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Interview, video and photos by Erik Hoffner, World Ark contributor.
Planning your garden with care not only encourages plant growth and soil balance but can also begin to counter the effects of climate change and heal the Earth. Permaculture expert Eric Toensmeier can show you how.
PERMACULTURE is an agricultural method that combines multiple techniques to create sustainable and selfperpetuating food-production systems. Developed from studies of home gardens in tropical regions where trees, livestock and annual crops are arranged around a household in such a way that the benefits and wastes of each component aid the others, permaculture systems are durable, low maintenance and perennially productive.
interview and photos by Erik Hoffner, World Ark contributor
World Ark: How do you describe permaculture?
ERIC TOENSMEIER: It’s a system for meeting human needs while improving ecosystem health, but it’s more than just having an orchard near a fishpond. It’s also about the relationship between the trees and the fish and how the waste products of one are used as inputs for others. So in permaculture, all the pieces are placed in the right relationship to each other, and practices from all over the world are used.
Practices like agroforestry?
Yes, which can be as simple as straight rows of timber trees that provide shade and nutrients to crops growing between the rows.
Sounds like shade-grown coffee.
Yes. And although permaculture can add much more to a system like that one, I think agroforestry is the most exciting part of permaculture. It has a great ability to meet human needs, repair degraded land and capture carbon dioxide. While agroforestry usually focuses on rows of nitrogen-fixing trees with beans and grains growing between, there are well-known perennial crops, like bananas and breadfruit, that can also be grown this way. Other useful examples are lesser-known plants like peach palm and the Andean tree bean chachafruto, which produces unbelievable amounts of edible beans, something like three times that of soy—on a perennial tree! Mesquite is another one that creates edible pods, and you can also use these pods as great fodder for livestock. Systems like these will work anywhere there’s enough moisture to grow trees. If it’s too dry, rotational grazing works great for producing food while capturing carbon. Heifer has done a lot to encourage such systems.
Are there other benefits of permaculture?
Beyond the “Five Fs” that (Indian food activist) Vandana Shiva talks about—food, fuel, fodder, fiber and fertilizer— I’d add medicine and construction materials like bamboo to that list. There can be opportunities for revenue from systems like this, such as in Burkina Faso where the skin care company Dr. Hauschka helped create a shea butter cooperative, and growers now cultivate crops under the shea trees. Providing such opportunities creates self-determination. My utopian vision is of creating many low-maintenance agro-ecosystems like this where livestock do much of the work for you and much of the food is grown on perennial plants, so that people have more time to do other things, like getting an education or attending community meetings. As with Heifer, the goal is not just feeding people but also empowering them to be full citizens of the world.
How and where do you teach permaculture, and how is what you do similar to Heifer’s approach in communities?
As I understand it, Heifer’s model starts by identifying what people want and working with what they already know. That’s a great way to teach permaculture, too. I recently taught a workshop in Guatemala for a Mayan group my wife works with, in a very dry area, and I was able to identify all kinds of permaculture practices in use in the village already, because so many of these are common sense. In a case like that, the task is to figure out how to encourage those and plug in new practices that support the vision that the people already have.
Is the time it takes to establish permaculture projects a challenge?
Systems can be created with annual crops, so not necessarily. But in the case of the tree-based systems, which to me are the coolest kind of permaculture, yes, although papayas and bananas can yield a crop in 18 months. In that case you’d plant an annual crop around the trees while you’re waiting for them to grow. Heifer has programs that provide useful, productive trees, in which case passing on the gift can consist of sharing seeds or cuttings. You can even buy trees like these in Heifer’s gift catalog.
What is the Bosque Comestible project?
The Apios Institute, which I’m on the board of, built a website that lists cold climate perennial plants that can be grown in useful combinations with other plants or with livestock. Now we’re piloting a Spanish language version (Bosque Comestible means edible forest) that lists useful perennial plants for the climate types of Mexico, which are, broadly speaking, all of the climate types of the tropics. People elsewhere in the Americas where I go to teach have expressed interest in seeing this expanded to their regions, too. For the many rural communities that lack reliable access to the web, there will be a print version.
What else does permaculture focus on?
There’s more to it than perennial crops. It also touches on transportation, economics, buildings, green energy and wastewater management. An example of the latter comes from Zimbabwe where the proven technology of composting toilets was used in a campaign that successfully turned around the country’s cholera epidemic.
How does the practice of permaculture help communities address climate change and work to improve the environment?
Permaculture provides a toolbox for communities to address climate change and meet human needs while improving ecosystem health. Some permaculture strategies help reduce emissions by reducing farm inputs like fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers, which contribute to climate change, or by providing clean energy sources like wind and solar. Many permaculture practices help take excess carbon back out of the atmosphere and store it in perennial plants and in soil organic matter. Finally, low-maintenance perennial crops, the “slow it, sink it, spread it” approach to rainwater management and other practices help communities adapt to the increase in extreme weather events that appears to characterize the new climate regime.