As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the reasons for our extended stay in La Trinidad is that my husband Andrew has been called upon by his hybrid-farming friend Patrick Taylor to bring a permaculture perspective to Lily of the Valley Organic Farm.
So we’ve got permaculture, organic farming, hybrid agriculture empowerment, and all sorts of words and word-combos such as aquaponics (something we practiced extensively with our previous corporation, get with d’ ACT Philippines), hydroponics, eco farming, sustainable agriculture, and on it goes. Some of these practices are or can be sustainable, and others are not, but to understand why we must examine sustainability through the lens of permaculture.
What is Permaculture?
Permaculture, as a word, combines “permanent” and “agriculture”. If we consider conventional agriculture, it is far from permanent. Anything you grow requires work and if you stop working, nothing grows. With heavy machinery and equipment, the soil is prepared, seeds are planted and doused in fertilizers and pesticides, and mono-crops are mass harvested.
Where conventional agriculture is endless tidy rows of machine-fed-and-bred mono-crops, permanent agriculture is a beautiful chaos of innumerable plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi helping each other grow in clusters or guilds. Typical farms plant food in rows; permaculture creates food forests.
Sustainability is key, but with words like this buzzing in all kinds of industries, permaculturists have crafted a simple and yet unforgiving definition of it.
A system is sustainable if, over its lifetime, it produces more energy than it consumes.
If you define sustainability by any less, you’ve missed the mark.
Beyond sustainability, permaculture as I understand it is also about minimal human intervention.
Because we as a species have done so much damage to the planet, intervention is critical: if nature were to fix itself it would take a long time and probably involve wiping out most or all of the creatures causing all the destruction in the first place. With permaculture, however, we humans can help nature speed up the process of fixing itself (instead of a natural process that would take thousands of years, we can assist and make it happen in only a few years–example?)
While we must then intervene, it remains just as necessary to keep it to a minimum. That means, for example, not tilling the soil, not adding synthetic fertilizers and chemical-based pesticides. Instead, the soil is built and left alone, natural fertilizers are added by nature, and guilds are assembled with nature’s pest deterrents.
Moreover, permaculture plays the long game. According to , the world’s most fertile soil–found in Europe–only has about 20 years left in its production life before it’s entirely depleted. Conventional agriculture takes until there’s nothing left; permaculture restores with the benefit of taking what is needed and nothing more (which is what makes it sustainable, if you recall).
When a permie makes a design, he or she thinks not only about what this land can produce in the next few years and how it can benefit its immediate owner and occupants, but how this land can benefit generations to come and, most urgently, take care of itself. In fact, for many, this is the main reason they practice permaculture in the first place. The many benefits are considered a byproduct and are used to convince landowners to choose a permaculture design for their site; permaculture is about humans taking care of the land, not the land taking care of humans. The fact that the land will return the favor is a bonus.
One cannot conclude a summary of permaculture without discussing permaculture ethics: Earth care, people care, fair share. As you can see, we must care for the Earth first before we can expect it to care for us. With fair share comes the return of surplus to the Earth and people; there is no place for hoarding or greed in permaculture.
Permaculture Design for Organic Farms
On to Lily of the Valley Organic Farm, let’s discuss the difference between permaculture, organic farming, and other agricultural practices dubbed as sustainable.
More often than not, organic farming is not sustainable. Furthermore, organic farming is a technique while permaculture is better seen as the strategy. Permaculture is an ideology and a way of life that extends far beyond agriculture. Although it is officially classified as a design science, its founder, Bill Mollison, would have preferred to define it as sedition.
As a side note, practices such as hydroponics are inherently unsustainable, whereas aquaponics creates an ecosystem that can, in fact, be entirely sustainable if properly designed. Check out the system we designed here.
If we take a look at Lily of the Valley, a beautiful organic farm with a bed-and-breakfast and small campsite, we can see some areas where it is sustainable, and others where it is not.
For example, upon surveying the contours of the land, my husband identifies runoff of rainwater and erosion of topsoil. Once these commodities are lost, they must be brought in and that is not sustainable.
Additionally, while this farm does not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, they do pump their water from a river which is downstream from a number of conventional farms. The diesel-fueled pump runs around the clock: another tick in the unsustainable box.
When my husband comes to a farm like this to do a permaculture design, these are some of the first the things he identifies and finds solutions for. On top of that, he pinpoints such critical issues as clear-cut hillside across the river that, within a few years, will inevitably end in a landslide. This will clog the river and inhibit the water supply while damaging the farm’s crops and structures. This too will be solved in his permaculture design.
As we walk the site from end to end, we scout optimal locations for digging swales and building dams to ensure long-term water accessibility. We also spot groups of plants growing together, such as passion fruit vines growing on nitrogen-fixing trees. With the addition of sweet potatoes as a ground cover, you have the beginnings of a food forest.
After a long hike in the sun with our daughter and her friend, we are served a delicious lunch. Andy continues to develop the design on his laptop, the kids draw and sip lemonade outside, and I enjoy some more of that mountain coffee.