Permaculture thinking on the farm: going beyond tradition

Rebecca Hosking
Tuesday, 3rd April 2012

Rebecca explains why the problem becomes the solution in farming, as the permaculture maxim describes, but only if you question all received wisdom and confront your cultural programming, no matter how uncomfortable it feels.

When we came back to my family farm a few years ago, we knew that our approach to farming would need a huge rethink in order for the farm to survive in these times of economic and climatic uncertainty.

Since then we have spent an inordinate amount of time researching, designing and trying to establish new, holistic, low energy approach to many a farming 'problem'. This has inevitably meant a lot of mistakes, dead ends and wasted opportunities along the way.

The Four Blinkers of the Apocalypse

Interestingly we've now realized that each 'cock-up' (theoretical or practical) we have made can be attributed to one of four barriers to progress which we now – rather hyperbolically – refer to as The Four Blinkers of the Apocalypse!

1) Received wisdom

2) Availability of money

3) Fossil fuel power

4) What will the neighbours think?

Just as the blinkers on a plough horse's head keep them on the straight and narrow and dealing with the furrow at hand, these cultural blinkers make it very hard for us to explore the full range of possibilities for devising truly sustainable farming.

Received wisdom

If you're practising permaculture – or any aspect of ecological growing/farming – I'm sure you have already run headlong into the problem of received wisdom. As I see it, the challenging of received wisdom is an implicit and very important part of permaculture. The world of agriculture today, however, tends to be somewhat less questioning in its thinking.

Most days we fall foul of some bit of received farming wisdom, such as:

Received Wisdom: You need to house cattle in the winter, or do you?In this climate and on clay soils you have to bring your animals into barns in the winter;

Unless you put down a little fertilizer (whether chemical or organic) the grass won't grow well;

Big cows make more money than small ones;

Small farms don't make a profit.

I wish we'd woken up to it sooner but it's only been recently that we're beginning to get the hang of questioning everything.

Questioning 'new blood'

On farming issues, I think I'm far more susceptible to falling for received wisdom than my other half, Tim, simply because he's 'new blood' and not from a farming background. Because of this he can try and view a problem with a degree of detachment whereas I more easily get clouded by tradition.

'We've always done it like that' is an often-heard phrase on our farm. Ask 'why?' and you'll be told 'because that's how it's done'. This annoying circularity is often just perpetuating matters of little consequence but sometimes there is more at stake.

For instance, there are a whole host of chemicals and veterinary pharmaceuticals that are regularly poured on, sprayed at, injected into and squirted down the gullets of our sheep and cattle to keep them healthy and free from parasites.

Having to deal with a foot infection because of pathogens in the pastureWe have always been a little uncomfortable with this but understand that at the very least it is an animal welfare issue and amounts to good husbandry. Over the last few years we have been researching natural and herbal alternatives (of which there are many to try!) but never thought to question the big assumption that 'parasites and diseases are inevitably a part of rearing livestock'. This is the received wisdom.

Ask a few searching questions and you soon realise that the prevalence of parasitic, viral and bacterial infections in domestic livestock is largely down to them spending too much time around their own poo. No big surprise really!

Holistic Management

The solution to this problem isn't Dektomax®, Nilzan®, Crovect®, Combinex® or even a 100% natural herbal wormer or homemade salve of wild garlic, cider vinegar and happy dancing alder catkins. The solution is to keep your animals away from their own poo and to keep them moving on to fresh ground like they would in the wild. All the other options are treating symptoms not the cause.

Sheep poo polluting the spring pastureNow tell this to a hypothetical farmer and he will probably agree but will then go on to give you a whole host of reasons why moving livestock fast enough to outpace parasites is not practically feasible on his land (as a bunch, we farmers are generally very good at making excuses). I'd hazard a guess, however, that almost every given reason will be based on received wisdom and, as such, not necessarily true.

Seemingly straightforward solution - move the flock to fresh pastureThis is in no way our hypothetical farmer's fault; properly questioning received wisdom (as opposed to just being contrary) is exceedingly difficult as it is so culturally ingrained.

Gross simplification

When we made a film for the BBC about our farm a few years ago, I was genuinely a little ashamed (as an environmentally concerned citizen) to show that we were livestock farmers. Unable to properly square meat production with the preservation of the environment, we were happily preparing ourselves for a future as fruit and veg producers and then we read about the 2010 winner of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge.

These guys had demonstrated that something as obvious and scientifically backed as livestock production being detrimental to the environment was a gross simplification. By questioning the same received wisdom that we had blindly accepted, they had discovered that livestock production (when managed correctly) has the potential to roll back deserts and even reverse climate change.

sequestering carbon while livestock 'mob graze' image courtesy of http://www.savoryinstitute.com/

So I guess the take home message we've learnt and I'd politely pass on – is to question everything, no matter how uncomfortable it feels.

Well I am off to move the sheep, so I shall write about the other three blinkers of the apocalypse soon.

For more information on Holistic Management see http://www.savoryinstitute.com or see this excellent short video on holistic grazing.

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 downloadable.

Val Grainger |
Tue, 03/04/2012 - 10:45
The above article 'Permaculture thinking on the farm: going beyond tradition' is so nice to read! As a smallholder of over 30 years experience and from a family of smallholders I have always used the approach outlined! Unless the ewes are at home to lamb they are always 'on the move' keeping pastures clean and minimising the need for chemical wormers. Fluke is another matter in our area but we try to break the cycle as much as possible. We also do not vaccinate as we believe its over stocking and stress that lead to the outbreaks of clostridial diseases. Farming like this is an art and a skill and requires lots and lots of observation....something often overlooked in the rush but very important in all aspects of permaculture! I watch many people buy smallholdings these days as they 'downsize' to what they perceive to be a better life but often they throw more chemicals at their livestock than big farmers who cannot afford to in the name of 'keeping them healthy'....I commend Rebecca for having the guts to question recieved wisdom....often 'recieved' wisdom is being given by the blind!
Cottage Farm Fieldpower Organics |
Tue, 03/04/2012 - 23:21
We have only started farming 5 years ago with zero prior experience, as our personal response to Peak Oil and Climate Change and last year were finalists in sustainable Farmer of the Year. Once you understand Peak Oil, it tends to inject quite a bit of urgency into your life. In the first year, whilst learning the basics, we were copying our neighbours in most aspects. But then we registered for organic conversion and from then on I kept asking myself: What happens in nature? And the answer to that question tended to be the answer to whatever problem we had. Now the farm produces organic grass fed native rare breed beef and lamb with near zero use of fossil fuel - everything runs on renewables, even transport. You can see some of what we are up to on our Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1798282546&sk=info or http://www.facebook.com/pages/Fieldpower-Organics-at-Cottage-Farm/142171192536789
Aranya |
Thu, 05/04/2012 - 11:13
Lovely to hear an update from Rebecca as a follow up to her wonderful film of a couple of years ago. Interesting that we have begun to really look at British farming from a permaculture perspective at last & I'm sure that Rebecca's film has played no small part in making this happen. We were very fortunate to have Australian RegenAG farm designer Darren Doherty come & teach in Sussex last year & it has led to a series of RegenAG courses happening again this year looking at some of the details Darren introduced us to. Coincidentally, Kirk Gadzia, one of Holistic Management's top trainers will be teaching HM farming & grazing on the Cowdray estate in Sussex from 5th-7th May. More details of this & other courses at http://www.RegenAG.co.uk Exciting times I reckon!
Tim Green and Rebecca Hosking |
Fri, 06/04/2012 - 11:18
Val and Paul, Thank you so much for your wonderful supportive comments, great to know there are like minds out there. Aranya you'll be pleased to hear that my better-half Tim is hopefully booked in for the three day Kirk lecture, waiting to hear back from Mel. We've heard wonderful things about Kirk, ( one of the finest holistic management teachers about) Very best to all Bec
Gael Bage |
Tue, 14/08/2012 - 00:00
Watched your video some time ago - inspiring and similar to my own thinking, your video is in the vid library at Occupii.org, and is very popular with freeskilling and sustainable growing there . Glad to see you are progressing and hear of your progress. I have been gardening with similar beds for several years now which I learned here http://www.youtube.co/watch?v=ugFd1JdFaE0 it works well in the weather extremes of drought or deluge we are experiencing lately and adding a mulch slows evaporation in drought and in deluge it drains into the paths without washing away. How are your grass seed experiments coming along? best wishes from gael

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