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An Agriculture that Stands a Chance: Perennial Polyculture & the Hard Limits of Post-Carbon Farming

More and more articles are being written that continue to hit the proverbial "nail on the head". This one was posted to the Energy Bulletin website a couple of days ago. It does a great job of summarizing the problems with annual monoculture-based food systems and the advantages of those which are perennial polyculture-based.

The evidence is undeniable and overwhelming. It has been for a very long time. Now it’s just time to "do the damn thing".

I’ve included a portion of this piece summarizing "The Four Smiling Faces of Perennial Polyculture":

The Four Smiling Faces of Perennial Polyculture

OK, now that we’ve sung the praises of perennial polyculture, I think it’ll be helpful here to lay out the four main types of ‘perennial polyculture’ agriculture currently being practiced (or developed) in the US. I do this, of course, not to say that a given farm-of-the-future needs to pick just one type, but just to point out the key features of each.

As mentioned above, none of these perennial polyculture forms of agriculture are new, nor are they completely absent from our current agricultural mix in the US. But since none of them fits nicely into the current industrial model, they have been either (1) relegated to niche status by the subsidy-distorted market, (2) co-opted and debased to fit the industrial model, or, especially in the case of still-developing perennial grains, (3) denied their rightful share of national funding for research and development.

So here they are, the four smiling faces of perennial polyculture:

1. Holistically-Managed Pasture: These are the good, old-fashioned pastures of perennial grasses and clovers for the grazing of (and fertilization by) ruminants (sheep, goats, and cows) — but managed in a more ecologically-informed manner than has been practiced for much of our nation’s history. Such enlightened management considers both the needs of the plants and the animals, as well as the needs of the surrounding people and ecosystems. For a good, accessible introduction to this art form, see Gene Logsdon’s “All Flesh Is Grass.” See also Joel Salatin’s Virginia farm as featured in the movie ‘Food Inc.’ or any of his wonderful books. For a more hard-core version of this method of managed grazing, see books by Allan Savory and Andre Voisin. I should note here that much of the ecological devastation of modern animal ‘farming’ has been due to its debasement in conforming to the industrial model. But the raising of animals needn’t be immoral or ecologically destructive, and, if limited in scale and managed skillfully, can allow the farm to fit comfortably and beneficially within the surrounding ecosystems.

2. Mixed Fruit & Nut Orchards: Here I refer to another seeming relic from days-gone-by – the organically-managed, low-input, mixed fruit and nut orchard. And while this tree-crop form of agriculture has been just as debased by the industrial model as livestock raising, it need not be the chemical-soaked, fertilizer-guzzling, soil-eroding, ultra-fragile abomination it is today. Why? There are multiple species of fruit and nut trees in any given region of the US that produce reasonably or even exceptionally well with zero chemical inputs. Moreover, there are varieties with each of these suitable species that perform better than others on a given year or in a given soil type. If these are identified, and planted on a sufficiently-large scale in an ecologically-informed manner, they can make a VERY significant contribution to our food supply. A good theoretical foundation for this form of agriculture can be found in the extensive permaculture literature, including “Edible Forest Gardens” by Jacke & Toensmeier. See also “Tree Crops” by J. Russell Smith (originally published in 1939, and now with an introduction by Wendell Berry). For a good real-life example of what I’m talking about, check out the recent article describing Mark Shepherd’s incredible Wisconsin farm. I should say, on a personal note, that reading the above piece about Shepherd’s Wisconsin farm was almost a religious experience for me, and will probably (hopefully) define much of the remainder of my work here on Earth.

3. Perennial Vegetables, Berries, and Cane-Fruits: Huh? Perennial vegetables? But most people are already familiar with at least some of these already: asparagus, rhubarb, artichokes, horseradish, and sunchokes come to mind. There are, however, many other species of perennial vegetables that might be developed into big contributors to our future food mix. Check out Eric Toensmeier’s utterly fantastic book, “Perennial Vegetables” for a number of examples suitable for different US regions. And as Toensmeier points out, the much-needed development and breeding of these vegetables can be accomplished by you and me – testing out and improving different species and varieties, and finding ways to incorporate them into our traditionally-annual veggie gardens and truck-farms. Berries and cane-fruits, of course, should be part of any vegetable operation, and many wonderful books detail their low-input rearing and uses.

4. Perennial Grains: This is the only one of the four ‘pillars’ of perennial polyculture that is not yet ready to be deployed. It also would have, arguably, the largest impact of the four strategies, if successful. Wes Jackson’s The Land Institute (Kansas) has been working for decades on developing a mixture of perennial grains that can be planted in the same field and harvested together. Given that almost all grain production currently comes from annuals (corn, wheat, rice, soybeans), an extensive breeding program is being undertaken by The Land Institute (and others) to develop the new perennial grains that would work in such a system. This involves both perennializing annual grains and domesticating existing perennial grains. Check out ALL the literature available at their website (https://www.landinstitute.org), which includes books, scholarly papers, and articles. Also get a hold of ALL Wes Jackson’s books, including (and especially) his seminal 1980 book “New Roots for Agriculture.” And one final note here: While The Land Institute’s perennial grain program is probably the most important scientific project on Earth, it probably gets less national funding than the stretch of highway that runs through my town. …Priorities, priorities.

Read the full article here.

Rhamis Kent

Rhamis Kent is a consultant with formal training in mechanical engineering (University of Delaware, B.S.M.E. '95) and permaculture-based regenerative whole systems design. He has previously worked for the renowned American inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen at DEKA Research & Development, with subsequent engineering work ranging from medical device research and development to aerospace oriented mechanical design. After taking an interest in the design science of Permaculture, he sought extended training with permaculture expert and educator Geoff Lawton at the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia. This led to his involvement with design work connected to the development of Masdar City in UAE after Mr. Lawton and his consulting company (Permaculture Sustainable Consultancy Pty. Ltd.) were contracted by AECOM/EDAW to identify solutions which fit the challenging zero emissions/carbon neutral design constraint of the project.

4 Comments

  1. Dear Dan, same applies everywhere around the globe – in gardening & farming, economics & politics. The sooner everyone realizes there will be NO SUPPORT, from any of the existing elites, for ordinary citizens to deal with the coming catastrophe, the better. All existing laws,regulations, bans, where they serve only to continue our road to chaos & destruction, must be ignored. Support must be withdrawn from all corporate organizations, political parties, economic institutions, likewise. We have to do it ourselves on sensible, sustainable, ethical principles, first on a personal level, then on local, & regional levels, supplanting existing power bases & replacing them with real participatory democratic structures. Isolate the idiots in ivory towers, the deniers in guarded gated communities. Build healthy, local & regional all-inclusive communities free of the old prejudices created by divisions of class, ethnicity, race, religion, & other dangerous mental constructs.
    Fantasy? Sure! But a “level global playing field” & ” global free trade market” sold to every greedy politician & businessman around the world by Friedman’s Chicago Church of Economics was a fantasy too: so were the dreams of Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler, & other lunatics, but they all made them come true by conning others. Unlike those others, my fantasy may just have the redemming factor of not creating a nightmare. Cheers, jim

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