Farming Vs Permaculture: Pests, Disease, and Planning REAL Value

‘Tis peak season for the most beloved of pass-times for market gardeners and farmers everywhere: complaining!

And what a season it is: with an exceptionally harsh winter of temperature swings with little snow cover across much of the northern hemisphere, record flooding everywhere, Spring arriving a month late almost universally, then moving straight into high/dry summer temperatures, followed by prolonged cool damp weather… ecologies and garden plants are all left reeling while pest and disease pressures seem to be soaring. This makes sense whenever general biodiversity and health takes a hit, as pest and disease pressures return before beneficial populations and immune systems recover. 
So, if you’ve been complaining, know you aren’t alone: I’ve been getting a lot of questions about how to use Permaculture to reduce pest and disease issues, and the farming and market gardening fora are filled with stories of rampant rodents, malicious molds, stupdendous slugs, woeful woodlice, um.. carnivorous corn seed maggot… downright ornery damping off… … Ok, I promise never to do that again. Anyway, the point is I’m seeing a real uptick in compaints about crop losses to pests and disease this season.
Hurrah! From a Permaculture perspective, this is all great work! 

If you’re doing conventional, you just spray poison on your veggies yum yum yum. 

Otherwise, in your first year gardening, your goal is to grow slugs. After that, you’ll start growing things that eat slugs, like millipedes, centipedes, fireflies, predatory wasps, snakes, lizards, birds, and so on. But won’t move in until you’ve opened the slug buffet. And it helps if you give them good habitat near your veggies. In this case, long grasses near the garden really help, as it’s firefly larva that are the biggest eaters of slugs, and they lay eggs in tall, unmown grasses. If you keep grasses by the garden too trim, your slug patrol has to commute. Rockeries for snakes, perches for birds, and a nice messy winter garden with hollow reeds and stems to help beneficial insects overwinter all help, too. 

In the early years, we’re trying to get all the slugs, voles, moles, aphids, cucumber beetles, cabbage moths, molds and mildews all up and running really good, so ecological resiliency and predators can come into play and we can start getting a more balanced system where we only lose a couple kale seedlings before the kale can take care of itself. This season, while we’ve had our own increased pest issues, we’ve yet to lose a single annual start to pests or disease (knock on wood.)

Ideally, the pest/disease curve is gradual enough in the early years that the slugs get some kale, but we get plenty, too. But sometimes pest population spikes can be huge, especially when we’re just getting started and there’s low biodiversity to begin with…. This is all the worst the first 3 years at any new site. 

But many producers will give up before they get there, and reach for poisons instead. But most poisons will kill of beneficial insects and predators as well as pests, keeping the land stuck in time at the point where pest and disease pressures are highest. Even pest-specific ogranic controls (like organic slug pellets, which only effect slugs) eliminate the food source for predators, and keep the garden dependent upon chemical interventions. 

This is especially true if you’re a farmer or market gardener dependent upon crops in order to “save the farm.” Often, you may feel you have no choice but to intervene, and so the land will never become a self-regulating ecosystem. 

Anyway, all these complaints have me thinking about a major comparison between modern “farming” and “Permaculture.” 

Remember first of all that Permaculture is a system of holistic design for creating integreated, functional human habitats. It’s not the same as farming, or even a kind of farming. 

Farming or market gardening, by which I mean growing crops for sale as an income stream, is one pattern that CAN be used in a Permaculture design, but does not have to be. 

In fact, while some current Permaculture celebrities strongly emphasize farming as Permaculture and Permaculture as farming, early designers so de-emphasized farming as a useful pattern that Permaculture was often framed as an alternative to farming, or even the exact OPPOSITE of farming.

“The last thing any of us should be doing is any kind of farming.” 

– Bill Mollison, Founder of Permaculture, creator of the PDC curriculum,  and author of the Permaculture Designer’s Manual. 

Of course, some of this was just Bill being sensationalistic. On deeper inspection, this gets to be a debate about terms, with Mollison promoting older forms of making clever, profitable, and sustainable land investments, which were once just the definition of good farming, while “farming” has come to mean growing vegetables or commodity crops for market. However, there is a real, meaningful difference between this Mollisonian form of Permaculture and farming, market gardening or agriculture of any kind.

From Mollison’s perspective, this modern kind of farming was a “type 1 error,” a system designed to fail. Consider the reasons many people say they get into farming and market gardening:
– To generate income for the family. 
– To get out of the “rat race.”
– To heal the land, or act regeneratively.
– To grow good food for their family.
– To spend more time with family.
– To live a slower rural lifestyle.
– To reconnect with nature.
– To have a higher standard of living. 
– To get into shape, have healthy activity.
– To fight climate change, sequester carbon, heal the soil.
– To create a healthier local food system. 

If those are ones goals, it is quite likely that “farming” (vegetable farming, market gardening or commodity farming) is the absolute worst thing you could ever do to meet any of those goals. The dream, unfortunately, does not easily line up with reality:
– The average farmer hasn’t made a profit in 4 years now, and average incomes are likely around $3/hour. 
– Celebrity “rock star farmers” make their big bucks teaching “profitable farming” classes, but report that they themselves only earn minimum wage salaries while working ridiculous hours. 
– Most of these “sustainable farming” programs are highly unsustainable, arguably more unsustainable than the unsustainable industrial farming they seek to replace, often requiring more spraying, tilling and shipping footprints. 
– Annual gardens with heavy tilling and chemical fertilization do not sequester carbon and may even contribute to climate change.
– Farmers work longer hours than virutally any other profession, and often have less time for family. 
– “The customer eats first.” Most farmers I know are too busy during the season to prep and cook their own produce, so they eat pizza and fast food, and supplement their diet with snap, while their customers get the all the best looking and tasting produce.
– Modern “profitable farmers” describe their lifestyle as hustle-bustle, challenge, fast-paced labor and hardship, with a high necessity for sales work, marketing, and logistics which would put most corporate admins to shame. 
– Farming puts you in a position to have to fight against nature constantly, instead of connecting with it and learning about it. 
– Talk to any modern fitness professional and they’ll tell you the long hours of low-intensity cardio associated with farm labor are no way to get into shape. If you knew the “ol farmers” I grew up around, you’d see why they described their work as “back breaking” labor that wore the body down and aged you quickly. 
– Modern local veg farming is highly plastic intensive, is quickly becoming the BIGGEST source of soil and water pollution, and has now been found to contribute to the chemical and plastics contamination of food, rather than create healthier food.  

So, if we have any of those goals above, “doing farming” is virtually guaranteed to fail to meet them. 

Of course, there are goals and expectations which can more easily be met through “farming.” And, there are clever ways of designing a project so that farming can be a part of meeting one’s goals. But  what I hear from farmers very often is the lament that they are trapped by the realities of farming to exploit the land, exploit the soil, and exploit other people in order to make a living. 
This really is the exact opposite of the classic Permaculture described by Mollison in his work. 
In that form of Permaculture, we don’t start with the idea that we’re going to farm for its own sake, we start by looking at our goals, what we want, how we want to live, and then DESIGN a system which will actually get us where we want to be. Often, our preconceived notions of “farming” only get in our way. 
Let’s get back to pests as an example. 
The farmer who jumps into sales in the first year will end up trapped into spraying and fighting pests in order to keep the business afloat. They may simply have no choice. And because they’re trapped on the pesticide treadmill, and have very little free time, change will be very difficult. 
Whereas, the kind of Permaculture design Mollison proposed is about starting to make high value “regenerative investments” which will help meet your goals. For example, these might include investing in little healthy, diverse edible ecosystems like hedgerows, ponds, and forest gardens. These can be designed to become profitable, and start paying back in terms of food savings and even cash flow in the very first year, as all of our plantings have at Lillie House. But then they will grow in value over time, producing more food, more cash value and plants for sale every year into the future. Meanwhile, they will require less and less labor each year, so your hourly wage will always be going up while your free-time rises, too. And because pest and disease resilience are part of our investment, we can afford to take time to let diversity build. We haven’t designed a system where we have to immediately spray as soon as a pest shows up.  
Because we’re not stuck in the rat race of farming, we have time to make regenerative investments in home energy efficiency, too. We can start saving hundreds or even thousands of dollars/year on energy and fuel expenses. We can start looking at investments which will save us money on clothing, healthcare costs, recreation, housing and so on. 
We have time – and energy – for investing in our own health and fitness, and that of our family. These may be some of the most valuable investments we can make! We can invest in eating incredible food from our own garden, and reap the health benefits and food savings from doing so. For many, this will be of more value than selling vegetables at the market and buying back food! Growing our own food is a very high value activity. 
And most imporantly of all, we have time to invest in relationships and social capital. For us, these have been the absolute biggest ‘Return on Investments” we’ve had. Doing Permaculture activism, and helping other people make sensible “regenerative investments” in more sustainable, resilient living has connected us with really amazing people all over, and this has – hands down – been the best thing we’ve invested in. Bill Mollison used to say if you’re doing it right, and you’re really helping people, then resources will start to come to you and crowd around you, and many will be good people. That’s exactly what we’ve experienced. 
And as it turns out, we usually have both vegetables and plants for direct sale.  But if we had started a “profitable farm” business or SPIN farm in our first year, we would have never had time to do any of this. We’d still probably be stuck in the farming rat race, selling veggies to buy pizza, and looking for ways to exploit people, nature and soil in order to pay our bills. 
And we’d still be stuck complaining and stressing about crop losses, and spraying for pests….
In the meantime, if you’re already trapped on the pesticide treadmill, here are some research-based Permaculture-ish things you could consider, which might help with pests in the short term, while moving in a better direction for the future.  
– Invest in a biodiverse, healthy ecosystem. Add plant diversity, esepcially with perennial plants which will come back every year. 
– Invest in perennial native plants. 
– Invest in creating healthy soil, especially with deep mulching. This will improve plant immunity. 
– Invest in diverse healthy agroecologies like edible hedgerows, forest gardens, and habitat strips. 
– Invest in predator habitat: rockeries for snakes, wood piles, bird perches in the garden, insectory plants, bits of untidy garden for beneficial insects to overwinter in. 
– Long, untrimmed grasses near the garden are essential, as they attract fireflies, whose larva are one of the biggest predators of slugs. However fireflies lay eggs in long grasses, so if you don’t have patches of long grass in the garden, your slug patrol will have to commute. 
– Decentralizing production. If you’ve got all your kale in one bed, slugs can move from one to the next easily, destroying the whole crop, then moving on the the next row of cabbages. If you’ve got kale throughout the garden, interspersed with strong-smelling aromatic herbs, slugs have trouble finding the kale. 
– Polyculture everywhere. Same as above, pests have trouble finding their favorite foods if you’re mixing them up, and they have to travel further, past more predators on their daily commute. 
– Use minimal interventions. Do just enough to save the crop. For example, for slugs, beer traps and copper, or organic slug pellets that only effect slugs – used sparingly – may help reduce pressures enough that you get a crop, but also leave slugs for fireflies and vespids to feed their babies.

And, if you’re farming and it’s not meeting your goals, it’s ALWAYS a good time to start divesting from activities that are low-value or are not meeting your goals, and start reinvesting that time and energy into things that will start moving you towards meeting your goals.

But if you’re farming and happy and meeting your goals, then keep on keepin’ on!

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