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Designing sustainable small farms


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Designing sustainable small farms

  1. 1. Designing Sustainable Small Farms Fig. I adapted from Permaculture Two by Bill Mollison. Copyright© 1979 by Bill Wilson. Reprinted with permission from Tagari Books, P.O. Box 96, Stanley, Tasmania, 7331, Australia.Conventional agricultural ecosystems (i.e., farms) are inherently fragile: Their productivity can be sustained only if fossil fuel subsidies, in one form or another, areemployed as inputs. Most farms entail, as well, other very serious environmental costs. Clearly, we need to create new food raising systems that will conserve soil, water,and nutrients ... minimize the use of fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers, and synthetic pesticides ... and lead to regionally self-reliant food systems.Alternative farming practices-known variously as organic, biological, or bio dynamic methods-come closer to meeting such a criterion of sustainability. Nationwide, anestimated 30,000 farmers now rely on crop rotation; animal manures, legumes, green manures, mechanical cultivation, mineral-bearing rocks, and biological pest controlto maintain soil productivity and tilth, supply plant nutrients, and control insects, weeds, and other pests.Although the expanding organic movement is a positive development, in the final analysis agricultural production will be maintained only if farms are designed in theimage of natural ecosystems, combining the knowledge of science with the wisdom of the wilderness. Natural ecosystems are extremely resilient and use only renewablesources of input. They have, for thousands of years, demonstrated high productivity, an impressive ability to maintain environmental quality, and quick adaptiveness tonatural disturbances. Hence they can be used as architectural and botanical models for designing and structuring our agroecosystems.This is the approach of permaculture, the term coined by Australian Bill Mollison to describe the concept of a self-sustaining, consciously designed system of agriculture.Permaculture takes the practices of organic farming one step further, applying natural principles to design a self sustaining food-, fibre-, and energy-producing ecosystem.By weaving together the elements of microclimate, annual and perennial plants, water and soil management, and human needs, the permaculturist forms an energy-efficient, low-maintenance, high-yielding, and intricately interconnected system. The philosophy, as summed up by Mollison, is one "of working with, rather than againstnature; of protracted and thoughtful observation, rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather thantreating any area as a single product system.)Although permaculture setups are still in the experimental stages, I believe that-with some modifications-these concepts will form the backbone of a truly sustainableagriculture. At the New Alchemy Institute in Massachusetts, were redesigning our entire 12-acre site in order to test the economic performance of a small farm thatemploys biological and solar resources as its main production and management inputs. Anyone with a small parcel of land-be it a homestead plot that simply meets thefood needs of a family, or a farm that must generate income-can share in similar research by completing and implementing their own designs, and reporting on thosecomponents that perform well and those that dont.In the following pages, Ill describe the permaculture guidelines for designing small farms and homesteads and then explain the actual design process. This article isnecessarily general rather than specific but my hope is that it can set you on the right road. You will have to find out most of what you need to know from other sources(such as the ones Ill mention) and from your own experience. Remember as you work that the ever changing landscapes around us have much to teach the patientobserver. The challenge we face is to listen, look, and learn.Some Sad Facts About Our Food SystemTwo million small farms in this country produce 20% of our food, and gardens alone supply an estimated $16 billion worth of produce each year. As heartening as thissounds, most of us still depend on food produced on large farms that are far removed from the point of consumption. We share, therefore, in the serious environmentalcosts associated with conventional agriculture. As in other areas of human endeavor, technological progress in agriculture has been purchased at the price ofenvironmental degradation and the loss of natural resources. Consider, for example, some of the external costs of modern farming in this country.*At least one-third of our topsoil has been lost to erosion, and soil on existing cropland is being reduced at an average annual rate of 8 tons per acre ... and on 23% of thetotal cropland, soil losses average 21 tons per acre.* Productivity has been maintained by increased fossil fuel input in the forms of cultivation, fertilizers, and synthetic pesticides ... and the resulting soil erosion and over-fertilization are responsible for the serious degradation of our aquatic ecosystems.* Each year, approximately one billion pounds of pesticides are used in US agriculture, yet losses to insect pests, pathogens, and weeds exceed a third of the potentialcrop. In addition, pesticide abuse is responsible for environmental and public health problems, such as human poisoning and fatalities, groundwater contamination, thedestruction of nontarget organisms, and the development of pesticide resistant weeds and insects.* Agriculture accounts for at least 81% of our nations water consumption, and in some areas, salinization and aquifer depletion are apparent.
  2. 2. * The conversion of agricultural land for nonfarm uses has led to large deficits in food production in some parts of the country. (Massachusetts, for example, imports 93%of its food requirements.)* The food system absorbs 16% of all the energy used in America. Food production, distribution, and processing can be sustained only as long as fossil fuels are availableand affordable.Part 1: Design GuidelinesThe primary characteristic that distinguishes permaculture systems from conventional agriculture is the emphasis on skilled design. The placement of elements in alandscape, their relationships to each other, their evolution over time, and the ability of the system as a whole to meet the realistic goals of its managers should all betaken into consideration.The following design guidelines are derived from texts (some of which are listed in the accompanying reading list) and from our understanding of ecological principles. Assuch, they represent a synthesis of scientific findings and common sense, combining proven practical ideas with experimental ones. These guidelines should assist yourdesign process, influencing your management strategies and aiding in the selection of landscape components and their relative sizes and locations.ZONES AND SECTORSIn permaculture systems, landscape components are divided into zones and sectors to help produce an energy-efficient design. Zones separate the site according tolabor needs: Frequently visited or labor intensive areas are situated close to the center of activity (which in most cases is the farmhouse), while those requiring lessattention are placed farther away. For example, as shown in Fig. 1, annuals that are tended daily-such as herbs and vegetables-are located near the farmhouse ...whereas low-maintenance livestock and tree crops are situated in a more remote zone. This concept makes sense in terms of minimizing labor, and it helps ensure highyields: After all, distance invites neglect, while proximity encourages management.In general, farm development follows the concept of zonation, as well. Distant areas are utilized only after the nearby land is put to productive use.Sector planning divides the landscape into wedge-shaped areas that radiate from a particular point (again, most often the farmhouse) or points. From any one suchcenter, we identify some or all of the following sectors: views, both attractive and repulsive ... noises, some pleasant and others undesirable ... winds, warm in the summerand cold in winter ... sunshine, with its seasonal variations ... and fire risks.For each sector, planting and building schemes are designed to block or channel these external inputs. Undesirable noise can be masked with earthen banks or densebands of evergreen trees ... cold winter winds can be blocked with windbreaks ... fast-growing trees can screen ugly views ... and deciduous shrubs and trees planted tothe south can provide summer shade while still allowing the warming winter sunlight to penetrate. Looking again at Fig. 1, you can see that the roadway, poultry run, andpond have been situated so that they assist in fire control in addition to fulfilling their primary functions. Blazes coming from the southern sector would have to cross thepond, the road, and the bare ground of the poultry run before reaching the house. Placing these three components in another relationship would mean the loss of thisextra control function.RELATIVE LOCATIONWithin zones and sectors, farm components-orchards, the market garden, farm ponds, the farmhouse, the barn, the woodlot, and so forth should be placed in relation toone another so as to conserve labor and energy. Each component is thus viewed relatively rather than in isolation.An earthy illustration of this concept (from times gone by) concerns the outhouse, the woodpile, and the kitchen door. Assuming at least one daily visit to the outhouse byeach member, families could virtually guarantee a regular supply of fuel stacked by the stove if the woodpile was placed conveniently between the outhouse and thekitchen door.Or, consider the relationship between placement and elevation. The higher on a slope a pond is situated, for instance, the more potential it has to provide useful work. Ifthe pond that irrigates your raspberries is below the garden, energy must be furnished to move that water uphill ... whereas if the pond: s located up the slope from theberry bushes to begin with, a simple gravity-fed system is all thats required. Similarly, rainwater collection from the roof of a barn thats situated upland from thefarmhouse might provide a simple, inexpensive supply of household water.Taking advantage of slope isnt a new concept, of course: Barns have traditionally been built into hillsides so that hay can easily be loaded in the loft from the high groundand manure conveniently disposed of out the low side. In other words, imported materials should enter a site at a high elevation and exports should leave downslope.bit of thoughtful planning as to the relative locations for homestead elements can not only conserve labor and energy, but also avoid actual catastrophe. On a farm inEngland, I once saw three goats tethered on pasture that was adjacent to a large vegetable garden. Because no fences separated the goats from the garden, disasterwas only a broken rope away. A good design would have placed the goats at least two fences away from the vegetables.MULTIPLE FUNCTIONS FOR SINGLE ELEMENTSAnother consideration in permaculture systems is the capability of landscape elements to perform multiple functions. Its a simple statement of economics: Place thecomponents so that they are encouraged to provide as many services as possible. For example, in the Cape Cod Ark-a solar greenhouse-type structure at the NewAlchemy Institute water-filled 550-gallon tanks constructed of fiberglass-reinforced polyester provide thermal mass (see Photo 1). This is a common technique. However,we also use these ponds to produce fish, to provide warm, fertile irrigation water for vegetable crops (Photo 2), and to supply nutrients for hydroponic crops (Photo 3).Although our aquaculture/hydroponics system is still experimental, we have been able to produce up to 60 pounds of European cucumbers per plant from this setup.The common hedge is another classic multifunctional element. Many species meet the basic requirements of providing wind protection, livestock control, and screeningfor privacy ... but the Siberian pea shrub (Photo 4) can do much more. It fixes nitrogen, provides nectar for honeybees, produces seeds that contain as much as 27%protein and are an excellent poultry feed, and its an effective hedge.Hedges, green manure crops, flowers, shade trees, and ground covers can all provide nectar and pollen for honeybees as well as serve their primary functions.Basswoods, for instance, are the equal of the oaks as shade trees but are far superior as a source of nectar and pollen. Another example is buckwheat, an excellentgreen manure crop for poor soils and a plant thats actively worked by honeybees. And in lightly traveled areas, the creeping thymes (Photo 5) are low maintenance,nectar-producing alternatives to lawns.Farm ponds, too, can serve many functions. They can be used for irrigation, fish farming, aquatic crops, or watering livestock. In winter, the reflection from a pond willincrease the light levels in a greenhouse located north of the water ... and (as mentioned before) a pond can play an integral role in a fire-protection scheme. Canal-likeponds can even act as barriers to livestock movement, limiting the range of sheep and chickens, for instance, while allowing ducks and geese to roam freely (Photo 6).
  3. 3. MULTIPLE ELEMENTS FOR SINGLE FUNCTIONSAs well as encouraging landscape elements to perform multiple functions, good design ensures that basic needs-such as water collection, fire protection, and food supply-are met in several ways. Its an agricultural insurance policy, if you like. If a gardener or farmer is dependent on a single crop for livestock feed, income, or whatever, andthat crop fails, the whole enterprise is endangered ... whereas on a multifaceted homestead, that loss could be made up by another means.Preparing for drought offers a good example. Livestock farmers often depend on pasture for both summer grazing and winter stores of hay or silage. When a droughtoccurs, however, the number of livestock that can be sustained on the pasture is decreased. Simultaneously, the cost of alternative feeds is driven up while the price oflivestock plummets. A prudent design plans for drought by including fodder trees as a backup food source. These plantings, in turn, should be located so that they deliverother functions as well, such as summer shade, erosion control, and windbreaks. Photo 7 illustrates how poplars (the leaves and shoots of this tree are palatable tolivestock) and pasture can provide a secure sheep feed, with the trees also assisting in controlling soil loss on the sloping site.BIOLOGICAL RESOURCESAnother characteristic of permaculture systems is that, whenever possible, production and management inputs are derived from biological resources. In my opinion, thisconcept is the key to sustainable agriculture.During the design process, consider plants and animals that can provide such functions as energy conservation; insect, disease, and weed control; nutrient recycling-,fertilization; and tillage. In other words, let the work of farming be performed by the nonhuman elements in the system. For example, weeding geese (Photo 8) can beregarded as grazers, consumers of windfall fruits (thus aiding in disease and pest control), and sources of fertilizer . . . in addition to providing eggs, goose down, andThanksgiving dinners. There are numerous possibilities for using biological resources: Ive listed a small sampling of these in the accompanying sidebar.ALTERNATIVE TECHNOLOGIESSolar, wind, and other alternative technologies are also considered in permaculture plans. Options for the small farm or homestead include solar water heaters,photovoltaic systems, solar greenhouses, wind machines, methane digesters, and small hydroelectric setups, to name a few. In choosing design components, always lookfirst for structures and systems that save or generate energy, and only then consider those that consume energy.Of course, even solar technologies use nonrenewable energy during their manufacture. However, a fossil fuel can be viewed either as an inoculant or as an addiction.The embodied petroleum fuels in greenhouse glazing, for example, create a biologically powered environment that, over its useful lifetime, will repay that initial energyinvestment many times. Fossil energy invested in automobiles, in contrast, requires ongoing fuel investments in order to serve the desired functions. Thats addiction.The same distinction can be applied to soil restoration. Soluble fertilizers applied once to worn-out, eroded soil will produce a green manure crop thats high in biomass,which in turn supplies organic matter for biologically derived fertility. In this instance, the fertilizer acts as an inoculant. Conventional farming, on the other hand, isaddicted to soluble fertilizers, using them as ongoing replacements for biological fertility.SUCCESSIONA good permaculture design also takes advantage of the fact that landscapes develop over time. Orchard trees mature, weed and insect populations change, and woodlotcomposition shifts. In natural ecosystems, this concept is known as succession ... and it describes the process by which, for example, an abandoned field becomesinhabited with successive communities of weeds, wildflowers, shrubs, pioneer trees, and mature species until it becomes a forest.In conventional farming, succession is frozen at an early stage by practices such as tillage, grazing, fertilizing, and pest control ... all of which require energy-in the form ofhuman labor and chemical fertilizers and pesticides-for operation. By allowing agricultural succession to occur, or even by consciously directing it, energy and nutrientscan be conserved, soil losses reduced, and herbivore populations stabilized.Simple successional systems also make economic sense. For example, annuals and short-lived perennials planted between the rows of a young orchard will furnishincome while the orchard species mature. Photo 9 illustrates a system incorporating beans, plums, and walnut trees. The beans and plums will eventually be shaded outby the final crop, walnuts.In some cases, understanding the successional process provides the clue to optimal land use. Many shrub communities actually create the environment for thesucceeding tree species. Trees that follow pioneer species in a successional series, for instance, are often shade tolerant and, in fact, require a shaded environment forgermination. Other pioneer species are nitrogen fixers. By building up the soil nitrogen level, these plants create a more fertile soil in which succeeding species can thrive.Such communities could be interplanted with desired trees to accelerate succession.NUTRIENT RECYCLINGFarmers are in the import-export business. Nutrients, materials, and energy are imported, often from distant sources; then farm products carry embodied nutrients,materials, and energy off-site. The goal in permaculture is to convert such nutrient flows to cycles, both within the farm ecosystem and at the local and regional levels.A good farm design provides for the recycling of livestock manure in composting systems, fish ponds, gardens, and orchards ... retrieves leached nutrients with greenmanure crops ... and traps and stores rainwater. At the local scale, organic refuse (such as leaves and vegetable wastes) is reclaimed from the landfills. And on theregional level, properly treated human wastes are applied to farmland as compost or sludge.DIVERSITYFinally, permaculture systems favor diversity over monoculture. However, because interactions among plants are both beneficial and competitive, diversity in and of itselfis not as important as the right kind of diversity. Plant relationships take many forms, including competition for light, nutrients, water, and pollinators ... relativeattractiveness as food sources for insects ... and chemical interactions. Photo 10 shows the competition between a hedge and a shade tree for nutrients, water, and light(the tree seems to be winning this one). As another example, in the eastern United States planting apples in the vicinity of red cedar will almost inevitably result in applesafflicted with cedar apple rust (Photo 11). Thus, less diversity-in this case, no cedars within half a mile of the orchard species sometimes results in higher productivity.In other words, the number of elements in the landscape is not as important as the number and quality of the linkages among them. Good design maximizes the numberof beneficial interactions among plants, structures, and people while minimizing or eliminating those interactions that are harmful. Such a setup is shown in Photo 12:Here grapes and blackberries are grown in close proximity in a northern California vineyard, a wise combination because the blackberries attract a parasite of a majorgrape pest.Diversity can also be considered from an economic standpoint. With farmers incomes dependent on the vagaries of the marketplace, having several salable productsinstead of one tends to avoid large (and possibly disastrous) fluctuations in financial returns. As prices vary, some farm commodities can be held or sold to maximize
  4. 4. profit. Of course, once your lettuce is in the ground, it must be marketed as it matures. But livestock and pasture crops permit flexibility in selling strategy. My fathers1,300-acre farm in New Zealand, for instance, provides varying amounts of lamb, mutton, wool, beef, barley, red and white clover seed, and ryegrass seed for sale in anyone year.Depending on the relative prices, cattle can be held a year before theyre slaughtered, a potential seed crop can be used for hay, or sheep can be heavily or lightly called.Now that weve covered the basic guide lines-zones and sectors, relative location, multiple functions for single elements, multiple ele ments for single functions, biologicalresources, alternative technol ogies, succession, nutrient recycling, and diversity-lets move on to implementing these principles.Part 11: The Design ProcessThe design process starts with the guidelines above, adds a particular piece of land and specific farmers, and then uses the following step-by step procedure to arrive at acompleted small farm or homestead plan.DEFINING GOALSFirst, the person or persons operating a small farm or homestead must define realistic objectives and state them as precisely as possible. Its not enough to want "to beself-sufficient." Such vague statements immediately suggest other questions: Do you want to be self reliant in everything, including energy needs? ... Or only food? ... Oronly summer vegetables?A workable goals statement could be as follows: On this land, within five years, we want to net $20,000 a year for 40 person-hours of work per week and for a total capitaloutlay of less than $50,000.No design will succeed if its developed without such clear objectives. You must know what you want to do before you can figure out how to do it. So although youll betempted to avoid this issue and move on to the excitement of choosing a chicken breed or planning a crop rotation scheme, dont A good design must precede theimplementation. Premature zeal often results in mistakes that may be costly later.Ideally, for the first year you should do nothing beyond defining goals and identifying the resources at hand. Rather than rushing out to dig a pond or build a barn, spendthose first seasons getting to know the land and its resources. The only exceptions to this "do little" strategy are activities that are obviously necessary or involve aminimal commitment of time and money. These could include establishing herb and salad gardens near the farmhouse, upgrading insulation and weather stripping, andharvesting firewood from dead trees.IDENTIFYING RESOURCESGoals can be well-defined and still be unrealistic, of course. The next step, completing a resource inventory, will give you a check with reality. Through carefulobservation, collect data about the on-site and local resources, and closely examine your personal resources, as well.On-site resources. These include soils, climate, water supplies, pond sites, topography and slope, solar access, existing vegetation, microclimates, and geologicalfeatures. By compiling information about these resources, youll get to know and understand your land and its possibilities.Collect data for this from the previous owners, soil analyses, extension agents, weather stations, local farmers, and maps obtained from the regional branch of the SoilConservation Service and the United States Geological Survey. Also, spend time on the land. Walk it in every season, identify the plants growing in different areas, notevariations in the susceptibility to frost, determine what animal populations are present, note the location of wet and dry soils, calm and windy areas, and so forth. As youcarry out your resource inventory, look in particular for the following:[1] Problems. Good design takes advantage of all site resources, and especially those generally regarded as problems. Consider these, instead, as potentialopportunities. While listing and analysing your onsite resources, do the same for apparent problems ... the eroding hillside, the wet bog in the ten-acre pasture, that hugepatch of kudzu, or the rocky outcrop where youd hoped to put a garden.Weeds, for example, are familiar "problems." Too often, eradication immediately follows identification. A better strategy is to find a productive use for such plants. Get toknow each species, look up its economic botany to see if it contains useful medicinals or essential oils, and investigate its potential as a livestock feed or a green manurecrop. Learn to recognize the functions of the plant, too. The very thorniness of some weeds suggests uses: protection for young trees from livestock and wildlife,hedgerows or living fences to contain animals, or simply a deterrent to trespassers. Now some weeds are just weeds and have no merit. But if a large patch of vegetationcan be profitably exploited, youre better off using it: The very fact that this species is growing abundantly means that its well adapted to the site, climate, and soil.Therefore, any managing of this "crop" would be minimal.[2] Landscape indicators. Learn to read your landscape. Plant communities provide clues to microclimate and the texture, fertility, and moisture of the soil. Wildblueberries, strawberries, and dandelions (Photo 13), for example, indicate acid soils ... while thistle populations (Photo 14) may increase as a result of overgrazing.Eroding soil suggests the need for alternative land-use practices, and snow deposition patterns will tell you where the sheltered and calm areas are. Large numbers ofacorns in the forest may suggest a lack of wildlife ... while the presence of wolf trees (those old spreading oaks) indicates that the land was once cleared for pasture orcrops, thereby permitting later trees to adopt a spreading form rather than the columnar shape seen in native forests.In gathering this type of information, record all of your observations, even those that seem irrelevant at the time. These records, singly or in combination, will provide muchof the knowledge for correct placement thats crucial to effective design.[3] Microclimates. Identify microclimates, particularly those specific to small areas where the influence of topography, vegetation, soils, bodies of water, and structurescombine to produce a significant variation from the regional climate. Low-lying land, for instance, may be susceptible to late spring frosts ... an indication that earlyflowering fruit trees should not be planted there. In contrast, land near a large lake may remain relatively warm in winter because of the influence of the waters thermalmass, and thus might offer an ideal orchard spot (Photo 15). South-facing forest edges tend to be windsheltered and warm ... while north-facing slopes will be cool in thespring, thus delaying the budding of species susceptible to late spring frosts. After spotting specific microclimates, you can choose plants for their adaptiveness to theseareas, thereby extending the range of possible crops. Once again, observation is the key to productive use.As you conduct your inventory of on-site resources, record the information on a series of maps. These dont have to be accurate to the half inch, but they should comefairly close to scale. Aerial photographs (Photo 16) are a good starting point, and sometimes the local town hall has maps available. You may also be able to getassistance from the local branch of the Soil Conservation Service. Natures De sign by Carol A. Smyser (see the accompanying reading list) is an excellent source forsample maps. The book clearly illustrates how mapping aids the design process.Local resources. Off-farm resources are almost always plentiful, and theyre often free or exchangeable. These may include animal wastes, lumber scraps, contents of thelocal dump, seaweeds, restaurant throwaways, food-processing refuse, the expertise of skilled farmers and trades people, and local markets. At the New Alchemy
  5. 5. Institute, for example, we have an enormous pile of leaves that we use for compost and mulch (Photo 17). Each spring and fall the pile is replenished as local people ontheir way to the landfill see our sign and choose to recycle their leaves rather than dump them. At Prag tree Farm in Arlington, Washington, certain weeds and edibleflowers provide an unusual income simply because theres a mark et for these "products" at local gourmet restaurants specializing in exotic salads. If you havebeekeepers in your community, they may be willing to place hives on your land, ensuring the pollination of your crops and a secure source of nectar for the bees.Bartering skills with neighbours and sharing equipment are other obvious ways of using local resources efficiently. Personal resources. Dont overestimate your own skillsand assets. Carefully consider the time, know-how, and finances you have available to run a small farm or homestead, and avoid a stressful future by designing the landwith those limitations in mind. Determine the amount of time you can reasonably allot to your new venture, and list the skills you already have. Then stop at this point andre-examine your objectives. Can they be attained with the resources available? If so, proceed further ... if not, go back and redefine your objectives and search forresources you might have overlooked.FUNCTIONAL ANALYSISAt this stage of the design process, its critically important that you think function and not species. Consider the location and size of the landscape components, ratherthan their detailed composition. In other words, think in terms of "windbreak" and "orchard" and "pond" . . . not "three rows of white pine and two of autumn olive," "Libertyapples or Reliance peaches," or "hybrid tilapia or native trout."Inputs and outputs. Efficient design is contingent upon recognizing inputs and outputs. Each component should be located so that its inputs are provided and its outputsare used. (This is the concept of relative location that we discussed in Part 1.) Compost heaps, for instance, require a mixture of organic materials, water, and air asinputs ... and they produce heat, water vapour, carbon dioxide, and humus. Ideally, then, composting operations should be located with easy access to a plentiful supplyof organic matter and close to the point of use (the market garden, the orchard, the pasture, or whatever). In addition, outdoor compost heaps produce only compost ...but when the piles are placed inside a greenhouse, heat, carbon dioxide, and water vapour may be recovered as well. This could be especially important in the winter,when we could expect compost-making to help keep a greenhouse warm and provide carbon dioxide enrichment at a time when C0 2 is often a limiting factor in vegetablegrowth. Such a setup has recently been implemented at the New Alchemy Institute in cooperation with the BioThermal Energy Centre (see Fig. 2). This winter, well learnhow well it works.Integration. Recognizing inputs and outputs leads easily to the concept of integration-that is, placing systems so that outputs from one become the inputs to another withlittle or no labour used in the transfer. Effective integration is a function of good design. The preceding example of the composting greenhouse meets this criterion. Sodoes the fact that in eastern Europe and Asia, pig, chicken, duck, and even human manure is often used to fertilize aqua culture ponds. Photo 18 depicts an integratedsystem in China that clearly illustrates this concept: The outhouse is situated over the water so as to provide ease in nutrient transfer. (Because of health regulations, thisspecific example isnt applicable in this country.)Recognizing function. Using each landscape component to its full advantage also requires a thorough understanding of its associated characteristics. Arguments againstwindbreaks, for example, are based on cropland lost, shading to the north of east-west plantings, and lower yields in the area where the windbreak and crop rootscompete for moisture and nutrients. But windbreaks can also be designed to produce firewood and livestock feeds, to provide a protected site for beehives or a farmpond, and to increase crop yields in the area they shelter. In Photo 19, the dense ground growth and interspersed poplar trees of this windbreak protect the field from hot,dry summer winds. Thus, recognizing all characteristics of each landscape component creates options for sitting other elements.Locating components. Having identified each component and all its uses, next consider locations. Take the market garden, for example: If possible, it should be locatedon good soil ... have easy access to a road for bringing in organic materials and moving the produce to market ... and be below a pond supplying irrigation water. Thegarden should also be relatively close to the farmhouse and to cold frames or to a greenhouse thatll supply it with transplants. It should be near your compost and mulchstorage sites (these will preferably be placed above the garden so that heavy organic matter can be moved downhill). A naturally sheltered site is desirable, too, althoughthe use of windbreaks can transform a windy spot into a calm one. And if you intend to run a roadside stand, the garden should boast road frontage that has ampleparking for customers.As you can see, sitting any one farm component is contingent on its relationship to the others. As an aid to juggling the pieces, you might want to make cardboard cut-outs and move them around your map, considering the advantages and drawbacks of various locations. Each farm will require different pieces, but youll probably want toinclude many of the following: farmhouse, barn, windbreak, hedgerow, chicken house, aquaculture pond, greenhouse, water storage tank, orchard, market garden,kitchen garden, compost pile, mulch storage area, potting shed, tool shed, equipment storage, beehives, and worm beds.Working the design. Next, for each potential plan you devise, take yourself through the day-to-day farm activities to determine the relative ease (or difficulty!) with whichthey can be performed. See yourself feeding the chickens, applying the compost, harvesting the produce, and storing and distributing hay. This exercise quickly points uppoor placement and identifies conflicting uses of a particular location. Change the design as needed and repeat the exercise until your design "works." At this point, goback again and re-examine your objectives and available resources. This last step often leads to further modifications. Rework the design as much as necessary until youhave it right.SPECIES AND SPECIFICSOnce the basic design is completed, you can move on to considering specific crops, species, cultivars, and breeds. (Although Ill limit discussion here to plant choices,youll likely be selecting both plant and animal species.) If, for example, you have a functional requirement for a fast-growing deciduous windbreak shorter than 20 feethigh, look for plants that meet this particular need, such as the willows.Species selection. Choosing from a large number of candidate species can be a lengthy task. For each plant, youll need information about its tolerances-to different typesof soil, to drought, to browsing animals, and to temperature extremes-and its functions (as a nitrogen fixer, windbreak, livestock forage, and so on). The required functionsare then matched with the site characteristics and species tolerances.One design toot that can aid you with species selection is a plant species matrix. The Future Is Abundant, a text put out by the editors of Tilth (see the reading list),contains an excellent matrix that lists 300 plants and their characteristics. With such a chart, you can easily select plants by attributes. You can, for example, locate all thenitrogen fixing plants that tolerate cold winters, thrive on acid soils, and make good hedgerows. As the interest in permaculture systems grows more and improved plantspecies matrices are being developed.While youre choosing the proper cultivars for your property, you might want to consider the following suggestions:[1] Orchards. The soil of your chosen site will dictate species and rootstock options to some degree. The climate of your area will further narrow the range of suitablecultivars. (If your region experiences early spring frosts, youll naturally want to select late-flowering species.) Choosing only disease- and insect-resistant varieties willlimit your possibilities as well: For example, Liberty, Priscilla, and Nova Easygrow apples have a reputation for disease resistance, whereas many of the common applecultivars are more susceptible.Youll also need to decide what the understory of your orchard will be. It could provide forage for geese and ducks; contain nitrogen fixing clovers; grow green manurecrops; provide a habitat for predatory and parasitic insects; or even produce strawberries, raspberries, vegetables, and herbs. Photo 20 illustrates a peach orchard with anunderstory of nitrogen fixing white clover ... while in Photo 21, vegetables have been intercropped with the fruit trees. If you plan on using large equipment in your orchard,your understory options will obviously be reduced.Give some thought to protecting your crop, too: Solar-powered electric fences or browse-resistant hedgerows may be needed to deter deer or other wildlife.
  6. 6. [2] Market gardens. When selecting species for the market garden, youll want to consider various crop rotations, successional planting schemes for continuous yield,local market demand for specific crops, and fertility maintenance. You may reject some crops as too labour intensive and others on the basis of your soil and climate.(Remember, though, that by using cloches, plastic mulches, and slit row covers, you can extend the growing season for those slow-growing species.)[3] New crops. You may want to try some uncommon crops as a long term investment. Working with unfamiliar species does involve risks: In many cases, the culturalrequirements have not been clearly defined, susceptibility to insects and disease is unknown, yield data may be sketchy, and the markets are uncertain. However, newcrops are successfully introduced all the time, and folks who harvest a crop of the potential money-makers first tend to realize the most profit. For example, farmers whoplanted kiwi fruit in New Zealand in the mid70s have made higher earnings than their more cautious neighbours.Some current candidates for such "stock market plantings" could include mulberries (Photo 22), juneberries, hardy kiwi, persimmons, nut trees, papaw, bamboo,paulownia, nut pines, truffles, ginseng, wild rice, and water chestnuts.Management constraints. You may include many different species and cultivars in your design, add several ponds and a mix of livestock, and end up with a farm plan thatincludes a bit of everything. But a good design minimizes management requirements ... and such a diversified small farm may fail simply because the plans toocomplicated to coordinate. So as youre selecting species, ask yourself. Can you realistically manage all the species of fruit trees, the diverse market garden, chickens,ducks, geese, sheep, honeybees, pastures, and hedges you may have included? If the answers no, then simplify the design.In general, a homestead can be more diverse than a commercial farm operation. However, there is one possible exception. If applying ecological principles and commonsense in a farm-scale design leads you inexorably to a diverse and complex design, then you may want to incorporate management by a community of farmers. Becausethe components on any farm are linked by flows of energy, nutrients, and materials, managing such a system will demand close cooperation from the individuals involved.The orchardist and beekeeper, for instance, must cooperate so that noncrop nectar and pollen plants dont compete with fruit trees for the honeybees services ... theshepherd and orchardist must coordinate grazing schemes so that sheep arent introduced into the orchard until the trees are large enough to escape browse damage ...and so on. In essence, the large, diverse situation creates an ecological argument for community farming, with cooperation among farmers demanded by the inherentcharacteristics of the landscape.Finally, the overall design is complete. Functions and species have been mapped and you know what goes where and why. But youre not quite finished with thepaperwork. You need an implementation plan-a timetable defining the sequence in which farm components will be established.Some components, of course, must be operational before others can function. Fences or hedgerows must be functional before animals are let loose ... and the orchardshould be blooming before beehives are introduced.Also keep in mind that components closest to the hub of activity should be established first. Implementation always begins at the back door and moves outward.In addition, the sequence of events should mirror your skill development. Start small and simple, then add more complex components as your skills and confidenceincrease.BUDGETINGAlthough youve been planning within a budget all along (right?), at this point you must sit down and allocate where each dollar and cent is going. True, prospectiveeconomic returns often differ from actual dollars in the pocket ... still, with the staged design as a reference; you must prepare a "best guess" budget that includes capitaland operating costs for each year. Enterprise Farming (see the reading list) contains useful sample budgets for small farm operations, and your neighbouring farmers andlocal extension agents may also be of help. Because most of the available data apply to conventional farms, youll probably need to estimate costs for many of thecomponents of a permaculture operation.Its possible that preparing this detailed budget may force you to modify crop choices and management strategies ... perhaps by eliminating some costly practices andadding more profitable crops.HOME, SWEET HOME Youre done! Remember, though, that the design process is just that-a process. The final design is not cast in concrete, but is rather a preliminarytool to evolve from. However, because youve considered your site in its entirety and have followed a process that repeatedly checks your objectives and resources, youshould have avoided serious mistakes. As the land matures over the years, youll want to add some elements and perhaps modify others. So during the implementationprocess, remain mindful of your work, let the landscape teach you at its own speed ... and take satisfaction in the fact that in your own backyard, youve taken a steptoward making a self nurturing agricultural system become a reality.Biological ResourcesBiological resources-like any other resource-provide an available means of support. By deriving production and management inputs for the small farm from biologicalsources whenever possible, the grower will need less human labour and his or her dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides can be all but eliminated. Thisconcept may well be the key to creating a sustainable agricultural system. The potential for using biological inputs is enormous, and the ideas in the following paragraphsmerely scratch the surface. Keep in mind, though, that many of the systems described below are still experimental and should be regarded as such.Livestock Guard Dogs: For thousands of years, livestock raisers in Europe and Asia have employed various breeds of dogs to deter predators ... and some of thesecanines are now being introduced to the United States. Protection dogs offer an attractive option to shooting or trapping predators, nonselective poisoning, or costlyphysical barriers. The animal pictured in Photo A is a Maremma, a friendly breed thats considered well suited to small farm operations.Weeding Geese: Geese are selective grazers, avoiding broad leaved plants and favouring grasses. In orchards, the waddling weeders will graze understory grasses,keep mulches free of weeds, consume windfall fruits (which are often a source of pest problems), and furnish manure. Geese have also been used for grass control ingardens and nurseries. You can have them weed strawberries (until the fruit is ripe!), raspberries, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, and mint, among othercrops. The Brown Chinese and White Chinese geese in Photo B are harvesting their dinner from between the bean rows. These "biological herbicides" have theadvantages of self propulsion; edibility, and manure production that their synthetic counterparts lack.Chickens: In newly planted crops, chickens can be disastrous, scratching out young transplants and disturbing carefully placed mulches. However, in orchards or in earlyspring and late fall gardens, the common cluckers can be used to control insect and weed pests, destroy weed seeds, and increase the nitrogen content of the soil.Chickens housed in movable cages can be rotated through a garden to help prepare beds for successional crops ... and if you employ slit row covers, cloches, or hot capsin your growing ground, these devices can serve the added function of protecting crops from foraging poultry.Ducks: Ducks are expert at searching out and devouring insects and slugs. However, the quackers sometimes damage vegetables especially leafy greens-so you shouldproceed with caution when trusting your garden to them.Earthworms: Earthworms improve the aeration of the soil, rapidly recycle organic matter, and make nutrients readily available to plants. Yield increases of up to 100%have been recorded following wriggler additions to worm-deficient soils.
  7. 7. Manure Worms: The small red manure worm produces superb humus from its castings. Worm beds offer a good method for recycling vegetable scraps, as they providean excellent soil amendment.Birds: Recent farming literature may lead one to believe that birds are universally destructive. However, in the 20s and 30s many winged species-including woodpeckers,purple martins, barn swallows, nuthatches, and chickadees-were recognized as integral to pest control programs. Today in apple orchards in Nova Scotia, downy andpileated woodpeckers are used to destroy as much as 50% of the over wintering codling moth population. The essential prerequisite for any feathered aid is a suitablehabitat for the birds. Woodpeckers, for instance, need nesting sites in dead trees in adjacent forests.Biological Pest Control: In recent years, many new nonchemical pest controls have been introduced. Disease organisms are now available for controlling Japanesebeetles, codling moths, corn earworms, gypsy moths, mosquitoes, and insects in the lepidoptera family. Several fungi have been tested for controlling plum curculio,Colorado potato beetles, cabbage loopers, and European corn borers. Some nematode species are effective against grasshoppers, Mexican bean beetles, tentcaterpillars, and codling moths. Literally hundred of parasitic and predatory insects have been identified as well. Photos D and E picture two familiar pest predators: thepraying mantis and the garden toad.Habitat Enhancement: Biological control can be enhanced by manipulating noncrop vegetation. For example, establishing plots of umbelliferous plants-such as the wildcarrot, parsley, parsnip, Queen Annes lace, and caraway-will attract hordes of parasitic wasps that use these flowers as food sources. Even encouraging a spiders webcan be a means of pest control (Photo F) ... in this case, for the common whitefly. Flowers adjacent to a backyard garden attract beneficial insects (Photo G): In the CapeCod Ark at- the New Alchemy Institute, weve used scented geraniums as host plants for the whitefly and its parasite, Encarsia formosa. (We add homemade yellow-orange sticky traps in the spring-Photo H-to complete our year-round pest-control system.)Nitrogen-Fixing Plants: In addition to the common legumes, more than 160 nonleguminous nitrogen-fixing plants have been identified. These shrubs and trees can makeavailable up to 300 pounds of soil nitrogen per acre per year. Common members of this group include the alders, Russian and autumn olives, and the sweet fern andbayberry. The white nodules of the root system of the autumn olive (Photo I) indicate the site of nitrogen fixation. Such plants can be used in a variety of ways tosubstitute for bag nitrogen: The herbaceous species are often included in crop rotations or as orchard understories ... while shrubs and small trees can be interplantedwith fruit, nut, or forest trees.Allelopathic Plants: Many plants produce substances that are toxic to their competitors ... conducting, in essence, their own chemical warfare. Certain varieties of wheat,rye, barley, sorghum, and sudan grass, for example, can be grown between orchard rows or in gardens, and the clippings from these varieties can then be used as weed-suppressing mulches.Mycorrhizal Plants: A relationship between plant roots and mycorrhizal fungi has been recorded in many higher plants, especially the forest species. This association issymbiotic: The fungi supply phosphorus and other nutrients to the plant in exchange for carbohydrates. Plants inoculated with selected strains of mycorrhizae typicallyproduce high yields in low phosphorus soils. Often the fungi can be introduced to new plantings by adding soil taken from a vigorous stand of the same species.A Readers Guide to Sustainable AgricultureThe following list was carefully selected from a large bibliography and contains titles that are most relevant to the issues raised in this article. Your local library probablyhas some of the volumes ... or, if you prefer, you can order them from the sources given. A full bibliography that contains 250 titles-as well as magazine and journallistings and suppliers of equipment, beneficial insects, and plants-is available from the New Alchemy InstitutePermaculture One by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren (Corgi Books, 1978) and Permaculture Two by Bill Mollison (Tagari Books, 1979). These volumes are the bestintroduction to commonsense design inspired by ecology. Both are available from the International Tree Crops Institute, U.S.A., Inc., P.O. Box 666, Winters, CA 95694.Agroecology: The Scientific Basis of Alternative Agriculture by Miguel A. Altieri (self-published, 1983). This is the best text to date that describes the science behindecological agriculture.The Future Is Abundant edited by Lany Korn, Barbara Snyder, and Mark Musick (Tilth, 1982). Although this resource guide to the tools and information needed for farmdesign is geared toward the Pacific Northwest, its worth buying just for its plant species matrix.Natures Design by Carol Smyser (Rodale Press, 1982). This is a good text for teaching the design process for home landscaping.The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka (Rodale Press, 1978). This well-known text is valuable for its philosophical approach to agriculture.Principles of Environmental Science by K E. F. Watt (McGrawHill, 1972). This text is aimed at the college-level student.