What is Permaculture?

The Niagara Farm Project incorporates ‘permaculture’ techniques into its practices as they are more sustainable than past and current conventional farming ways.

The following post, is taken from the Niagara Farm Project Guidance Manual. This manual is continually updated and created by our interns. One by one, subject by subject, they contribute their knowledge as it relates to food security in Niagara. This section was written last year, by one of our first interns, Natalie Polich.

Heather, Anna, Nicole, Breanna, Alex and Natalie

So what is permaculture farming? And how does it differ from regular conventional farming?

Regular farming or conventional farming that has taken place for the past 100 years is characterized by mono-cropping. To fully understand this term and its effects I suggest reading ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ by Michael Pollan. Simply put, mono-cropping is defined as the high-yield agricultural practice of growing a single crop year after year on the same land without rotation through other crops.

Disadvantages

Since only one crop is planted, the soil’s nutrients lack diversity.

Lack of diversity in the soil creates a niche for parasites, which can quickly wipe out an entire crop.

With parasites easily able to live, the need pesticides, fertilizers and GMOs increase.

In sum biodiversity is destroyed and soil is depleted.

Soil Erosion

This can be related to human health for better understanding. If we feed our bodies only one type of food, we are going to lack nutrients, our immune system will suffer, and we’ll get sick. The same idea applies if we feed the soil only one crop through mono-cropping. The soil will lack nutrients, allowing pests to invade, fertilizers needed to rid the pests, fertilizer chemicals harming the environment, bringing us to today’s agricultural system where there are many skeptics of GMOs and conventional practices.

In Canada, 34% of crops grown are grains and 24% are red meats. (Canadian Federation of Agriculture, 2007). Is half of our crop being taken up by two main food categories beneficial?

Canada, despite its size, has by far the smallest proportion of total land that is agricultural at only 7.3%. The United Kingdom has the largest, with 68.6% of its land under agricultural use (FAO, 2006). How has the United Kingdom’s land not been degraded beyond repair when such a large portion of their land mass is used for agriculture? Could Europe’s agricultural techniques be more lasting than Canada’s?

Conventional or regular farming is resource-intensive in terms of capital, land, water, and fossil fuel use. Its characteristics contribute to environmental degradation and climate change.

After noticing the effects of current agricultural systems, the two founders of permaculture asked a simple question, “How can we feed people by patterning agriculture after natural systems, rather than destroying natural systems?”

Monoculture Crop using Green Technologies

In practice, permaculture farms are low-input, and biodiverse, using the technique of polyculture. Polyculture is agriculture using multiple crops in the same space, imitating of the diversity of natural ecosystems. It avoids large stands of single crops, or monoculture. It includes multi-cropping, intercropping, companion planting, beneficial weeds, and alley cropping.

Food Forest Permaculture Design

Permaculture challenges how government and NGOs usually teach people to farm. Indigenous farming knowledge, like that used in permaculture, has been devalued and eroded with the imposition of mono-cropping. It’s time to bring polyculture back!

Advantages:

Diversity of crops avoids susceptibility to disease.

􏰀 A greater variety of crops provides habitat for more species, increasing local diversity.

􏰀Biological diversity is a function of biological pest control.

Polyculture is one principle of ‘permaculture’ which signifies ‘permanent agriculture’ or ‘permanent culture’; cultivating and utilizing the land in a way which could last permanently. I hope that this brief synopsis has left you thinking about where agriculture is headed in the future.

Refer to the Soil and Planting Technique Section of The Niagara Farm Project Guidance Manual for specific permaculture farming techniques.

There are numerous permaculture projects globally. However, they are largely disparate and often small-scale projects. The following is a list of successful permaculture undertakings:

1. The University of Massachusetts Amherst, or UMass, has begun on campus sustainable permaculture gardens. This project varies from ours, since they are growing crop on campus, where we are using farm property. However, their permaculture techniques can be applied. The NFP has been in contact with UMass to gain knowledge on how to begin such a project. A video of UMass’ project can be found here.

2. One of the two founding fathers of permaculture, Bill Mollison, has an Institute of Permaculture located in Tasmania, go here for more detail on Bill Mollison and his other programs.

3. Geoff Lawton runs the Permaculture Research Institute, which is a continuation of the Institute that Bill Mollison began, since he is now retired. Here is Geoff Lawton’s webpage on who is doing what, where, is the permaculture world.


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