Well in practice we find this to be a truth, not a theory. Over time our yields just keep growing. And we can always find more ways to get more out of the system. The native peoples have managed the Amazon Rainforest for 5,000 years since they first arrived there. Treading very lightly. But hey there’s always room for more tree houses. No?
Our very small back yard (800 sq metres) currently produces food at the rate of 16 tonnes / hectare. I don’t know any farmers round here who get that. It also produces half of our energy needs (firewood and electricity) 500 trees and 5000 plants a year for sale, a teaching space and a soft living room. And we are always trying to find what else we can stack in. Oh, stacking! Another key permaculture principle.
Of course the first thing that matters in any permaculture system is what you start out with. It helps to get really good at noticing stuff. Climate and weather (they’re not the same thing) have certainties and uncertainties. What applies where you are (or where you are working and designing for others?).
What are the soils like? How would you improve them? Mineral fraction, humic content, and most importantly, life in the soil. Do you know your species? The best willing workers on organic farms (WWOOFERS) are in the soil.
What tools do you have and what do you lack? Tools come in many forms: hand tools, mental tools, behavioural tools, big kit… Are they sharp and current, well lubricated? That applies literally to physical tools metaphorically to mental tools.
What financial resources do you have? It’s important to live within them. Or can you provoke new finance through borrowing, crowd funding, generosity? Maybe you will create profit from your surplus.
What will be the risks you face? Have you measured them and do you have a plan how to deal with them? Projects die from want of cash flow long before lack of profit. What about health risks? Who are the predators which threaten your system and how will you manage them?
Already we see that one of the key things that permaculture offers us is not answers, but the right questions to ask. Because the solutions are different in every place tailored to time, aspect, resources, skills and so on.
I’m writing this in my home in the South of Scotland. Same latitude as Alaska, Moscow, Northern China. If we were in the Antipodes we’d be McQuarrie Island, South Georgia…or thereby. I’ve spent most of the last month processing the food we have harvested. Bottling fruit and vegetables. Freezing soft fruit. Fermenting vegetables (to eat) and fruit (to drink). Drying onions and garlic, making kale crisps. Harvesting seeds to share with others.
I’m always thinking: “if only we had another pair of hands to help”. Then we could do so much more. The freezers are full. We have chutneys pickles and kimchi galore. Jars full of rumtopf, flavoured vinegars, salad dressing, pickled garlic, and we’ve run out of places to dry herbs.
Just imagine what you could do if you applied these principles in a warmer climate -where harvests can be heavy all year round.
Our next project here in Scotland is to create sites like this all across our region to make a determined effort to eliminate food poverty. It seems criminal to me that there are people in a supposedly civilised country like the United Kingdom going hungry today. But there are.
It’s not just about food poverty, it’s about poverty of ambition (first noticed by Adam Smith the Scots father of economics), inadequate housing, and lack of feeling self-worth.
So whilst we are harvesting our bumper crops from our cool summer (rarely passing 20 degrees centigrade) I wonder ate the gift that permaculture insight offers to increase yield throughout the world.
We know how to create and maintain clean air, adequate water supplies, and sufficient quantity and quality of food for all. We know how to create dwellings and work spaces which offer, shelter, companionship and human dignity. We know how to turn wastes into resources to keep the cycle of productive yield growing year on year.
Health warning: all good change is incremental. It doesn’t happen overnight.
One of the great strengths of the permaculture movement is that it is truly international, does not measure any of the divisive issues that trouble our planet: skin colour, race, religion, class, property ownership, wealth or poverty. It is a truly egalitarian movement that recognises we all have a right to a decent standard of living and that we will best achieve that by sharing it with all living beings who actually are the source of earth’s natural abundance: be they other people, trees, songbirds, whales or microbial beings.
I feel privileged to be coming to share my surplus with whoever is up for it at the Permaculture Research Institute this October.
Graham Bell and his wife, Nancy Woodhead, welcome visitors to their forest garden by appointment. You can book on courses and open days, or make contact for other engagements via the website.
Sign up to the Red Shed Nursery on Facebook and @redshednursery on twitter to stay in touch.
You can see a short film of the garden here:
Graham Bell is the author of two books: The Permaculture Garden and The Permaculture Way, both available from:
Graham is teaching a Permaculture Design Course at Zaytuna Fram, home of the Permaculture Research Institute Australia from October 17 – 28 2016. Visit the course listing page here for more details and to book.