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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Producer Deborah Begel travels to Santa Fe, New Mexico and Basalt Mountain, Colorado to examine an emerging approach to agriculture known as permaculture. Permaculture is a holistic method of growing food which combines agriculture, husbandry and careful engineering to create a low-waste, ecologically-viable system.


CURWOOD: For many farmers, the search for sustainable methods of agriculture goes beyond addressing problems of animal waste and chemical runoff. Other practices that are being used more and more often include organic farming, rotational grazing, and the move away from single-crop cultivation. But perhaps no new approach is as broad and holistic as permaculture. That's the shorthand expression for permanent agriculture, a sustainable, organic system of farming that relies on a web of interdependent crops and livestock, and a relatively low amount of careful human input. Permaculture farms are sprouting all over the world. Producer Deborah Begel visited two such farms in New Mexico and Colorado and filed this report.

BEGEL: At a desert ranch outside Santa Fe, members of New Mexico's Youth Ecology Corps are working in the hot sun beside an adobe tool shed. Some are mixing cement for greenhouse foundations. Others are building a frame for a new water tank. Jessie MacDonald is working on a system to capture and distribute water, a scarce resource here in the desert Southwest.

MACDONALD: A lot of time people build their gutters so that all the water just dumps right off into a certain spot, and it really doesn't get used by anything. So one of the things that we're working on out here is to build a cistern system which will catch and hold the water so we can use it to feed our plants and crops and whatnot in the dry season.

BEGEL: MacDonald and the other corps members are adapting this 200-year-old ranch to a new type of agriculture known as "permaculture" - short for permanent agriculture. It's based on a relatively simple premise - that the only way to organize an agriculture system that's truly sustainable, or permanent, is to cut back on the use of human inputs and technology and make the most out of the resources nature has provided. Thomas Mack is teaching the corps members both carpentry and permaculture techniques.

MACK: Permaculture is about how we can create a sustainable human habitat, take care of the earth, take care of plants and animals, and take care of people in a way that will do little damage to the earth and sustain us in a life of abundance.

BEGEL: Mack says permaculture begins with organic farming - growing food without any artificial chemical inputs - but it doesn't end there. It relies on innovations in design and engineering, and on such modern technologies as passive solar energy and drip agriculture. The cornerstone of permaculture is observation - watching for patterns and relationships in nature, noticing which plants thrive together and where, working with the landscape rather than trying to tame it. And it shuns modern practices like reliance on annual crops that have to be replanted every year. Thomas Mack.

MACK: We like to emphasize the use of perennial crops, which will continue to return year after year, and to put our crops into a mix so that we've got tree crops, vine crops, herb level crops, bush level, and ground cover crops to get a multiplicity, a diversity and more abundant yields so we use three dimensionality in our systems to create high yields.

BEGEL: The basic principles of permaculture are broad guidelines and meant to be adaptable to any of the world's microclimates.

(Sound of grain being shoveled)

BEGEL: It's 7 a.m., and it's time to feed the chickens at Jerome Osentowski's farm near Aspen, Colorado. Osentowski grows salad greens and starter plants on a steep, high-altitude farm on Basalt Mountain. When he designed his chicken coop, Osentowski put one of permaculture's major premises to work - that by careful design and placement, he could organize animals, plants, and even buildings on his farm to perform several functions at once. For example, he wanted his chickens to provide meat and eggs. But he also realized they were a source of heat, so he built his chicken coop on the west wall of the greenhouse, with a door between the two that he could open up at night. He then got still another use out of his chickens - he arranged for them to help him build his soil.

OSENTOWSKI: The straw yard here is about 30 or 40 feet by 12 feet wide and it's on a sloping gradient, and so that as they work this material through, picking and shredding and manuring on it, it moves down the whole slope and deposits down at the very bottom. And it turns into very nice compost. So we're using gravity and chickens to make compost.

BEGEL: About four times a year, Osentowski opens up a gate at the bottom of the chicken yard and hauls out about 4 cubic yards of rich compost. After a tour of the farm, Osentowski pulls out a slide projector and ten years of permaculture's radical approach to farming unfold in photographs. Osentowski shuns monocropping and planting in rows, because he believes these practices damage the soil and create a greater need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Instead, Osentowski advocates planting in what he calls "guilds." A guild is a symbiotic association of plants in which one plant is the center and several others provide services for that plant.

OSENTOWSKI: So here we have an apple tree, it's sort of the center of this guild, and then we have comfrey, it's on the drip line that helps keep the grasses away, we have nasturtiums and chives and fennel, all these insectarary plants, and then we have the acacia as a nitrogen-fixing tree. So these are the sorts of things, we're looking at nature, how nature would set up the wild guilds and then we can come back and do them with more commercially-valuable plants.

BEGEL: So far, few exponents of "conventional agriculture" have paid much attention to permaculture. But Gary Cunningham, an associate dean of agriculture at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, says permaculture does have lessons to offer the world of agribusiness.

CUNNINGHAM: The techniques that are involved in permaculture and other sustainable agricultural practices are going to be very useful in teaching us some things about how we can adapt commercial-scale agriculture, maintaining mineral nutrients on the land, conserving water, and reducing our use of energy and chemical inputs.

BEGEL: Although permaculture is primarily a new approach to growing food, its advocates urge a social vision as well, one that calls for organizing communities to provide food, energy and other needs locally. Permaculture designers, as they call themselves, are constantly on the lookout for better ways to conserve water and energy and recycle wastes.

(MACK: "OK , let's gather and figure out what our status is with the project and what to do for today..." fade under)

BEGEL: Back at the ranch outside Santa Fe, teacher Thomas Mack gathers his students for a noontime break under the canopy of 200-year-old black walnut trees. He says permaculture offers an opportunity to turn back what he views as society's collision course toward self-destruction.

MACK: As we observe the processes and functions of nature, we can begin to adapt and model our own lives, our technology, and our human settlement in a way that conforms with nature's cycles and patterns, and work cooperatively rather than imposing our own will on the land. In permaculture, we have the philosophy that we are in heaven; we've been given on the earth everything that we need and if we take care of the earth first, we can take care of everybody that lives here.

BEGEL: Adapting permaculture to take care of everyone who lives on the earth is a long way from reality. But it is beginning to catch on. Farmers and gardeners are already applying permaculture's techniques in small pockets of more than 160 countries, including several 2,000-acres farms in Australia. For Living on Earth,
this is Deborah Begel in Santa Fe.



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