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what is permaculture?

 
Trailboss
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This word, "permaculture" .... I've been immersed in it for six years? And it seems to have lots of meanings to lots of people and now I'm even starting to hear names attached to get some clarity: "Holzer Permaculture" vs. "Mollison Permaculture" vs. "Homgren Permaculture".

Permaculture certainly embraces a lot of stuff: organic gardening/farming, eco building, community stuff, alternative energy .... a lot of stuff that has to do with a lighter footprint ... a lot of stuff about how one might do things with less effort by working with the environment instead of using brute force.

I've visited a lot of farms and properties that say "we're doing permaculture!" and I'm thinking "No - I'm pretty sure you are not. At least, *I* wouldn't call it permaculture."

So, from a perspective of gardening/farming/growing food: plants that feed plants that feed plants. If you mix things up just right, you get a patch of land growing stuff so that it provides massive heaps of food every year without any irrigation, fertilization, weeding, pest control or any effort other than harvesting.

Of course, when you grow with such diversity, you can no longer harvest with machines. So then comes another aspect of permaculture: you just cut your machinery costs, fertilization costs, irrigation equipment costs, pesticide costs, weeding costs - use those funds for more labor. When running the math, the massive savings turns out to be far greater than the additional labor cost. For most ag endeavors, the cost of fertilizer alone is often 85% of what one would earn for the crop. Plus, the crop diversity often results in having 20 to 40 different crops instead of just one. So fluctuation markets and bad crop years are quite mitigated. Usually, the gross dollars per acre is up by a factor of ten.





 
lowercase baba
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Hey Paul,

the way you describe it here makes it sound like a no-brainer (which i'm sure is your point). But does it scale well up to huge farms - ones with thousands of acres of land?

How much does the manual labor go up? What I mean is are there enough people out there willing to do this work if you ramp up a major farm to do this? What is the environmental impact of adding this many additional workers to a farm? and is the work year round or seasonal?

I freely admit i know NOTHING about gardening, farming, or permaculture, but I do find it intriguing.
 
paul wheaton
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fred rosenberger wrote:Hey Paul,

the way you describe it here makes it sound like a no-brainer (which i'm sure is your point). But does it scale well up to huge farms - ones with thousands of acres of land?



Yes.

Think about it - apple computer started off in a garage with a radical little computer - but does it scale well? It's the same sort of thing.

If we are talking about 10,000 acres, then you would probably have every 500 acres managed by somebody. And within the 500 acres there might be 20 acre parcels that are managed by somebody else.

fred rosenberger wrote:
How much does the manual labor go up? What I mean is are there enough people out there willing to do this work if you ramp up a major farm to do this?



Supply and demand. Right now, these sorts of farms are getting plenty of labor that is willing to work for room, board and a $30 per week stipend.

As I cruise the farmer forums, I find hoards of people working minimum wage (or less) in order to continue living in the country.

Besides - if you want to talk about a scale where 50% of all ag is converted to using this, then doesn't that mean that there is 50% less demand for large equipment, fuel, parts, fertilizer, pesticides and all of the people that make those things possible? Where are those people now gonna work?

fred rosenberger wrote: What is the environmental impact of adding this many additional workers to a farm?



As in poop? Or what?

fred rosenberger wrote: and is the work year round or seasonal?



Yes.



So for 100 acres I would guess six people year round plus a dozen seasonal.


 
Ranch Hand
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paul wheaton wrote:

plants that feed plants that feed plants. If you mix things up just right, you get a patch of land growing stuff so that it provides massive heaps of food every year without any irrigation, fertilization, weeding, pest control or any effort other than harvesting.



Wow, that's pretty cool. Can you give an example of how this accomplishes some of that? Such as zero pest control and irrigation.
 
paul wheaton
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The accurate answer to this question fills volumes of books. For a good intro for folks living in the burbs, I would recommend Gaia's Garden.

Imagine a collection of ten trees. Each tree is a different species.

An apple tree that was grown from seed - so it has a bit of a tap root. A pecan tree with a HUGE tap root. And an oak with a deep tap root. Under the trees there are bushes and lots of smaller plants. Some have deep tap roots.

These deep tap roots do a lot of things for this collection of growies, but at the moment we are talking about irrigation. These plants get plenty of water for themselves. Because of that, they don't need as much surface water - so the other plants can have that.

But, wait! There's more ....

As the taprooted plants have lots of water, they tend to transpire moisture as their leaves "breathe" - so the air aound them gets to be a bit more humid. Some of the other plants can take in some of this humidity from the air, but most wait until that humid air condenses on some cool soil under the leaves of other plants. Or on rocks cooled by the leaves of other plants.

But, wait! There's more ....

Most plants maintain a relationship with fungus in the soil. The fungus breaks down nutrients into a form a plant can consume and the fungus then trades a bit of nutrient with the plant for sugary water. And the same fungus will also trade water for other things from other plants.

But, wait! There's more ....

Lots of trees in an area tends to raise the water table. There are lots and lots of reasons for this ... but the important thing is that when this happens, plants with lessor tap roots, and plants that just have deeper roots, can then reach more water.

Are you starting to get the idea of how all this works? There's lots, lots more to it, but this starts to paint a rough picture.

Pest control: I could write several pages on this, but let me try this quick approach: are there pest problems in old growth forests? Are there pest problems anywhere but in monocrop situations? Nearly all pest problems come from huge tracts of land with just one thing growing on it. The pest that likes to eat corn thinks a field of corn is the most wonderful thing in the world. So the pest has thousands of babies which have thousands of babies. And their food is all right there - they don't even have to look for it.

Now, suppose you have a small patch of corn that is 500 yards away from any other corn. A corn pest is gonna have to work pretty hard to find you. And by the time that pest has babies, you have harvested the corn and moved on. The next year there is no corn growing there, so the babies all die.

Plus, there are some other plants that confuse the pests so they can't find the corn. And there are other plants that attract the things that like to eat the pests.

Plus, a strong, healthy plant does pretty good at protecting itself from pests. And a plant grown in a polyculture (as opposed to a monoculture (monocrop)) isn't competing with with a dozen like plants in the same area all consuming the same stuff and doing the exact same thing. Phrased another way: nearly all plants take a little something and give a little something. Each species does the same thing. So if you have a field full of all the same thing, they are all taking the same thing and they are all giving the same thing. They all have the same sort of root system, so they all compete for the same stuff in the same space.

And on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on .....

 
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