes still do. But I have also realized that there is a huge brain-Trust here working on the leading edge of farming too. I think Permiculture farmers must realize that we all cannot be experimenters, just as conventional farmers must realize if we keep doing what we always have done, nothing new will happen. My farm...unlike some others on here that have jobs and thus back up plans if their ideas fail...I am better to wait, to see if certain practices prove themselves, then possibly better my farm for it. I am sure some Permicultural Farmers dislike that as I am not "all in", but they may not realize the stress too of total failure and the results it would have on my family. Sometimes that simply has to do with scale. Some practices just are impossible to scale up to big farm sizes, and others are more conducive to big farm acreages.

Another thing I noted is that a lot of the things done on here just have different names, or were things commonly done, but were abandoned for awhile. Swales for instance were huge back in the 1930's, went out of favor, then in New England returned in 1954 when 2 hurricanes and a Gale slammed us back to back to back. Now Swales are big again. Other practices include Keyline Farming, Biochar, and check dams.

As for money, one thing I have noted in my 43 years of farming, is that income is NOT what does a farm under; it is a lack of cash flow. Whenever I do number crunching to run different farming scenarios, it is not what I make at the end of the year that I even look at, it is what I make at the end of the month cumulatively. That is because farming can have some heavy expense months, and some pretty sweet income months, just part of how farming works. For instance on my farm, lambing is in the winter and my costs are sky high, yet when those lambs are fattened in August when the price of lamb is at its yearly high (because most lamb on pasture in the Spring), I make up for those expenses. They key is, I have to plan so that I can have enough cash in my pocket to ride through those winter months and make it to the other side...cash flow, not end of year income.

Thrown into those figures I too have found out that there is a 7 year farm cycle. It is simply this, in a 7 year time frame I can count on 1 really profitable year. For whatever reason, there just will be one really good year in those 7 years. But there will be 3 only marginally profitable years. Marginal being years something like what Paul describes, $14,000 for an entire year of work, then 2 unprofitable years where the farm is spending almost as much as it is taking in...then one REALLY bad year. For many farms, especially those that just assume things are always going to be great...or those that have not properly addressed monthly cumulative cash flow, this type of year is what sends them into bankruptcy. Now I am not saying the years will go in order, Great...good, poor...really bad...no not at all. It might go Great, Really Bad, then poor, good, poor, good, etc. The key is investing money in the great year, and good years for the poor years and really bad years.

Permicultural Farming can really play into that, in particular certain practices. In years past in the great years we used to buy things like fertilizer, lime, or equipment. Now though we look for alternatives that are low or no cost, like in the poor years using seaweed, fish guts, biochar and mill lime. In that way we get the same high crop yields without the outlay in cash we had before. And the interesting thing is, if we can do it in the lean years, why not do so in the better years and take the money that would go to those rather short term crop producers and spend it on livestock? If things go south, that is the buffer; sell the extra livestock and survive to fight the battle another day. If the year is good...well darn we got more livestock to aid in making more milk/lamb/beef, etc.




 
Ray Moses
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Todd Parr wrote:[

I don't know that I see "a lot of putting down us farmers", but I think most people here think there is a better way than the one that is used by most commercial farmers currently.  Nope, I'm not a farmer.  I am curious why you are on a permaculture forum if you think conventional farming is the better way to go and the opinions here are "extreme"?  As an aside, I think Mark Shepard's New Forest Farm here in WI may be something you would find interesting.

Well, I am on a permaculture forum because I love growing plants and like the concept and grow and forage as a living and a hobby, I might ask you the same question based on your occupation. Never stated that one was better then the other. Graphs from a book wrote on another continent from decades ago may not tell the whole story, helps if you actually have some real experience. I am well aware of Mark Shepard and attended one of his two day seminars years ago at a Acres USA conference and he is right up front about where his income comes from by braking down the percentages of how he supports his farm.
 
David Livingston
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I would really like this forum to reach out to farmers and not treat them as though they are all clones in the service of monsanto I don't think we do here but I ( with my mod hat on ) am certainly on the look out any comments that cross the line as it's outside Permies be nice policy .
Have those farmers commenting come across Gebe Brown certainly worth checking out I love his line in talking to fellow farmers - sign the back of the check not the front
I also don't think that the book above is the last word someday someone will write something better I hope to read it
 
Ray Moses
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I have heard Gabe Brown talk and have been able to meet him we had him come into our Michigan forage conference and talk a few years back . Great information.  Gabes focus was on how to reduce inputs and costs, and conservation.
 
Todd Parr
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Ray Moses wrote:Graphs from a book wrote on another continent from decades ago may not tell the whole story, helps if you actually have some real experience. I am well aware of Mark Shepard and attended one of his two day seminars years ago at a Acres USA conference and he is right up front about where his income comes from by braking down the percentages of how he supports his farm.


I think lots of people here have some real experience, although not the same experience a farmer has.

Would you say that Mark's place is an example of permaculture?

 
Ray Moses
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I read his book and attended his seminar but can't remember if Mark calls his farm a permaculture farm. He used the term agroforestry a lot among other terms as well and talked about Key line design and mentioned  Bill Mollison.
 
Kathleen Sanderson
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(Disclaimer:  I am not a farmer, but was raised on a farm, and in the middle of farms when we weren't actually farming.)

There's been mention of large farms and the difficulty involved in converting them to more sustainable farming practices.  I've wondered for a long time if perhaps a lot of our modern farms are too big for anything but conventional farming practices.  If you have a thousand acres, you basically cannot farm all, or even very much, of that land with human-intensive practices.  (Human-intensive might be labor-intensive, but is likely to also just mean needing human attention for various reasons, unlike huge fields of one crop farmed by mechanized equipment where you can eye-ball the whole field and see if it is doing well.)  Traditionally, before mechanized equipment came to dominate farming practices, farms were usually much smaller.  Large properties required either a lot of man-power, or were used primarily for pasturing cattle or sheep, or perhaps as timber properties.  I don't know what the solution to the problem is, but I think that if I owned a large farm, I might consider selling most of the land, paying off all the debts, keeping a good chunk of savings in reserve, and then converting the smaller parcel to permaculture practices.  There may be other solutions, but that's what comes to my mind first.

Kathleen
 
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