How to design more resilient, food producing systems (without money and fossil fuels)

Rebecca Hosking
Wednesday, 11th April 2012

Rebecca Hosking looks at cultural barriers numbers two and three to sustainability – easy money and fossil fuels. She explains why it is so important to free ourselves from the shackles of manufactured solutions and fossil fuel not for just for ethical reasons but in order to design a more resilient, future-proof farms and gardens.

Last week I started to discuss those common cultural barriers and mental blocks that have hindered our progress in preparing for an uncertain future on our small family farm.

We realised these barriers fall into four categories and I started with 'Received Wisdom'. This week I thought I'd try tackling the next two on our list. These two are very much intertwined so I've grouped them together – available money and fossil fuel power

Available money

Culturally we've been led to believe that lack of sufficient funds hinders progress, but the question to ask is 'progress towards which goal'? In our case the goal is to design a robust farm that will withstand knocks and shocks driven by climatic, social or economic extremes. With this end in mind we've found that having 'sufficient funds' in the past has clouded our judgement and allowed (or even encouraged) us to make mistakes.

We've never been particularly wealthy but it takes surprisingly little money to mess up your thinking. We did manage to save up a small escape fund to get us from life in TV to a life on the farm but it was only really when that had run dry that we started to make proper progress in our sustainable venture.

Little garden shed of consumer horrorsLooking out the window right now I can see a poorly built garden shed with a leaky roof. Inside that shed there is a heavy duty electric garden shredder gathering dust, a big box full of empty compost bags and the remains of a portable plastic greenhouse. All of these items (including the shed itself) were purchased mistakes we made along the way to creating a veg garden. None of them are useful anymore and most of them no longer function.

Basically, having money in our pockets enabled us to out-source the need to use our own brains. Our thought process went along the lines of: "We have a problem so we need to find products that will 'solve' the problem – we just need to order the most 'sustainable' product/solution."

One major implication of falling for what is essentially the consumer trap is how it delays the uptake of the truly sustainable solution. For example, buying in bags of compost (because we could) stopped us learning how to properly and effectively recycle the wealth of organic material right here on the farm. I'm happy to report that now we are wiser, have 20 times more compost each year, it costs nothing and works better.

Creating compost for free

Growing solutions

Having little or no money forces you into understanding biological, mineral, energy and water cycles to maintain production in a garden or farm without the need for external inputs. The natural upshot of this is that the cheapest option usually turns out to be the most ecologically sound option because, when the money runs out, you necessarily start to rely on what's there for free – sunlight, rain, photosynthesis, decomposition, gravity etc. Rather than buying solutions, you start growing them; whether as a seed in the ground or a seed in the mind.

However, there is one area where we do spend money and don't mind doing so and that's on learning. Courses when we can justify them but especially books and reading material. Knowledge is priceless.

Fossil fuel power

Talking of using the little grey cells, I recently heard Patrick Whitefield describe permaculture as 'replacing fossil fuel power with brain power'. I wish I'd come up with that one. Brevity not being one of my strong points, I'll now ramble around the subject but basically...this is what he said:

That fossil fuel power is a barrier to progress in the search for truly sustainable farming is almost too obvious to mention but oddly enough it is the ubiquity of petroleum power and machinery in agriculture that makes it all too easy to overlook.

The move of heavy machinery and petroleum-derived chemicals into farming may be comparatively recent but it has been so complete that it is almost impossible to imagine most 'developed' nation farms without them. Somewhere beneath the criss-cross of tractor tracks on our farm are the remnants of the old 17th Century 'wagon-wheel' farmstead design (not dissimilar to the permaculture zoning principle) but it's been a long time since it has functioned without the near constant throb of diesel engines.

The 17th century wagon wheel design, with the farm buildings at its hub

The reason fossil fuel energy is such an effective blinker in the search for proper resilient farming is because it is just so damned good at getting stuff done. Given a choice we naturally take the path of least resistance and that, on a farm today, is diesel powered.

One small electric pump house, the farm's Achilles' heelEven when we started the very deliberate and mentally taxing exercise of trying to design fossil fuels out of our system we still found ourselves stuck in a fossil fuelled paradigm. For example, our future plans require water points to be distributed more evenly across our land (as things are, all the water is at the bottom of the valley and the higher land is dry). A big electric pump installed sometime in the 1980's is currently the only way to get water to the top of the valley. A mechanical device that relies on fossil fuel (via electricity) to function is clearly a massively weak link in the chain for something as essential as a water supply.

What seemed like the straightforward solution was to replace the pump with a wind or solar powered pump and so effortlessly remove our reliance on off-farm energy supplies. Fortunately for us we had just run out of money and were unable to implement this deeply flawed 'solution'.

Whether the energy supply is mains electricity, diesel or solar panels, pumping water up 40 vertical meters is 'fossil fuel thinking'. Even powered by on-site renewables, a techno-solution to water management will need a spare part at some point and so is still vulnerable to knocks and shocks in the outside world. Having half the farm's water supply dependent on some little stainless steel nubbin inside a pump manifold is as foolhardy as having an undefended exhaust port right next to the main reactor of your otherwise impregnable Death Star (analogy kindly provided by my nerdy other half!).

Not wishing to repeat the oversight of the Galactic Empire, we now understand the most resilient solution to our water woes is to dig a reservoir at the top of the hill and to divert as much winter rain into it as needed. Then we can rely on good old failsafe gravity.

Gravity feed water from keyline reservoirs no external energy required

By trying to free ourselves from the shackles of manufactured solutions and fossil fuel we are not taking an ethical stance but a pragmatic one. By thinking this way you automatically minimize your exposure to outside shocks, you cut your outgoings, maximize your income and build flexibility and robustness into your way of life and work. In short, it makes good ecological sense and business sense.

Very best wishes until the next time when I'll talk about the final cultural barrier to progress we've encountered - 'What the Neighbours think'. 

Rebecca and Tim write a regular BLOG on permaculture and farming for Permaculture online.

Read Rebecca's article about the challenges to conventional farming and how permaculture can help overcome them in Permaculture magazine 60 download version. 

Jamie M Saunders |
Thu, 12/04/2012 - 08:04
strategic thinking, critical foresight, tactics and practice - at human scale...
Patrick Whitefield |
Thu, 12/04/2012 - 09:30
This must be the first time I've seen anyone congratulate themselves on running out of money! A very profound article. A question we need to ask about any proposed new system is: 'How will this function after the end of the fossil fuel age?'
Jim Thomas |
Thu, 12/04/2012 - 19:30
According to Jeffry Sachs, tests show that the higher up the socio-economic scale, the more dishonest a person is likely to be....... http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/video/2012/apr/12/jeffrey-sachs-wall-street-video?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3486bde77b According to Cameron Leckie "the leading proponents of our current economic system, those who are fighting to maintain the dominant narrative, are suffering from a severe case of cognitive dissonance'. Therefore how refreshing it is to hear someone take a whole heartedly positive attitude towards their own mistakes.
Lobma Thundrup |
Sat, 14/04/2012 - 18:53
Is this the article that is in the upcoming PM?
Lobma Thundrup |
Sat, 14/04/2012 - 19:06
I wish you could have a word or thre with the owners of the farm estate we are surrounded by Rebecca. ( http://www.revesbyestate.co.uk/RevesbyFarms.htm ) The top of our nascent forest garden looks out onto a massive and baron monoculture field. They tell me they are ecologically sound and are members of some farming ecological organisation but.. At least they phone to let us know when they are spraying.
Rowena van Doorn |
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 17:26
Hi Rebecca, I am a student regional development and innovation at Wageningen, The Netherlands. From september till half of november I am able to go on placement and I would love to get in contact with you but I cannot find any information in order to do so. I am intrigued by your farm management and vision. I have been active in a strong youth network in the Netherlands called the Youth Food Movement and did educated took part in the Transition Town Movement and Ecovillages. From hart and orrigen I am a citygirl from Holland. For me the urgence of change, love, nature and (re)valuation of relationships are strongly related to my choice of study and to my drive for what I do and want to learn. I hope you are willing to look at gains in this for you too :) I am up for a lot and really interested. I would love to tell you more on an email basis. Hope you find time to react. My email address is rowena.vandoorn@gmail.com Thank you in advance! Rowena
MarkBoyle |
Thu, 31/05/2012 - 14:24
Great article Rebecca, and the work you are doing is hugely important. If we continue to design in high technologies that can only come into existence through the economies and scale and specialised division of labour that only money and fossil fuels can facilitate, we will not have resilient systems when either run dry. To make yourself dependent on external inputs that are far from guaranteed in the future is very flawed, regardless of what your ideological viewpoint is. Keep up the great work Rebecca.
Nicola Didsbury |
Tue, 01/01/2013 - 02:46
Its such a learning curve. Its such a mix of learning; re-rembering the old ways and blending with new ways. You two are amazing pioneers. Inspiring. Nicola
maryymemary |
Tue, 27/01/2015 - 12:13
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