Why Permaculture?

What Fair Share Can Mean in the Permaculture Community

The quiet third permaculture ethic, “fair share”, gets much less press than the two headliners. With a grand mission that includes sustainable energy, conservation, ethical practices with animals and agriculture, and a steady rebuilding of the damage humanity has already caused the planet, earth care is something with many easily identified branches and movements to adopt. And, with its movement towards fair trade business models, safe working conditions, and personal responsibility for our role as consumers in the treatment of fellow humans, people care has plenty to get behind. But, fair share?

As someone not yet in the overabundant stages of a permaculture site, I’ve always had questions about that third tenet. David Holmgren further expounds, claiming we must set limits and redistribute surpluses. In times of abundance, we share our bounty with others, regulating our own consumption for the good of the community, and they in turn will hopefully do the same with their harvests. I like this idea in and of itself, but for me, it seems lacking in the version of fair share I like to envision and hope somewhere, perhaps in these vast permaculture villages I’ve yet to visit, exists. While I’ve not been to those fabled communities, I’ve certainly seen plenty of examples beyond food surpluses that I attribute to fair share.


So, for those newbies struggling to incorporate this ethic into their version of permaculture, I’ve compiled a list of ways that I’ve witnessed or taken part in what I consider “fair share” practices, none of which have to do with handing the neighbor a bag of apples or sack of potatoes. I don’t do this to undermine the power and kindness of sharing food but only to illustrate the many different ways we have surpluses and how we might share them.


Better than a bag of produce, seeds and cuttings from the successful plants in our gardens can supply others with the capacity not only to eat but to grow. A few months back, my wife Emma and I visited a farm with an abundance of pigeon pea trees growing, collection that yielded several hundred pounds of food each year. The owner generously let us take some pods so that we could include pigeon peas, something not always readily available in Guatemala, in our own garden projects. Last month, with some of the trees we’d planted being heavy with peas, we were able to pass on some pods to a different guy starting a permaculture project down the road.

Extended Experiences

At some point, we all begin our path into permaculture and/or the chosen area in which we’ll be cultivating, and hearing and seeing first hand from other what techniques work for the climate, what local and exotic plants grow well in the area, and how to deal with specific challenges. Finding out what keeps the cycles spinning, as opposed to trying to reinvent the wheel, can save new growers a lot of time. We picked banana circles from a guy in Panama and have used the technique throughout the wet/dry tropics, where a big, moist compost pit does a crop of hungry bananas a lot of good. We have also shared our experiences of how to find farm-stays, what productive plant species to use, and how to reduce waste with many people.


Emma and I have done a lot of farm-sitting over the last two or three years, and it has been a pleasure. We’ve enjoyed living on great farms—in Nicaragua, in Spain, in Panama, in Belize — and we’ve come away with plenty of new ideas from them. In Colombia, we were volunteering on our first fully conceptualized permaculture plot, and we watched over the farm several days a week while the owner spent time on community projects further afield. While our experience has been largely through work-trade agreements, the idea of localized community members helping one another out by watching over each others’ farms now and again is something we hope to have in the near future, when we have a farm of our own.

Information Resources

The abundance of permaculture resources out there these days is astounding. Not only is there the ever-expanding collection of manuals, everything from Permaculture One to vegan permaculture to urban guerilla gardening, but there are also websites, videos, podcasts, and photo albums. It was through borrowing self-sufficiency manuals in Nicaragua that Emma and I first began to be won over by the idea. Soon, we were reading more about permaculture and fermentation in Colombia. Then, we were reading about local medicinal plants in Belize. All from other people’s bookshelves. In turn, we have turned many people on to our favorite sites, clips, and guides.

Tool Sharing

Tool sharing, I won’t lie, can be a difficult thing. I’ve seen it go horribly wrong for people, their hard-earned possessions returned in questionable working order. But, it can also be a great thing. The more we can share our tools, especially large items like tractors, trucks, air compressors and things of that nature, the less many items will be sitting and steadily rusting into disrepair. In Panama, we happily helped a neighbor out with a truck to pick up some organic compost, and in return, she bought us a great cherry tree for the food forest we working on. With the same neighbor, she’d use the farm’s dehydrator to dry here mangoes, always providing some of the tasty treats in return.

Extra Hands

Extra hands can make short work of big projects. Most recently, Emma and I have been working on an erosion prevention/soil rebuilding permaculture pilot with an NGO in Rio Dulce, Guatemala. Coming in, we’d guessed that our plans would take the two of us about four or five weeks to install (by hand). Suddenly, on our first day working, a class of children from the NGO’s school showed up for agriculture lessons. We ended up with two more classes that day, and a total of four the next. They were voracious collectors of scrap wood, border stones, and any other resource we needed. Only two weeks, we now expect to be finished with phase one by the end of the third week, adding in a few extra features with our time to kill. Calling on others to lend a needed hand (and doing it in return) makes huge fair share difference.

Like-Minded Socializing

Ted Talks were something that I had paid little attention to until Emma and I had volunteered at a TedX satellite in the tiny village of Guatavita, Colombia. The event we were there for—TedXManhattan—was a wonderful congregation of thoughtful people interested in the food movement: a guy reintroducing quinoa to that area of Colombia, a compost worm specialist, a hobbyist brew master, and a host of permaculture junkies. We all pitched on a potluck lunch and watched hours of inspiring lectures about what is happening in the world of food. Simply sharing our time and ideas with people figuratively on the same planet is good for the soul and a great source of motivation for our own pursuits.

Sharing the Practice

For those of us who believe that permaculture and similar ideas are the way forward, perhaps the only means by which humanity might continue to exist on earth for the next century or more, it is important that we share our practice in a positive way. Permaculture is solutions oriented as opposed to lingering on the problems that plague us. In this way, we must be proactive in both our permaculture communities and the larger community around us. In Panama, when we had produced an over-abundance of seedlings and plants, I used them to make a community garden between the property we were on and the low-traffic country road. It had over twenty varieties of food producing plants on the go.

I’m not always sure how well I’ve grasped the notion of fair share, but what I do know is that the versions of it listed above have meant something to me and those around me. They can serve to strengthen communities, lowers personal and planetary costs, broaden knowledge, and relieve undue pressure during hard times. These are the very things that will empower us to successfully undertake the task of repairing and reinvigorating the earth in a way that can sustain humanity’s presence on it, and that task and all the splendor that goes along with it is something we, as permaculturalists and as people, must share in.

Feature Photo: More than We Can Eat, Courtesy of Emma Gallagher

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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