Profitable Permaculture Principles

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

| June/July 2017

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.

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