Saturday, October 17, 2015

In Danger of Falling Food - Kalamazoo Edition

(One of our local unofficial food forests)

"In danger of falling food." That's a phrase that one of Permaculture's founders, Bill Mollison, used to use in his talks. In fact, there's a video you can find on Youtube with that title.
As you'll see from the quote below, Bill knew very well that the dangers of Food Forests go well beyond a bump on the head. They could threaten our entire way of life!

"I will tell you a little story. There is a man named Cliff Adam, living in a group of islands with about 40,000 people. Cliff got a grant from the United Nations to collect some food plants that might suit the area. They gave him $136,000. So he took off in his plane and kept sending home parcels. He left two or three friends there who kept planting all these trees. He sent back some 600 sorts of mango, 30 or 40 sorts of breadfruit, all sorts of guava, and so on. When he got back home, he then moved them out in rows on 68 acres near the shoreline. Then he got another 135 acres from the government, up on the hills. So he set out all these trees. About three or four years lat- er, he had all sorts of cassava and all sorts of yams and taros that you could imagine.

He said to me, "I am in a very embarrassing position."

I said, "What is wrong?".

He said, "Well I shipped this crop in that wasn't growing here traditionally." This was really a coconut economy. He shipped all these plants in, and he set them out as trials. So he said, "The problem is, what I was going to do was this: give the farmers different sorts of mangos, breadfruit trees, and all that, and I have been doing it; but already the production from my two hundred acres would feed the island, and that's experimental production. I am in the embarrassing position where, as agricultural research and nutrition officer, I am already alone re- sponsible."

He said to me, "What am I going to do?"

I said, "I dunno."

This is a difficulty wherever people undertake this sort of assembly. You haven't gotten very far along the road, maybe four to seven years along the road, when you've grown so much food the whole thing gets rather embarrassing, and if you are the agricultural officer of a small country, you could probably feed the country on the experimental plots.

(Snip) ...we plant the land, people quickly become food self-sufficient. If you plant on an extended basis, then the whole structure of the economy is affected. What if nobody wants to trade or buy food? What if no one has to bother with it anymore? So there are problems. They are problems of a different order than the problems that we think we have. That has happened to several people who have tackled it seriously within the last five years....

(Snip) Yet people are dying of starvation. The problem is the economy, and land ownership. You don't have a food problem. I don't think you will ever have a food prob- lem. If you seriously started this roll away stuff, started to roll all over that place, you wouldn't get very far before you would have an embarrassing amount of food.

In a money economy, it's all right only while nobody else is doing it. But what if every- body started doing it? Terrifying thought!

Now the position is already being faced in some small communities where there is such a surplus of food that there is no real economy in food at all.

(A young food forest at Trybal Revival in Kalamazoo)

So, was Bill Full of BS? Often, yes. But the point he makes here is worth examining. I mean, it's been proven by many cultures around the world throughout history, but can it work in Kalamazoo?
This is something I've written about before:, but it's worth looking specifically into the idea of low maintenance "harvest-only" food forest systems. 

If we were going to try too feed all of Kalamazoo for free, the food forest systems we'd create would be high in chestnuts and cultivated oaks, as the staple carbs, understory hazels as a protein, and probably quinces as a staple fruit. 

In the case of chestnuts, an acre produces over 2,000 lbs of nuts per year. Under this, you can plant many crops, shade lovers in the understory and sun-loving crops along edges. We could interplant hazelnuts, fruits, greens, perennial vegetables, etc. for a complete diet. 

So, utilizing the productivity of chestnuts, we could plant less than 1/4 of the 500 Square Miles of arable land in Kalamazoo County and provide a considerably higher quantity of food in sheer weight than the average robust American diet of a Tonne of food per year (according to NPR's The Salt.) The 50 foot ring around Kalamazoo city that I wrote about in the linked article could feed everyone in the city within walking distance! 

And it would take far, far less to feed all of Kalamazoo's hungry and impoverished a healthy, diverse diet for FREE. And even less than that if we were to include acorns in the diet. 

All that's lacking is the desire to get "the economy" of the way and let hungry people feed themselves. What are we waiting for? 


  1. Great story, I can't wait for more food to start raining from the sky at my place. I've put a lot of faith in chestnuts and hazelnuts as a staple crop at my garden, devoting the better part of an acre to Chestnuts being the dominant overstory, with maybe 30 trees in total (I plan to coppice some of those, esp. if they turn out not to bear many nuts). I've got 50+ hazels growing, but will coppice some of those as well, esp. the "wild" varieties which bear lightly compared to the hybrids.

    One clarification, in this sentence, what's the unit of area we're talking about, per acre?

    In the case of a chestnuts, an orchard produces over 2,000 lbs of nuts per year.

  2. 2,000 lbs/ acre seems to be a general consensus yield for chestnuts. Some sources report numbers as high as 7,000 lbs / acre, or higher, but others say this is only common in an exceptional year, and that 2,200 is a better average figure.

    Thanks for catching the ambiguity and the typo. I'm working against a very buggy version of the Blogger app, and some compatibility issues between platforms that leave each post a mess when I publish it. In fact, couldn't even get through this comment without reloading the app 3 times.... sheesh. Gotta love app-based computing.

  3. This is a great blog post. I am glad that there is an examination of permaculture. Discussion grows better understanding of the principles and the past of permaculture. Some day I should share the chestnut failures I have had. PT