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Permaculture as Philosophy

Permaculture as Philosophy

It’s almost spring – all right, it’s the middle of winter – and I’m reading about gardening. It’s my yearly ritual to keep hope alive in the dark months. I sort my seeds, draw up garden plans while standing by the snow-covered garden beds, and flip through the glossy garden porn that the seed companies mail me every January.

Some winters I’ve delved into more serious study. Recently I spent months reading about permaculture and talking with practitioners. I like their underlying concept of growing things in a sustainable and sane way, although I don’t see it as the only solution to our environmental and food production challenges. But, to quote Leslie Nielsen, that’s not important right now; reading about permaculture also led me to three related thoughts.

Permaculture, I’ve learned, is not only a method but a philosophy, one that emphasizes the relationships among all the elements of the environment rather than its individual parts in isolation. The opposite is big-farm monoculture. In monoculture, corn or soybeans are removed finally and completely from the environment where they were raised, leaving behind a barren field. In order to grow the corn or soybeans next year, external inputs of seeds, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, irrigation, and petroleum-powered machines are necessary.

The goal in permaculture, however, is to have an almost perfectly closed system that reaches a natural maturity and sustains itself there with minimal human help. Once properly established, an ideal permaculture system fertilizes its own soil through a mix of deep-rooted plants that bring up nutrients and aerate the soil, nitrogen-fixing plants, plants that drop leaves as mulch, and animals that plow, fertilize, and control the plant and insect populations. This system stores water in its soil and loses very little to run-off. Because more of the plants are perennial, as opposed to monoculture’s annuals, plant populations remain in place and in balance – an ever-shifting balance, but a sustainable one – for decades.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Applying Food Forest Growing to Farms

Food Forest Farm

Applying Food Forest Growing to Farms

Beyond Garden Scale

Gardeners know too well the feeling of overwhelm when facing a new landscape. The seemingly infinite possibilities brings up the question, “Where do I start?”. Fortunately, there is a process we can use to answer that, it’s called permaculture design.

From Food Forest to Farming Dreams

Some of you might remember a special place in Holyoke Massachusetts called Paradise Lot.  This garden is still one of my favourite places in the world!  That’s right, Paradise Lot continues to attract visitors who enjoy the explosion of perennial vegetables, rare and unusual fruits, a unique story, and backyard scale permaculture in action.

Along with Eric Toensmeier, and many other friends, Paradise Lot was my first big garden design challenge. The question of “Where to start” defined our early process. Thank goodness, at the time, Eric and Dave Jacke were writing a book called “Edible Forest Gardens”, and our garden became the case study.  The garden is where I learned many key design strategies: The Problem is the Solution; Constraints Focus the Design; What Was, Plus What Is, Could Be; Watch Out for the Red Gazebo and many other principles.

I lived, breathed and ate that garden for thirteen years. During that time a new thought seed was planted. The beginnings of a vision of what a garden like this could be beyond one-tenth of an acre. This idea didn’t hold my thoughts very strongly, but it did take root. Then, by around 2012, when my wife was pregnant, and we enjoyed the bounty and success of a thriving food forest, global climate change impacted our lives.

The Staple Food Revolution: Bringing Beans and Grains to Local Markets

The Staple Food Revolution: Bringing Beans and Grains to Local Markets

Contributing Author: Emily Payne

Brandon Jaeger and Michelle Ajamian say they were driven by existential anxiety to open Shagbark Seed & Mill in Athens, Ohio. Their facility produces Ohio-grown, Certified Organic dry beans and freshly milled grains to help create a local staple food market. During the #CropsInColor in Appalachia tour, they share with Food Tank and The Crop Trust about the challenges of starting a small grain mill and why they’re not aiming to be in every kitchen in the United States. 

Before opening Shagbark, Jaeger and Ajamian traveled the country visiting farmers’ markets and noticed that, despite growth in local food systems, staple foods were not represented at a local level. “All of our protein comes from [beans and grains] and a lot of nutrients, and they aren’t available locally,” Ajamian says.

“I went to the farmers’ market to get my eggs, cheese, and leafy greens, but then I went home and grabbed my cans of beans, rice, crackers, and pasta from the pantry,” Jaeger explains. “I can buy locally baked bread, but I don’t know where the flour is coming from, just like how I don’t know where all those other beans and grains come from.” And after some research, Ajamian found that even black beans in organic co-ops, for example, were often coming to Ohio from China. 

The pair received a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant in 2008 to test high-nutrient staple crop plots for Appalachian farmers. “We looked at all of the empty fields in Appalachia and realized they aren’t really geared to the kind of ag that’s in the corn belt. We have small, irregular plots and thin soil,” Ajamian says. Nuts and other perennials, however, grow well in the region’s unique topography and climate.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Regenerative Agriculture Is So Good In So Many Ways

Regenerative Agriculture Is So Good In So Many Ways

Welcome to Terra Firma by Courtney White. I’ve spent my life prospecting for innovative, practical, and collaborative answers to pressing problems involving land and people, sharing them with others. I’d like to share them with you!

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I’ve been involved with save-the-world work for over thirty years (yikes!) and I can say unequivocably that one of the most hopeful, truly amazing stories I’ve ever come across is regenerative agriculture. It is also one the least widely known, especially to anyone who isn’t involved with food production – which is nearly everyone!

I thought this important topic would be a great way to launch this newsletter.

First, a quick definition (by yours truly): Regenerative Agriculture is both an attitude and a suite of practices that restores soil health and fertility, expands biodiversity, protects watersheds, and improves resilience in nature and ourselves. It focuses on creating the conditions for life, especially in the soil, and takes its cues from nature which has a very, very long track record of successfully growing things.

Resilience, by the way, is a 64-cent word for ‘bouncing back’ after a shock or disturbance, such as a forest fire. This will be increasingly critical to the world. Oh! I should also mention that regenerative agriculture fights global warming.

If this sounds like regenerative agriculture has Super Powers – that’s because it does! It has the ability to grow healthy food and repair damaged land using special powers supplied by sunlight, carbon dioxide, water, minerals, and an army of tiny super heroes: soil microbes. It’s an unstoppable force in a righteous cause.

Don’t take my word for it. Before his death last year, Stan Lee, the legendary founder of Marvel Comics and creator of Iron Man and Spider Man, was working on a new super hero character called DirtMan. I kid you not! (see)

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

America loves the idea of family farms. That’s unfortunate. By Sarah Taber

America loves the idea of family farms. That’s unfortunate. By Sarah Taber

Preface. As declining fossil fuels force more and more people back into being farmers, eventually 75 to 90% of the population, it would be much better for this to happen with family farms than gigantic mega-farms with workers who are slaves in all but name. This essay offers an alternative, collaborative worker-owned farming that has already been proven to work.. 

* * *

Taber, S. 2019. America loves the idea of family farms. That’s unfortunate. nymag.com

Family farms are central to our nation’s identity. Most Americans, even those who have never been on a farm, have strong feelings about the idea of family farms — so much that they’re the one thing that all U.S. politicians agree on. Each election, candidates across the ideological spectrum roll out plans to save family farms — or give speeches about them, at least. From Little House on the Prairie to modern farmer’s markets, family farms are also the core of most Americans’ vision of what sustainable, just farming is supposed to look like.

But as someone who’s worked in agriculture for 20 years and researched the history of farming, I think we need to understand something: Family farming’s difficulties aren’t a modern problem born of modern agribusiness. It’s never worked very well. It’s simply precarious, and it always has been. Idealizing family farms burdens real farmers with overwhelming guilt and blame when farms go under. It’s crushing.

I wish we talked more openly about this. If we truly understood how rare it is for family farms to happen at all, never mind last multiple generations, I hope we could be less hard on ourselves. Deep down we all know that the razor-thin margins put families in impossible positions all the time, but we still treat it like it’s the ideal.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Making The Most Of What We Harvest

 Photograph by Jill Wellington (Pixabay)

Making The Most Of What We Harvest

Secondary Uses for Common Crops

It’s nearing the end of our main growing season here in North Carolina. Halfway through October, our tomato plants are not much longer for the world, perhaps even living on borrowed time now. Summer squashes have given way, and winter squashes are strewn out waiting for the first frost.

We’ve also got some cold weather stuff in the ground. Cilantro has reseeded itself. We’ve planted rounds of carrots, beets, chard, kale, and radishes. Collard greens, a local favourite, are on the go. Kohlrabi is in the ground. Because we’ve been building our home, we’ve dropped the ball on getting some of what we’d like to have planted—broccoli, fava beans, leeks—this year.

But, what’s on my mind is more positive: It’s how much we’ve enjoyed our common crops this summer. More so, part of what we’ve enjoyed has been making the very most of them. We are steadily adding to our repertoire of possibilities, expanding our diets and production into new realms.

As dutiful permaculturalists, we’ve always sought out secondary (edible) uses for our harvests, ways to get more function from what we have cultivated. Here’s some of what has us excited this year, as well as some notes from the past and hopes for the future.

Carrot Tops

Common Crop Carrot Tops
Photograph by Rachel C IMP (Pixabay)

With our second growing season in North Carolina, we showed marked improvement in our carrot harvest. The roots have been the most flavourful I’ve ever eaten, and they’ve come out of the ground with a heft we didn’t get last year.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Finding our common ground and common purpose

Finding our common ground and common purpose


We are living in extraordinary, stormy times. In the political sphere, a sixteen-year-old girl speaks truth to powerful global leaders in New York; in the UK, the Supreme Court finds our Government has acted unlawfully in the proroguing of Parliament. In spite of all the promises and declarations, the planet is still set for 3 degrees of global warming above pre-industrial levels, sending us more rapidly towards the tipping point for our climate and all life on earth. We are travelling through unchartered territories. Tribal and polarised politics shape the public discourse. It can feel profoundly unsettling. Where on earth is the solid ground from which we can find common purpose and make the urgent progress we need on the really critical issues facing us?

In July 2019, The RSA Food Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) published a series of important reports. Funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, this two-year independent inquiry helped to shape a new vision for safe, secure and sustainable food and farming systems and a flourishing countryside. Initially focussed on matters raised by the Brexit vote, the inquiry quickly turned its attention to the urgent issues that transcend Brexit: the crises in climate and nature, health and wellbeing and rural communities. For eighteen months, we worked with business leaders and academics across different sectors, and with citizens in their communities around the UK, to arrive at the recommendations in our report, Our Future in the LandThe report garnered widespread – and cross-party – backing, both for our recommendations and for the process by which we arrived at them. We were determined that the many and diverse perspectives we’d heard through our inquiry were respected, and that everyone who’d given their time, experience and expertise to us so generously would see their voices in our reports. And make no mistake: this is contested territory.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Europe is Losing 1,000 Farms Per Day & Climate Change Regulations May lead to Starvation

Europe is Losing 1,000 Farms Per Day & Climate Change Regulations May lead to Starvation 

The new EU Agriculture Commissioner has publicly stated that Europe loses 1,000 farms per day. He acknowledged that the EU is losing 400,000 farms per year. However, crop and livestock production in Europe is projected to decline and maybe completely abandoned Europe’s southern and Mediterranean regions due to the increased negative impacts of climate change, according to a European Environment Agency (EEA).

The study says that adapting to climate change must be made a top priority for the European Union’s agriculture sector if it is to improve resilience to extreme events like droughts, heatwaves, and floods. But the obsession with Climate Change in Europe which is destroying its economy and now its ability to even grow food many are concerned will lead to starvation once again as was the case in Ireland because of the British Corn Laws which prohibited the importation of grain from America.

The nonsense of Climate Change seems to be poised to accomplish what it is designed to do – reduce the population. The question that needs to be answered is: Whose grandchildren are we trying to prevent from being born? Those who do not believe in Climate Change created by Humans? Certainly not the promoters or politicians. So it must be the rest of us they want to starve.

It certainly appears that perhaps this is the backdrop as to why we may see a rise in agricultural prices into 2025 and our computer is showing this should be a cost-push inflationary wave.

An “All-Out Blizzard” That Is “Unheard Of For October” Is About To Hit Farms In The Midwest With Up To 2 Feet Of Snow

An “All-Out Blizzard” That Is “Unheard Of For October” Is About To Hit Farms In The Midwest With Up To 2 Feet Of Snow

Farmers in the middle of the country are about to get hit by what could potentially be the worst October blizzard in U.S. history.  According to USA Today“the massive size and intensity of this snowstorm is unheard of for October”.  In other words, we have never seen anything like this in the month of October ever before.  Such a storm would have been disastrous enough in a normal year, but this has definitely not been a normal year for Midwest farmers.  As I detailed extensively in previous articles, endless rain and horrific flooding made planting season a complete and utter nightmare for many Midwest farmers this year.  Millions of acres did not get planted at all, and planting was seriously delayed on tens of millions of other acres.  As a result, corn, soybeans and other crops are simply not ready to be harvested in many parts of the Midwest, and now an unprecedented winter storm is barreling directly toward our heartland.

This is a very, very serious situation.  Normally, most corn in the Dakotas and Minnesota is considered to be “mature” by now, but this year we are facing a completely different scenario.

According to the latest USDA Crop Progress Report, only 22 percent of the corn in North Dakota is considered to be “mature” at this point…

Many farmers continue to wait on the sidelines to get into the fields. With freezing temperatures, heavy snowfall, and high winds set to hit the northern Plains this week, the corn in North Dakota is only 22% mature vs. a 75% five-year average, according to Monday’s USDA Crop Progress Report.

Also, South Dakota corn is rated 36% mature vs. an 80% five-year average. Minnesota farmers have a corn crop that is just 39% mature vs. an 83% five-year average.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Genetically engineered honeybees: Not the dumbest idea ever, but close to it

Genetically engineered honeybees: Not the dumbest idea ever, but close to it

In the wake of widespread declines in bee populations, farmers and beekeepers are wondering who exactly is going to pollinate that third of the world’s food crops which require pollination. The declines have been attributed to pesticides, parasites and climate change.

In Europe one response has been to phase out a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. The phase-out has coincided with a revival of bee populations. But pesticides are clearly not the only factor affecting bee health.

Another response has been to consider building a better bee. Enter the geneticists. Why not genetically engineer honeybees to resist those things which are undermining their health?

That seems a little like suggesting that we take carbon out of the atmosphere to address climate change without doing anything about the carbon we are putting into the atmosphere.

Moreover, the original idea behind the genetic engineering of bees is the same as that behind plants and even humans: One gene equals one trait. It turns out there are three problems with this idea. First, genes are multitaskers in honey bees (and in humans, too). That means genes can make more than one kind of protein which means that the idea that one gene always equals one trait has long since been disproved. Second, gene expression depends on a number epigeneticfactors, that is, factors that occur during the development of the organism. Third, the term “trait” has the problem that all words have. It’s ambiguous. (And, if you tell me “trait” has a very precise definition in genetics, then you will almost certainly use words to convey that definition.)

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Lawsuit Challenges Trump Administration’s Refusal to Release Public Documents on Expanded Use of Antibiotics As Pesticides

Lawsuit Challenges Trump Administration’s Refusal to Release Public Documents on Expanded Use of Antibiotics As Pesticides

More Information Sought on CDC’s Concerns of Increased ‘Superbug’ Threat

WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Trump administration today for refusing to release public documents related to its approval of expanded use of antibiotics as agricultural pesticides.

Overuse of antibiotics essential for treating human diseases poses a public health threat because it can lead to “superbugs” — bacteria that have developed antibiotic resistance.

Records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has raised serious concerns about expanding the use of antibiotics as pesticides. The records, though, are incomplete, and the Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Drug Administration have refused to release the rest.

“The Trump administration is recklessly endangering public health by allowing these human medicines to be sprayed on crops,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The EPA is trying to conceal conversations revealing the risks these careless actions pose to public health and wildlife.”

The Environmental Protection Agency last year approved an estimated 388,000 pounds of oxytetracycline for use on citrus crops annually in California, Florida and other states. The agency has also proposed to allow an estimated 650,000 pounds of streptomycin to be used on the same crops each year.

These antibiotics are used in agriculture not as a cure but as a repeated treatment to combat outbreaks of citrus canker and citrus greening disease.

A CDC study found that the medically important antibiotics the EPA has approved for expanded pesticide use on crops can facilitate antibiotic resistance in bacteria that pose “urgent” and “serious” threats to human health. These harmful antibiotic-resistant bacteria include MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), nightmare bacteria (Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE) and VRE (Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus).

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Boris Johnson, GMOs and Glyphosate: Irresponsible, Negligent and Criminal?

Boris Johnson, GMOs and Glyphosate: Irresponsible, Negligent and Criminal?  

Photograph Source: Richard Humphrey – CC BY-SA 2.0

In his first speech to parliament as British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson said: “Let’s start now to liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules and let’s develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world.”

Johnson reads from a well-rehearsed script. The ‘GM will feed the world mantra’ is pure industry spin. There is already enough food being produced to feed the global population yet around 830 million are classed as hungry. Feeding the world effectively, sustainably and equitably involves addressing the in-built injustices of the global food system.

The never-ending push to force GM on the public under the guise of saving humanity is a diversion that leaves intact the root causes of world hunger and undernutrition: neoliberal deregulation and privatisation policies, unfair WTO rules, poverty, land rights issues, World Bank/IMF geopolitical lending strategies and the transformation of food secure regions into food deficit ones, etc.

Even in regions where productivity in agriculture lags behind or concerns exist about climate change, numerous high-level reports have recommended that (non-GMO) agroecological practices should be encouraged to enhance biodiversity and deal with food and climate crises.

However, pro-Brexiteer Conservative politicians talk of the essential need for Britain and the world to adopt GM is little more than an attempt to justify a post-Brexit trade deal with Washington that will effectively incorporate the UK into the US’s regulatory food regime. The type of ‘liberation’ Johnson really means is the UK adopting unassessed GM crops and food and a gutting of food safety and environmental standards.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Small farms don’t produce most the of the worlds food – but they could produce all

Small farms don’t produce most the of the worlds food – but they could produce all

Recently, I wrote an article about how difficult it is to survive as a commercial smallholder and floated some ideas of why that is and what can be done about it. I want to follow up with two articles. This one is about the production capacity of small farms and the next one will be on labor productivity and its implications for the space of consumption for small holder farmers and its capacity to generate surplus labor for other societal purposes. 
I often see the claim that peasants/small farms/small holders/family farms produce seventy percent of all the food in the world. The 70 figure originates from a report by the ETC Groups in 2009, Who Will Feed Us? Questions for the Food and Climate Crises. The original has been revised and the current version from 2017 states that the ”ETC Group estimates about 70% of the population – 4.5–5.5 billion of the world’s 7.5 billion people – depend on the Peasant Food Web for most or all of their food”. 

While I am a small farmer myself and very sympathetic to the future of small farms in a similar way as the ETC group, I think it is important to have the facts straight. To begin with, the poorest 70% consume a lot less than 70% of the food in the world, as people in the richer countries, who mainly depend on the industrial food chain consume a lot more food per capita.  Notably, the ETC report says that 70% of the population depend on the peasant food web for most or all of their food. This is not at all the same as  that peasants produce 70% of the food as ”to depend on” doesn’t mean that all their foods come from this food web.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Towards a landscape diet and communal landscape management

Towards a landscape diet and communal landscape management

Lately I have read two articles which both claim that small scale farming is (self)exploitive and that even with direct marketing such as farmers markets, there is no profit, hardly even survival.  

What nobody told me about small farming: I can’t make a living, by Jaclyn Moyer published in Salon (it is from 2015, but someone shared it on social media and it came my way) makes the case that it is not possible to make a living from production on a small farm under any norm al circumstances. Jaclyn writes that she at first wouldn’t admit having a struggling business as no one wants to climb aboard a sinking ship. She believed “if a business was failing it was because the entrepreneur was not skilled enough, not savvy enough, not hardworking enough. If my farm didn’t turn enough profit, it was my own fault.” But after years of hard work she finally started to admit to herself and to the public how things are: 

“When a student asked if my farm was sustainable, I told her that I was certified organic, I managed my soil fertility through crop rotations and compost applications, I didn’t use synthetic pesticides, I conserved water. But no, I’d said, I didn’t think my farm was sustainable. Like all the other farms I knew, my farm relied on uncompensated labor and self-exploitation. My farm was not sustainable because I knew the years my partner and I could continue to work without a viable income were numbered.” By and large Chris Newman agrees with Jaclyn Moyer in his articel Small Family Farms Aren’t the Answer published in Medium. 

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Scientists work to solve phosphate shortage – the dwindling resource required to grow food

Scientists work to solve phosphate shortage – the dwindling resource required to grow food

By 2030, the world’s population is projected to be about 8.5 billion people. Global food security is a major concern for governments – zero hunger is the second most important of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

However, there is a severe conflict between sustainable food production and the use of nonrenewable resources in agricultural systems, particularly phosphate. Phosphorus is a major mineral nutrient required by crop plants for optimal growth and productivity. Phosphate is the only form of phosphorus that plants can absorb — it is often applied to crops as phosphate fertilizer. 

Phosphate is obtained through rock mining. Seventy per cent of the world’s phosphate reserves are located in North Africa. China, Russia, South Africa and the United States all have limited quantities of the mineral rock. 

Finite resources

Scientists have reported that global phosphate production would peak around 2030, at the same time the global population will reach 8.5 billion people. Several reports have also warned that the global reserve would be depleted within the next 50 to 100 years. Current agricultural practice involves the use of a high amount of phosphate fertilizer in order to achieve optimal plant yield.

A phosphate shortage will threaten global food production: phosphate fertilizers are used extensively to produce optimal plant yield. Shutterstock

This is because of the chemical properties of phosphate, which interacts with soil particlesin a way that makes it difficult for the plant to acquire, leaving a large portion of the element in the soil surface.

Because plants can only uptake small amounts of phosphate, a large majority of fertilizer ends up in unwanted places, like bodies of water, making these practices ecologically and financially unsustainable. It is only reasonable to fathom that as phosphate becomes more expensive and may eventually run out, it not only poses a food security threat, but may also pose political crisis between phosphate rich countries and importing countries.+

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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