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Permaculture - are we looking in the wrong places?

Posts: 2667
Location: Kent, UK - Zone 8
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We recently had a thread where the permaculture approaches were compared to large scale agriculture... the noise from the "big ag" farmers was that permaculture works fine on the small scale but there are issues scaling it up. This is hard to argue with as the chief benefit of big ag systems are the massive degree of automation possible, allowing much land to be managed by a very small number of people. In countries with high labour costs this is a big issue, as it become difficult to make a wage competitively. There was talk about strategies for convincing/converting the big ag people and a shortage of large scale projects was cited as an issue.

Elsewhere I have been educating myself on some of the challenges faced by the very poorest of the subsistence farmers in the developing world... there are still places were communities walk 20km to collect water for the family, places where all cultivation is done with hand tools because there is no power of any sort, places suffering from desertification and soil loss. These people are intelligent and incredibly motivated - restoring their water cycles transforms their quality of life, cutting soil erosion maintain fertility and literally puts more food on the plate for them and their families.

So down to a question - is permaculture in the developed world fighting the wrong battle? Big-Ag is financially, culturally and physically tied to existing systems - the motivation for change is not already present in the broad body of farmers, and those who do seek change are risk averse due to the burdens of debt most are faced with. If we want to bring whole scale acceptance of permaculture techniques shouldn't we be working with the motivated small scale farmers? Those who have land on scales that are suitable for hand cultivation in the first place? Those who are not heavily invested in farming capital so tied to damaging techniques? Those whose next meal literally depends on what is growing in their fields? When we can show that constructive permaculture techniques can bring subsistence farmers up to competitive production we will not only have transformed the quality of life of millions, we will also have a much more powerful case for bringing permaculture into the mainstream of agriculture in the developed world.

Work of existing NGOs
I may be off track here, but the NGOs working in developing countries that I have become aware of tend to be one-trick-ponies... they have a tool that they know how to apply and they fit it to what ever problems they see. In many ways they are going after low hanging fruit - walk in, make a capital investment that makes a big difference, then walk out.

For example I found this charity: Excellent, which installs sand dams in river beds to store water year round nearer to commnities. To protect these dams from silt (which would fill pore spaces and stop them working) they get the locals to dig deep water diversion ditches on the slopes to protect the dam. From all accounts their dams are incredibly successful, but with a permaculturalist mindset you start seeing ways to improve and develop them.

The Vetiver Network coordinates efforts to use vetiver grasses in the control of erosion and run-off in lots of situations. It can be hugely beneficial as a mulch source and for water retention as it increases soil infiltration.

Now with a permaculturalist mindset you can see an immediate synergy between these two technologies - swap vetiver hedges for laboriously hand dug trenches and you have a big labour saver up front, along with an added yield year on year from the mulch/fodder. Likewise you can start tree planting programs along river banks with year round underground water storage, bringing fresh fruit to diets and shading the river bed surface.

A stone in the rut
It is quite easy to see why these organisations do well - it is easy to fundraise for something like a dam installation. The message is clear an uncomplicated, there is a well defined goal and the end result is nicely photogenic. But the question is, as these communities drag them selves out of absolute poverty what is their forward trajectory like? Are they on a path towards conventional agriculture? When they have some "spare" cash will they start buying chemical fertilisers and tractors, or will they build on what they have towards a more desirable permaculture based agricultural system?

If these intervention improve crop yields, bring water security and improve standards of living but don't shift the paradigm from conventional ag to permaculture we are missing the long term possible benefits of a huge population actively working with earth care systems in mind.

How do we go about bringing not just a few tricks and pieces of infrastructure, but a mind-set and ethos to these communities to set them on the best path possible?
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Location: Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Big Agriculture is actually on the path to catastrophic failure due to the idea that one must use chemicals in order to produce enough food to "feed the world". This is their prime directive as it were, without the use of GMO plants and all the chemical needs of those plants which enable them to grow and produce high yields, who will feed all the people of planet earth? The answer is that this is bunk, I don't know of a country that can not produce enough food to feed the people that live there, with out the use of high levels of chemicals (fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides). There are good reasons (nutritional value, soil erosion, poisoning of water supplies) which have countries other than the USA on the war path with Big Ag. and GMO seeds. Already many countries that Big Ag. has tried to convince to their mind set, have rejected the premises of Big Ag., especially the GMO seeds. These countries cite the costs of fuel, the chemicals and the resultant poisoning of water supplies, the land used for production of food, the lack of nutrition of that food and they have banned these things from their countries. These folks know what good, nutritious food is, they have produced it all along, by hand or by machine help.

It is mostly in the USA where you find farmers convinced that a reproduction of the great dust bowl is simply a result of farming practices and that it can not be avoided if we want to "feed the world". In short, we have learned nothing from the countless mistakes made in the last 80+ years.

Look at the new wave of farmer, the ones using diversity planting, scheduled grazing, multi level cropping and you will find farmers, using modern farming tools in a manner that works to build the soil naturally instead of destroying it systematically. As the numbers of these "pioneer" farmers grow, more "conventional farmers will drop the Big Ag. methods and adopt to the rising tide of holistic, nurturing, soil building farmers. They will discover they spend less on fuel, less on chemicals, and get better returns on their investments. It is a slow path simply because humans are resistant to change, but it is a path that is growing and it will continue to grow as more and more farmers try the new and discover they need to discard the old. Eventually the new sea of farming will crash down on what is Big Ag, and it will be lost in the swirl of the new ocean of soil building farmers.

Permaculture is only one part of the whole when it comes to the rejuvenation of the Earth Mother and the soil that grows what we eat to survive. When I speak to others of permaculture, I do not separate it from holistic gardening or remedial soil building or soil rejuvenation or any of the other parts that make up the whole of restoration of Mother Earth, she is the only thing that allows humans to live, without Mother Earth, we all die, in fact, all things die. Only the human is stupid enough to kill the place they live. It is time we all woke up and realized that suicide by destruction of our plant is the ultimate act of stupidity.
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Location: Zone 5 Wyoming
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So this is a big discussion I have with my husband all of the time. Farming practices will only change when the current practices are no longer possible. When we run out of oil and water, things will have to change. I also see the need for change at the very very top. The USDA is still subsidizing the growing of corn for bio fuel. So people here, who would not grow corn are normally, because there is money in it. It is depleting our already low water levels. When everyone is out of water they obviously won't be watering that corn anymore. They won't be selling their water to oil companies then either. Till then, they're fine. They have to be. As mentioned, they are stuck. The debt load American farmers carry is frightening. Honestly I think we need to stop talking about college loan debt and start talking about farm debt. It is easy to control someone with money when they have none.

Also, you won't pry that land from them. It is the biggest asset they have. Cynthia Lummis is planning the sell of her land very thoroughly. I won't get all conspiracy ish but bam, all these things going up near her land. How convenient since she's stated they are going to subdivide it all.

We were personally sued by a farmer who had subdivided the land ages ago. They didn't reserve the mineral rights, by accident, and sued around 40 people to get them. Land is worth hella money.
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