Sunday, March 29, 2009
Friday, March 27, 2009
I'm off to the Permaculture Design Certificate Course in Molokai tomorrow. Blog updates will probably be infrequent for the next couple of weeks, but stay tuned on twitter.
You've probably heard that each calorie of food we eat takes more than one of fossil fuel calorie*:
All together the food-processing industry in the United States uses about ten calories of fossil-fuel energy for every calorie of food energy it produces. ... It takes thirty-five calories of fossil fuel to make a calorie of beef this way; sixty-eight to make one calorie of pork. - The Oil We Eat, Harper's MagazineThe following is from Table 1.1 in The Natural Way of Farming.
|Farming Method||(Energy Output)/(Energy Input)|
|Large scale mechanized agriculture (ca. 1980)||2|
|Medium scale mechanized agriculture (ca. 1970)||4|
|Small scale mechanized agriculture (ca. 1960)||10|
|Farming with animals (ca. 1950)||20|
Now watch the presentation below by Saul Griffith about the components of our energy use, and the changes we need to make (including reduction in energy consumption and ramping up clean energy production) in the next 25 years to have any chance of controlling global warming. (If you're in a rush, skip the first 10 minutes or so to the -18.45 mark.)
It's pretty clear that highly mechanized industrial farming can not be a part of any long term scenario.
* See here and here for more in-depth discussion.
It's unbelievable that I have managed to not discuss guilds, the quintessential permaculture concept, for so long on this blog! We have discussed them indirectly by considering beneficial interdependence, sunlight harvesting, and complex systems with multifunctional components. But, without any more delay:
Simply put, a guild is a combination of plants and animals, where each plant or animal performs one or more beneficial functions. As these plants and animals are selected to fulfill each others' requirements, the system becomes almost entirely self-managing, requiring no external inputs and very little labor apart from harvesting.
I've found a couple of very well written descriptions of guilds, so let me just quote from them -
Stacia and Kristof Nordin of NeverendingFood write:
A good Permaculture guild generally has seven components:Read their full description here.
- Food for us
- Food for the soil
- Ground Cover
Meg Howe and Graeme Young of Small Farm Permaculture and Sustainable Living describe guilds as:
A guild in Permaculture landscape design is a harmonious assembly of species (plant or animal) physically associated with a central plant or animal species to provide it with some benefit.Read their full description here.
The range of benefits that can be derived from guild species include:
- Providing mulch
- Offering shelter and protection from frost, wind or sun
- Hosting predators
- Remove pest habitat
- Prey on or deter pests
- Killing root parasites or pests
- Providing nutrients
- Facilitating root penetration
Masanobu Fukuoka, in 'The Road Back to Nature':
I don't plow my fields, but I do sow clover. This is the easiest way there is to grow rice. With the arrival of spring, the clover grows thick and fast. I sow rice seed in this clover and later flood my field to weaken the clover and favor the rice. Then I drain the water and leave the field to itself.
A week or two before harvesting the rice, I take anywhere from about four to ten quarts of barley seed, place it in a basket, and scatter it over the field. This also takes about an hour. After the rice is harvested and threshed, I scatter the straw back over the field.
The straw and clover do more for the fertility of the soil than large tractors. So this is certainly not a primitive method of farming from the past. It may seem primitive if all you pay attention is the the word "no-till," but it is in fact a biological method of farming that uses plants and animals rather than heavy machinery. If you think of this as a means for raising soil fertility using microbes, as cultivation with plant roots, then it becomes the most advanced science.(p217 and p223, 1987, Japan Publications Inc, New York*)
The goal of sustainable farming is not to farm in a primitive manner and be satisfied with low yields, but rather to get the highest possible yields with lowest energy and effort input, and to improve the local natural resources at the same time. To do this, we need to use natural components to create the most stable, productive, self managing systems and then avoid interfering with the natural processes.
* I will post an overview of 'The Road Back to Nature' soon. The excerpt above is quite atypical for the book, which, while certainly worth reading, primarily examines the philosophy of farming and modern lifestyles in Japan and Europe and America (with a healthy dose of 'get-off-my-lawn'!). Fukuoka's 'The Natural Way of Farming' is the one that has detailed information on natural farming techniques.
Also, when Fukuoka speaks of 'sowing' he means just scattering seeds on the field, rather than drilling them in the ground. The rice is also not transplanted from growing beds.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems With Ecosystems is written by a group of professional farmers, journalist, ecologist and biologists, most of them from the mid-western United States. This is somewhat surprising, since this area is the "corn belt" of America, with vast monoculture plantations of corn and soy-beans, factory farmed animals, and little else. Even most environmentalist consider this area an environmental sacrificial zone, since these vast monocultures are purportedly critical for "feeding the world".
The Farm as Natural Habitat critically examines this status-quo from various angles, and gives numerous examples of eco-friendly and sustainable farming operations in the corn belt that conserve the local land, improve water quality and wildlife habitat, and are highly profitable. Not all of these farms are completely organic, and since they are on the order of hundreds of acres, most of them use machinery to some extent.
The book covers the issue of protecting and promoting biodiversity on farms in four parts:
- Agriculture as Ecological Sacrifice
- Restoring Nature on Farms
- Ecosystem Management and Farmlands
- Steps Towards Agroecological Restoration
- We should conserve biodiversity not just due to ethical and aesthetic reasons, but also because the natural ecology of an area provides us with tremendous value in natural resources that can not be replaced artificially at any cost once the ecosystems are damaged.
- While the sacrifice is made in the name of "feeding the world", in reality, about 80% of the grain produced is used as animal feed benefiting only the first world. In fact, world hunger has consistently worsened despite increasing monoculture in the corn belt.
- And of course, there are numerous catastrophic effects on human health and on the environment due to the industrial approach to agriculture and the associated diet and lifestyle.
The book is written for the lay-person, and most of the data is presented in terms of direct examples, but at the end of each chapter there are a large number of references to books, academic and policy publications, etc. Certainly worth reading for anyone interested in the future of agriculture in the coming low carbon economy.
Monday, March 23, 2009
D V Sridharan is one of modern India's heroes. A retired merchant navy officer, Mr. Sridharan started the website GoodNewsIndia.com in 2000, reporting on numerous grass roots efforts in India. Having covered a wide variety of philanthropic projects, he came to this interesting realization:
My stories were about two broad types. One set of projects was conceived from the beginning to become self-sustaining, which I shall call SS-projects. Holistic land based, environmentally sound projects were of this type. The other type usually served a humanitarian need and required steady inflow of funds. As they seemed to constantly fight a fire instead of ever able to douse it, I shall call them fire fighting or FF-projects. Orphanages, special education centres and gender issues are typical FF-projects.By 2006 Mr. Sridharan decided that he needed to do more than just report on good efforts. This resulted in the beginning of project pointReturn to regenerate a "waste-land" and establish a self reliant community on it. He soon started posting regular updates about the logistics of pointReturn. The whole saga is definitely worth reading for anyone who is considering landscape restoration projects.
...SS-projects were almost always rooted in caring for resources like water and soil. FF-projects were invariably funded by foreign donors; the corollary being, Indians are not very forthcoming in supporting charitable initiatives. Several of the FF-projects became addicted to seeking money and became notoriously unprofessional in terms of accounting for the funds received and the manner of their use.
Along with describing the logistics, Mr. Sridharan continues to write insightful observations and commentary, for example in the articles India, browning, Gandhigram, an interlude, and A spell of inaction.
From 'A spell of inaction':
Deep in its collective heart, India’s political establishment believes rapid industrialisation is the goal to aim for; that an open door trade and investment policy in every economic activity is the way to get there; that income inequalities will be evened out by prosperity trickling down; that the numerous special economic zones created, -often on agricultural lands- will generate jobs and sustained properity; that India in the long run must come to have no more than 5% of its population in agriculture and that until that ideal balance comes about the only thing to do is to manage the inevitable social churning. Policy makers’ further tenets are that unending supply of industrial grade power must be assured for high standards of living; that such a living will create demand for products and services to keep the economy growing; that rising world trade will make all products available everywhere; that all food can be grown by mechanisation and engineered crops or freely imported from global markets;that the environmental costs of modern production processes are inevitable, over estimated and in any case, can be ‘fixed’ with the surpluses that a booming economy will produce.
The urban world is formally well informed about inflation, climate change, stock and commodity exchanges,the nation’s budget, recession etc but it can escape the negative effects of these in the shorter term because of the cash in its pockets. Rural India on the other hand, has no formal knowledge of these but directly experiences them- consequences of unseasonal rains and rising costs of farm inputs for instance hit them almost immediately. The remaining question is whether rural India can survive these in the longer term. The answer would be yes, for it is closer to the neglected earth. But the yes is a qualified one. The malign neglect of farming must stop, convictions must grow that natural farming -as against chemical farming- can be profitable.
One of the major costs in conventional farming is the continuous manual or mechanical work required. In sustainable farming practices any unnecessary activity is consciously designed out. We've already seen how the functions of tilling and pest control are achieved by employing natural services, and how features of the land are employed to minimize labour and energy requirements.
In permaculture design, the zone system is used to minimize the effort required in managing and harvesting the farm.
On a sustainable farm with a lot of different plants and animals, some need more frequent attention and harvesting than others. These should be placed closer to the home to make it easier to visit them. Zones are a way of guiding this layout scheme:
|Zone||Purpose||Need for Activity|
|1||Leafy vegetables, herbs, strawberries, plant nursery, work area||Multiple times a day|
|2||Smaller fruit trees, fruit vegetables, beehives, chickens, compost bin||Once a day|
|3||Main crop for domestic consumption and sale, food forest||Once a week|
|4||Semi-wild foraging zone with large trees, mushrooms, firewood, grazing animals||Once a week|
|5||Protected natural area/wilderness for observation and learning only||Never|
Saturday, March 21, 2009
After playing with the text on this blog for a long time on wordle.net, and with a lot of help from my wife, I created this word cloud about sustainable farming. I did go a little crazy with the colors, and the results are available for you to enjoy on Flickr. I'll be happy to send you higher resolution images - in any color combination you want - just drop me a line. (The original sizes are not available for download on Flickr because I don't have a Pro account there.)
Of course, the logical next step would be to put this on a T-shirt! Now you can support a great cause, and look great doing it! :)
In about a month, I will be traveling to India to set up sustainable farming demonstration and training centers, and to visit and document the methods currently used on successful sustainable farms there. This will be my full time occupation for at least the next year or so, and is currently almost entirely self financed.
There are a number of ways you can contribute to this project:
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Having talked the talk for the past month on this blog (and for longer elsewhere), I have decided to now walk the walk. One of the important things I discovered while trying to get people in India excited about sustainable farming practices was that there was a lack of awareness about the many examples of successful use of these methods in India, and hesitation to change practices due to this lack of awareness.
So I have decided to go to India for a while to -
- survey and document current sustainable agriculture practices adapted for Indian environments.
- popularize the need for wide adoption of these sustainable agriculture.
- establish one or more demonstration and training centers in Maharashtra.
- visiting as many sustainable/natural/organic farms in India as possible, particularly in and around Maharashtra.
- learning about current training and popularization programs.
- work with a few rural development organizations to augment their current programs with sustainable farming practices.
(Since this project is going to be self financed, I'm especially looking for suggestions about raising funds for this project, including fellowships, sponsorships etc.)
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
One of the few bits of knowledge I will remember forever from when I was studying to be a metallurgist* can be summarized** as:
The action is always at the interfaces.The interfaces, or edges, between two different systems are an extremely important concept when setting up a sustainable agricultural system too. Due to the sudden change in system properties, interfaces are highly active zones, with energy and materials continuously in flux. Life takes advantage of these energy and material exchanges, and thrives far more easily at these discontinuities than in the more homogenous interior of an area. For example, the most biodiverse and productive sites in an ocean are near the shores as well as where cold and warm ocean currents meet. Comparatively, the open ocean is akin to the Sahara desert in terms of biodiversity and productivity.
In permaculture design, increasing the amount of edges is an important tool for maximizing the productivity of a farm. Specifically, ponds are designed with an irregular shape (as opposed to circular) to maximize the water's edge. Wooded and grassland areas are intermingled. Of course, since the biodiversity is high in any area, there are a lot of micro-interfaces where different organisms interact. All of this improves the resource efficiency and productivity of the designed ecosystem.
The corollary is reducing the interface area when you want to minimize material use and energy exchange. For example, spherical structures have the least surface areas for a given volume, and are thus the most energy efficient for heating and cooling***.
The edge effect isn't limited to the physical phenomenon**** - the most innovative scientific research happens in interdisciplinary fields (and of course, at the boundary between knowledge and ignorance). Some of the most interesting art and music and literature happens where two different cultures or ideologies meet.
So here's to the fringes. They make the world more exciting and productive!
* 1998-2002. Feels like lifetimes ago!
** For those who want a fuller explanation: The things we use every day (alloys, composites, etc) are made of different combinations of elements and compounds. In metals and alloys, the functional units of the material are crystallites (or grains). A huge fraction of the properties of the material (strength, ductility, conductivity, thermal properties) is attributable to the microstructure, and specificlly the grain boundaries. These discontinuities in the material are high energy sites, and influence the behavior of the material tremendously. Almost all of the thermal and mechanical treatments affect the properties of materials by increasing or decreasing the size, shape, distribution, and energy of the grain boundaries.
Control over the microstructure and boundaries is also very important for controlling the properties of polymers, ceramics, semiconductors and composites.
*** I also remember reading that ancient human dwellings progressed from round to rectangular as prosperity increased, and reverted to round shapes in times of prolonged scarcity. Can't find any references right now. Anyone?
**** Also read the post Some Thoughts on Edge on the Permaculture Reflections blog.
Friday, March 13, 2009
The conventionally preferred farmland is a flat piece of land that has easy access to water and is free of large rocks and boulders. Any variations in a landscape are often removed at great expense to reach this ideal. This is of course due to our preference for using animals and machines for doing the work, and growing single crops over large areas.
In fact, the variations in a landscape are a great asset for creating a rich, productive environment.
In a natural landscape, the variations and gradients in topography, orientation, soil structure, and mineral concentration create a variety of niches where different organisms thrive. Combined with natural cycles (seasons, day and night), these gradients give rise to energy and material fluxes through the landscape. These fluxes further specialize the niches, creating the right conditions for a diverse ecosystem. As we know, biodiversity is at the heart of creating a stable, efficient and productive ecosystem.
In permaculture, these gradients, cycles and patterns are observed and utilized for maximizing biodiversity and for situating plants, buildings, and other structures at the appropriate locations.
Water, often the limiting resource in an ecosystem, is a good example. We already saw how swales and ponds are a good tool for rejuvenating a landscape. They are especially important in Asia and Africa, where highly seasonal rainfall and temperature variations often lead to a marked dry season. Swales and ponds built on a natural slope harvest water with only small changes in the landscape, and make the rainwater available more uniformly through the year. By locating them properly, ponds can also reflect light towards plants, improve humidity, and make the local climate more moderate. Furthermore, swales and ponds create more niches in the landscape by introducing a water content gradient - water, water's edge and moisture gradients in the soil. Once you locate the plants according to their water needs, you don't need to waste energy on irrigation.
Similarly, by studying the patterns of wind, sunlight and natural animal movement, a permaculture site can be optimized to make it not only more productive, but also more habitable for humans, plants, and animals. With all these possibilities, why would you want a featureless land for a farm?
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
One of the major differences in conventional agriculture and natural ecosystems is in the number and complexity of components. Conventional agriculture is a fairly simple and linear system with very few components and pathways. In contrast, natural ecosystems are highly complex with hundreds, if not thousands of active components (microbes, insects, plants, animals) as well as numerous pathways through the system for energy and materials.
The needs of each component in a natural ecosystem are fulfilled by the outputs of multiple components, and in return, each provides multiple useful inputs for others. Furthermore, each need can often be fulfilled through multiple pathways. These needs are not only material requirements like nutrients and water, but also environmental requirements, like the right amount of sunlight, humidity, pest control, pollination and physical support.
This complexity has two direct benefits -
- Since everything is useful for something else, there is no 'waste' in the system, increasing energy and resource use efficiency.
- Due to multiple pathways for fulfilling each need, removal of a few components does not debilitate the system.
In permaculture, such complexity is intentionally designed into the system, creating a "food forest" with as many as 500-600 plant species, a few domesticated animal species, and attracting a large number of beneficial wild insects and birds. With this approach, a permaculture farm can produce an abundance of food practically throughout the year, without any chemical or mechanical inputs, and requiring far less labor than a conventional farm.
We need to shift our point of view significantly to realize how this is possible - we know that managing a farm with five plant species takes work. Managing a farm with fifty productive plant species will probably take even more work. What is perhaps a little un-obvious is that a farm with hundreds of plant species, a number of animal, and numerous insect and bird species can be completely self regulating and self sufficient, provided the components are chosen well to work together with each other and the local climate and landscape:
On a related note, the BBC series 'Natural World' recently showed the documentary A Farm for the Future, produced by wildlife film maker Rebecca Hosking:
Realising that all food production in the UK is completely dependent on abundant cheap fossil fuel, particularly oil, [Rebecca] sets out to discover just how secure this oil supply is.If you're in the UK, you can watch this program on the internet. Otherwise, it may be available on your local BBC channel.
Alarmed by the answers, she explores ways of farming without using fossil fuel. With the help of pioneering farmers and growers, Rebecca learns that it is actually nature that holds the key to farming in a low-energy future.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
The US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, in an interview with NPR:
Vilsack: You can foresee a future where farmers are paid for reducing our carbon footprint, much in the same way we're currently paying them for conservation. We're concerned about water quality, we're concerned about preserving the soil, and so we're willing to pay people to do things on their land that would be helpful not just to them but to us.Listen to the entire interview here.
Q: Are you saying you would want maybe someday to pay farmers for doing fertilizer-free farming, or for putting up a windmill that generates electricity in a renewable way, that sort of thing?
Vilsack: Well, there are a whole host of things, but I think it will be tied to the whole notion of offsets .... [there might be a] central distribution system that basically sells these offsets and contracts with the farmers... eventually the farmer gets benefited for doing what is right for the country as a whole and for the globe as a whole, which is to reduce the carbon footprint.
Monday, March 9, 2009
In the last three posts, we saw that the major goal of permaculture (as well as natural farming and other sustainable land use practices) is to create a highly efficient and productive ecosystem by utilizing sunlight, land, and rainfall* to the maximum extent possible. The techniques of permaculture, like swales-and-ponds, mulching, or creating a 'layered' food forest, are derived from a few underlying themes.
Once we understand these themes, it is easy to design own low input highly productive systems, even in small urban spaces:
Designing the system with beneficially interdependent components is a major themes underlying permaculture design. This applies not only to interdependence between biological components (plant guilds, plants and bees, or plants and birds), but also to biological and nonbiological components. For example, plants grown on swales reduce erosion of the swale and in return get a dependable source of water.
The other important interdependence, of course, is between the human and natural components of the land. This includes using the waste products of human activities as feed/mulch/compost/manure for the the natural systems, and in return getting a better harvest from the plants and animals.
It is also important to reduce harmful relationships in the ecosystem. This includes increasing the distance between plants that may hurt each other chemically or physically, situating non-biological and biological components to minimize harmful effects of temperature and humidity, etc.
* I should mention maximum utilization of air too! Apart from water, practically all the biomass on the land is the carbon and nitrogen captured from air.
Friday, March 6, 2009
Contrast this with a natural forest, where there are multiple species of plants, each growing to a different height, and adapted to thrive in different intensities of sunlight. As a result, the ground in a mature forest is almost completely dark.
Permaculture design aim to replicate this phenomenon as much as possible on a farm, by creating a 'layered' system. The maximum harvesting of sunlight increases the total yield of the land. Considering that plants are the best solar harvesters we have till date, and that they provide a lot of indirect services along with the food or material harvested, it is imperative that we start employing solar intensive permaculture practices everywhere.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
One of the major problems facing small and subsistence farmers is the quality of the land. The 'prime' agricultural land - large stretches of level ground with easy access to water - is already in the hands of larger and usually more financially capable farmers. Conversely, the poorest farmers cultivate marginal lands that have lower soil quality, that are often on hill slopes, and have rainfall as the only source of irrigation. Slash and burn agriculture is also often practiced on such marginal land, leading to a whole host of undesirable consequences.
However, most of the productivity of an ecosystem comes from the interactions of it's living components. This is especially true in tropical areas, where the temperature allows things to grow throughout the year. In a permaculture system, everything uses the outputs of something else. Nutrients are naturally integrated and then fully retained in the system. Over time, the inorganic soil serves primarily as a substrate, and all the necessary nutrients are obtained from the naturally composted biological matter on the top.
These beneficial interactions in a complex ecosystem, combined with small earthworks (swales and ponds) can convert any piece of land into a sustainable, productive, and profitable farm. The key is to plan a rich ecosystem that works with the layout of the land, and generates a harvest that satisfies the needs of the occupants.
An added bonus is that permaculture and natural farming practices work best without mechanization and do not require plowing. This is particularly beneficial for small farmers, who often go into debt to borrow farm machinary or even plow animals.
Here is an example of how seemingly barren land can be converted to a productive farm using permaculture principles:
As you can see, the knowledge of bringing barren lands back into production has been available for the past three decades. Unfortunately, the education and implementation has tremendously lagged behind the needs of subsistence farmers everywhere.
Monday, March 2, 2009
With this post, I am starting a series to explore the various aspects of sustainable land use. I still have a lot to learn, but a number of basic principles are becoming clear to me. In this series I plan to discuss the basic aspects of these interrelated concepts. I will discuss the complexities (and corrections!) in future posts.
The goal of sustainable land management should be to create a habitable system that
- has very low running costs and labor requirements,
- provides for most of the needs of the people dependent on it,
- generates a substantial profit.
Projected water shortage in the year 2050.
Most urban water harvesting schemes (rooftop collection and storage in dedicated reservoirs), though laudable, are expensive in the short term and neither sufficient nor sustainable in the long run.
To fully utilize the rainfall on a piece of land, it is necessary to
- minimize water runoff
- increase top soil moisture content and productive surface water
- replenish deep underground water reservoirs
The false sense of water security of these techniques spurred wasteful water use and indiscriminate water pollution. Conversely, the impending scarcity has brought us to the point where even the availability of water as a free resource is now under serious debate (even 007 himself got involved! ;).
In light of this evidence, probably the most effective (and cost effective) method is to implement water catchment and groundwater replenishment on the small scale. There are many ancient techniques to learn from and improve upon, but one of the simplest and most cost effective method is creating swales (also known as contour bunding).
Swales are simply long and shallow trenches dug on contour in a sloping landscape, with the dug out material piled on the lower end. This creates a barrier and reservoir for the water flowing down the slope. The water pooled in the trench slowly seeps into the ground, and also provides a stable source of water for plants planted on the mound. Especially in regions where rainfall is highly seasonal and/or irregular, swales are a very powerful way of slowing down the water so that it is available more uniformly throughout the year.
Due to their low cost and effectiveness, swales are an excellent way of beginning a permaculture food forest. These simple water features can be complemented by small interconnected ponds that hold water, percolate it slowly to replenish groundwater, and act as more sites for food production. This method also get rid of the false dichotomy of distinguishing between a 'catchment area' and a 'cultivation area', instead utilizing the available land for maximum productivity.
An excellent example of this approach is Sepp Holzer's* forty hectare mountainside farm in Austria that contains many productive ponds, as well as orchards and vegetable areas:
Do you know anyone that has a small farm or unproductive piece of land? Please tell them about this method of bringing the land back to maximum productivity with minimal investment. With the 3 billion new people joining us on the planet in the next forty years, the only way to for everyone to survive peacefully is to bring all the land back to high productivity without any resource depletion or pollution.
*You can also buy a DVD with three films about the various approaches Sepp Holzers has developed on his farm.