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Sustainable Agriculture is an Oxymoron.  RSS feed

 
            
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Location: Ontario, Canada (44.265475, -77.960029)
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With apologies to Toby Hemenway for plagiarism, it seems to me it's true.  Much of what I see around the web involves, technology and oil, either directly or indirectly.  When you take these out of the equation, things get smaller in many senses. The amount of land that can be cultivated gets smaller because the work day gets smaller.  If you introduce animal power, you need to cultivate more land to feed more mouths.  And the bigger the animal, the bigger the appetite.  And the bigger the appetite, the more land you need to cultivate.  And so on and so on.

The more complicated it gets, the more difficult it becomes to be sustainable, i.e, to make sure that what you take out ≤
what you put in. The more complicated it gets, the more fragile it gets. 

I'm increasingly starting to believe that animals in general (there are probably situation specific examples where they do fit) don't fit in to the sustainability equation.

Hemenway's essay has an AV version (my apologies if it has been linked elsewhere here)  where he expands on his ideas.

 
Chuck Freeman
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I don't understand your logic. Are you talking about commercial ag or the family farm? My own grandfather was raised on a farm in the Flint hills of Kansas where they raised all of their own food and sold wheat at market. They used all draft animals my grandfather didn't learn to drive until several years after he left home.
 
                              
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(without watching the vid yet...) I'm not sure what that point is yet either. During the depression and 20's etc my family farmed in Minnesota using animals, and then eventually trucks/tractors. They had the land to raise the food for the draft animals(grain and pasture, the pasture also raised beef, dairy, turkeys sheep and pigs), raised other foods(including milk, cheese, eggs, cream which was bartered or sold). They also did logging and transport of threshing equipment. The only monetary expenses paid out was for fuel, the rest went for property tax on the land. Very little other expense(which would be beer and cigarettes kind of stuff on a Saturday night) not near what we think we need to spend today. If they needed something, they made it. They recycled up the ying yang, and worked VERY VERY hard.

I believe the acreage was 600 acres, in flat prairie Minnesota. They also grew potatos, hay, flax, oats for row crops. They had PLENTY of stuff to eat for themselves. I wish I knew how the acreage was broken down into how many acres to grow what, how many animals etc. All I have is pictures and letter describing the basics. The family kids provided "free" labor picking potatoes btw.
 
Tyler Ludens
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I think animals can have a place in sustainable food-growing (not necessarily "agriculture".  It's difficult for some people to get adequate nutrition from a vegan diet, and some animals can transform materials inedible or unpalatable to humans (grass, weeds,bugs) into nutritious human food (eggs, dairy, meat).  Poultry can help control some insect pests.  A small number of animals can fit into almost any food-growing system.  Large animals are problematic because you often need hundreds of acres to support them, depending on the carrying capacity of the land.

 
Burra Maluca
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Why would you need to cultivate land to feed an animal like a donkey?  Mine does well enough being used to clear rough grass around the olive trees, or tethered on uncultivated areas.  In fact, I think there are a lot of animals that wouldn't need land to be cultivated.  Sheep or cattle for meat can be reared just on grass, low yeilding breeds of free range poultry that only lay a few eggs probably wouldn't need much by way of 'cultivated' food.  The trick is to match the needs of the animal with the requirements of the owner and the availability of land. 
 
Tyler Ludens
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Burra Maluca wrote:
  The trick is to match the needs of the animal with the requirements of the owner and the availability of land. 


Exactly.  The carrying capacity of the land is so important, and often overlooked.  Here in my region (Central Texas, Edwards Plateau) it takes at least 20 acres to support one animal unit (mature cow with nursing calf, for instance).  If there is little grass it may take even more acreage.

Animal unit calculator:  http://66.173.241.168/nmp/calculator.cfm

Ecology Action has done a lot of research to determine how much land it takes to feed a family with just plants or with animals.  In general it takes much more land to support animals, though small animals such as chickens or rabbits may take so little extra its negligible.

Ecology Action research papers:  http://www.bountifulgardens.org/products.asp?dept=104
 
Jami McBride
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I have to concur with the others Mike.  But this is an interesting discussion for sure.

Size does matter in really analyzing this out.  A family farm/ranch intended to support it's self and a few others is easily sustainable.  So are you speaking about a large scale agg business?

Personally, I believe that when we are talking large-Agg-Biz (PolyFace for example) to be sustainable equipment/oil/fuel does play it's role, I see your point if the definition of sustainable excludes anything man-made (machinery).  But then that would mean that the farmer has to live in a whole in the ground (no ranch house or barn   No car!  But then you didn't mention this.  So maybe your point is about the consumption of fossil fuels. 

Machinery can be made to run on bio-diesel or methane or other sustainable fuel.  I do not know about a sustainable oil replacement, but I bet Joel or one of the other local science guys does - maybe they will jump in here.

I haven't yet read the article you linked to yet.... but I'm enjoying this conversation. 

 
            
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toby hemenway is far more elegant with words than I am so he really is worth reading and watching.  For what it's worth, I'm not talking about agri-business. 
 
Matt Ferrall
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For what its worth,Mike,I agree with you.People survived in OK too and it could be said it was sustainable until it wasnt(dust bowl).Long term sustainability can take 100s of years to examine.Europe and much of Asia depleted their soils over thousands of years.If your shipping off your nutrients in the form of biomass then its hard to imagine it being sustainable in the long run and since thats the nature of agriculture than I dont believe sustainable ag is possible.I wouldnt consider polyface farm sustainable unless the consumers were shitting back into the system.
 
tel jetson
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if you're talking about using critters to pull implements, then I suppose I agree.

if you're talking about incorporating animals into a thoughtful polyculture, then I suppose I disagree.
 
Aly Sanchez
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Good video. Thanks for posting. It does a good job of pointing out the difference between low-input and sustainable. On a number of occasions I have heard the 3-4 hours of "work" per day in hunter-gatherer and cultivator societies - nice to see that expounded upon.
 
                              
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And in olden days animals like cows and horses that were "easy keepers" were valued and bred for that quality, being able to exist and work on hardscrabble rations as well. And then there's the issue of how much conditioning does an animal need--in a lot of old photos those hardworking horses look way skinnier than horses today, or even draft animals used to work nowadays. Of course most animals back then were thought of as a hammer, not a person. Sure there were folks that put extra care into their animals, just like anyone would take good care of tools--but even still, people today can't tell the difference between fat and muscle(people are ignorant of livestock and just don't know what makes a good animal specimen).

Or say people with old horses, that are naturally in a state of poorer appearing condition(lost muscle tone makes them look skinny) get the animal cops called on them by ignorant people because they appear to be starving their horses.
 
                              
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PS, from my family's photos from back then there appears to not be a lot of dedicated pasture out of that 600 acres. Hay fields were grazed, probably flax and oats could be grazed at some point by something(). Turkeys and chickens were out loose on the fields. There are people here now that run sheep etc on cut hayfields to add manure back in the ground and some grass into the sheep.
 
Robert Ray
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Here is where those fuzzy definitions of self sufficient, self reliant and subsistence come into play.
 
Jami McBride
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Robert Ray wrote:
Here is where those fuzzy definitions of self sufficient, self reliant and subsistence come into play.


Exactly . . . . and how they are applied in various situations.
 
Joel Hollingsworth
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MikeH wrote:I'm increasingly starting to believe that animals in general (there are probably situation specific examples where they do fit) don't fit in to the sustainability equation.


Is there a place for upright apes? IMHO, the whole enterprise of sustainability wouldn't make any sense without animals of my own species in the picture.

How about bees?

Bats?

Garter snakes?

Ruminants?

I say it's tough to draw the line, but I agree that adding animals can become un-sustainable fairly quickly.
 
                              
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Making a blanket statement "animals bad" (don't fit, are wasteful, whatever) is silly. Animals exist in and are an important part of any ecosystem. Just like anything, moderation and careful weighing of resources and bennies(or not) is key. Just like the predator/prey balance, take one away and the remainder suffers in vigor and health.

 
            
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Joel Hollingsworth wrote:
Is there a place for upright apes? IMHO, the whole enterprise of sustainability wouldn't make any sense without animals of my own species in the picture.

How about bees?

Bats?

Garter snakes?

Ruminants?

I say it's tough to draw the line, but I agree that adding animals can become un-sustainable fairly quickly.


I guess that I wasn't clear enough - domesticated farm animals.  So that would exclude bees and garter snakes, I guess. 

 
                            
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We will never have sustainable agriculture as long as we have flush toilets.  Well, I suppose it could get closer to being sustainable if we would at least use the output of our sewers instead of using them to turn nutrients into pollution.

I also can't see any form of sustainable agriculture that does not use animals.  Show me a single natural ecosystem that does not have animals.  True, we as a species do a very poor job co-existing with animals now, but we do more harm than good if we tried to do without them.  Here in the Ozarks of southern Missouri most farm land is pasture.  It's not good for much else.  Yes, in theory, much of it could be turned into nut farms or something, but that would require a bigger change in diet than we'll ever see in our lifetimes.  So the choices are keep the pastures grazed, or take them out of production.  It it's not economically sustainable, it isn't sustainable. 
 
Robert Ray
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So hard to qualify and quantify.
My uncle in Canada lived on five acres and was self reliant. He had an apiary, chickens, pig, sheep, goat.
  He purchased very little from the store.
Does your definition of sustainable mean self contained? I guess I don't want to live in a terrarium.
My definition of sustainable has an element of cross fence/field interaction and sharing of harvest. 
I can't do it all and I accept that.
As far a a sustainable domesticated animal, chickens are high on my list for a low input high return component of a sustainable homestead.
 
rose macaskie
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    I feel interested  in what wild thang and burra maluca say about animals .
  The more i read about animals here in spain the more i decided that they have often in the past been a side fling to the main crop, that they eat the grass under the olive trees and the leaves prunned off the olives.
    They eat the staw not the hay, the straw stubble where wheat farming is practiced. I stopped the car once to whatch them in the stubble and the noise of lots of jaws eating stubble was awesome and unexpected, like rain except different. They eat time that grows every where in the pastures were the soil  is not very good. They get into the land of the rich kept for hunting, They claim their benefit as clearers of the land so the hunters can walk around it and to reduce fire risk and so get into those types of exploitation. You need some such clearers  aa little less thorough in California to reduce forest fires, some shepherds.
      In the Canaries islands were they grow bananas and tomatoes, they keep animals principly for manure for their market gardening according to my book on Spanish races of bovines and the other one on sheep, cutting the scrub bushes from the mountains and bringing it in for them chopped up as food among which pita a type of cactus and banana plants. In the case of cows they also used to use them as oxen to pull carts and plough. There is a race of sheep and of cows there that eat banana plants. The bushes of the mountain are also also used as bedding, one way of getting enough nitrogen in your compost is to use it as bedding for your live stock. Juniper leaf fall detritus is used as bedding, it keeps the insects off your live stock.
        Where vegetables are grown the live stock eat the left overs of the market gardens. There is a type of sheep that eat rotten citrus fruit. The sheep eat pampana the leaf of vines, probably in vinegrowing areas the shells and leaf of almonds. As i have said in th ebit of the forums on keeping wooods acorns feed all the live stock and that is handy because it is not good for land to grow feed on slopes if you have to plough to plant the grain, it causes erosion but trees are good for slopes and the live stock eat the leaves of the trees which are prunned, of the holly oaks.
      The hens eat what you leave, humanure if the barn is the bathroom , i have experienced that. Hens eagerly waiting for me to perform, it was awkward.agri rose macaskie.
   
 
Jami McBride
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Okay - I watched the video. 

He is speaking about how agriculture is not sustainable, but horticulture is, and he gives is reasonings.

He believes gardening is, while farming is not sustainable
Hand tools not machinery
And no clear cutting or total harvesting of the land.

While I do not agree with his reasonings (evolutionism) I do agree with his premise.

So I guess the question is. . . . does anyone here believe farming/agriculture is sustainable?

 
Robert Ray
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As you said earlier Jamie, size matters.. I think small farms could be sustainable as far as minimal external input.
I'd argue that any permanent homestead/residential venture would ever be entirely self sufficient.
 
                              
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Rose, here in my county there are a lot of vineyards. There was a great article in the local paper (Oregonian) about how the vineyard owners are running sheep in the vineyards occasionally to control weeds and leave manure, as well as using companion planting and even growing some corps under the grapes. The sheep provide extra income from selling lamb(yum! lamb!). Cool article about multiuse of the vineyard, and how it boosts soil health and vigor for everything grown on the soil. I sure wish I could find it again!!! Obviously the symbiotic relationship of plant and animal is advantageous!
 
                              
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Yay! found it!
http://photos.oregonlive.com/oregonian/2010/04/sheep_assist_vineyards_with_un_6.html
http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2010/04/green_wineries_experiment_with.html

I know I read more articles about the multiple crop thing, I'll see if I can find it.
 
            
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Jami McBride wrote:
Okay - I watched the video. 


Interesting anthropological view, wasn't it!

He is speaking about how agriculture is not sustainable, but horticulture is, and he gives is reasonings.

He believes gardening is, while farming is not sustainable


Mollison feels the same way: "Agriculture is a destructive system. Well, we need a lot more gardeners. Gardeners are the most productive, most hands-on sort of agriculturists. They always have been. There never has been any debate about it. When you make a farm big, you just accept a suddenly lower productivity and yield, but less people get it." He goes on to say "When we design for permanence, we go generally toward forests, permanent pastures, lakes and ponds, and non-tillage agriculture."  The concept of diminishing returns in agriculture is repeated elsewhere: "The concept of diminishing returns was first developed in the context of agriculture. After a certain point, simply applying more labor yielded less and less benefit. Even in agrarian societies, it takes more calories of work to farm a field, than is returned in calories of product. Among simpler agrarian societies, this shortfall is made up with the use of tools and animals. The plow uses the fundamental physics of a lever to lessen the workload. Animals can leverage energy sources humans cannot–by grazing in lands too rocky or infertile to be cultivated."  I think that the last sentence defines the workable incorporation of animals.

When you consider that he was writing this essay in 1981, some of the comments in it on subjects such as climate change and the control of seeds are way ahead of their time.

While I do not agree with his reasonings (evolutionism) I do agree with his premise.


Only a small part is evolution; most of it is historical and anthropological.

 
Larisa Walk
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I don't even like to use the word "sustainable" since it's been so co-opted and it means so little anyway, things like tolerable, bearable, passable, endurable, etc. It just doesn't have a very positive connotation. What I'm hearing from others is that scale and place are what matters, but as permies we start with that as one of the fundamentals anyway.

I totally agree with "homesteadpaul" regarding flush toilets. Back when I was in high school I had a job doing trucking for our small town's street department. One of my jobs included trucking dried sewage sludge to the local landfill for burial. Since I had been reading Organic Gardening, and was trying to get my dad headed more in that direction in our large family garden, I thought, "why not here?" We didn't have any large industrial firms dumping into the drains and household pesticides weren't ubiquitous yet. So I trucked in 20 cubic yards of the stuff and my dad spread it all over that city-lot-sized garden in the fall.

Next summer, while home from my freshman year in college, my dad asked me to look at something in the garden. He had tried a new crop (for him) of multi-colored Swiss chard. The stuff had leaves over 4 feet tall and his question was. "So what do I DO with this stuff?" Everything in the garden was just massive!

I'm not saying this was a great idea but it just points out the great value of manures and animals (human or otherwise) in symbiosis with plants and soil microbes. We work well together, and when humans as a whole (as a "hole"?) regain some balance in the input-output nutrient equation, the balance of animals per land area, and figure out what works where, we might stand a chance at future survivability, at least at a somewhat less Earth-dominating capacity.

I may not live long enough to see how bad or good things are going to get on this planet but I'm going to keep trying daily to better live the future I want to see. One of the bigger parts of this for Larisa and me is subsistence gardening. But we still don't grow absolutely everything we need, so trade with other (larger) growers will continue to be a factor in a complete (vegan) diet for us here in the land-locked midwest. It's just hard to grow oats on a small scale when the birds find it ripe and ready, and it's really hard to grow kelp (for iodine and other micro-nutrients) without an ocean!

Bob.
 
                          
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We are using a humanure toilet, so we are essentially composting everything. We are also raising rabbits for food, and the great thing about rabbit droppings is that they can be put right on the garden without composting.

Our goal is to reach a point of sustainability where we live entirely off what is on our land. That includes feeding ourselves, the other animals, providing shelter, clothing, heat and so on. We will likely still use some technology in the meantime (this computer for example) but once we have reached a certain point, we won't be all that fussed when things collapse.

As far as agriculture is concerned, I agree that gardening can be sustainable but agriculture -- and especially factory farming -- is not. Within the current agricultural system, one calorie of food costs about 10 calories of energy to produce it. Nine of those come from fossil fuels. What happens when that's gone?

Alex
 
Emil Spoerri
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I don't believe humans can have sustainability in the cold north without some kind of large fatty mammal to help them get through the rough winters.

Besides, proper animal agriculture in the right environment is more sustainable than anything else... including letting the land go fallow! Animal action is how soil is formed in grasslands, without it we lose it to the atmosphere and we get global warming.
 
Larisa Walk
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Here in the frozen north all I have to do is look at the folks getting out of their big SUVs to see those "large fatty animals".
 
Brenda Groth
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Well after reading the 15 phamplets on the permaculture design course given in the links in the meaningless drivel site thread on reading the texts..first link.

I was more and more convinced that our way of doing things on our property is the most sustainable for US ..as a family..in particular.

We basically do not domesticate our animals, they are wildlife. But in the phamplets he mentions how cattle used to graze in the woods and forests rather than in the fields and meadows, kinda like our Whitetail deer do here.

I am more and more reforesting our area as I am able (planted 6  more trees this weekend)..and I suppose that IF I ever did have a cattle type animal, I would probably be fencing it in a mostly wooded area here, as that is what I have. But alas I have no domestic animals other than 2 cats (that do cost an enormous amount to keep in feed and treats )

so.

I tend to concur, that at least in MY neck of the WOODS..sustainabliity to me is whitetail deer, rabbits, wild turkey, etc..rather than cows, sheep, pigs etc..however..i'm sure that if i had only enough of those animals for our own immediate family, i could probably stustain them on our woods and small amount of pasture for the summer months at least..i'm not sure about winter..but our deer do fine in the winter here, where i'm not sure domesticated animals could survive, they do quite well.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Brenda, I agree in many places people would probably do better to manage for wildlife than try to raise domestic animals.  Here we have a lot of trouble raising poultry because of so many predators.  I doubt the birds pay for themselves if we kept records - right now we just have a few pets whose eggs we eat.  But it would certainly be easier to just eat deer and other wildlife than try to raise animals here.  In the "big book" Mollison talks about how much more tonnage of edible material there is in a wild system versus a domesticated one.  But convincing people that managing wild systems is more productive than domestic is difficult - our culture is so intent on CONTROL.
 
            
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Emile Spore wrote:
I don't believe humans can have sustainability in the cold north without some kind of large fatty mammal to help them get through the rough winters.


Perhaps humans are living in some locations only because of agriculture. Take agriculture out of the equation and maybe you take humans out of the equation in any large numbers.

 
Robert Ray
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I'm trying to think of any place that humans currently live without some dependence on some form of agriculture.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Robert Ray wrote:
I'm trying to think of any place that humans currently live without some dependence on some form of agriculture.


There are a few hunter-gatherer groups still surviving, but they are very threatened.

http://www.survivalinternational.org/
 
Robert Ray
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  The Palwan are cultivators.
  The Bushmen raise goats.
  The Dongria Kohnd use agriculture.
Though primitive in practice a form of agriculture.

 
                                                    
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Interesting that you use Toby Hemenway and plagiarism in the same sentence. Someone just sent me a copy of the 2nd edition of Gaia's Garden and I was appalled by my first cursory glance. I am not sure what Hemeway's background is but I would guess he is an English major that loves plants. The thing that I found odd about the first book was that it was written as if he had invented permaculture which in many cases is the kind of gardening and farming that used be common around people's homes. He gave no credit at all to other sources or even acknowledged them.

In the 2nd edition he makes statements about things like how plants transport nutrients, for instance, that sound as if they were copied from Vogue magazine or some other non-technical and non-gardening source that made me feel that he really didn't understand the underlying biology or chemistry of soil fertility. His books are beautiful and contain lots of useful information but my recommendation is if you want some technical or science based information about a particluar topic you should go to other sources. I would recommend people buy this book with, but take anything related to the science of how this works with a few grains of salt.

The larger question that you pose, whether agriculture can be sustainable, may seem frightening to an academic. As we get more disconnected from the sources of our food the more surreal it becomes. If you want to know what sustainable agriculture is then I recommend that you get to know the people that grow your food. I don't mean take up a lot of their time with social activities. If you buy your food from a farmer, know where their farm is and how the manage their land and crops then a lot of the questions that you raise will be answered. If you live in a box and buy your food in a box then it will be infinitely harder to understand what sustainable practices are.
 
            
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camaspermaculture wrote:
I am not sure what Hemeway's background is but I would guess he is an English major that loves plants.


Not exactly.
 
Aly Sanchez
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"The thing that I found odd about the first book was that it was written as if he had invented permaculture which in many cases is the kind of gardening and farming that used be common around people's homes. He gave no credit at all to other sources or even acknowledged them."

I never got that impression, and I read the first edition years ago. It talks about the history in the introduction. I think it doesn't continue to list credit for each particular concept as that would completely drag the readibility and accessibility down - the exact opposite of the book's purpose to be an accessible and easily understandable information source for your average person looking to "manage" their homes better. You mention things being "non-technical" - I think that is largely the point, this isn't meant to be a designer's manual or a biology text. Both books include a pretty decent bibliography and references to look there within text for those wanting to see where to learn more and where his info came from.

I've read through or skimmed a number of the tomes of permaculture and in thinking about what to, for instance, give someone when I'd like to open their mind up about permaculture, Gaia's Garden is it.  What about others' opinions on introductory pieces? So far I haven't come across better for a first blush with concepts?
 
                                                    
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@alycat13-It makes a great picture book and provides some basic information. This book has encouraged many people to try something different with their gardens and thus is a great first book if everything goes well. I came accross a number of statements in a very short period of time that gave me the impression that Hemenway's expertise is in writing books. I have an extensive library on the subject and his book is unique in the apparent lack of understanding in some key areas. One of my core interests is in soil as it relates to plant and animal nutrition. His comments in that area seemed to me, not only wrong but completely ignorant.
 
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