Regenerative Farming and Permaculture in the American South… and a Learning Opportunity

by Jennifer Albanese and Cliff Davis

The American south has a long history of rich, cultural food traditions centering on flavorful homestyle southern cooking, family celebration and farming. Food characterizes the region’s varying personalities and underlying values.

John Egerton, author of Southern Food says,

Southerners had known hunger, even starvation, and that knowledge had taught them to enjoy the moment, to feast when food was available, and to keep a wary eye on the future. Among all the classes — those who had plenty and those who had nothing and all the others in between — food was a blessing, a pleasure, a cause for celebration. The tradition of hospitality, of serving large quantities of good things to eat to large numbers of hungry people, of sharing food and drink with family and friends and even strangers, proved to be a durable tradition in the South, outliving war and depression and hunger.

The people of the south are largely hard working, steeped in family values and connected to the land they walk upon. I recently saw a sign that read “say what you will about the south, but nobody retires and moves up north.” The south gets a bad rap. It’s dirty and poor they say, but I think it is also a testament to the resourcefulness of the people. Their yards may be full of what we perceive as trash, but I have seen my neighbors save things that others would deem useless — they recycle items and use them in new ways, and actually fix things instead of throwing them away at the first sign of wear and tear. Maybe they live in a run down trailer, but whose to say that is more wasteful than the well-kept 3000 square foot home for a family of 3 sucking power from the grid? Self-reliance is more commonplace, not out of choice, but out of tradition. Hunting, and other “primitive” skills are big here, so is gardening, and that food contributes to many southern tables. The art of living simply and ‘primitive’ skills are still being practiced, by many folks here in the south.

But problems abound. The south suffers from high rates of poverty (9 of 10 of the poorest cities in the U.S. are in the south), obesity and malnutrition. There is low economic mobility and less access to affordable health care. Traditionally, and to this day, most farming endeavors in the south focus on the growing of tobacco, peanuts, fruit, sugarcane and cotton. But these commodities face fierce competition from cheaper imports, which erode the market economy. The south will need to diversify their crops more, as well as heal the landscape, from the overuse of GMO crops and the abundance of biocides used to grow them.

Livestock production is on the rise. According to an article put out by the USDA, “The majority of U.S. beef cows are located in the South, including the Southern Plains (primarily Texas) and the Southeast. These regions have the advantage of a longer grazing season and less need for supplemental forage to support beef cattle during the winter, which results in lower feed costs.” Broiler chickens, egg production and hog operations litter the southern landscape, but the last thing we need is more factory farming operations. An already damaged landscape, the southern states do not need more agricultural pollution. They need pasture systems that can regenerate the soil and make best use of the the water available. The south also needs food that will contribute to better health, not more disease.

The south includes areas that are temperate, sub-tropical, tropical and arid. Some years we see upward of 54 inches of rain, which can lead to higher probability of flooding and more soil erosion. Most of the south has already seen moderate to severe loss of topsoil. Years of abundant rain alternate with years of severe drought. I once watched trees in a Tennessee forest die from lack of water. Throw in some hurricanes, the possibility of rising sea levels and the increasing threat of tornadoes and you can see that the south has a landscape that is susceptible to disaster. However, her people are resilient. They have endured despite war, slavery, depressed economies, hunger and natural disasters.

So how do we address the issues? Design of course. Thankfully the south is seeing a revival of family farms, farmers’ markets and local products. People want to create more abundance, while embracing the traditions that make the south so unique. We need to couple that momentum with good design and awareness of the tools available, to witness accelerating change.

Spiral Ridge Permaculture and their sister company, New Agrarian Design, seek to integrate the most innovative and regenerative agricultural practices with permaculture to empower people to take action. We offer courses which teach design approaches as well as new perspectives and possibilities.

Southerners have the power to transform their communities, and the south as a whole, by creating better systems that revive culture, build soil, create resiliency to natural disasters and economic oppression (did I mention that the minimum wage in most southern states is lower than the federal wage, and that in some states a minimum wage law does not even exist?!) The south seems to lag behind in awareness of these design approaches, but the strength of the people, the customs already in place and the bounty of the landscape make it ripe for these design systems to take hold. If they do, the south can be transformed into an economically thriving, productive region, lifting it out of depression and ill health.

To achieve these ends, Spiral Ridge has been offering southern style Permaculture Design Courses (see a review in a past article here), courses to teach Permaculture to Educators of Children, skill building courses and more recently, regenerative farming courses. This June, in fact, we are pleased to host PRI-accredited Owen Hablutzel for two Whole Farm/Ranch Planning back-to-back courses on Holistic Management and Keyline Design. Integrating these two approaches to land care have the ability to revitalize farming in the south and all over the world. We have even purchased a keyline plow so we may offer services to those who need it. Full details are below, and if you are a Yank, don’t hesitate to come on down, where the south will treat you right!

Introduction to Holistic Management® Whole Farm/Ranch Planning and Holistic Planned Grazing

Dates: June 17-19, 2014

Location: Summertown , TN

Description: Join us for a fun-filled three-day workshop where you will learn optimal, highly-effective and proven ways to plan for and achieve the full power of the Holistic Management approach for your land, your animals, your profits and your quality of life. The workshop will include classroom as well as outdoor exercises and pasture walks for a full learning experience! Learn:to create and enact a vision for your operation, to make more effective decisions, to understand ecosystem processes, why managing wholes is the future of agriculture, how to get your livestock to the right place at the right time for the right reasons and with the right behavior, how to maximize your stocking rate, to plan your grazing to increase your profits, to maximize production (and profitability), grazing planning, how to plan for drought and minimize capital losses and much more. Food and camping included.

Instructor: Owen Hablutzel

Contact: Spiral Ridge Permaculture

Holistic Management Course Registration

Keyline Design®: Whole Farm/Ranch Planning for Water Abundance and Soil Fertility

Dates: June 20-22, 2014

Location: Summertown , TN

Description: Keyline plow on-site demonstration. Make your property resilient to drought, learn how to create topsoil at rapid rates, reduce or eliminate off farm inputs, discover effective use of livestock as tools to improve land and productivity, address weed management concerns, integrate pastures, ponds and multiple yield tree crops and more. This three-day hands-on workshop will change the way you see and manage your landscape, and your future. If you operate a farm or ranch, or if you would like to learn how to make your property resilient to drought, this workshop will deliver. We will leverage the most effective tools, principles, techniques, and strategies from Keyline® Design, Permaculture Design, and Holistic Management® for an integrated whole farm plan. This course will add many new practical skills and options to your management ‘toolbox’. We will emphasize Keyline® techniques for maximum harvesting and storage of rain and runoff water, for generating drought-resilience. Learn hands-on surveying, GIS mapping ‘on-the-cheap,’ and how to analyze and improve your water catchment.

Instructor: Owen Hablutzel

Contact: Spiral Ridge Permaculture

Keyline Design Registration Page


  1. Where did you get the idea that the federal minimum wage does not apply in parts of the south? You are misinformed!
    On another tack, you will enjoy Owen. Have a good course!

    1. I did not state that the federal law does not apply. I merely implied that previous to the federal law, the southern lawmakers had set wage minimums below the rest of the country, if there were any laws at all, and that this was a form of economic suppression. However, according to our very own Department of Labor, if the job is not subject to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, then state, city, or other local laws may determine the minimum wage. “A common exemption to the federal minimum wage is a company having revenue of less than $500,000 per year while not engaging in any interstate commerce.”
      Yes, Owen’s course is going to be great!

  2. Thanks for sharing. I would prefer if you refer in the article as the “Southern US” rather than American South, which could be easily be confused with Argentina, Chile and Bolivia

    1. I can see that it could be confusing, but “American South” is a common and acceptable term for this region. Argentina, Bolivia, etc are part of South America, a continent. Thanks for reading!

  3. “American South” is a common and acceptable term for this region… really?
    never heard of it. I agree with Seb. America is not USA, do not be so US-centric :)

  4. As a graduate student in Latin American studies from Brown University I have never heard South America countries referred to as the American South and I taught several courses. Get off of it. The main point of this article is about what is transpiring in Tennessee and all of the hard work Jen and Cliff have put into homesteading and practicing what they preach and are decent down to earth people with a wealth of knowledge. I am one of those northerners who took their course and was blown away at their practicality and experience. Actually I just bought land down there, that’s how much I love the” American South’s” hospitality.

    1. Not wanting to stir the pot, I too get fascinated how some people insist on missing the main point and getting hung up on trivia instead. Thanks for your input Lesley.

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