Permaculture – It’s just feudalism?

In just the last week, I’ve talked to two different people who were under the impression that the word “Permaculture” primarily referred to a particular labor arrangement where one party owns the land and productive assets and another party does the work on it without pay.

Or rather, “payment” includes non-cash benefits like the right to work the land for some period, and to keep some portion of the produce, and develop infrastructure, businesses and markets which then typically belong to the property owner. Sometimes the benefits may include lodging, food, or “education.”

To be clear, this is not at all “Permaculture.” Permaculture is a system of ecological design for creating just, sustainable human habitats based on a set of ethics: Earth care, People care, Fair share. (Learn more from this site from one of Permaculture’s creators.)

And in general, anyone trying to follow the ethics and principles of Permaculture should be deeply skeptical and cautious of the labor arrangement described above.

Besides, we already have better words to describe this labor arrangement, like: feudalism, serfdom, or exploitation. These are not words with good connotations, because they do not generally care for the earth, the people involved, and they certainly aren’t fair. Which is why in many countries there are laws against such practices.

Which is also why there’s also a growing number of complaints about the practice, horror stories of very bad experiences, and even some high-profile law suits and police raids, whether in Permaculture or Wwoofing. (I decided against linking to the dozen I read preparing for this article, because they’re easily accessible through a Google search.)

This type of arrangement certainly didn’t originate with Permaculture designers. It has become increasingly common with local-scale organic farming over the last couple of decades. But some high-profile operations using the word “Permaculture” have taken this labor exploitation to new levels and justify the arrangement as a form of “social networking” and “alternative currency.”

And in one of the two cases where people recently mentioned this definition of Permaculture to me, they said that a particular “Permaculture” land baron had defended their exploitive labor practices by saying “that’s what Permaculture is!” This person mentioned cooperatives as being a sort of exact opposite of Permaculture. IT IS NOT! In fact, in our PDC we have devoted a whole module to designing co-ops. Permaculture co-ops are FANTASTIC!

So, before Permaculture is permanently fused with feudalism in the public eye, it’s time to have a big, honest discussion and analysis of labor practices.

But I also understand the pinch legitimate farmers are in to keep the farm and compete against an even worse industrial agriculture.

So this article isn’t going to be a judgmental complaint, it’s going to be an effort to help promote better win/win designs.

And that could start by doing some real actual Permaculture design, using the actual Permaculture design process (and hey, you don’t even have to sign blood allegiance to me or give tribute of 20% of your wheat to do it!)

Permaculture Design for Farm Labor:

First, we start with consideration of the ethics.

Care for the Earth.

If we’re using outside labor, that should benefit the ecosystem and the earth. It’s important to note that on a sole proprietorship or family farm scale, it’s difficult to accomplish much damage to the earth because of a lack of labor. There’s only so much crappy stuff we can do with our finite time! So, with poor design, imported labor can often just mean MORE destruction of earth systems, allowing more tillage, and thus more soil loss and habitat displacement. Large-scale tillage operations need extra labor to maintain. We should be careful that we’re not just importing labor so that we can do more damage because we think we “have to.” 

Care for people.

Which people? Firstly, the project managers/owners. While at first glance free labor seems like a big win, poor labor arrangements land project stewards in conflicts and stressful situations of having to make difficult managerial decisions instead of regeneratively caring for the land. From a Permaculture perspective, we should be creating our own ideal habitat for a beautiful life, and we really want to avoid bringing conflicts, negative energies, and bad memories into that ecosystem. These negative (or positive) emotional associations are some of the strongest design elements that will effect the project and our quality of life over time.

Such situations are obviously bad for the laborers who must also be cared for by our arrangements. Are laborers treated regeneratively, leaving THE LABORERS in better life conditions than when they started? Not only is this good for the laborers, it is excellent design for a land steward to truly invest in all those they come in contact with, and that investment will often pay back fantastic real-world dividends.

And finally, they should care for the people of society more generally. Exploited labor in one place drives down the value everywhere within the free market. When we underpay people on our site, we’re promoting the under-payment of all others elsewhere, which eventually comes back to us.

Fair share.

It seems pretty obvious that unpaid labor is not fair to the sharee under most circumstances. But what’s not always obvious is that fair share positively impacts the one doing the sharing.

I also want to consider a few of the Principles (using the Holmgren principles because they’re the most well-known.)

1 Observe and Interact – With all the complaints and scandals around these labor practices, avoiding negative practices and creating better designs in this area should have a high yield.

3 Catch and Store Energy – This is perhaps the most powerful function of ecosystems, and it’s the most powerful one to emulate in our lives. If we get that right, we naturally accumulate wealth, health and happiness over time. Labor arrangements are no different. As I said above, in poor designs labor just goes into maintaining annual systems and is usually destructive to the earth and to people. If we use labor to maintain annual systems, we’ve worked the labor requirement into our systems permanently. But if we catch and store labor into permanent systems, we’ve created something that does not require labor and that cares for people. The same is true for the laborers. Laborers should be able to catch and store energy from their labor into regenerative assets for their own lives. It’s their labor, they should be beneficiaries.

5 Obtain a yield – “You can’t work on an empty stomach.” That goes for our workers. If they’re not obtaining a yield, eventually the labor poor will dry up and if our system depends on it, we’ll be facing system collapse.

For those looking into designing good labor systems, a full consideration of all 12 principles could be valuable (and I have much to say about them all!) but that’s beyond the scope of a short article.

And for those familiar with Permaculture basics, because laborers are certainly a “mainframe element” if you’re using them, then they deserve a full element analysis (input/output/characteristics.)

Note: this is not a complete list. When I finished, my partner Kimberly reminded me that “childcare” is not on included here. Not only is childcare a major consideration for finding the best help and encouraging diversity, but one recent FBI raid of a “Permaculture” project was caused by the living conditions of children on site.

Patterns for Labor:

Next, in Permaculture design, we’d look for “patterns” that we could apply to meet our goals, in this case appropriate, affordable labor. Labor patterns:

1. No imported labor (or only occasionally exchanged labor of friends and family.) This means scaling the needs of the project to the labor we can do for our projects for ourselves. This also means we have to be very clever with systems design to eliminate “low value” work like weeding and watering, stuff we’d never actually hire people to do if we had to pay them a living wage. (Learn more about right-scaling production to optimize return on investment.)

2. Creating a network of Permaculture sole-proprietorships. This is probably my favorite pattern for labor, and its the one Bill Mollison said that he preferred. If we need physical help, perhaps others in our region need help with the same tasks, which could make a nice business for some Permaculture independent contractor. Perhaps our capital could help them get started. In this case, they are in control of their own labor and own the means of their own production, and can negotiate with you on the market for their services. Some of that negotiating could involve non-cash exchange. The “down side” is that this is not very conducive to exploiting people for their cheap labor!

3. Bringing in paid labor. Yes, agricultural exemptions allow farmers to pay as little in practice as $3/hour. This is appalling. There is no way that such low wages, or even $10/hour in most markets, can provide for the needs listed above. Perhaps if all those other needs are met in non-monetary exchanges, then this can be a positive experience. Otherwise, it’s not likely to be positive for either party. In his analysis of farming labor, Booker T. Whatley advised that farms should only offer full-time, year-round, living wage employment if they want to avoid exploitation. While this is complicated, it’s a good benchmark.

4. Educational exchange, internships, Wwoofing, course tuition: This is so important it’s going to be its own article, but here are the basics. If education is part of the compensation package, then that education needs to be of real cash value. The skills being learned and practiced need to be of real cash value.

Weeding is not a valuable skill. Watering is not a valuable skill. Spraying is not a valuable skill. Following instructions is not a valuable skill for life advancement.

The skills being learned in an internship should be applicable to earning a good living wage and meeting the needs above: these are things like planting design, succession plans, crop selection, marketing, customer service, realistic business plans, whole management systems….

If the farm is only profitable due to low-cost labor, then the system the interns or woofers are learning is exploitation.

This is why people look at wwoofing as training to be farmers, but instead, it’s the biggest reason for the spread of poor farming practices.

The Permaculture Design Certificate Course is a valuable piece of capital, but in the age of online and even free PDCs it is considerably less valuable than it was just 5 years ago. In many cases, it ALONE may not be a valuable piece of capital for young people with little capital. When we’re young, our number one life job should be to invest our time and resources into developing valuable capital.

An excellent course by a great practitioner doing successful non-exploitive work in the area you want to be working in may be more valuable.

But the best Permaculture designers and teachers are already thinking of ways to increase the actual value of such opportunities as forms of capital. That’s where the future is, and students would be smart to seek out those opportunities.

5. Room and board alone. The fact is, there will be young people looking to travel who need low-cost places to stay and have little more than their labor to offer for it. And there will be farmers who need labor. So this isn’t going away. But the other fact is that it causes a lot of horror stories for both sides. You don’t want to live a horror story. So, consider how you can send each guest away with real value. Consider: what forms of capital and knowledge have they developed from their stay? That’s my advice.

6. Food exchange. This is often done as part of a CSA payment. I have done this when I didn’t have land access. If the food received is the same as cash for an hourly rate, then this is likely to make both parties happy. If not, be ready to say good bye to the customer and the labor.

7. Co-operative enterprises. Another way to access labor is to create cooperatives. There are different kinds of cooperatives, ones where workers own the enterprize, others where consumers own the enterprize to benefit themselves, and others that are a mix of the two. Usually, people focus on worker co-ops, but for land stewards looking to access labor, cooperating with consumer co-ops could be a valuable tool. We’ve had experiments with this in S.W. Michigan, which could be the building block for others who want to use that tool.

8. More creative, individualized forms of capital. As Permaculture designers, we should understand that we have many forms of capital available to us, and our laborers may have many forms of capital to offer. The real question, is how do we invest them together to become wealthier? We should want all those who are looking to do earth stewardship to grow wealthier, because that makes us wealthier. If you get something from Lillie House that gives you more political and social capital, then perhaps you’ll be able to spend some of that back to us if we are in need of it. And together as a community, if we have enough wealth, social and political capital, we may be able to some day flex real muscle in the protection of the earth, its people and all its beings.

Each interaction with labor is an opportunity for us to grow that wealth and a better future.

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