Growing up in South Florida, I had minimal exposure to large-scale agriculture. Occasional road trips took me past orange groves and pasture lands in Central Florida, but my view from the interstate highway was about as close as I ever got to modern farming. However, living in the sub-tropics (even though in the suburbs) I was surrounded by the natural world. I was continually bringing home snakes, frogs, fish, wounded birds, and baby ducks and creating habitats for them in aquariums and buckets and not-so-escape-proof boxes (sorry, Mom!). We had three citrus trees in our backyard, and there were many summer days I would spend as long as I could without touching the ground eating only tangelos and peeing from high branches.
In 1996 after graduating from art school, I moved to Kentucky. I was now surrounded by farmland and farmers, many of whom I would call friends. Most were involved with corn, wheat, and/or soybeans. This was a brand new experience to me. I had always been interested in biology, and agriculture to me was just a side shoot of this. As was my habit when confronted with something new, I went to the library to find anything I could read on the topic. I think I was expecting to find an “Idiots Guide to Farming”, but the vast majority of what I found were textbooks from the agricultural department of Western Kentucky University. It was all very technical, and truly it was very boring.
After a few weeks, I wandered over to the pet and hobby section of the library. I came across a book, “You Can Farm” by Joel Salatin. At first glace this was the exact book for which I was looking. However, as I read into it, I realized the author was anything but a typical farmer. As someone who never quite considered himself “ordinary”, I immediately identified with his anti-establishment attitude. But what I truly loved about Joel Salatin’s writing was that it just plain made sense. He wrote about minimizing work through intelligent design of farming systems, all with using almost no chemicals, and still producing a superior (e.g. better tasting) product.
A quick, and very simplified example:
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.
Joel Salatin’s 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!
This was my first exposure to alternative farming and food production. While he didn’t use the term, Joel Salatin was practicing Permaculture.
I continued to read as much as I could on the subject of alternative food production. This led me to books on hobby farming, self-sufficiency, and home gardening. My growing love of cooking dovetailed nicely with the growing options for superior tasting organic foods. Gone were the days of hippy, tree-huggers and their worm filled “organic” foods that tasted worse than what you got in the grocery store but weren’t “filled with no chemicals from the Man, man!” Organic food was being produced scientifically by people who were outside the norm but were not abnormal. And the food was better!
I had seen a few book titles for Permaculture during this time, but the covers of the books looked a bit odd. At first glance I dismissed these books, because they seemed a bit too hippy and “way out there” to me. There seemed to be an almost religious aura around these books that turned off my more logical mind. They also seemed to be dealing more with Australian agriculture, which it turns out they were since that is where Permaculture was developed.
Eventually, I read a book called “How to Make a Forest Garden” by Patrick Whitefield. This was truly the first Permaculture book that I read, although that term was rarely used in the book. The basic premise was designing a forest of plants (trees, shrubs, vines, etc.) that are useful to humans in a way that mimicked a natural forest. It was a simple concept, but it was, and still is, revolutionary to me.
From there I read the two textbooks on temperate climate forest gardening in North America, “Edible Forest Gardening” volumes I and II by Dave Jacke, then Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway, and finally “Introduction to Permaculture” by the creator of Permaculture, Bill Mollison.
I finally realized what Permaculture was not. It was not a tree-hugger, hippy, pseudo-religious idea. It was not about a militant, eco-fanatic approach to conservation. It is not “way out there”. However regretable, you will find many who treat Permaculture in all the ways listed above.
Permaculture is truly a scientific approach to land, plant, and animal management that still treats the natural world with a sense of awe and respect. Permaculture is about practical sustainability on an individual as well as societal basis. The science of Permaculture has a lot of breadth and depth, but basically, I think it is how I expected God wanted us to treat the land back in the Garden of Eden.
As you can see from my story above, most of my “experience” with Permaculture has been in the form of reading about it. After working as a graphic designer and then going back to school for another eleven years to become a physician, I have had little time to do more than plant small gardens between studying and moving. I have a few more years left before I will finally be able to “settle down”, but when I do, I am planning on implementing the knowledge I have gained from my years of reading to help create my own small corner of Eden.
Hope you can visit.