Permaculture Design for Small Farms and Homesteads

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Ground plan for mixed small farm design. (Adapted from Permaculture Two by Bill Mollison.)

Conventional agricultural ecosystems (i.e., farms) are inherently fragile: Their productivity can be sustained only if fossil fuel subsidies, in one form or another, are employed as inputs. Most farms entail, as well, other very serious environmental costs. Clearly, we need to create new food raising systems that will conserve soil, water, and nutrients … minimize the use of fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers, and synthetic pesticides … and lead to regionally self-reliant food systems.

Alternative farming practices–known variously as organic, biological, or biodynamic methods–come closer to meeting such a criterion of sustainability. Nationwide, an estimated 30,000 farmers now rely on crop rotation, animal manures, legumes, green manures, mechanical cultivation, mineral-bearing rocks, and biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth, supply plant nutrients, and control insects, weeds, and other pests.

Although the expanding organic movement is a positive development, in the final analysis agricultural production will be maintained only if farms are designed in the image of natural ecosystems, combining the knowledge of science with the wisdom of the wilderness. Natural ecosystems are extremely resilient and use only renewable sources of input. They have, for thousands of years, demonstrated high productivity, an impressive ability to maintain environmental quality, and quick adaptiveness to natural disturbances. Hence, they can be used as architectural and botanical models for designing and structuring our agroecosystems.

This is the approach of permaculture, the term coined by Australian Bill Mollison to describe the concept of a self-sustaining, consciously designed system of agriculture. Permaculture takes the practices of organic farming one step further, applying natural principles to design a self sustaining food-, fiber-, and energy-producing ecosystem. By weaving together the elements of microclimate, annual and perennial plants, water and soil management, and human needs, the permaculturist forms an energy-efficient, low-maintenance, high-yielding, and intricately interconnected system. The philosophy, as summed up by Mollison, is one “of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation, rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”

Although permaculture setups are still in the experimental stages, I believe that–with some modifications–these concepts will form the backbone of a truly sustainable agriculture. At the New Alchemy Institute in Massachusetts, we’re redesigning our entire 12-acre site in order to test the economic performance of a small farm that employs biological and solar resources as its main production and management inputs. Anyone with a small parcel of land–be it a homestead plot that simply meets the food needs of a family, or a farm that must generate income–can share in similar research by completing and implementing their own designs, and reporting on those components that perform well and those that don’t.

In Permaculture Design Part I, I’ll describe the permaculture design guidelines for small farms and homesteads. Then in Part II, I’ll explain the actual design process. These articles are necessarily general rather than specific but my hope is to set you on the right road. You will have to find out most of what you need to know from other sources (such as the ones I’ll mention) and from your own experience. Remember as you work that the ever changing landscapes around us have much to teach the patient observer. The challenge we face is to listen, look, and learn.

Sad Facts About Our Food System

Two million small farms in this country produce 20% of our food, and gardens alone supply an estimated $16 billion worth of produce each year. As heartening as this sounds, most of us still depend on food produced on large farms that are far removed from the point of consumption. We share, therefore, in the serious environmental costs associated with conventional agriculture. As in other areas of human endeavor, technological progress in agriculture has been purchased at the price of environmental degradation and the loss of natural resources. Consider, for example, some of the external costs of modern farming in this country.

  • At least one-third of our topsoil has been lost to erosion, and soil on existing cropland is being reduced at an average annual rate of 8 tons per acre … and on 23% of the total cropland, soil losses average 21 tons per acre.
  • Productivity has been maintained by increased fossil fuel input in the forms of cultivation, fertilizers, and synthetic pesticides … and the resulting soil erosion and over fertilization are responsible for the serious degradation of our aquatic ecosystems.
  • Each year, approximately one billion pounds of pesticides are used in U.S. agriculture, yet losses to insect pests, pathogens, and weeds exceed a third of the potential crop. In addition, pesticide abuse is responsible for environmental and public health problems, such as human poisoning and fatalities, groundwater contamination, the destruction of non-target organisms, and the development of pesticide resistant weeds and insects.
  • Agriculture accounts for at least 81% of our nation’s water consumption, and in some areas, salinization and aquifer depletion are apparent.
  • The conversion of agricultural land for non-farm uses has led to large deficits in food production in some parts of the country. (Massachusetts, for example, imports 93% of its food requirements.)
  • The food system absorbs 16% of all the energy used in America. Food production, distribution, and processing can be sustained only as long as fossil fuels are available and affordable.