Small Farm, Big Solution
Mother Nature has all the answers, say permaculture advocates, we just need to learn to cooperate

By Brian Lavendel, PhD

Smack in the middle of the modern agricultural miracle that is America's dairyland lies a seemingly anachronistic little farm. Last spring, when nearly every other farmer in southeastern Wisconsin was maneuvering a plow-equipped tractor to put in a new crop of corn or soybeans, farmer Greg David guided Minnie and Sophie, his two Percheron draft horses, through the small fields of his 20-acre homestead, Prairie Dock Farm.

David, a 48-year-old Wisconsin native, acknowledges that at first blush, it might seem easier to fire up an 85-horsepower tractor than to hitch up his team. But his decision to use the old-fashioned kind of "horse power" was informed by more than a quaint preference for working with animals. David is a permaculturist, and from a permaculture perspective, the benefits of using horses far outweigh a tractor's hidden costs. Factor in the combustion engine's pricey gasoline consumption and harmful pollution, permaculture advocates say, and equine power becomes very appealing: They're fueled by grass and hay, they create organic fertilizer, they even self-replicate. "As many times as I've parked two tractors side by side," David says. "I've never returned in the morning to find three tractors in the shed."

The permaculture farming methods David practices are, more than anything, a way of life. A comprehensive body of philosophical beliefs and pragmatic agricultural and design techniques, the concept of permaculture was first developed in the '70s by Australian ecologists David Holmgren and Bill Mollison.

The practice of permaculture takes organic farming a few steps further, partly by adding a set of ethics. Fundamentally, its adherents see individuals as a small piece of a large, interdependent world. Thus, they say, not only are we responsible for the results of our actions—such as pollution, overpopulation, and depletion of energy reserves—but also every living thing has an intrinsic value, independent of its apparent utility to humans.

Combining knowledge from the disciplines of ecology, landscape design, environmental science and energy conservation, permaculture can be used for urban and community planning as well as for rural land use. It can help create productive ecosystems or restore degraded ones. Practitioners look for solutions among preindustrial, traditional knowledge and techniques from around the world, but they adapt them for specific local purposes. By using tools ranging from solar power and straw-bale construction to aquaponics (a system that combines fish farming with hydroponics, or growing plants without soil), permaculture seeks above all to form harmony with nature rather than control it. Or as farmer David puts it, "I'd rather work with nature than agin' it."

With a cart on the back of his bike, David can carry a straw bale a half-mile out to the horses in no time. Natural synergy was exactly what founders Holmgren and Mollison had in mind when they started codifying "permanent agriculture" as part of their search for a more environmentally sustainable way to raise food. In the past 25 years, about 100,000 people in dozens of countries have learned permaculture's principles and technologies, according to Keith Johnson, editor of the Permaculture Activist. Precise North American statistics are extremely hard to come by, but it's estimated that tens of thousands already follow some "permaculture" practices, such as composting. In David's neck of the woods, a handful of other farmers are active practitioners. The movement continues to be most popular in less-developed regions of the world, such as Africa, Asia, and areas of Australia—partly because isolated local communities have fewer resources and tend to live closer to the land. Where soil, water, and hard-currency resources are most severely limited, permaculture is not a feel-good option, but rather a lifesaving strategy.

When David and his wife Sandy, 38, bought this chunk of land along the meandering Rock River some 14 years ago, it resembled a barren weed field. "There wasn't hardly a tree on it," says David, a slight, muscular man and county board member known for voicing alternative opinions on issues. Though David had always been interested in habitat restoration and wildlife, he says that at first, "We went through lots of work to subdue Mother Nature." Then he picked up a book by Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, who practiced what he called "natural farming" back in the '20s, and became a key innovator of permaculture practices. Most important, Fukuoka demonstrated that digging, weeding, pest control, fertilizing and pruning are not necessary to grow food in abundance. The more David read, the more he was hooked.

One of the first times he actually applied permacultural guidelines was in choosing a site for his house. He chose a spot high above the river basin only after exploring the entire plot extensively, making a common-sense decision based on noise, views, light, wind currents, storm and drainage patterns, and animal life. He bermed the straw-bale cobb home partway into the earth to achieve a more constant interior temperature. Still under construction, his house will eventually incorporate passive solar and rainwater catchment. He planted shady, deciduous trees on the south side to cut summer sun, coniferous trees on the north side to break winter winds.

Another basic permaculture principle holds that species diversity, especially that of native species, increases the stability of an agricultural system, eliminating the need for pesticides to control disease and pests. Early on, David planted five acres of native prairie grasses and 8,000 trees. (Long-lived, low-maintenance, and multipurpose, trees are especially popular with permaculturalists.) These days, Prairie Dock Farm counts among its inhabitants pheasants, ducks, turkeys, garter snakes, toads, rabbits, foxes, coyotes, great horned owls, red-tailed hawks and a host of songbirds and insects. From a permaculture perspective, there are no "pests." Rather, it's believed that species exist in ecosystems for a reason, and taking even one of them out will disrupt the entire system.

Eager to feed his family as well as make an adequate living, David established an organic vegetable farm and orchard that now produces everything from Jonafree and Macoun apples to Swiss chard. The abundant produce stocks the larders of a dozen local families from April to October, via a community-supported agriculture (CSA) arrangement, whereby subscribers pay annual fees that help David pay his bills. Clients also take home some of the 40 pigs and 400 or so free-range chickens he raises each year. True to permaculture's devotion to multifunction, the animals play broader roles on the farm. Pigs consume weeds as well as rotten vegetables and fruit and help turn the compost as they root through it. And chickens wander through the apple orchard helping keep bugs under control and loosening the soil, improving water and nutrient take-up by tree roots.

To maximize land-use efficiency, David grows plants of differing heights in a close, stair-stepping pattern, so that each plant occupies minimal space but gets sufficient sunlight, a practice permaculturalists call forest gardening. For instance, in one corner of the farm, David started by planting shrublike raspberries, then worked his way back, planting semidwarf fruit trees, which top out at 20 feet, and finally hazelnuts and pecans, which now tower above the rest. By observing growing seasons on the nearby prairie, David knows that nature works this way, too. "In the beginning of the year, you have things at six, eight, ten inches," he says. "And by the end of the season, you have stuff blooming eight or ten feet high."

Among permaculture's greatest ideals is the practice of doing less, especially when it concerns interfering with natural processes. Consider the simple genius of techniques such as sheet mulching. When starting a new garden bed, instead of digging or tilling the soil, David lets nature do the work. Starting a year early, he mows vegetation as low as possible, then covers it with cardboard or newsprint, followed by several inches of dead leaves, mulch or compost. Maintenance trucks from a nearby city regularly drop off waste leaves at Prairie Dock Farm, reducing the city's refuse problem and improving David's soil fertility at the same time. Over time, the plants underneath break down, yielding rich, loose soil in which to plant the following year. (For home gardeners, David suggests artfully arranging rocks around the perimeter of your sheet mulch, so that the area resembles a Zen rock garden.)

Factor in a tractor's pricey gasoline consumption and harmful pollution, and equine power becomes very appealing. David has even figured out how to make his own personal fitness program serve higher permaculture goals. Instead of doing farm chores with an ATV four-wheeler, and then devoting free time to working out, David addressed both issues with one elegant solution: He equipped his mountain bike with a work trailer. "With that cart on the back, I can carry a straw bale a half-mile out to the horses in no time flat," David says. Clearly tickled to have figured out a way to get exercise while doing chores, the former triathlete says the best part is: "I have fun doing it."

Full-time practitioners of permaculture such as David are probably likely to remain a small minority for the near future, at least in more developed areas of the world. But certainly many of the system's specific practices can be adapted for home and other use (see "Rethinking the Lawn"). Grinning at the absurdity of conventional agricultural's comparatively aggressive tactics, David says, "Instead of trying to find ways to do this and to do that, permaculturalists find ways not to do this and not to do that."

David's tread-lightly philosophy is shared among permaculturalists, who take seriously their roles as stewards of the land. "This is gardening for future generations," says Madison, Wisconsin-based permaculture consultant and gardener Marian Farrior. "You're not killing the soil; you're creating the soil. You're not putting chemicals into the water; you're purifying the water." If elements of international grassroots movements such as permaculture become mainstream, she says, there's hope for preserving species and groundwater. "Humanity thinks we're above nature because we have these artificial environments," she says. "When people learn how the nature around them works, they see how much we depend on clean water and oxygen to survive."

In the meantime, David says, practicing permaculture offers its own daily rewards. For most of the year, his wife Sandy works as an elementary school principal. "On spring break, her colleagues go off to exotic locations down in Florida or somewhere or other," David says. "But we're just happy grabbing a cup of coffee and walking through the prairie—we may see more wildlife than people who travel hundreds of miles to do it. It's very fulfilling, just an incredible feeling of contentment."