Erica Olson: Permaculture beyond food production
July 23, 2010
Steamboat Springs — Permaculture is shorthand for permanent agriculture, meaning agriculture/social constructs that can be sustained indefinitely. The idea behind permaculture is to design human settlements and agricultural systems that mimic patterns found in nature. These designs continue to evolve throughout time and have the potential to become extremely complex. The focus is not so much on the individual elements of the design, but how they relate to one another in the system. By maximizing the relationships between element designs, permaculture can not only create systems that are useful to people but actually can recover the health of a damaged ecosystem and restore it to a production level beyond its original output.
Each factor of the design is arranged so that the output of one element fulfills a need of other elements while minimizing waste. One of the current champions of modern permaculture is Joel Salatin, a farmer in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Salatin practices rotational grazing with his cattle, moving them from pasture to pasture — mimicking a ruminant's natural tendency to roam grazing areas. A few days after the cattle have moved on, he brings in flocks of chickens, because birds have followed grazing animals throughout the world's ecology. Salatin's chickens scratch in the cattle manure, feeding themselves by gobbling down the fly larvae that have been deposited there. This helps cut down on or eliminate fly problems, while the scratching helps to disperse the manure and fertilizing the pasture. The chickens, in turn, leave their own natural fertilizer.
Permaculture is not a specific production system, but a philosophy. As such, it may be adapted to local ecologies anywhere to utilize traditional production methods. At the same time, permaculture can enhance those methods by incorporating sustainable agriculture practices and land-management techniques from across the world, providing a synthesis between the old and the new.
As important as food production is, permaculture goes beyond that expanse to include social and economic components. Recycling, energy-efficient buildings, wastewater treatment, xeriscaping, and general land stewardship practices are important factors in permaculture.
Other concepts focus more on community, such as the development of eco-villages and co-housing projects. Social permaculture aspects can be adapted anywhere from single families to rural environments to urban cities.