I try to guide the development of Arcady, my smallholding, using permaculture principles and design approaches (I have attended the Sustainable Land Use course at Ragmans Lane Farm in Gloucestershire, taught by Patrick Whitefield and others – and now available online –  and have obtained my Permaculture Design Certificate). Since I believe such approaches are going to prove invaluable in an era of ‘peak oil’ (& other ‘peak resources), a changing climate and global financial instability – the ‘perfect storm’ (see the Transition Network). I will provide an introduction to permaculture below.

Permaculture has been described in many different ways – and at many different levels – and is generally recognised as hard to tie-down precisely and quickly! So with that in mind, let’s start with one pithy definition that I have encountered: permaculture as applied ecology. If ecology is the study of how organisms relate to one another and to their physical surroundings (a dictionary definition), then permaculture is about applying the results of this study to human-made (or at least human-influenced!) systems. Put another way: permaculture involves observing how nature works and applying the lessons in terms of design – with a view to creating greater sustainability. Of course, this is not as simple as it seems, relying as it does on good observation skills, as well as pattern recognition and analytical abilities. In general terms, though, this leads to an oft-quoted permaculture principle: work with nature, not against it.

Another basic way of approaching it is to look at the word itself: PermaCulture: it is a combination of Permanent + Agriculture, or Permanent + Culture. So at this basic level it is suggesting longevity and sustainability in food production and life in general. To illustrate this, let’s look at what the co-founders of ‘permaculture’ have said:

Bill Mollison, at the start of Permaculture – A Designer’s Manual, writes:

Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. (1988, p.ix)

David Holmgren, the other co-founder of permaculture describes it as:

Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs. People, their buildings and the ways in which they organise themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent or sustainable agriculture has evolved to one of permanent or sustainable culture.

Already we are seeing a broadening of the scope of the concept: to culture generally. It doesn’t take long exploring the permaculture world to realise that permaculture is a ‘fuzzy concept‘, which leads to no end of debates by those claiming permaculture as their own: is it only a design science?; how are permaculture ethics framed and applied?; can it include spirituality? This fuzziness make permaculture rather fecund; how could ‘vegan permaculture’ be conceived otherwise – on a strict definition based on a contraction of Permanent Agriculture the term ‘vegan permaculture’ is a contradiction in terms: look up a definition of agriculture – it seems to always include animal husbandry; and if one of the central tenets of permaculture is the observation of nature for the purpose of discerning patterns that may be used in design, it doesn’t take long to realise that nature isn’t vegan! Because permaculture has grown beyond clear, bounded definition – if indeed it ever had that quality – then vegan permaculture (if not vegan agriculture) is conceivable; it is obviously not my approach to permaculture. For all it’s fuzziness, though, permaculture is on the whole a very practical approach – offering many useful solutions.

With the above in mind, why not have a look at how the UK Permaculture Association, the Australian Permaculture Research Institute or the US Permaculture Institute frame and set out permaculture.

If you want to get stuck into some debate about the scope of permaculture, then take a look at author Toby Hemenway’s article on what permaculture isn’t – as well as what it is.

And if you really want to dig into some interesting issues around permaculture training and application then have a look at this Small Farm Future blog post and the ensuing discussion – although maybe it is best looked at after developing an initial appreciation of the subject.

Examples of Permaculture in Action

Perhaps one of the best introductions to permaculture and its possibilities – especially regarding land-use and food production in a UK context – is the BBC documentary A Farm for the Future. You should be able track down a copy on youtube.

Sepp Holzer is reasonably well-known in permaculture circles – he has created a diverse and productive farm half way up a mountain in Austria – Permaculture Magazine has an article with a link to a video about the place. Some think his version focuses a little too much on the use of heavy machinery for land-works – an approach shared by others in the permaculture world.

Permies is a great web resource for practical permaculture solutions – especially around ‘homesteading’ (US for smallholding).

The UK Permaculture Association has coordinated a network of permaculture demonstration sites – the LAND network – there may be one near you.

There are a lot of blogs and websites out there put together by people with all sorts of practical approaches to permaculture – all just a few clicks away via the search-engine of your choice. A simple strategy is to add ‘permaculture’ to the topic of interest – e.g., ‘permaculture toilet’ – and see what comes out.

Permaculture Courses

If you wish to study permaculture then the Permaculture Association lists courses currently offered in the UK and beyond. Very few of these cover keeping livestock as part of a permaculture system – especially as taught by people with practical experience of keeping livestock and marketing the associated produce (in my opinion and experience, the ‘centre of gravity’ of the UK permaculture establishment is a little more vegan and vegetarian than the population as a whole; or at the very least it appears that there is an unspoken wish to not offend their sensibilities by discussing meat production in a permaculture context). If you would like to learn about keeping livestock as part of a productive smallholding system from someone who does so, then consider taking one of my courses or coming to camp at the smallholding.

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