Episode #160: The Failure of Permaculture Redux

Frank once again dives into the morass of Agroinnovations Episode #145 addressing a listener’s comment through a series of clips from recent podcast episodes featuring Simon Huntley, Narendra Varma, David Holmgren, Darren Doherty, and Tom Giessel.  Frank reiterates his argument that permaculture isn’t failing as an agroecological design science, nor are permaculturalists failures.  As my guests explain, permaculture’s shortcomings have much more to do with our cultural worldview and our socioeconomic circumstances.  They also offer numerous examples and case studies that point us in the direction of a new, cooperative model where common land use rights are interwoven into the social and ecological landscape, and different people with different skill sets can collaborate and innovate together on a shared landscape.


Episode #160: The Failure of Permaculture Redux — 6 Comments

  1. Frank,

    I appreciate your effort in talking about this issue in such a depth.

    I haven’t listened to all of your post 145 podcast but I will try to summarize what you’re saying and please correct me if I’m wrong.

    1.Permaculture as a movement is failing because there’s a lot of scaling up to be done (economies of scale)
    2.People in the western world just have to own land before committing to improving it and reinvesting profits, however it’s becoming increasingly hard for people to acquire the land
    3.Somewhere in the past movement was on the right track with intentional communities but individualism has prevailed and with it, scattered and isolated individual farm.
    4.Those Individual permaculture farms can’t compete with conventional agriculture because they don’t have the scale to do it.
    4. Successful and profitable model for scaling up already exists – cooperatives. They offer the economies of scale and opportunity for people to get access to land.

  2. Yes William I think you summarize it well. And there is sufficient evidence to indicate that many, many of these isolated individual farms are struggling mightily to make a financial go of it. I’ve offered many examples of this, and just scan around the Internet for the romanticized articles about young farmers getting started. Or listen to my interview with Narendra Varma. He says two things: most agricultural startups fail at a higher rate than other types of startups, and that most of the very successful farmers in his region were more than willing to sign on to his operation for the promise of a modest, steady wage. Nobody tries to start a factory with just a nuclear family as the labor supply, that seems absurd at its face. So why do we not apply the same logic to farming? In fact, farming is much more complex than manufacturing, because we are dealing with biological systems. This is the logic behind monoculture: simplify farming, make it like a factory, and replace human labor with machines. Increasingly, the goal will be to replace what little human labor is left on the farm with robots, much like what has happened in many manufacturing sub-sectors.

    So if sustainable farming is truly promising a different future, it MUST be able to produce substantial amounts of food AT SCALE. I don’t really care anymore that it can produce for a family or a small community. I think that has been a valuable and wortwhile demonstration and experiment, and is has generated a lot of useful knowledge. But if that knowledge doesn’t get transferred? If it doesn’t get scaled up? It becomes one the biggest missed opportunities in our lifetimes. In fact, it is looking like almost a certainty we will fail to scale. So much so that the topic itself is almost becoming a bore. Maybe we should start learning robotics. 😉

  3. Frank, I do believe that we are going into highly robotized agricultural future and that is one of the trends outlined in Global Trends 2030 Report (http://www.dni.gov/files/documents/GlobalTrends_2030.pdf ). The only thing that could prevent this is energy descent scenario.

    From what you are talking about (scaling and cooperating) I find that Mark Shepard tackles both. He is on 100 acre scale and member of local cooperative. Maybe you could interview him as a model of what we should be doing.

    Ok, so you pointed out the biggest problem that we have and the solution to that. Even if this posts gets click-fested it won’t change anything. Most of the people who are into permaculture aren’t even farming.

    Even if this spreads virally we are still marketing to a very narrow group of people, ethnically and culturally.

    What are your thoughts on this?

  4. Frank has done an interview with Mark Shepard. Based on his books, videos, and anecdotal evidence from two friends who’ve worked for him, he is probably not a good example of cooperative farming that solves the social issues. He’s much more in the mold of the independent, pioneer, one-man-farm spirit and he lives in a part of the country (western Wisconsin) where land is relatively cheap (well under $5k/acre) and far from urban markets, and households are relatively far apart.

    Perhaps his most important insight is that monocrop annuals are currently grown as “food science” chemical feedstocks, and that perennials can be swapped in as lower-input, higher-yield sources of those same commodity components (starches, sugars, fats/oils, etc). If corn and soy and oilseed farmers grew chestnut and hazelnut and honey locust, they could produce a roughly equivalent commodity feedstock. This commodity polyculture would be better than commodity monoculture in many ways, but it would still imply mechanized farming in a depopulated rural landscape.

  5. It is an intractable problem in a lot of ways. The farming heartlands of the country are ecological wastelands in so many ways. In the Fall of 2013 I was in Wisconsin, where GMO corn is just everywhere. But the ecological wasteland, as is so often the case, is a veritable gold mine for the farmers who are living through this capital intensive era that has become a bubble-sized boom for commodity producers. I’m not sure why Darren Doherty asserts that commodity producers have their backs to the wall…most of what I have seen is the big guys are becoming millionaires. Of course, it is the medium-sized guys in the middle who are squeezed tight, and naturally the permaculturalists who do practice agriculture are often at the bottom of the food chain, eeking out a living on a few acres to prove a point or live an ideal. So what incentive does a big corn producer have to adopt permaculture? Because it’s the right thing to do? This is America, dammit! Where money talks and good intentions are for suckers.

    Tom Giessel said in my interview with him that the big farms are going to go away, but the land will remain. What does his base this assertion on? As far as I can tell, wishful thinking. The big farms will get bigger. The medium-sized guys will grow old and sell their farms to bigger farms or ex-urban developers. I think permaculture is great too, but is it changing the landscape of our country or our world? Who can deny that the answer is no? More troubling still, people are actually in some form of denial about this assertion. Why people nitpick around the edges of this argument instead of accepting the reality and offering constructive ideas to address it is beyond me.

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