Picking up the Gantlet

(I originally wrote this article as a submission to PermacultureNews.org, but decided it would be better as a blog.)

I don't know about you, but I was really shaken by Peter Harper's insightful critique of permaculture last summer, “Permaculture: The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” It has caused me to rethink the way I approach my urban farm, at least for the coming year. Let me explain.

I studied permaculture with some of the levelest-headed people I have ever met. They were frequently surrounded by dreamers and idealists, but their own feet were firmly on the ground. I gained a healthy respect for the scientific basis of permaculture, but not having a background in biology I assumed other people were taking care of the actual research. In retrospect I swallowed a lot of ideas just because they were put forward confidently by people I trusted to have their facts straight.

Six years ago when Jessie and I moved to the little town of Emporia, Kansas, just about five miles east of the inhospitable Great Plains and right in the center of the United States, I resolved to turn our 1/10 acre yard into an intensive permaculture garden. More than that, I resolved to be the one to bring permaculture to the frontier. I would teach intro classes, I would make permaculture a household word in Emporia and offer my services as a designer... even if I didn't get any design work, I would at least gather a critical mass of interested people who could carpool to permaculture events in the liberal stronghold of Lawrence, more than 80 miles away.

Six years later, I have yet to find a single interested party within 20 miles to carpool to Lawrence with, and while I can now toss the word permaculture around in conversation, most people are just being polite. I've had design clients, but they haven't followed any of my advice. My wife and I bring crops to market, but our quantities are laughably small (though our fellow farmers are, again, polite), and so are our profits. Last fall I went on a tour of 3-year-old food forest plots in Kansas City (90 miles east, with a more predictable climate and better soil) and found they were all farther along than mine, despite my two year head start... and then there's Eric Toensmeier's envy-inspiring Paradise Lot! After two summers of drought and a promising spring, I was unprepared for the rain we got in 2013, and what should have been a bumper crop was a disappointment yet again. So when Harper pulled the rug of empiricism out from under permaculture and showed it to be full of holes, I lost my footing.

In case you haven't read Harper's article, here's just one of the bombshells he tossed into the conversation: “It is very rarely the case that perennials outperform annuals. The fact that this is still widely believed suggests the PC movement runs on Nice Ideas rather than evidence.” I've invested a lot in perennials over the past six years and now have about 75 species established. Most of the larger, woody ones have yet to bear fruit due (I presume) to our heavy soil and harsh climate, so I've been filling in the gaps with annuals, trusting that any year now the perennials will come into their own and the garden will “pop” as Toby Hemenway says. That ought to be easy enough to test, right? But Harper says, “I have encountered numerous ‘permaculture gardens’ with abysmal levels of productivity that have nevertheless persuaded their creators that they are virtually self-sufficient in food. A few measurements and numbers would quickly dispel this illusion, but Permies just don’t do numbers.” Well, I can do numbers; I keep plenty of records in my other business to keep it profitable; I certainly ought to do the same in my gardening whether or not Harper is correct... and I ought to share my results whether or not they are favorable. I resolved to do that this year.

Harper's list contrasting “smart” permaculture with “cult” permaculture was another wake-up call. While I would like to say the intro classes I've taught were solidly on the “smart” side, I have to admit they were a mix of the two. This called for a step back to re-evaluate the foundations of what I'm doing and promoting. In the divide Harper portrays between David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, I have always fallen on Mollison's side because, frankly, I find Holmgren's writing to be intolerably dull and his outlook too gloomy. I can be gloomy all by myself; I don't need any more inspiration to be pessimistic! The enthusiasm and can-do attitude so characteristic of Mollison's style are what keep me going, and in my opinion Holmgren would do well to separate his realistic and accurate assessment of where we are from his disempowering and discouraging predictions of where we are headed.

But after reading Harper's critique, I found I was seeing the optimistic Mollisonian wing of permaculture with new eyes. Every time an enthusiastic young permie repeats that “comfrey is like a slow-motion fountain of nutrients,” I am now acutely aware that I've never seen a shred of evidence for that. Where are the soil tests before and after growing comfrey? The Wikipedia article is peppered with [citation needed] and has been for years, and the Plants for a Future entry cites a source which it acknowledges to contain “a number of silly mistakes.” My own soil tests do not show improvement after growing comfrey, and I haven't reported them because... well, everybody knows comfrey is a dynamic accumulator, so I must be doing something wrong... right?

Two years ago, before I read Harper's article, I had the opportunity to do some controlled trials of sheet mulch and guilding – my hope was to demonstrate the effectiveness of these techniques in improving tree health. I built a sheet mulch and guild of supportive understory plants (mainly insectories and comfrey), around one small ash (Fraxinus sp.) tree and not the other, one small American filbert (Corylus americana) bush and not the other. In both cases the treated plant was outperformed the following year by its grass-surrounded neighbor. Neither result is significant due to the sample size and short trial, but neither did they demonstrate what I set out to show, and negative results deserve to be reported, if we're being honest.

There is one other factor in my decision to put my urban farm on trial this year, and that is that the past few summers I haven't had the energy to do all the things I wanted to do outdoors, and I can only expect this summer will be the same. A vacation from intensive maintenance in favor of collecting and reporting data will be welcome.

So that is my plan. Mollison predicts that an established system like mine should be able to take care of itself with minimal maintenance while producing useful crops. Harper predicts that low inputs will result in low outputs. I'll be keeping track of my labor and expenses as well as all of my harvests, and I'll report back one way or the other. Stay tuned!