Adventures in Regenerative Agriculture
We always hear about the problems the world is facing: global warming, climate change, topsoil loss, deforestation, desertification, pollution, depletion of natural resources and water cycle issues. I used to feel powerless and in despair when confronted with such monumental problems as I was stuck in a “problem prone” state of mind.
For the past three years, since discovering Permaculture, I have shifted my state of mind to search for solutions as opposed focusing on the problems. In my search for solutions I have learned about Permaculture Design from Rob Avis of Verge Permaculture, taken my Permaculture Design Certificate and Earthworks Course with Geoff Lawton and have started my own Permaculture Design and Education Company, Element Eco-Design.
My company’s focus was primarily residential, edible landscaping and home-scale systems that left me wondering how much impact I was really having on solving some of the aforementioned problems our world is facing. I knew Element Eco-Design had to expand its scope to be able to provide service to farmers in order to have a greater positive impact on the ecosystems that surround my home in the agricultural Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. My search led me to Ethan Roland of Appleseed Permaculture where I inquired about Permaculture for farmers, his response would soon alter my path drastically.
Ethan promptly informed me of a series of workshops centered on Regenerative Agriculture called Carbon Farming Courses 2012. Ethan has run this event several times before, each time expanding the focus and attracting some of the world’s leading experts in sustainable farming practices. I signed up and booked my ticket across the continent to New York. My hope was to gain a greater understanding of how broad acre Permaculture Design could help reduce the negative impacts of climate change.
The courses included:
- Holistic Management with Dr. Ann Adams
- Regenerative Agriculture Design (Keyline Design) with Darren Doherty
- Perennial Agriculture with Dr. Wes Jackson and Dave Jacke
- Agroforestry with Eric Toensmeir
- Living Soils with Dr. Elaine Ingham
- Biochar with Jason Aramburu
- Financing Regenerative Agriculture with Ethan Roland
- Local Food Systems with Joel Salatin
I attended the first four courses and this was my experience. The structure of the courses started with an understanding of the most powerful decision making tool I have encountered (Holistic Management). Thinking Holistic Management was simply a system for grazing livestock, Dr. Adams explained how this system created by Alan Savory does much more than manage cattle. By definition Holistic Management is a decision making process and planning process that considers economic, environmental and social effects for both short and long-term decisions.
What was most interesting about this process is that it can be applied to both farm planing and social situations with the same positive benefit. As well, the insights into operational efficiency, balance and resource deficiency were revealed to me immediately. With this valuable tool added to my “Permaculture Tool Belt” I was prepared for Keyline Design with Darren Doherty.
Countless hours on youtube and pouring over PA Yeoman’s publications had given me an idea of what to expect in Keyline design; but what I was not ready for was Darren! This Aussie came into the room charged with presence and hands-on experience in Permaculture design. His instruction and implementation strategy held me captivated for all three days. Darren’s practical lessons were backed up with countless pictures of these processes in practice, which made me realize that these systems are not just short term fixes; they are long term solutions: watershed management, soil building, erosion control, nutrient retention, carbon capture and economic viability. Darren showed countless examples of how he used his keenly honed observation skills to spot opportunities in current businesses to create more sustainable and profitable production.
Darren also explained that there is no one “silver bullet” that will solve climate change, we as Permaculture designers, simply have a combination of tools at our disposal and we must responsibly choose the right tools to use, at the right place, at the right time.
With a much better understanding of board acre design I was ready to narrow my focus onto specific crops for product as we moved into Perennial Agriculture. Dr. Wes Jackson gave a wonderful presentation explaining, “how we got into this mess”. Which included a history lesson, a discussion on why we need to preserve a rural way of life, a need for a paradigm shift (to combine Agriculture and Ecology) and an explanation that we need to focus on the crops that are going to feed the world in the future.
Dr. Jackson, through The Land Institute, has been working on developing perennial grain crops including: wheat, rice, sunflowers and corn! The development of these crops will sequester more carbon as their roots often extend 10’ below the surface as opposed to 2’ on an annual plant. Perennials will also prevent erosion and topsoil loss. Planting these crops is a polyculture will increase production and increase disease and pest resistance. Dr. Jackson is proposing a 50 yr farm bill for the USA to move into a more sustainable means of crop cultivation.
Dave Jacke picked up where Wes left off on the need of a paradigm shift from a reductionist view to a more integrated, holistic view of the Earth and nature. We should see ourselves as a part of the system not separate from it. As part of the system we are better equipped to understand and mimic natural ecosystems in an effort to create low maintenance perennial systems that are high yielding, diverse, self-fertile systems. We approached many strategies for planning a polyculture and took a better look at the design process in general.
Finally, we ended on the emergence of a lost art; coppicing. Coppicing is a traditional method of woodlot management that selects species that will regenerate once they have been harvested, such as willow. Mr. Jacke is currently working on a book on coppice strategy as part of a perennial agriculture system. If it is anything like Edible Forest Gardens Vol 1 & 2, it will be a welcome addition to my ever-growing sustainable library.
Coauthor of Edible Forest Gardens, Eric Toensmeier was the next instructor for Agroforestry. Eric’s enthusiasm, extensive plant knowledge and new focus for the course made me glad I decided to stay the extra three days for this course. We focused on agroforestry strategies and making viable economic models for businesses around polycultures. The exercises were great for incorporating finance into Permaculture ventures, an area often overlooked. The days spent creating a microenterprise demonstrated how complex these systems are. Contemplating plant selection, succession and economic viability of crops/livestock saw us often trapped in a revolving door for selecting the appropriate species for each system. Considering the broad range of businesses presented at the end of the course, I think agriculture is about to enter a new era. Exciting!
This concluded my experience at the Carbon Farming Courses 2012. Other obligations kept me from experiencing the remaining presenters. To be honest, I don’t know if my brain could have absorbed any more information after these two weeks of transformation. What I walked away with was much greater than what I had anticipated. The relationships I made with fellow attendees is by far the most enjoyable experience from this adventure. It does my heart good to know that there are so many other Permies out there dedicated to changing the world one garden/farm at a time.
The lessons I walked away with are that we live in a reductionist society that is on the verge of a paradigm shift, where we will see ourselves as a part of nature, not separate from it. We need to pay attention to our relationship with our environments (ecological, social and economic) in order to be able to read and adapt to changes. The resiliency of all systems depend on decision making tools that ensure we apply the right “tool” at the right time, in the right place in order to successfully design functional systems. Finally, do not attempt to control a system simply observe how the elements react/behave and learn from them in order to mimic them in the future. Our highest accomplishment is service to others and, as such, I will dedicate my life to service of the Earth and its inhabitants.
Thanks to the organizers of the Carbon Farming Courses 2012, you are providing a service to emerging farmers, scientists, designers and entrepreneurs to bring about a regenerative resolution to our Earth’s problems.