“What have you seen through your lived experience and via your increasing network that gives you not only aspirational hope, but also “perspirational” perspective & confidence of moving past demonstration projects and moving toward broader-scale impact?”
I don’t see the land and agriculture-based permaculture movement pushing past the point of small or demonstration projects in the near future because of the expense and labor required to create, manage, and harvest from fully integrated systems. Compared to modern agriculture, the tools currently do not exist to scale-up without a large investment in human labor, which drives the price of on-farm production. Farm labor is skilled labor and we must not only train those people but also pay the costs up-front. Compare this to spreading the expense over years with leased machines or purchasing farm equipment on credit.
I do find hope in the projects that exist, however, in showing us a way forward as we answer the question of labor costs compared to mechanized production. All the farms I’ve visited created an abundance of food, and importantly financial income, on a small scale. The two most integrated, Island Creek (pictured above) and Salamander Springs, focused growing on around 1 acre (.4 hectare), required three people working 35-45 hours per week to operate from sowing seeds in Spring to the Fall harvest, while training the interns and assistant in integrated farming practices.
Island Creek grew a large market garden of foods including annuals of corn and greens, while growing perennials and strong self seeding plants such as figs, leeks, garlic, and Egyptian onions. Salamander Springs focused largely on a Three Sisters garden, with different varieties or corns, beans, and squash, supplemented with Spring ephemerals foraged and tended on the property, and a small garden full of onions, brassicas, and greens to extend and supplement the season long income.
The largest I visited, Radical Roots Farm in Virginia, operated on five acres. Even though they used a small walk-behind tractor, this farm, run by Dave and Lee O’Neill, included multiple on-farm interns throughout the year. It’s been several years since our interview and my tour, but at the time it took around 7 people with light mechanization to operate the farm from seed to harvest. The O’Neills also enhanced their regular farm income with a nursery business.
From what I’ve encountered at these farms and in other conversations, the successful farms were in the right place while receiving financial support and growing slowly. Holly at Island Creek received the land she farms on as a wedding present and her husband operates a prosperous roofing business. Susana Lein at Salamander Springs purchased an inexpensive piece of hard Kentucky hilltop for not a lot of money and built up over many years. Though I do not know the intricacies of the O’Neill’s origin story, they were successful business people who found ways to grow the nourishing foods they wanted to by supplementing their on-farm vegetable income and living frugally with what they had, again building up over the years.
I mention these examples as they sit in a place of—and as I’m reminded by Taj Scicluna’s thought for a 4th ethic for permaculture—transition. I’ve said before, on the podcast and elsewhere, that I don’t think permaculture will be the system that directly changes the world, but I do see this system of ecological design as a model of how far we can go and what will get us to the next steps. We now are the pioneers who push the envelope and help existing groups and those who follow us to create the new world we imagine, with systems yet to be discovered or named.
These edges are where I find inspiration as permaculture practices influence larger projects. Some examples of those include Dickinson College and Farmers on the Square; Hilltop Urban Farm; and City Repair Project.
Years ago I lectured about permaculture at Dickinson College, which also runs a large organic farm. At that time I had engaging conversations with the professors, and in the times since, the farm staff continue to integrate more regenerative practices. Those often focus on intentional design and positive ecological impacts. I continue to visit the farm which encourages local agriculture through a CSA, but also on-site energy production and waste recycling through the production of biochar, biogas, and effluent fertilizer. The farm also participates in a weekly farmers market, Farmers on the Square, in downtown Carlisle, PA.
The first time I went to the market, there were only a dozen or so vendors selling vegetables and a few value-added products such as jams and jellies. Now the market spreads across the square in Carlisle and is filled with vendors selling fresh produce and vegetables, as expected, but also bakeries with fresh breads; meaderies; wineries; cheese makers and dairy purveyors. A wander through the market over the years moved from a few fresh food stuffs to a whole diet available for sale without going to a grocery store.
Another example is the 501(c)3 non-profit Hilltop Urban Farm, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The director, Sarah Bexendell, is a permaculture practitioner and brings her knowledge of permaculture and experience in city and urban planning to the work of the farm. Through these actions, Hilltop Urban Farm helps to create youth farms, incubator farm projects, and also reach farmers markets throughout Pittsburgh.
Or, there is City Repair Project, founded by permaculture practitioner and teacher Mark Lakeman (Interview 1, Interview 2). Using the elements of permaculture design CR helps communities reclaim local culture, power, and joy in a way that influences street art and engagement.
These groups, using business funds, governmental money, and institutional influence, have a broader reach for those of us interested in creating greater regenerative approaches with wider cultural impact. Partnering with groups such as these in our own area, serving on boards, and participating in the local community allow us to bring our ethics and principles to the forefront of the conversation.