How permaculture can produce more per hectare – without pesticides, fertilizers and mechanization – than intensive farming

January 11th, 2017

The idea of permaculture was conceptualized in the 70′ in Australia by the environmentalists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Its main goal is to create human installations modeled on natural ecosystems. Nature is the ultimate inspiration. The concept still can sound vague today, as it is usually seen as an agricultural technique only. It is actually more a conceptual and an holistic approach, based on three essential ethical principles.

3 ethical principles of Permaculture

  • Earth care
  • People care
  • Fair share of resources and surplus
“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system”Bill Mollison (1928-2016), Father of permaculture

Permaculture puts emphasis on useful connections between all the elements of the garden, including human. It determines how and where they have to be placed to achieve maximum productivity. It thus gives a major role to the design of the garden, whose synergy is absolutely crucial. Practicing permaculture requires taking time. Being able to create the perfect arrangement is indeed first a matter of observation and reflexion. The result will be optimal if the whole system is well thought: interactions between elements will be maximized, so does the productivity, while the need for inputs and energy will also be reduced.

Permaculture is first of all a matter of common sense. Some people practicing it without even knowing it. Here are of the key features Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer highlight in their book Permaculture: heal the Earth, feed people (in french only). The couple is running the Bec Hellouin Farm, a pioneer farm of permaculture in Normandy, France. They have received a massive coverage after appearing in the famous ecological documentary Demain (Tomorrow) and the place is now visited by people from all over the world.

  • In nature, everything is connected
  • Ecosystems work cyclically
  • Each element benefits to the others and receives from them
  • The waste of one is the resource of the other
  • Everything is recycled
  • Each important function is filled by several elements, and each element potentially fulfills several functions
  • The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
  • Each ecosystem operates largely autonomously and contributes to the entire biosphere
“Natural ecosystems are sustainable, autonomous and resilient. If we understand in depth how they work, taking these ecosystems as models, we can create more sustainable and self-sustaining human habitats”Charles Hervé-Gruyer, Farmer and founder of the Bec Hellouin Farm

Find out the practical application of these principles in the below video, shot at the Bec Hellouin Farm.

Quality of the soil is actually the main key of productivity. Having a good soil takes time but is the basis of everything. Permaculture makes it possible to create humus and thus to restore the soil, while traditional agriculture destroys it, contributing in particular to its erosion. In fact, traditional agriculture simply feed plants with chemical fertilizers but stopped feeding the soil a long time ago. Mechanization also contributes to the destruction of soils. Recreating fertile soil is possible, but only on small areas, because it requires precisely to work without mechanization.

The Hervé-Gruyer couple realized when they started their farm that their soil was actually quite bad to grow vegetables. They took a couple of years to conscientiously restore it and to make it fertile, thanks to the supply in large quantity of organic matter such as compost, manure and mulch. Today they grow more than 800 different kinds of fruits and vegetables at the farm.

Nicky Kyle also insists on the crucial role of soil in plant growth. She is co-founder and a director of the Organic Trust and was one of the speakers at the launch of the People4Soil campaign, supported by the Environmental Pillar, December last. With forty years of experience in growing organic vegetables, she explained how exhausted soils can be restored. Even if she doesn’t claim to practice permaculture, she is clearly implementing its principles. First of all: never leaving the soil uncovered. Mulch and compost are the best allies when it comes to protect and nurture soil. Nicky Kyle also gives a great importance to the cropping plan. Crops rotations and cultures associations are designed to maximize productivity, thanks to the mutual benefits they bring to each other. Each plot contains multiple vegetables. So where the intensive agriculture grows only one kind of plant, permaculture grows three of four kinds at the same time.

Logic might lead us to believe that permaculture is less profitable than traditional extensive agriculture. That’s not the case. A study has been carried out at the Bec Hellouin Farm by INRA – AgroParisTech (National Institute for Agricultural Research, France) and here is its major conclusion: “It is possible to produce a significant yield on a small area cultivated mostly manually, and to generate enough profit to ensure an adequate income to someone with an agricultural status.” The full report can be consulted here.

“We can achieve enough output on a 1,000 square meter vegetable garden – split into 55% greenhouses and 45% open-air cultivation – in order to support one person full-time, with €54,300 net gross sales a year, only adding-up vegetable sales. This is a wonderful validation of the micro-farm concept”Charles Hervé-Gruyer, Farmer and founder of the Bec Hellouin Farm

Permaculture supporters are truly convinced that this kind of production is the future of agriculture, as it can fulfill a lot of purposes. As the Hervé-Gruyer explain in their book: “We produce much on a small area, while creating jobs, making the environment richer, soils more fertile and while stocking carbon and preserving biodiversity.” Knowing that we will soon be 10 billion human beings on the planet and that extensive agriculture is anything but sustainable, permaculture farming might be the solution. It is necessary to come back to a local production, in small farms like the Bec Hellouin or even in a context of urban agriculture, very trendy right now. To take back control on our food and not depend anymore on a globalized intensive agriculture is essential, for our health and the nature’s. But it would take a lot of people to go back to the countryside and become peasants as their ancestors were. A return to earth in short.

To go further

Permaculture is vast and it would not be possible to detail all its specifications in this article. But a lot of online resources can provide you further information. You can visit Permaculture Principles and download The Essence of Permaculture, a guide available for free in fifteen different languages. For a more irish focus, visit Cultivate – Living & Learning, that offers workshops hosted by members of Cloughjordan Ecovillage, All Ireland Permaculture Gathering or Nicky Kyle’s website. Cherry on the cake, you can even attend an online permaculture class for free! It is called a MOOC (massive open online course) and it is offered by the Oregon State University. There are regular four-week sessions throughout the year.

Featured image: Gravetye Manor Gardens, West Sussex, UK

About the Author

Marie Daffe

Marie is a contributor to Green News. She has a Master's Degree in Journalism from the Université catholique de Louvain (UCL), Belgium.

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