In a previous post, I used a quote from David Holmgren describing Permaculture. I then linked to some lengthy articles defining Permaculture. I realized I kind of skipped a definition of Permaculture that was somewhere between concise (and vague) and detailed (and overwhelming). So here is my attempt at better defining Permaculture:
Permaculture was first a portmanteau (or blending) of two words: Permanent + Agriculture.
Since its inception, it has come to also be a portmanteau of Permanent + Culture.
The basic idea, and it is indeed basic, is to create a system of agriculture that is self sufficient, requires little to no work (by humans) to maintain, improves the land, and produces a product (food, wood, fiber, animals) that humans can use. When I first heard of this concept, I pictured a Garden of Eden. I thought it was a bit too ambitious. Raising food = work, and hard work at that. But the more I read and learned, I realized that this ideal was very attainable.
The two main differences I can see between Permaculture and traditional agriculture (in reality there are a lot more than two) are in design and in succession.
Design: Traditional agriculture involves 10% planning and 90% work. Permaculture involves 90% planning with intelligent design and 10% work to implement the design and then much less work in maintanence. An example I used in a previous post can again be used here:
Traditional way: Put all the cattle in one large field. Have another field where hay is raised with chemical fertilizers and weed killers. Harvest the hay. Bring the hay to the cattle. Give all the cattle antibiotics, growth hormones, and anti-parasitic drugs to prevent illness and push growth. At some point there is the need to go through and collect/spread the manure around the field with a machine. The end results are stressed, unhappy cattle with questionable chemicals within meat and milk, farmers who are amateur industrial chemists and struggling to make ends meet, and land that is losing fertility every year and is basically barren and void of biodiversity.
Permaculture way: Place the cattle in a much smaller field. Every few days, the cattle are moved to a new field with fresh, healthy, grasses and forbs to eat. A few days after the cattle leave the field, chickens are allowed in. The chickens scratch through the cow patties and eat the bugs and worms (negating the need to use poisons to kill the parasites that would re-infect the cattle), they spread the manure around (negating the need for people to do the work), they fertilize the fields with their own droppings (negating the work and cost and chemicals needed to fertilize), and they create their own products (eggs and meat) with minimal extra expense or work from the farmer. The end results are happy cattle with superior meat and milk products with minimal or no chemical additives, famers who make a profit due to extra product lines with minimal expenditure of time or money, and land that is gaining fertility and biodiversity. Brilliant!
Succession: This is a bit more involved idea, but it is the idea that nothing in agriculture is permanent. Everything is always in some sort of change or process from changing from one thing to another. A tradional farmer may say that he or she wants chickens, so she creates a large chicken run, and makes it a permanent structure on the farm. In Permaculture, we may use chickens in a temprary pen in one area that has a lot of weeds or bugs, and once it is cleared, we can move the chickens to a completely different area of the farm as needed. We can still harvest the eggs and meat as needed, but we don't lock ourselves into any one design.
Another example would be planting fruit trees. The traditional way is to plant an orchard of fruit trees, all the same species (lets say apple), and often the same type (lets say red delicious). To maintain this, you have to fertilize like crazy, irrigate like crazy, and spray chemicals very often to prevent the fruit from being eaten by bugs or killed by disease. In Permaculture, one apple tree is planted with one plum, and one pear, and one hazelnut, and one peach, and five gooseberries, and ten blackberries, and ten blueberries, and dozens of non-fruit plants that return nitrogen and minerals and mulch to the soil and produce flowers and nectar that attract beneficial predatory insects and birds that eat the bugs that prey on our fruit. Irrigation and chemicals and work is greatly reduced. Again... Brilliant!
I hope to expand on all this again, but I'll stop here for now. Hope this helps!