Modern permaculture was inspired by Chinese-derived wet-rice and tree-crop systems employed in Southeast Asia, which remain reasonable models of sustainability. Southern China, on the whole, has done less ecological damage in 8,000 years of agricultural history than Western practices have done in the last 200 years to the Great Plains of North America and in California’s central valley.
The Chinese were aware early on that people drawing sustenance from the natural world must be proactive in employing protective management of natural resources. They valued groves nearby their villages and temples. The necessity of maintaining clean water, of not over-fishing and over-hunting, of not over-using the land in planting, all of these principles have been traditionally woven into the patterns of life in south China. Their traditional views of environmental management may have helped bring them to the current day with less ecological damage than the region would have sustained otherwise. Contemporary China has ended up with a less ideal situation, however. Development projects including large scale damming of big rivers, over-fishing, soil erosion, and deforestation have contributed to China’s ecological breakdown. Perhaps it would have been worse without their early cultural warnings against abuse of the natural world.
There are regions in northern Europe where the land has not been ruined as quickly as the prime agricultural regions of north America. It may also be that some of these regions stretching from eastern Europe to Ireland, including farming villages in the Alps, leaned toward small scale and localized food production until the steamroller of modern industrialized agriculture passed over their lands. Wendell Berry talks personally and in detail about the benefits of small scale traditional sorts of agriculture in Ireland. He compares some of the practices to his own small scale farming practices in Kentucky.
The Great Plains are eroded, denuded of helpful native vegetation, and the soil is in terrible condition.
Wes Jackson’s call for a new farming approach and agricultural economy is based on revitalizing the Great Plains and the prairie lands of the heartlands of North America. He starts with an ideal of biomimicry of the prairie ecosystem and place-based, sustainable agricultural practices.
He’s asking for nothing less than a massive salvage operation. We could use that kind of action in California too.
So we have industrialized agriculture with erosion; salinization (much worse in regions that require irrigation); petrochemicals made into pesticides, herbicides, fungicides; immense agricultural machines running across the land; pollution of water resources by land erosion and by agricultural chemical runoff; pesticides and herbicides that are killing farmworkers and destroying our pollinators; devastating loss of aquifers and over-consumption of all precious water resources. And that’s only the beginning.
California’s central valley is succumbing to desertification and the water shortages in the region are deeply affecting current farming. Water shortages and current unsustainable land-use practices will have a serious impact on future growing in California’s historical 400-mile long bread basket. Over the last century, this agricultural valley has been producing one-quarter of the fruits, vegetables, nuts, rice, and soy products eaten in the United States. Whether the central valley should have ever become an agricultural monolith is another question.
Dust Bowl. California. Now.
Agricultural practices that ignore the landscape and the ecology of their region, trying to force human will upon the landscape, will never succeed over the long haul.
Cultures with sustainable land practices and social ethics have tended to be the ones that survive the longest.
As far as I can see, agriculture must be done in the context of community, with an ecological paradigm, on a small, human-sized scale. That’s all. That’s if we all want to keep eating food and not Cargill’s (or some other huge food supplier’s) food-from-a-vat. I’m serious.
I often wonder if I should pack it in and move myself out of this high desert valley. We have accumulated too many people in the region to ever create anything vaguely resembling a sustainable food system. Maybe the best thing I can do for this endangered ecosystem is to leave it. I could make the same argument for leaving California. And then what? The planet?
So for now, I’m here. And I’m dealing.
I may leave the high desert but not until I know that I need to be somewhere else.
And, yes, a job somewhere else that could support me would be an indicator that my time to leave had come. While I’m concerned with how we are destroying the land, I need to survive too. More on that later.
I said permaculture, way up at the top of this post.
I agree with generally stated permaculture values, ethics, and practices. I have never been able to afford to take any kind of certified permaculture course but these are modern practices most closely allied to what I do.
With regard to a parcel of land like RSF, one of my biggest revelations has been the use of edges and the “value of the marginal” (Holmgren, 2002).
Observing and valuing the marginal has been simultaneously one of my greatest difficulties and one of the biggest benefits of growing food here.
The edge effect in ecology shows that when two plant communities collide, there is likely to be more biotic diversity in that intersection than there is in either plant community alone. If one of these plant communities is a sustainable agroecosystem, emergent diversity helps produce more abundance than expected from a marginal situation.
Here at RSF I’ve learned about edge effects from volunteer plants, those that come up unexpectedly in places where they hadn’t been planted. I’ve seen corn, tomatoes, barley and a variety of herbs spring up from wind-blown or bird-dropped seeds.
volunteers (sunflower, yarrow, mint, oregano) in front of irises.
Here at Rainshadow, it is possible to make use of the edge effect through shrub, tree, and crop selection. Raspberries and blackberries do not thrive in the desert but along the outside edges of the orchard area, they do and they spread.
Between the main orchard and the wilder desert zone that surrounds the farm, we’ve seen marked increase in wildlife since we moved on this land in 2006.
For maximizing biodiversity and agrobiodiversity, I’ll be looking to the edges in coming seasons.
On a micro-farm like RSF, the edges are numerous. Edges here blend into what some gardeners call micro-climates. And microclimates make use of every part of a garden/small farm. For instance the ecological concept of “nurse plants” can help conserve water as well as promote growth in a layered, natural pattern. I plant herbs and some vegetables under the shade of my orchard trees (see Nabhan, 2013, for ideas in arid lands).
I also plant flowers for beauty. It’s good to put them where water already goes.
This year all the fruit tree basins had flowers, herbs, and/or vegetables. Some survived and some were eaten by desert critters.
The daffodils are supposed to repel invading ground squirrels. I think our adopted barn cat may do a better job of that.
Sheltering overstories of plants (like the orchard trees to the herbs and vegetables) allow some plants to grow outside of typical, expected ranges.
Twelve permaculture design principles:
Observe and interact; catch and store energy; obtain a yield; apply self-regulation and accept feedback; use and value renewable resources and services; produce no wastes; design from patterns to details; integrate rather than segregate; use small and slow solutions; use and value diversity; use edges and value the marginal; creatively use and respond to change.
These might be applied to any sustainable food-growing situation. Maybe I’ll do a blog post about each at Rainshadow Farm.
These principles seem particularly useful in a situation where conditions are normally thought of as unproductive, difficult, and marginal.
Hmm. That sounds like my life as well as my farm.
Sounds like a writing prompt and a way to think about how to approach making my life more sustainable.
You might want to read:
Anderson, E.N. (2010). The pursuit of Ecotopia: Lessons from indigenous and traditional societies for the human ecology of our modern world. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
(Dr. Anderson is one of my mentors and a friend. This book studies the complex relationships between ideologies, resource management, and cultural representations of the environment.)
Berry, Wendell. (1982). The gift of good land: Further essays cultural and agricultural. New York: North Point Press.
Holmgren, David. (2002). Permaculture: Principles and pathways beyond sustainability. Hepburn, Australia: Holmgren Design Services.
Jackson, Wes. (1996). Becoming native to this place. New York: Counterpoint.
Nabhan, Gary Paul. (2013). Growing food in a hotter, drier land: Lessons from desert farmers on adapting to climate uncertainty. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Peña, Devon. (2005). Mexican Americans and the environment. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
(He tells the true story of the human cost of industrialized agriculture)