Profitable Permaculture Principles

The application of permaculture design at Polyface Farms has helped increase the farm’s efficiency and functionality.

winter hoop house

Keeping animals in a winter hoop house eliminates the need for heated waterers and enriches the bedding for vegetables.

Photo by Shutteye Photography.

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I can still remember my first encounter with the term “permaculture.” It was a Plowboy interview with Bill Mollison in MOTHER EARTH NEWS in 1980. I remember well how the ideas resonated with me, and I resolved then and there to adopt as many of them as possible in my future farming systems. And since then, we’ve incorporated several permaculture principles at Polyface.

Value High Water

The first permaculture principle that we use on the farm is high water. The higher the water on a terrain, the more it can be used as it gravitationally moves downhill. We’ve built more than a dozen ponds over the years and now have about 7 miles of water pipe traversing the farm. A valve roughly every 100 yards offers plenty of access points. These ponds don’t dam up ever-flowing streams; they’re in valleys to catch surface runoff during snow melt or rain events. Even the driest landscapes enjoy a flooding event at least once or twice a year. When water runs across the surface of the ground, it means the commons is full. Keeping that water at home protects the neighbors downstream from flooding damage. Using it during dry times adds to the base flow and keeps biomass growing.

Sucking water from aquifers and streams depletes the commons; building ponds to hold surface runoff increases the commons. Furthermore, ponds offer habitats for amphibians, aquatic life, and wildlife. You can see how much water you have in your inventory. Gravity-fed water is perhaps the most valuable development you can bring to a landscape.

Maximize Space

Another permaculture principle is stacking. The first significant stacking model we developed on our farm was the Raken (Rabbit-Chicken) House. Rabbits sit in roomy pens above the floor, and chickens run on the floor. Rabbit urine feeds nutrient-rich moisture into the carbonaceous bedding. Chickens scratching in the bedding add oxygen, which creates wonderful composting bedding and eliminates noxious odors. With a stacking system, lots of animals occupy a vertical, cubic space rather than a planar space.

This infrastructure is far more financially viable because it has more than one enterprise running through it. In more recent years, we’ve adapted this concept to winter hoop houses, which prevents frozen waterers and offers the advantage of growing vegetables in that bedding compost when the animals come out in spring.

We’ve built on this idea by putting young pigs on the floor of the hoop house and installing raised tables for the chickens. By placing these tables tightly together, we can get the chicken infrastructure up away from the pigs. (Small pigs don’t eat chickens but will knock over fragile waterers, nest boxes, and feeders.) The chickens occupy both the table and the floor, and the pigs stay on the floor. Our pigs aren’t flying, yet.

This arrangement increases the floor space of the hoop house. A structure that normally would house 1,000 chickens can instead house 1,500 without sacrificing square footage per chicken. This substantially increases income and makes such a structure more financially credible. When the animals come out in spring, we clean out the deep bedding and plant into the rich soil underneath. By rotating between plants and animals, we can hold pathogens in check because hosts change out about the time pathogens begin to proliferate.

Team Up with Animals

Using the gifts and talents of animals to accomplish certain tasks is a favorite permaculture principle and one Polyface Farms implements with reckless abandon. Perhaps the most famous is our Eggmobile, which follows grazing cattle with hundreds of free-range laying hens. Mimicking the way birds follow herbivores in nature, this model accomplishes several tasks with one action — another permaculture principle.

The chickens scratch through the cowpies and eat fly larvae. In doing so, they spread the dung on the ground and even incorporate much of it thinly into the soil surface. By fertilizing the area, the chickens protect the soil from the bitterness that creates a repugnancy zone around cow dung.

Furthermore, the chickens convert newly exposed grasshoppers and crickets into eggs. In addition to converting all that protein into delicious eggs, this procedure also sanitizes the pasture. Perhaps most importantly, the sanitation eliminates parasites and greatly reduces flies on the cattle, offering health and comfort. The time savings in cattle care is significant — you won’t have to run them through a head gate or use grubicides and parasiticides.

Another important function animals undertake is creating compost. At Polyface Farms, when we feed hay, we feed it under an awning in a shed. We add a carbonaceous mat to absorb the 50 pounds of manure and the urine generated daily by each cow. This carbon can be wood chips, sawdust, junk hay, straw, crop residue — anything brown. We add a new layer, lasagna-fashion, every few days.

The heavy cows tromp out the oxygen, and the whole bedding pack ferments anaerobically. As we add bedding, we also add corn, which ferments in the pack. The pack stays relatively warm even on the coldest days, offering a non-frozen lounge area for the cows even when the ground is frozen 2 feet deep. When spring comes and the cows go back out to graze grass, we turn pigs into the static bedding pack.

The pigs seek the fermented corn, and in doing so, they aerate the bedding pack. Gradually, the entire bedding pack shifts from anaerobic to aerobic compost. Rather than employing expensive, time-consuming, sophisticated compost-turning equipment, we use the pigs. In essence, we buy equipment (carbon) for $100 and sell it for $1,000. That’s my idea of reverse depreciation.

With animals doing the work, we don’t have to do it at a scale to re-capitalize the infrastructure that will rot, rust, and depreciate. The profit potential is adaptable to size. This practice is just as applicable with two pigs and a couple of cows as it is with 1,000 cows and hundreds of pigs.

Apply Smart Design

Every time I dig into permaculture, I’m struck by how much the principles depend on design. On our farm, this is apparent in building designs that facilitate deep bedding. A carbon-centric fertility program depends on a deep bedding system under livestock. The deep bedding essentially puts the animals on a compost pile.

Few things are as unhygienic and pathogenic in animal systems as solid concrete floors, slatted floors, or lightly-bedded floors. Microbes need depth (mass) in order to proliferate — just like in a compost pile. Most barn structures, including horse stalls, are not designed to accommodate 3 feet or more of bedding.

Buildings, therefore, must be designed to handle deep bedding. That enables all the advantages of active composting, manure storage, and eventual aeration. Design is the catalyst for synergy and symbiosis. Bad design inhibits functionality.

Manage Forest

At the risk of irritating my permaculture friends, I must disclose why we don’t jump on the agro-forestry bandwagon, in which trees and shrubs are planted throughout pastures. While this offers a pretty picture from a drone, it’s a nightmare for grassland management. Trees interspersed in a pasture are obstacles to haymaking and fencing. They make hay dry inconsistently, a real problem for high-quality haymaking.

At Polyface, we prefer portable shade-mobiles. Used like portable trees, shade-mobiles allow us to concentrate animal lounge areas exactly where the dung will do the most good. Furthermore, portable shade enables us to change the lounge area every time the animals are in the field.

We incorporate the forest into the open land by investing in timber management, which includes chipping trees that are diseased, crooked, and less productive. We fence out the woodlands to protect them.

In this same vein, I’m concerned about an adherence to contour lanes for access. I understand using roads as rain gutters, but if every trip across the farm takes an additional five minutes, we can soon eat up lots of time and fuel.

The permaculture notion of designing for maximum energy output for minimal energy input is a goal worth pursuing, regardless of how big or small our farmsteads may be. Using these basic permaculture principles can yield economic and emotional benefits, making our operations more profitable and more enjoyable.