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Commercial Permaculture Research

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{Warning: long post. Sorry}

Does anyone know of any good resources that deal with applying permaculture principles to commercial production?  I'm not thinking of a permaculture farm that sells at a local farmer's market, through CSA, or even to local restaurants.  I'm more thinking of adoption of permaculture principles by larger-scale commercial producers.  The only example I'm aware of is Mark Sheperd at New Forest Farm. Joel Salatin might fit in here, too, although he still relies pretty heavily on direct-to-consumer sales.  I think Mark Sheperd is on the right track in terms of translating permaculture principles to a wider audience.  For reasons I'll delineate shortly, I'm not interested in how to create a better forest garden or how to improve a homestead.  All worthy goals, but different from what I'm considering.  As of yet, I haven't come across any particularly substantial sources on this topic and I'm curious to hear whether anyone here has any suggestions.

The reason I raise this topic is that I have been non-systematically working over in my mind for some years the problem of how we try to convert traditional, commercial farmers to a more ecologically sustainable production model.  I live in a part of the world where the vast majority of our land is dedicated to commercial monocropping and commercial beef production.  I would guess it's a roughly 60-40 split in favor of grain production to grassland/pasture for cattle production.  We also suffer from the same problem going on throughout our country (and presumably much of the rest of the world) where historically family farms are being absorbed into larger commercial operations either through direct land sales or family trusts that simply lease land to other large farmers.  For those who do still farm, they are caught in a never-ending cycle of buying GMO seeds and chemical from the seed and chemical companies, planting, hoping for a good crop, putting their money into more seed and chemical or, in really good years, building "infrastructure."  By “infrastructure” I mean buying new, expensive farming equipment or vehicles, building new sheds for these vehicles, putting up large grain bins, etc. all largely driven by the need to avoid large tax bills in boom years.  In the bad years, the same cycle takes place but, rather than having a net profit to put back into the farming business, they are forced to incur debt for their operating budget which, if it goes on too long, inevitably leads to selling off the family farm.  What I envision is providing an alternative farming lifestyle to these farmers that allows them to 1) diversify their income streams, 2) divorce themselves from dependence on the seed and chemical companies, 3) remain competitive in a way that provides long-term financial sustainability without having to constantly increase their acreage and output, 4) keep family farms in the family, 5) allow more of a family's children to remain on the farm if they desire to do so, 6) increase the likelihood that the children of farmers actually want to stay on the farm as opposed to being scared away by the constant stress that uncertainty breeds, 7) provide clear and undeniable incentives to farmers to improve their land naturally and without chemical fertilizer inputs, and 8 ) a whole bunch of other reasons I may have forgotten to list here.  In summary, I want to show farmers an alternative that improves financial and ecological resilience while simultaneously improving lifestyle.

The gap I see in permaculture education today is that it stresses small-scale, local, and personal adoption of these principles.  A 10-acre site does not appear to a 10,000-acre farmer as a sufficient proof of concept.  Ben Falk does not speak to an Iowa corn farmer’s concerns. Nor do I think we can effectively convert farmers on a large enough scale by simply pointing out the long-term negative impacts of dependence on oil-hungry equipment, annual petroleum-based fertilize inputs, mass application of herbicide and pesticide to food products, or run off problems in our waterways.  At the end of the day, to convert current farmers, I believe we need to prove the clear commercial viability of an alternate farming system. The community here at Permies obviously believes that permaculture will improve nearly every marker of efficiency on an acre of actively managed ground with the exception being human labor.  And the work of those on this forum has gone a long way to prove this concept.  But, to tell a farmer that in order to switch his farm over to a permaculture-style farm he’ll have to increase his human labor and maybe even sell off some of his land in the process (because he can’t effectively manage 10,000 acres in the way he needs to) will require a fundamental reeducation.  But most people aren’t open to that sort of reeducation.  However, if we can first show that we can improve his long-term economic prospects and his lifestyle simultaneously, I think you might just get that farmer to listen long enough to start the conversion process.

I’m sure there are people out there besides Mark Sheperd doing this sort of work. But I haven’t come across it. What I’d like is to find sufficient examples that cover from the first steps of converting acreage all the way through reliable marketing of farm products.  Again, I am not trying to convert Mr. Corn Farmer to Mr. Tomatoes at the Farmer’s Market.  I’m trying to find viable options for a farm family to produce food products on a commercial-scale that they can sell in a variety of markets, including wholesale.  If they also start selling at the Farmer’s Market, then so be it.  But for my part of the world, that’s just not realistic for enough people because we are not near any major population centers.  So these farmers need to be able to send their products down the road somewhere.  Without getting into a conversation about whether and why local food is better, (I’ll admit, I’d prefer it) I’m trying to provide an incentive for corn and soybean farmers to farm chestnuts, pears, and pork instead.  

To provide an example of some of the types of information I think would be helpful in this venture, I’ll assume a scenario where a curious corn farmer will take a portion of his land and plant it with chestnuts.  Questions to be addressed would be:

Cost for conversion of ground:
o What infrastructure needs to be implemented before planting?
o What ground that I own would be well-suited to this type of venture?
o How many plants can/should I plant per unit of ground?
Output vs. maintenance costs
o How long to produce?
o Average production of a plant or grouping of plants in 3, 5, 10 years and beyond?
o Productive life of this new infrastructure and plants?
o Ongoing annual maintenance costs?
Marketing products
o Markets where I can sell my products?
o Historical prices for products sold at wholesale, farmers markets, etc?
o Value-added options?
• “Synergy
o While I’m waiting for production output to increase on my chestnuts, what other products can I integrate for cash-flow?
o Long-term, what other products can I integrate?
o Do my chestnut plants provide additional benefits to other operations I already have going?
o How much annual maintenance is required after establishment?
o How many man-hours per unit per year?
In this example, conversion from corn to chestnut is not a wholesale permaculture adoption. Rather, it’s more dipping your toe in the water. But, it provides the opportunity to expand and increasingly adopt permaculture-style methods to a farming operation. And while this farmer may never establish guilds throughout his farm, he will have reduced his oil and chemical dependency while improving his resiliency just a bit.

Rather than a PDC, this would be on-farm learning.  Farmers today can go to their local extension office or to land grant universities for a wealth of data and information on current, standard commercial agricultural practices.  But no such resources exists for permaculture-oriented farming.

Rather than ramble any longer, I’ll conclude my post. If my comments and questions are way off base, I’d be happy to hear any criticism.  But if anyone has any helpful directions to where I might delve a little deeper, I’d be especially open to hearing that.

Thanks, and Best Regards.
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Location: Just northwest of Austin, TX
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If I understand your post, you would find this thread https://permies.com/t/59524/Prime-Goal-Permaculture particularly useful. Bryant RedHawk has covered some of your questions.
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I think Gabe Brown would fit into this scenario. You can find videos of his talks on Youtube. And here is his site: http://brownsranch.us

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Permaculture is a design system integrating food growing with human habitation.  What you might be looking for is something more like agroecology.






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Location: Missouri Ozarks
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The notion of "grass farming" seems something of an answer to your question, not least because you're talking, in part, about large scale beef production.  

There are plenty of farmers/ranchers doing some sort of managed grazing who have eliminated their dependence on chemical inputs, are healing the land, and are increasing production to boot.  The Stockman Grass Farmer magazine, though it deals a lot with direct marketing and niche products, also has a lot to do with commercial-scale commodity production.  Greg Judy is a good (published) example.  I believe he mostly direct markets now, but he started out his farm-rejuvenation process selling through the same channels he previously had.

There's no shortage of information on converting crop fields (back) into grass, too.  For plenty of farms, plowing down the corn, seeding the fields to grasses and legumes, then harvesting that new "crop" with cattle would be quite profitable, and have plenty of other (permaculture-ish) benefits besides.
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