Episode #145: The Failure of Permaculture

Update 2: This thread is still hot several months later, but a more recent episode of the Agroinnovations Podcast summarizes the conversation that has happened since this was published.  Episode #160: The Failure of Permaculture Redux

Update: My response to some of the criticism of this episode is posted here.

Frank Aragona shares several articles that depict small-scale sustainable agriculture as a financial struggle, even for those with abundant capital and land resources.  With story after story of small-scale sustainable producers struggling to make ends meet, he characterizes the permaculture movement as a failure on socio-economic grounds.  Some suggestions for moving forward are offered.  The episode concludes with a brief clip from an interview with Dr. Joe Kovach on the use of bees as microdelivery mechanisms for a biological fungal control agent.  Thanks again to @ajtarnas for the Kovach clip.

Should You Quit Your Job and Become a Farmer? (via Marketwatch)

Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers (via NY Times)

How To Help Small Farmers: A Farmer’s Words



Episode #145: The Failure of Permaculture — 12 Comments

  1. Frank! Thanks for posting this little snippet on Joe Kovach’s bee “microapplicator” experiment. These sorts of ideas really get the gears turning. Here’s the link again:

    I am personally not at all worried about the soundness of “permaculture” or even Rodale-style “organic” agriculture. Even in our highly skewed “capitalist” nation, with all its money sloshing around so unevenly, there are tens of thousands who are on average doing just fine by working land for cash. Perhaps the median farm income is in fact a loss, though such a broad numerical distillation is basically meaningless. It’s probably true that the median American income regardless of profession is also a loss, considering America’s penchant for debt of every kind. Most people can’t manage a credit card — why should we expect them to manage a perennial polyculture?

    There is room for complaint in any business, but I’m not particularly moved by case studies of rich hobby farmers; or Bren Smith’s musings in the absence of numerical evidence; or suspicion of Salatin, who has at least attempted to publish quantiative evidence of his achievements. I still trust that Salatin, Seis, Coleman, and others like them had spouses and children and made a decent living before their writing and speaking days.

    We shouldn’t forget that permaculture started as both a scientific insight and a social discipline: (1) perennial polyculture, and (2) guerilla economics. I think you are craving some more guerilla economics — the PDCs that Bill Mollison taught in the 1980s were 25% gardening and 75% business, and the books that Salatin wrote in the 1990s are equally focused on making a living from biological processes. As in all things, the information is out there, there are plenty of success stories, but people will by the millions and billions continue bumbling along in ignorance at their own peril. (I’m including myself here, bumbling headlong into poverty depite access to knowledge and tools.)

    While (1) and (2) give us non-polluting wealth-creating infrastructure, what Mollison certainly did not achieve, and what we’re still waiting for and working towards, is (3) viral, mimetic spread of that infrastructure. Waste of every kind continues to pile up around the world — both the festering pollution and the ripe opportunity of it all await us each day, if only we had the sense to harvest it. My money (and labor time) is invested in seeing material technology apprehend this raw planetary feedstock, while others surely have the creativity to develop clever social and legal machinery for the same purpose.

  2. I’m not particularly worried either. But I think you are missing a bit of what I am saying. If permaculture is going bumble along on the margins of society, amongst the hippies, misfits, and preppers, that is fine with me. But it seems like a missed opportunity. If people want it to provide a more substantial portion of our food supply, then they need an economy of scale that makes sense. This will NEVER happen with the lone crusader on a mission. We need permaculture Mondragons to start springing up and experimenting. Only then can permaculture cover signicant acreage, create a viable living for its workers, and have an impact on the environmental degradation we see all around us. Will it happen? Maybe. It should, it needs to. We’ll see.

  3. Can’t disagree with you there, it would be a major missed opportunity. Do you see any cooperatives or non-competitive social arrangements that pay their own way? Bren Smith refers to prior eras of agrarian solidarity… did those movements really create lasting structures of self support?

    I suppose Transition Town is as close as we have to a slow food, slow money “Mondragon”; Mark Shepard as close as we have to replacing commodity annuals with perennials; David Blume for the whole chemical polyculture of landscape. Not cutting it! We need roaming troops of a dozen specialists (forester, fish farmer, mycologist, geologist, chemist, engineer, mechanic, lawyer, accountant, merchant banker, business people of all kinds) to move from town to town and set up little Transition depots that start out paying a few annual incomes from available waste, and can grow from there in each local place. It would be nice if ag extension or small business development offices or universities provided this state-funded nexus of knowledge and finance, as they did 1930s-1950s in the US or up through the 1970s in Australia — but now you have to pull teeth with each specialist to get where you need to go.

    (Mondragon… so ironic that they localized everything BUT primary production from land and sea.)

    We’re getting close to technology that would do most of this work — black boxes with known inputs that produce known outputs of higher value.


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  6. First things first: as a farmer, you need to feed your family and animals first. If you buy food and feed at retail prices, you are already losing.

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  11. Thanks Frank, Great Podcast! And some great conversation started here in the comments. I particularly like the concept brought up by A.J. of roaming troops of specialists setting up transition depots.

  12. The heading (The Failure of Permaculture) is somewhat misleading, as is the metrics by which a failure is determined. Every time a permie (or other) satisfies a need themselves, outside of the market system, that could (should) be deemed a success, and it undermines (in small steps) the economic system that is creating the mess we live in. For permaculture to be entirely successful in the current economic system would probably require jettisoning some aspects of permaculture (esp some aspects of the both ethics and principles). Scaling up (or economies of scale) is not the only answer. Small farmers continue to be the major food producers in the world – a fact that is missed entirely in the comments so far – and do so, in large part, outside of the formal economy, and with a proportionately smaller area of land. It’s reform of the corporate dominated economy that could lead to revival of small productive farms. The idea that we need to replicate the current food system with (large scale) profitable “permaculture farms” is both naive and dangerous. This is not to say that we can’t have larger permaculture-inspired farms that produce perennial staples. The comment that permaculture is “bumbl(ing) along on the margins of society, amongst the hippies, misfits, and preppers, … is fine with me”. That’s such a loose and derogatory comment – I certainly don’t fit into any of those descriptors, and most permies I know don’t either.

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