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A Farm For The Future
March 28, 2009 11:17 AM   Subscribe

A Farm For The Future. Wildlife filmmaker Rebecca Hosking, previously in the public eye campaigning for the banning of plastic bags in the UK, is moving back to the family farm to take over from her father. This "deeply hopeful but realistic film" describes her investigation of the steps she could take to change it from a traditional beef pasture farm to a truly sustainable permaculture environment.

An alternative to fossil-fuel driven high intensity farming that moves the focus of food production towards high-yield, low-acreage sustainable crops grown in ways that mimic natural systems, permaculture advocates believe that we can feed the world, rebuild biodiversity and live sustainably into the bargain. While it would require huge changes to our petrochemically derived diets and a significant return to the land for millions, it might be our only option. Better get started then.
posted by Happy Dave (23 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
Edible forest gardening is the art and science of putting plants together in woodlandlike patterns that forge mutually beneficial relationships, creating a garden ecosystem that is more than the sum of its parts. You can grow fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs, mushrooms, other useful plants, and animals in a way that mimics natural ecosystems. You can create a beautiful, diverse, high-yield garden.

If designed with care and deep understanding of ecosystem function, you can also design a garden that is largely self-maintaining. In many of the world's temperate-climate regions, your garden would soon start reverting to forest if you were to stop managing it.

We humans work hard to hold back succession—mowing, weeding, plowing, and spraying. If the successional process were the wind, we would be constantly motoring against it. Why not put up a sail and glide along with the land's natural tendency to grow trees? By mimicking the structure and function of forest ecosystems we can gain a number of benefits.

posted by netbros at 11:40 AM on March 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


If you're in the UK, then you can watch this on IPlayer here.
posted by pharm at 12:09 PM on March 28, 2009


This is really amazingly cool. I used to work weekends on a miniature donkey farm, and it constantly fascinated me, all the things the owners did to make their plot of land more sustainable.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:25 PM on March 28, 2009


NB. I recently read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" which included a chapter on a permaculture-style farm. One of the most interesting facts he quoted was that permaculture is considerably more productive per acre than modern fossil-fuel based agriculture.

The main downside appears to be that it's more labour intensive.
posted by pharm at 12:39 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


This marks the first time, in my life I think, that I've been able to consider farming as awesome.
posted by JHarris at 12:45 PM on March 28, 2009


The main downside appears to be that it's more labour intensive.

That was one of the things that fascinated me about this film - there's a chap about 3/4 of the way through who seems to be saying the exact opposite about his edible food forest, that he can feed about 10 people per acre (double the average of most arable land) but puts in about a day a week in harvesting and 10 days a year in maintenance per acre. I googled around for figures on this while putting this post together, but couldn't find anything that particularly supported or refuted this claim.
posted by Happy Dave at 12:46 PM on March 28, 2009


I watched this when it was broadcast in the UK a few weeks ago and the most compelling moment for me was when she compared footage of the fields being ploughed from the mid eighties and today. 20 years ago the birds flocked to newly turned earth because it was so full of life; nowadays they are nowhere to be seen. I found it genuinely moving (in a hippy dippy kind of way, of course).
posted by offmessage at 12:54 PM on March 28, 2009


Our current high intensity fossil fuel driven farming feeds (assuming transportation of the food is working) the world. I don't believe permaculture will do the same. It just can't compare to 175 bu/ac of corn over millions of acres. Or soybeans, or wheat, or whatever other major food stuff the world grows and consumes. So it's fine to talk about permaculture as a hobby that someone does in there backyard in the country, but it is a distraction. We need to solve the real problem which is to a) get farming away from fossil fuels b) don't do long term damage to a field.

So how do we do that? Well nitrogen fertilizers use natural gas to be created. We can use other methods (ie mass amounts of "clean" electricity) to create hydrogen and then unto nitrogen fertilizer with the haber process. So it's an economics problem, not a science problem.

Tractors that drive around the field use a lot of fossil fuels. New Holland recently demoed a fuel cell tractor.

As for not doing long term damage to fields, I believe this is just a matter of banning certain practices.

In conclusion, the real problem with farming is fossil fuels and how to use less/zero of them. Science isn't the barrier to changing this, economics/politics is.
posted by sety at 1:17 PM on March 28, 2009


NB. I recently read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" which included a chapter on a permaculture-style farm. One of the most interesting facts he quoted was that permaculture is considerably more productive per acre than modern fossil-fuel based agriculture.

That's Joel Salatin's farm. He's brought back more soil to the farm than there was on the land originally (100 years ago), and the animals he keeps there are happier than they would be at a sanctuary. The methods that he uses to do this are quite complex, and he doesn't get a lot of profit. But Salatin is one of the few people whom I can undoubtedly assert has made good use of his own life.

Here's a little video I took of a speech he made last month.
posted by shii at 1:29 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


sety: Right, because Monsanto is going to solve all our problems.
posted by pharm at 1:41 PM on March 28, 2009


Right, because Monsanto is going to solve all our problems.

That's a ridiculous sentiment to take away form sety's post. Just because he/she disagrees with the article's conclusion does not make him/her a Monsanto shill.
posted by Monochrome at 2:02 PM on March 28, 2009


There are so few farmers left in the US it is no longer an option on the US Census - it's combined in the "Other" category.
posted by stbalbach at 2:42 PM on March 28, 2009


Our current high intensity fossil fuel driven farming feeds (assuming transportation of the food is working) the world. I don't believe permaculture will do the same. It just can't compare to 175 bu/ac of corn over millions of acres. Or soybeans, or wheat, or whatever other major food stuff the world grows and consumes.

Well, why not? As you yourself noted, the high energy content of the food created in this way is propped up by extremely high inputs from fossil fuels. As noted in both the linked film and at least two comments in the thread, the per-acre productivity is higher. I've been googling away and can't find anything but unbacked assertions that widespread permaculture couldn't provide equivalent energy to the same amount of land farmed conventionally. Of course, it would provide different forms of food - you're not going to get the kind of high-yield beef production you get from a single Midwest feedlot from a dozen (even a hundred) small permaculture farms, but that's not the point. The point is to produce vegetables, fruit and small-scale livestock to support local populations.

In short, the goal is not to replicate the food output of the current agribusiness setup in a magical Eden-like coast-to-coast garden that spits out the same packaged and highly processed food products we have now. It's more like we'll grow food locally because we won't have any other option, and this is the most effective and sustainable way to use the land.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:16 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


The main downside appears to be that it's more labour intensive.

... there's a chap about 3/4 of the way through who seems to be saying the exact opposite about his edible food forest.

I did the Permaculture Design Course a few years ago. It's a two-week introduction to permaculture concepts, and took place on a farm (tiny: 11 acres). One of the owners said that for the first 10 years it was hard work, day in day out. After that the systems they'd put together were established and self-sustaining, and required little in the way of maintenance.

Can permaculture feed the world? Sure. Permaculture farms make money where neighboring farms are going bust or clamoring for a government handout, and they do so year after year, quietly adapting to the changing climate and largely independent of the oil market. Working permaculture farms look rubbish, it's true - everything is haphazardly strewn across the property in some weird hybrid of natural and artificial ecosystems, and I'll be the first to admit they look ugly as hell. They possess neither the order of an industrial farm nor the chaos of nature. It can be difficult to take them seriously. They have a slightly amateur look about them.

I think I've mentioned before my tour of an organic dairy farm in which the farmer had explored and experimented with a bunch of sustainable farming techniques. He would've referred to himself as a 'biological farmer' rather than a permaculturalist. At one end of the scale he had built an amazing contour line irrigation system that was incredibly efficient at keeping his pastures and livestock watered even in the middle of a drought. At the other end, instead of buying herbicides to deal with things like blackberry, he made his own out of ordinary salt, vinegar, and a dash of detergent.

You could walk up to the fence dividing his paddocks from those of his neighbor, and the difference was stark; lush growth on one side, barren on the other. Dig a shovel into the ground: on this side, soft and moist and filled with earthworms. On the other, dry and hard and powdery.

That's ultimately what I think will happen. As climate change makes industrial farming more and more expensive, governments will get tired of bailing out agribusiness, and they will start making losses. At that point they will look over the fence. They will knock on their neighbor's door. They will ask to take a tour of his property. And they will incorporate sustainable farming techniques into their own business.
posted by Ritchie at 6:14 PM on March 28, 2009 [7 favorites]


The real problem with small farming in the US is that it's essentially manual labor. No health benefits, no 401(k) and no sick pay. Health insurance is nearly impossible to purchase if you work with livestock or heavy equipment. I know because I did it for many years.

People frequently lose everything they own because of one tractor accident or a fall from a horse. After such an event some simply cannot continue to live without health insurance and leave farming. Or they go bankrupt. Others start out in the job but eventually conclude that the financial risk is not worth it and take a real job, often after having a child. Basically small farming is not a viable option unless you are married to someone with a job in town with insurance, are a veteran or are willing to take the risk of a catastrophic health crisis right on the nose. A likelihood which gets more likely every year as prices rise and relatively simple procedures like having an child's appendix removed approach the equivalent of a years cash income on such a property.
posted by fshgrl at 7:28 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Basically small farming is not a viable option unless you are married to someone with a job in town with insurance, are a veteran or are willing to take the risk of a catastrophic health crisis right on the nose.

I'd point out that this is only an issue in the US, with the current state of your healthcare system. Provide universal healthcare, and you have a system which will permit risk-taking in business, whether physical risk with livestock and tractors or mental risk in leaving a job to start your own company. That can only be a good thing.

Ritchie, thanks for that fascinating comment - I agree, what I've seen of permaculture or otherwise 'biosystem' inspired farming does look incredibly messy and amateurish, especially when compared to the neat, serried ranks of vegetables and orderly squares of corn produced by traditional farming, and I think that's a not-insignificant mental barrier towards more widescale adoption of these techniques. One of the most interesting montages in the linked film was of farmers at a cattle auction, overlaid with a voiceover describing the crisis here in the UK - farmers are, on average, in their sixties and approaching the end of their working lives, in a climate which has long made most farms an incredible struggle to even break even, never mind make a living from. From the few farmers I personally know, there is a feeling of abandonment from the government and being squeezed on all sides by the gaping maws of supermarket supply chains constantly wanting cheaper food, consumer pressures, environmentalists and constantly tightening government legislation. A Scottish farmer I met last year told me 'Farming in this country is finished. It's no way to make a living anymore, hasn't been for years'.

My hope, in watching the linked film, is that permaculture might be a (messy, hard to sell, counter-intuitive, counter-experience) part of the answer to that problem.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:20 AM on March 29, 2009


For those interested in a bit more information on what permaculture can do, here is a fantastic video put together of a project in Jordan. Where they only have 4 inches of rain a year. It is essentially a desert that through the design elements of permaculture has become a viable food growing area.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sohI6vnWZmk

Marginal land can become significantly more productive with a few permaculture design elements. But it takes time and effort to setup initially.
posted by dinoworx at 3:13 PM on March 29, 2009


My two cents as an aspiring small farmer:

A skimmed this the other day after seeing it mentioned somewhere else, after looking at your links i realized it was paterson's blog

The principles are all good but I wish folks would critically evaluate the claims of permaculture from a quantitative perspective. The host/producers of the program dont have that ability, they just take everything said as an amazing truth and shoot pictures of birds and berries jostling in the wind.

To illustrate this point, in the part about the hedge, theyre like 'hey this hedge is great, its more productive than horizontal gardens and its self maintaining.' As theyre saying that, an image flashes across of blackberries. Ever seen a blackberry bramble? Thats not what they do, they spread everywhere. They wouldnt stay in a hedge, and animals wouldnt keep em back cause they are thorny. Its things like that, which make this video, and that farm, not part of the solution, its a fluff piece on a someone who is likely a trust fund farmer. Its one thing to apply "permaculture" principles to a home garden or your lawn, but if you convert your small farm into this it won't be much more than a subsistence operation. As far as I can tell, and please let me know, those are the facts.

I just feel that permaculture a rebranding of previous technologies and ideas (i suppose everything is rebranding) even his primary pattern design concept, i feel, can be derived from some of arne naess's writings from the early 70s.

I guess I can say after looking at permaculture materials and whatnot for several years I feel like it is imho, a rebranded information and packaged into a dream.

If you are not aiming for self sufficiency only, they are not financially viable. Every 'farm' Ive looked at, so far, charges folks money to attend "permaculture design courses" and to intern (work for) them. That is not sustainable unless complete economic collapse occurs.

Again, my two cents. Its a form of home gardening, not farming.
posted by sponge at 5:41 PM on March 29, 2009


been reading comments,

i think the 'energy crisis' will be solved, but its peak soil, water, and other non-renewable resources that are going to really get us.

yes, nut trees are highly productive (i think hogs around the mediterranean used to eat only those as feed centuries ago)

where the reform does need to happen is with the government/university/agribusiness relationship, its a complete clusterf*ck. They've turned rural areas into a third world country.

If you want to change things, stop eating meat and dairy. Today.

On the census comment, there are more prisoners than farmers in the united states

Sorry for ranting, too many things 'get to me' these days.
posted by sponge at 5:52 PM on March 29, 2009


sponge, many of the permaculture success stories can be found in the Third World. It's hard to get the kind of evidence you seem to require because, well, it's the Third World. Small farms out in the sticks with one muddy track. Places no-one gives a shit about.

The techniques do work. Marginal land can be rehabilitated and made productive. Farmers who have adopted sustainable farming techniques sometimes end up buying neighboring farms. Their farms make money.

A permaculturalist faced with a blackberry hedge is probably likely to ask him-or-herself some questions like: "If blackberry spreads so fast, why hasn't it taken over every square metre of untended countryside? What are it's natural constraints? How can I leverage off those constraints? Is blackberry useful in any way? How do I make it into a crop? What does the presence of this plant tell me about the conditions here?"

One of the classic permaculture sayings is "a weed is just a plant that's growing where you don't want it". There's nothing intrinsically wrong with any plant, but we often make mistakes in our design.

The kind of people in the video were gardeners. No denying it. But looked at in another light, they're also a kind of hacker (of the 3 great hacker virtues - Laziness, Impatience and Hubris - they lack only the impatience). They're looking at systems and pulling them apart and trying to put them back together in a way that multiplies performance and efficiency. At it's core, permaculture is surprisingly utilitarian and results-focused. Ornamental but unproductive gardens are derided. Well-mown and neatly-edged lawns are considered wasteful and quaint - a degraded pastiche of the French aristocratic gardens of the 18th century.

The ideas are slowly bleeding across to the mainstream. Permaculturalists have been filling their water-tanks from rain falling on their rooftops for decades. It wasn't until the past few years of drought that simple things like that became commonplace in Australia.
posted by Ritchie at 7:29 PM on March 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


i dont have anything against permaculture, except possibly the rebranding aspect,

but its just not going to help small farms and its not what will get people back out on the land.

there is no money in it unless you are teaching the courses or giving tours etc.
posted by sponge at 3:17 AM on March 30, 2009


case in point, the guy nearby with the 'edible forest' i believe is this fellow according to another website. How does he make money? courses, and open house days on which he charges every person (70 usd) to walk around and talk.
posted by sponge at 3:32 AM on March 30, 2009


but its just not going to help small farms and its not what will get people back out on the land.

I get your wider point about the whole 'you can run a permaculture farm and make money by doing permaculture courses' but I'm not sure I agree with this point. I've seen lots of people make it, but usually just as an assertion rather than a fact-backed argument.

For instance, there was a beef farm in the original video who had whittled their fossil fuel consumption down to the petrol needed for a single quad bike, because the grasses they had developed were dense and deep-rooted enough to eliminate the need for silage cutting and over-wintering indoors for the cattle. They seemed to be doing very well.

I totally understand your resistance to the hippy dippy permaculture movement as saviour of mankind, but I don't think you can convincingly assert that permaculture principles have no place in future food production.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:08 AM on March 30, 2009


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