Beyond Organic Farming To “Permaculture”

Introduction or Why This Post

In the name of convenience and our razor fast lifestyles, many have come to identify our food sources as prepared food from either grocery stores or restaurants. Well, with the exception of a handful of upscale restaurants that grow their own organic produce, they’re wrong.

Behind the scenes of all the pretty prepared foods packaging is an agricultural system that many criticize and label as non-sustainable.

Whole Foods and other upscale food marketers have taught us the value of organics. But organic farming is just one piece of the sustainability puzzle. I wasn’t satisfied with just a puzzle piece; I wanted the whole picture. Just how the heck do we plan on feeding the worlds bludgeoning population and maintain environment and a balanced eco system? So I asked someone with a passion for food and farming; someone I truly respect and someone with an understanding of “what might be” — Maxwell Davenport.

Beyond Organic Farming To “Permaculture"About Maxwell DavenportMaxwell Davenport has had a life-long love relationship with food including jobs at several of Atlanta’s fine restaurants. He studied anthropology at Georgia State University. Max will start as a full time organic farmer near Decatur GA beginning 2015. His goal is to develop a working permaculture model to be shared with educators, students and interested citizens. With more enthusiasts like Max, I have faith our future is in good hands.

Donna: Max, I don’t want to write this article from a negative perspective, so let’s just get this part out of the way. What’s the risk with continuing our current methods of big agri-business?

Max: The current systems were designed post World War II to keep up with population growth, identify business efficiencies and increase profits as large corporate farms replaced the family farm. Single crop farming is in discord with nature. If you observe nature  you will not find thousands of acres of a single crop, like corn or wheat for example.  Given its own devices, nature produces forest with diversification of trees, plants, shrubs and ground cover. But man-made chemicals and managed agriculture keep these single crop systems going. There will be a price to pay down the road. Maybe it will be our grandchildren that pay the price. But the lack of sustainability will require a price to be paid sooner or later.

Donna: OK then, let’s shift to the positive. Let’s shift to solutions. Tell me about permaculture and why it’s your passion?

Max: Permaculture works with natural cycles; not against them. To get academic for a moment, Australia’s researcher and scientist Bill Mollison coined the term permaculture in 1978:

“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”

Bill is saying that if we work with natural cycles and diversified plant and animal life, we can develop systems that are aligned with nature. A diversified array of trees, plants and shrubs replace the current system of single crop agriculture. And the bonus is that after the front end work of design and implementation is complete, there is a lot less human labor and resources required.

Here are a couple of practical examples. Annual plants, like tomatoes, lettuce & squash,  grow for a season and that’s it. There is a lot of labor and resources used in planting and replanting. On the other hand, perennial plants such as asparagus, fruit trees, blueberry bushes and nuts trees will naturally regenerate each year with minimum labor.  That does not mean we stop producing annuals, but farmers might shift their product mix to include more perennials.

The answer is in balance.

Water management is an important part of permaculture. Gravity pulls water downhill but with trench irrigation, water is conserved and land that might otherwise not be productive can be worked. Trench irrigation does not allow water to run off the hill or evaporate. Water naturally falls into the trench and if the correct perennials are planted in the trenches, the trench provides a second function beyond water management. That’s one principle of permaculture. Multiple function systems create natural efficiencies.

Beyond Organic Farming To “Permaculture"

Donna: If we go back in history, is there a single permaculture system that would be your favorite example?

Max: Yes, there are good examples all over the world, but I like to use Hawaii and volcano permaculture. The top of the mountain around the volcano was considered sacred and there was no activity there. The next tier was a diverse forest including canopy trees, under layer trees, shrubs, ground cover, tree roots and root plants like tubers (potatoes) then climbers like vines and runner beans. Water was controlled at these levels to allow a flow to the next tier which was dug out ponds for aqua culture like our modern day shrimp and salmon farms. The last tier included a shoreline fishery with a narrow opening to the sea to allow fish to be efficiently caught. Now that’s truly an integrated system. There must have been a lot of hard work to establish it, but once in place, it took very little labor to maintain.

Donna: Last question Max. These systems were successful hundreds of years ago when population growth was not so intense. Is permaculture practical in the world we know today? Can permaculture systems feed our growing population?

Max: Yes, I believe it can but not without a shift from “consumerism at any cost” to a thoughtful integrated philosophy that includes economic, architectural and agricultural components; and of course, life-style shifts.

Beyond Organic Farming To “Permaculture"


About Donna Lynes-Miller: After retiring from supply chain management for large fast food chains, Donna Lynes-Miller created and launched the first mail order gourmet dinner delivery service. After selling the business in 2012, Donna enjoys retirement in Atlanta with her family of Russian Wolfhounds.

Author: Donna Lynes-Miller

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