Alternative Farming

Non-fossil-fuel based food production



TUCSON (A-P) — Organic farming: “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony."

Permaculture: "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."

Feng shui: “A system of laws governing spatial arrangement and orientation, for positioning a building and the objects within a building, in relation to the flow of energy (qi), patterns of yin and yang, and whose favorable or unfavorable effects are taken into account to bring success, health, and happiness.”

The concept cluster of "organic farming" arose in the 1940's and flourished in the post 1960's era as the belief system was embraced by many with a counter culture inclination. The demand for "organic" is now big business and a well entrenched preference in many hearts and minds. A variant conceptology emerged and a new word, "permaculture," was coined in 1978 (and copyrighted), which has served as a locus for a meme system that has spread globally since. The ideas behind "organic" are basic and easy to take in, so "organic" has greater popular appeal. The concepts behind "permaculture" are much denser and require reading books and attending workshops to cover basics, so permaculture is popular with the better educated and more trendy segment of the consumer society.

I am interested in alternatives to fossil fuel-based agribusiness production systems. I do not, however, speak "organic" nor "permaculture" (nor Feng shui). I understand the appeal of the concepts offered to home owners and small-scale producers of produce for local markets. No one is producing "inorganic" foods (or bragging about it), so the alternative concepts are near universals. A few producers, especially larger scale ones, may only be interested in making money by meeting demand, and could care less about "alternative" practices, but they tend to go along with the expected practices so as to use a premium "organic" name (part of the cost of doing business). Most people, however, who are into alternative production systems buy into the belief systems that explain and promote them. Most people do not realize that there are alternative ways to understand "alternative farming" practices.

Since most off-farm inputs represent embedded fossil fuel inputs into the production system, I eschew them on non-sustainability grounds, whether "organic" or "inorganic," so our cultural practices may be indistinguishable from those of organic farms. Farming using animal power has been done, but much of a region's farm produce must be used to produce the food to feed the animals. I do not use animal labor, other than chickens and ducks for pest control/weeding. Farming using only human power involves hard work no matter how much time is spent in protracted and thoughtful observation. Alternative to animal power, including human, would be solar powered farm-bots smarter than your average animal. Until farm-bots are available to do the heavy lifting, humans will need to. Science and technology can be our friends (or enemies).

The only alternative to belief-based ways of knowing is evidence-based ways of knowing. Belief-based systems start with conclusions and cite evidence to support the conclusions. The alternative is to start with evidence and form tentative conclusions or concepts based on the evidence. The difference is fundamental (an epistemological one), and each represent two "universes of discourse" between which communication is limited. Those having an evidence-based way of knowing, know where I'm coming from, and others may not want to know, so nothing more to say.




PS: So wrong again. I do happen to have something more to say by way of clarifying. If all is clear, then for Athena's sake, stop reading.

In the market place of ideas, permaculture may be the oversold commodity it appears to be, so buyer beware. Permaculture speak sounds very sciency, deeply philosophical, and ever so feel goody. It is very scientistic in that many claims and concepts are gleaned from science. In the sustainability/transition universe of discourse, permaculturists tend to position themselves as having the answer, as being the end point of the transition.

The question is not whether permaculture practices work, but do they work better, worse, or as well as other ways? A clear impression is given that permaculture is unquestionably better. Compared to industrial agriculture, permaculture is clearly more sustainable, but factoring in human/animal labor inputs (eMergy) it will not be nearly as productive. Compared to traditional farming practices, without the fossil fuel based inputs, permaculture design and know-how may be assumed to translate into higher productivity, but any such assumption would be belief-based and not evidence-based.

In the New Guinea highlands, traditional farmers have been growing crops for 8,500 years. In the Angabanga watershed the Korowai shaman had a vision that all must leave and all did. Neighboring tribes did not move in and the government decided to auction off the entire watershed to the highest bidder. A group of the world's top permaculturists, lead by David Holmgren, were high bidders and with their families they moved to their new home. Neighboring tribes invited them to visit anytime and were willing to freely share their know-how and provide seeds and cuttings.

Would the Permaculture tribe:

  1. Use their vast knowledge and insights to produce 10x more than was thought by neighboring tribes to be possible? [no]
  2. Produce 5x more? [no]
  3. Produce 2x more? [no]
  4. Produce 110% more? [maybe]
  5. Manage to grow 90% as much? [maybe]
  6. Would their grandchildren, who intermarried with local tribes, manage to grow as much? [likely]

The most likely outcome would be that their great grandchildren's farming practices would be virtually indistinguishable from that of neighboring tribes, but when asked to explain why they did what they did, they would answer in fluent permaculture speak, and some would write books.

So what would a know-nothing agronomist do? If I had to move to the Angabanga watershed and could take others, I'd attempt to round up the best agronomists/agroecology grad students (to confess, I have degrees in both Crop and Soil Science), maybe throw in an anthropologist or two, and armed only with our vast collective knowledge (but no industrial inputs), off we'd go. The first thing we'd do (and as all would agree, there'd be no Agronomy tribe chief telling us what to do) is go to neighboring tribes and closely observe their cultural practices, ask lots of questions, profusely thank them for their seeds and cuttings, and attempt to slavishly do as they did. Our goal would be to produce 90% as much as they did per capita. We would likely fail the first year, but soon we'd be doing well enough. We'd then draw upon our vastness and guess as to what might work better. Then we'd test, setting up an ag experiment station. Most experiments would fail, but we'd expand upon what did work. In only one generation we might be at 105% of native production.

To think that we could do better than natives with 8,500 years of experience, would seem like off the scale hubris. But we would have several hundred years of science on our minds to add to native know-how, and we'd have the methods of science to learn more. As agronomists with all the fossil fuel and industrial inputs we asked for, we could produce 10x more than the natives. Without, we'd be doing unbelievably well, perhaps in only a few generations, to produce slightly more than the average tribe. And, yes, I'd stick my neck out and say the Agonomy tribe would do better (slightly) than the Permaculture tribe.


A Hopi farmer, like his Puebloan predecessors, is able to produce maybe 4 bushels of corn per acre dryland in an area that gets an average of 9.9 inches of rainfall per year. American industrial corn farmers produce about 150 bushels of corn per acre. Could I, by unleashing the dogs of fossil-fueled agribusiness, produce 150 bu/ac? No; I'd grow more because I'm above average. Could I go to the Hopi Nation, and given only a digging stick, a field, seeds, and such rain as may fall, grow as much as the most incompetent, lazy Hopi farmer? Not the slightest chance. Would "protracted and thoughtful observation" help? Only if spent watching a Hopi farmer.

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