by Katie Navarra
A lot of people are talking about permaculture, a system that relies on designing planting configurations to work more like an ecosystem. Until recently, the practice has largely been associated with the landscape industry. However, farms nationwide ranging from less than five acres in production to more than 100 acres in production are beginning to incorporate the principles of permaculture on their farms.
During the e-Organic webinar, Permaculture on Organic Farms, Rafter Ferguson along with Ron Revord and Kevin Wolz, all graduate students at the University of Illinois, Urban-Champaign campus, explained the basics of permaculture, offered information on how to incorporate the concept on farms and discussed opportunities and challenges associated with a permaculture design system.
What is permaculture?
“Permaculture is a design system and is also associated with a set of practices like agroforestry. It really is a loose and evolving set of practices,” Ferguson said. It is not a specific technique or material — it is a broader approach to planning land use.
Permaculture systems are designed to imitate nature, while reducing inputs like labor and energy. It relies on the use of long-lived crops, known as perennial polycultures, planted in diverse mixtures. Specialty crops and/or crops new for geographic areas are an integral part of the implementation. An integrated water management system ultimately ties in the entire farmscape.
Australians, Bill Mollison and David Homgren, are credited with coining the phrase “permaculture” during the late 1970s. The international project has taken decades to reach production scale agriculture, but over the past 10 years implementation of these design principles has rapidly increased.
On-going research at the Woody Perennial Polyculture (WPP) Research Site at the University of Illinois features a permaculture system designed to mimic a savanna based prairie. Six plant layers including canopy trees, medium trees, shrubs, brambles, grass and vines are used in the multi-functional growing plot.
The goal is to create a synergy between the natural ecosystem and high production yields of current agriculture. “Traditional corn production maximizes calorie production. And a native may maximize a pollinator,” said Kevin Wolz. The benefits of both systems lead to an outcome that is greater than any one attribute.
Thinking outside the box
Incorporating permaculture strategies on any farm, large or small requires a creative approach of pairing crops with symbiotic relationships.
Chaffin Orchards in Oroville, CA, a 2,000 acre farm, raises olives for extra virgin olive oil, grass-fed beef and heirloom fruits. Rotational pastures amongst the olive trees are a prime example of the unique, yet natural, combination of farm enterprises.
“The farm uses goats to help manage the olive trees,” Ferguson said. A carefully timed rotation allows the goats to graze among the olive trees when tender water sprouts shoot out of the trees. The sprouts are a delicacy for ravenous goats. With careful timing of the rotation, the goats are moved to a new pasture before they are able to defoliate the tree. “They save tremendously on pruning labor costs,” Ferguson said.
Permaculture encourages strategic land use and diversity. One plot of land at Breezy Meadow Orchards and Nursery in Tinmouth, VT, looks more like Asia than Vermont. That’s because the farm has incorporated terraced rice patties planted with cold-weather hearty rice in a raised contour bed. Drip irrigation, the rice terraces planted among alternating bands of annual and perennial crops to embrace permaculture. “In permaculture there is a major emphasis on diversity in farm enterprises and land uses,” Ferguson said.
In the Midwest, corn and soybeans are the two key crops. In looking for diversification, Wolz and others are looking to chestnut and hazelnut trees. “We think of chestnuts as ‘corn on trees’ and hazelnuts as ‘soy on trees’,” Wolz said.
“Essentially, chestnuts are pure starch and with a few tweaks they can use the same processing plants as corn and in the end we can still get baby diapers, paint and cattle feed from the product,” he added.
Similarly, hazelnuts are half oil and half protein that can be substituted for products made from soybeans. “We can still produce the industrial products our society has come to rely on,” he added.
Though some skeptics fear they would have to convert to a diet concentrated in nuts and berries or forfeit beloved favorites, it’s not necessarily true. “People can theoretically still eat Doritos they would just be made from chestnut flour rather than corn flour,” he said.
Challenges to incorporating permaculture
While permaculture systems present a number of opportunities, it brings an equally number of challenges. Financial support to encourage farmers to embrace this approach is significantly lacking. The initial financial investment is significant as permaculture relies on perennial polycultures, crops that take several years to mature to full production stage. A farm needs to consider a variety of enterprises to provide income with the perennial crops age.
Establishing perennial crops is time consuming. If care isn’t taken to properly establish the crops at the outset, production for the life of the plants are impacted. “It’s a labor intensive learning curve for new farmers and new farm enterprises,” Ferguson pointed out.
Once the crops are planted and producing, processing hubs and markets to sell the crops are limited, but increasing. “The United States markets are just moving past infancy,” Revord said. A group of growers in the Upper Midwest launched the American Hazelnut Company (AHC), which is a grower-owned processing and marketing company to assist the more than 130 growers in the region.
Access to improved varieties of specialty crops is scarce. In the Northeast, the once abundant American Chestnut tree, has been nearly eliminated by the Chestnut blight. In the Southeast, the trees succumb to root rot. Similarly, the proliferation of hazelnut trees is challenged by Eastern Filbert Blight and winter hardiness.
Fortunately, universities across the country are working to develop cultivars that are resistant to disease and tolerant of drought. “Michigan State University, University of Missouri, Penn State University and North Carolina State are doing most of the cultivar work for Chestnuts,” Revord said. Similarly, Oregon State University and Rutgers University are working on developing gene pools for the hazelnut tree.