This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2009

How farmers are going to save civilization

Jenn Hardy

Advocates for ‘permaculture’ say it can improve our diets, heal our environment, and improve our lives. Meet a new generation of farmers with some radical ideas for untangling our food chain (and saving the world in the process)

Permaculture means taking more responsibility for knowing how your food got to your plate.

Permaculture means taking more responsibility for knowing how your food got to your plate. Photo by Zorani/iStockPhoto; photo illustration by Dave Donald.

Trent Rhode looks great in a suit. The 27-year-old resident of Peterborough, Ont., seems perfectly comfortable standing before a long table of elected officials twice his age, lecturing them on the importance of environmental sustainability. His message is simple but powerful: he tells his audience they are not separate from the environment—they are the environment. Natural resources are dwindling, he says, and now is the time to act.

Rhode sits on the steering committee of Transition Town Peterborough, a non-profit organization that is working toward building a self-sufficient community less dependent on fossil fuels; at this particular meeting he is outlining some of the group’s ideas for Peterborough’s municipal officials and bureaucrats. His power suit says he belongs in this boardroom—but it’s not actually where he prefers to be.

When his business there is done, Rhode slips into a comfortable pair of trousers and an old blue t-shirt and digs his hands deep into the soil. In his job as a natural gardener, Rhode works the land at several properties in Ontario. He spends his time not only designing, but also implementing edible “forest gardens” at an eco-education centre in Colborne, a farm in Cobourg, and a residential property near Belleville. His hometown, which he obviously holds dear to his heart, has hired him to maintain gardens in Peterborough.

As a five-year-old horsing around on his grandfather’s Belleville farm, Rhode couldn’t be bothered with the ins and outs of growing vegetables—he was much more interested in chasing the pigs and geese. But 12 years later, while researching agriculture for his journalism program at Loyalist College, he stumbled across a concept that would become the foundation of his future career and virtually every aspect of his life. The idea was permaculture.

“I became aware of how fragile agriculture is, and how it’s dependent on so many things,” he says. “I began to see how fragile the economy is for the same reasons. I became interested in what seemed to be a necessity. The future is uncertain—but what is certain is we need to eat.”

Rhode has applied to a master of science in integrative ecosocial design at Gaia University, a program that specializes in teaching people already involved in the “regeneration and world change fields.” Rhode is helping to organize an Ontario-wide permaculture convention to take place in Toronto in the fall, and evangelizes the principles of permaculture to just about anyone who will listen.

“The grocery store is the big box we go into and we buy our food,” he says. “There is no connection between the farm and our refrigerator. In this culture we take food for granted; it isn’t seen as the necessity it is. The way we think is fragmented and everything is disconnected, but permaculture seeks to integrate—it has a more holistic view.”

In other words, Rhode believes that putting these ideas into practice on the farm and in the garden can fix our ailing food supply; moreover, he believes permaculture can transform every aspect of our lives for the better. And he’s not alone.

So what exactly is permaculture? The term was coined in the 1970s by Bill Mollison and co-originated with another Australian academic, David Holmgren. Originally it stood for “permanent agriculture”: at a time when the burgeoning environmental movement was rediscovering ancient concepts like pesticide-free agriculture, Mollison and Holmgren bundled together these ideas into a complete design system for environmentally friendly food production.

Decades later, that design system has spread to many other fields, including architecture, economics, education, and spirituality, so that permaculture now really stands for permanent culture—a design philosophy for making every aspect of our lives truly sustainable. It advocates a dozen key principles, which include caring for the earth, caring for people, using and valuing renewable resources, integration rather than segregation, and using small and slow solutions.

Permaculture pioneer David Holmgren likens the system to a flower, with individual disciplines, the "petals," connected at the centre by a unified philosophy of sustainable design.

Permaculture pioneer David Holmgren likens the system to a flower, with individual disciplines, the "petals," connected at the centre by a unified philosophy of sustainable design. Diagram design by David Holmgren; illustration by Dave Donald.

And if there’s one thing a permaculture advocate can’t stand, it’s waste. The throwaway, wasteful society we live in now, they say, can’t last: idling in the drive-thru to get a coffee from Starbucks, driving in our gas guzzlers the few blocks from home to the grocery store, all to purchase onions from Egypt, apples from Chile, and broccoli from Spain. Then, when we get home, it all goes in a power-sucking refrigerator to keep it from going bad.

“People often think, ‘The first thing I need to do is to change the way I move around in a vehicle or how I heat my house,’” says David Holmgren from his home in Victoria, Australia. “And those things are important. But we eat every day, and our decisions in what we eat, and how we eat, and how we get that food, are enormously powerful. Permaculture aims to redesign the whole food-production chain.”

That means more household self-reliance, such as growing some of our own food and doing some of the chores our grandparents did—food growing, canning, clothes mending, and DIY of all sorts—in order to reduce our environmental footprint and cut back on the wastefulness that has brought us to the brink of dangerous and irreversible environmental decline. Permaculture means changing more than just the contents of your fridge: it means altering some fundamental aspects of the way you live your life.

Which all seems like a bit of an undertaking, to say the least. But not to worry: permaculture is based on slow-and-steady change, starting, literally, in your own backyard.

The modern farm is an industrial marvel, a factory for growing as much food as possible in the smallest space at the lowest cost. But it can’t last: plants and animals aren’t cogs in a machine, and industrial farming is beginning to run up against some fundamental limits of nature. Drive around in the country, and you’ll pass rows and rows of monoculture crops planted horizontally. Behind the scenes, huge amounts of chemically manufactured nitrogen and phosphorous are pumped into the soil to prevent it from becoming infertile— these chemicals then leak into the groundwater and, inevitably, into the ocean. Modern farming requires about 10 calories of energy for every calorie of food produced, which means growing food isn’t actually production at all, it’s just another type of consumption.

If you wander into your nearest grocery story right now, the answer to this problem appears to be to label everything “organic.” See that well-heeled yuppie in the checkout line buying $10 organic oatmeal? Her great-grandmother would probably scoff at the label (and the cost) because the term would have been meaningless: organic was all she ever knew, and it didn’t need a fancy name. Her apples had spots on them because the chemicals and hormones that now bathe modern fruits and vegetables just didn’t exist. The “organic” label is a modern invention, a backlash against industrial farming. As a marketing tool, the word has been very successful.

But saying something is organic doesn’t automatically mean it’s sustainable. Permaculture and organic agriculture share some obvious traits, but it is possible to have one without the other. For example, those carrots at the supermarket might be labelled “organic,” but if they’re packed in a plastic bag and shipped from South America, they’re hardly environmentally friendly. You’d be better off buying non-organic produce from your local farmers’ market, because the food you buy there has less packaging and burned less gas to get to you. Similarly, you’d be better off buying the pork chop of a local free-roaming pig that got a few injections than you would that of a pig that has all the paperwork required to label it “organic,” but that lived in a barn eating processed feed pellets.

What this means, say permaculture activists, is that it’s simply not enough to throw some organic instant waffles in your shopping cart and get on with your life: it’s our responsibility to truly know what we’re eating and how it got to our plate. Individually, culturally, economically, spiritually, we really are what we eat.

The reason these questions are so important right now is that it is becoming increasingly obvious that the world as we know it is in big trouble.

The chief scientific adviser of the U.K., professor John Beddington, recently said we are facing a “perfect storm,” where shortages of water, food, and energy sources will take a devastating toll on the world. He reckons we have about 20 years.

Holmgren, however, says the storm is already upon us. “We are in a continuous economic, energetic climate crisis,” he says. “The way that unfolds will be difficult to predict, but I think most of these statements that are being made by even well-meaning people at higher levels are enormously underplaying things.”

Steve Jones, an ecologist and permaculture teacher in Wales, agrees that the crisis is already here. He has a scary name for this historical period we’re entering: “descent culture”—a perilous time of scarce resources, declining standards of living, and social breakdown. What goes up, he says, must come down.

“It is a basic law of physics and therefore inescapable,” he says. “It will change everything. It will change the way we think. The next generation will look back at us thinking we were crazy or naïve. At best we will be leaving them a world scarred by fossil fuel use and dependent on cheap energy that is no longer there. It is going to be very tough over the next few decades whilst we figure out how to respond.”

Jones emphasizes that oil is at the root of the problem. He says no other energy source can rival petroleum in terms of energy density, ease of access, and sheer usefulness.

But it is not sustainable. He doesn’t believe we’ll run out of oil entirely, he says, but “we have probably used half the available supply that is in the ground, the easy half to get hold of. So at some point, possibly quite soon, the world supply will peak, and the rate at which it can be extracted from the ground will go into a decline that cannot and will not be reversed.” Permaculture advocates say we’d be better off modifying our way of life now than waiting for nature to do it for us. Holmgren, for instance, doesn’t see much point in trying to build an environmentally friendly car when the sanest choice would be to, well, just drive less. The point isn’t to build a better rat race—it’s to get out of it altogether. We might as well accept these changes with a positive outlook, Holmgren says, because “whatever we do in the future, we’re going to have a lot more success by figuring out how to not do things than desperately trying to create ways to maintain current patterns of living that just aren’t going to work.”

The view at Yves Zehnder's Sacred Sueños farm in Vilcabama, Ecuador. Photo by Jenn Hardy.

The view at Yves Zehnder's Sacred Sueños farm in Vilcabama, Ecuador. Photo by Jenn Hardy.

Two-and-a-half hours walk up a mountain in Vilcabamba, Ecuador, lives a 34-year-old red-headed farmer named Yves Zehnder. He is a farmer in every sense of the word: this is no side project, and he has no additional day job. He works hard every day from sunrise to sunset (and sometimes beyond) managing the 10 hectares of land he lives on.

Fearing that his frustration with our society might turn him into an eco-terrorist, Zehnder left his home in northern Ontario 14 years ago, and five years ago decided to live sustainably in the south of Ecuador. A mere $1,400 in his bank account gave him residency and home became a tent on top of an Andean mountain. He lived in the tent for six months while he single-handedly built the adobe brick communal facilities the farm labourers now use.

At first, life at the farm, called Sacred Sueños, was hard. When he arrived at his mountainside property nothing would grow except bracken fern. The soil, because of the unsustainable slash-and-burn farming in the area, was basically infertile. In retrospect, would he have chosen land with better soil? “No,” he says. “It taught me patience and perseverance. It was an ethical decision to change poor soil into something fertile. I didn’t want to be a frivolous white boy who buys good land and has it all. This way I have been able to find solutions to big problems and share that knowledge.”

Slowly, but surely, he put permaculture’s techniques to work on the farm. For example, he uses a composting toilet. One of the permaculture principles is that in nature, there is no such thing as waste. So Zehnder has a “humanure” system, turning every bit of human feces back into soil. Once a guest uses the lovely mountainside-view toilet (a glorified bucket under a seat) he or she scoops up a coconut shell of sawdust (happily donated to Zehnder by a sawmill down the hill) and covers the mess. The last to fill the bucket empties it in the appropriate pile.

He also uses a “chicken tractor.” His five hens don’t have to do much heavy lifting, but they are penned in a large area, and their natural scratching and digging for grubs turns the soil under their feet. Chicken poop is also an excellent fertilizer that prepares the ground for plants when the “tractor” is relocated a week later.

Zehnder strategically plants trees to help him create shade during the four-month dry season and others that prevent erosion during the rainy season.

He and his partner, Jennifer Martin, keep chickens for eggs, donkeys, a horse, and goats for milk and cheese. They grow delicious native fruit like naranjillas, which often come from “volunteers” as he calls them—seeds that blossom out of the “humanure.” (He has also had the help of human volunteers who come to work on the farm.)

Yves Zehnder with Sacred Sueños' two donkeys, Bonne and Posito. Photo by Jenn Hardy.

Yves Zehnder with Sacred Sueños' two donkeys, Bonne and Posito. Photo by Jenn Hardy.

The homemade shower is heated by a black tube coiled to attract the sun, and it has the same beautiful valley view as the toilet—which leaves everyone fighting over the opportunity to be naked outside.

Natural building is a part of the permaculture design system that often uses a material called “cob,” traditionally made of clay, sand, straw, water and earth, an easy combination to find when building a straw-bale house somewhere like Canada or the U.K. Finding straw up top a mountain in Ecuador, however, is more of a challenge. True to the system he follows, Zehnder has gone one step further with cob. He sees the use of an organic material such as straw as a waste and instead uses shredded plastic bags to bind the material together.

Though he now has much better soil, his work is far from finished. A friend has recently purchased the 40 hectares of neighbouring land, and Zehnder will make use of it for rotating pastures and reforestation. Aside from the daily chores that come with running such a large piece of land, Zehnder is building an educational centre at Sacred Sueños, where he will teach permaculture not only to rich Westerners who can make their way down there, but also to locals who can take the course with scholarships.

It’s easy to see that permaculture puts an emphasis on human manual labour. This is why critics often call it uneconomical or impractical when it comes to large-scale farming. But the manual labour is exactly what permaculture adherents like about it. For them it’s about taking your life into your own hands.

Grégoire Lamoureux is another farmer who is putting permaculture into practice. On Spiral Farm in Winlaw, B.C., where he has lived for almost two decades, Lamoureux says permaculture is “looking at design issues and implementing them in human habitat—where people live and taking into account places for every living being as well. It doesn’t exclude other living creatures.”

Growing up on a dairy farm in southern Quebec, Lamoureux quickly learned what he didn’t want to do when he grew up. He didn’t want to be involved with large monoculture farming. He first learned about permaculture in the ’80s, and now on his farm, on the western bank of the Slocan River, he grows a diversity of plants, fruits, nuts, useful trees, and vegetables, mostly for his own use. He dries and cans food to keep himself going all year round. Lamoureux teaches other people at Spiral Farm, but also takes his knowledge on the road and teaches courses across the country.

The movement has spread through such courses taught by people like Lamoureux. They are now available all over the world, adapted to different climates and skill levels. Some introductory courses are taught in a day, although there are also two-week intensive design courses that grant certificates and qualifications to teach.

A typical permaculture design course covers the essential principles and elements, as well as some hands-on experience. In the two-week course, you learn about the ethics of sustainability, building soil fertility, natural building design, waste recycling and treatment, and water harvesting, among others.

And it’s not all about back-to-the-land living of the type Yves Zehnder is doing; some courses are designed for curious urbanites. Lamoureux, for instance, teaches one for people who want to start a container garden on their balcony. “Some people feel the negative sides of living in a city,” he says. “The course can empower you to feel more comfortable where you live. People can take information home and apply the ideas.”

For Sandra Storr, who runs Romany Rest, a 120-year-old farmhouse bed and breakfast, using permaculture principles in P.E.I., it made the most sense to get her certification online. She says online study was not only economical, but it meant she didn’t have to fly across the world to do it. (Anyone who is serious about the environment, she says, avoids flying as much as possible.) Storr isn’t only concerned about reducing her carbon emissions, but reducing—period. That was her first aim when she and her husband, Fred, immigrated to Canada from Wales in 2006.

The bed and breakfast uses solar power for showers and the swimming pool. While a solar electricity system is a bit out of range at the moment, they have looked to low-tech permaculture solutions such as passive solar—renovating their farmhouse to include big windows that face the sun, and, in true DIY fashion, they made reflectors out of plywood and aluminum emergency blankets, which double or triple the amount of sunlight, and therefore heat, that enters the building. The property features 26 micro wind turbines.

Storr says her solutions are “cheap and cheerful”: she’s covered some of the non-essential windows in bubble wrap to keep heat in.

The couple rarely visit the grocery store, even to keep the B&B operating. They keep a few chickens running around and some sheep. Like Lamoureux, Storr teaches on-site and does her own bottling, canning, and dehydrating. She is most interested in beans, cooked grains, wheat, and seeds, and she keeps a root cellar. And thanks to the provincial government’s forest regeneration scheme, the property now has a hectare of new native trees in its backyard.

“I had heard of permaculture years ago, but thought of it as simply another form of gardening,” says Storr. “We already had an organic garden in Wales and I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t until five years ago that I realized it was about so much more—a whole system designed to mimic natural systems and function efficiently.” She explains that it was studying permaculture more intensely that taught her to bring everything together.

“When we first got here we didn’t think five acres was big enough. But, because permaculture is such an efficient system, now I think, what do we do with all this space?” In a permaculture garden, you don’t see row upon row of the same crop. The system discourages monocultures and promotes the use of vertical space. That means that permaculture gardens often end up like a chaotic mess, with plants tangled in amongst each other—the way they are in nature.

“Instead of transforming the environment to fit your needs,” Lamoureux says, “you have to use the existing environment and adapt your needs to it.”

What a lovely idea this permaculture is. Lovely perhaps, but maybe not too practical. We don’t all have the time or money to leave our lives behind and start a full-scale farm. Even if we could afford it, not everyone has a burning desire to be a farmer and live off the land. Similarly, many people living in an apartment or a house with a small garden just don’t have time to grow tomatoes. We like eating grapefruit, mangoes, and bananas year-round. We like to listen to our iPods and drink Starbucks from disposable cups. Plenty of us like our Land Rovers! This is normal life for most of us, and the general feeling is no one has the right to take that away.

And no one is taking it away—just yet. But no matter how you slice it, big changes in energy and economics are coming soon. If we clue in to the idea that capitalism, and all the wonderful things that come with it, are not sustainable as they now exist, we may be able to make small changes in our individual lives that could mitigate the crises still to come.

It may require some effort, but there are many ways to implement permaculture into your life now. Changes can be made slowly and relatively painlessly. Don’t want to grow your own food? Then why not participate in Community Supported Agriculture and buy a weekly food basket from a local farmer? Or challenge yourself at the grocery store to search for food that was produced in your own country. If it ain’t broke, don’t buy a new one. If it is broke, fix it. For too long we have lived as if we were characters in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, happily reciting, “Ending is better than mending. The more stitches, the less riches.”

To the chagrin of Greenpeace activists everywhere, not everyone actually cares about the environment. Not everyone believes the earth has a soul and we should worship her in all her glory. What most people do care about, however, is their wallets, and the truth is, virtually everything about permaculture is about saving cash. (Saving trees, seeds, and the world might come next on the list.)

Permaculture devotees generally come in two camps: the ones who see it as a kind of spiritual devotion and the ones who see it as a scientifically rigorous system.

23-year-old Sara Bresee is definitely in the first category. She learned about permaculture while going on a spiritual retreat in Spain. On top of a mountain, she lived in a teepee, sat in sweat lodges, and danced barefoot with her hippie self. While building a mandala in the garden, she met a man who introduced her to a few permaculture techniques. “I thought, ‘That’s the smartest thing in the world,’” she says. And it was something she could take back with her to her urban life in Montreal, where she is studying to be a nutritionist and a yoga teacher, and works at a raw vegan restaurant.

Bresee and her three roommates share a community garden a five-minute walk from home, where they grow their own vegetables. They also support Community Supported Agriculture, a world-wide network which gives urbanites the opportunity to support local food growers. The roommates opt for a family-sized vegetable basket, which provides them with local organic food year-round. Bresee says it is the perfect way to create community links between the city and the country.

It is this spiritual connection that interests Bresee most: “Permaculture, as a way of life, has acknowledged that no man or woman can do everything on their own, and thus community is undeniably important. This holistic view, to me, is what makes permaculture sustainable, what makes everything come together in the end.”

As a basis for spirituality, Bresee says permaculture’s spiritual message is “let’s care for ourselves, care for each other, and care for the earth. It’s simple, beautiful, and true.” Across the Atlantic, 27-year-old Faye Tomson falls into the science camp. Tomson, who is completing her masters in environmental engineering at the University of Leeds, is specializing in renewable energy and low-energy housing “in a bid to try and restore the balance,” she says.

“Working in such a field is twofold,” she says. “Not only is it useful—and necessary in the transition to a low-carbon economy—it’s also lucrative. My family has no money and is unlikely to in the near future. My dream is to earn enough to move us all away to some far-flung place away from the masses when it all goes tits up—which I don’t think is going to be very long from now.”

She jokes that she’s anticipating some Armageddon-style scenario—but she’s only half kidding. “When the shelves are empty,” she says, “people are going to fight and riot and steal and hurt each other. I want to be far away by then. With my family.” For Tomson, it isn’t only new technologies that will be important in the future, but long-lost crafts and trades like horsemanship, woodwork, knitting, sewing, and leather tanning.

“People of like minds really need to get together—leave egos at the door, and start building arks,” she says. There is urgency in her tone. “Save seeds that haven’t been messed up by companies like Monsanto, and learn as many skills as possible. Learn how to keep bees and preserve and store food for winter months. This is serious. Agriculture is dying, and the old ways have gone. We must relearn them—and fast.”

Trent Rhode can’t argue with Tomson’s desire for immediate change, although he doesn’t share her survivalist viewpoint. But while Tomson and Yves Zehnder may choose to build lives outside the city limits, right now Rhode is comfortable working in an urban setting.

“How can you be a hermit and live by yourself in the forest, when your air and water quality is affected by people on the other side of the world?” he asks. “We are not independent in that sense. We drink the same water and breathe the same air.” Rhode believes it would be possible for people to grow almost all of their own food within city limits, if all the available land were put into productive use.

“If cities were actually consciously designed to take into account all human needs through time, the possibilities would be endless,” he says. “There’s this idea that somehow human civilization is diametrically opposed to a healthy environment and that somehow we are separate from the natural world.”

His goal is to help urbanites realize that our cities are as much a part of the natural world as a beaver dam or beehive: “It’s the very perception that we are somehow separate from the environment around us, and that our actions toward the environment have no consequences to us, that leads to the creation of such destructive human habitats.”

Rhode would like to own a farm one day. But he hopes to own it collectively, with the thought that you can learn so much from other people and their experiences. Like a natural ecosystem, he says, living in a community makes everything stronger and more resilient.

“It’s exciting and energizing to be with people who understand what’s going on in the world and understand what we need to do to live in harmony and to live, period,” he says. “The most important thing is to give people hope.”

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