Thursday, December 20, 2018

2019 A Season of Transformative Adventures

Announcing our 2019 season schedule of Transformative Adventures! 
This season, we're offering 4 major courses, along with a few online programs, additional classes, and some free foraging walks. 
2019 Programs:
1. Community Supported Permaculture Program: Our innovative program on forest gardening/natural gardening, including seeds, plants, consultation and a full season of classes. (3rd Saturdays, May- November.)…/
2. Adventures in Home Herbalism (with Art of Health):
five classes, monthy foraging, gardening and preparation techniques, packaged with seeds, plants, and a collection of medicines including lotions, salves, oils, vinegars, tinctures and more. (2nd Saturdays, May - September.)…/learning-from-herbs-adventures-in-ev…
3. Season-long MODULAR Permaculture Design Certificate Course.…/
4. PDC Modual for students who have completed our gardening program.…/permaculture-design-certificate-cour…

Monday, December 10, 2018

The FIRE Path to Freedom - Part 2 FIRE or FREE?

In part 1, we discussed how changing our relationship with money and work is one of the key leverage points for transforming our lives, our society and the world. We explained that designing our interaction with money is a leverage point for creating viral change, because it has a huge “payback” for individuals, can help us fund our dreams, has a huge impact on the success of our projects, and it can be a fun adventure, too. 

“Hey, wait - sure it can help us invest in successful community organizing and regenerative projects, but money? An adventure?” 

Yes! Once we understand how we are trapped by money, held by the chains of consumer culture, then setting ourself and others free is the very definition of adventure, you Bilbo Baggins you, and experiencing the rewards of our own efforts as we watch our debt disappear and our freedom grow, can indeed be fun, or at least engaging. And plotting out that escape route through Permaculture and investing in manifesting the kind of world we want to see is incredibly enriching. 

For most of us who are already interested in things like simplicity, Permaculture or homesteading, the first thing we need to realize is this is not the same old kind of smarmy Think and Get Rich Secret 7 Rules for Vision Boards, fire-walking kind of consumption-driven money advice. And this isn't an article proposing a hyper-capitalist approach to living or Permaculture.

For many in the current generation, the goal is “FIRE” Financial Independence Retire Early, which, for many, is different than the standard meaning of “retirement.” It means getting out of consumer culture and living simply to gain the freedom to work on what you want, when you want, and how you want. Breaking that down, Financial Independence means you’ve lowered your cost of living and saved enough that your income from your investments and savings cover your expenses. For example, using the “4% rule,” a rough rule of thumb discussed in the FIRE movement, if you require $20,000/year to live on, you will be able to retire with $500k or less in savings. IN other words, multiply your yearly costs by 25 and that’s how much savings you will need. With $500k in the bank, you would be free to put your full-time efforts into Permaculture, regenerative agriculture, cultural creation, or otherwise building a better world for yourself, your family and your community. (Check out this article or more information on the realities on the 4% rule, or you can play around with this FIRE Calc to see for yourself.)

This is the kind of perspective you’ll find eloquently drawn out in the new addition of YMOYL, by Vicki Robin. The book even highlights the stories of a few homesteaders and organic farmers who were able to pursue their land-based work on financially stable ground, due to their Financial Independence. 

But, from a Permaculture perspective it might be helpful to analyze this paradigm further, to maximize how it meets the different kinds of goals that we might have when compared to other folks. For example, it’s clear that we’ll need to start out with a map that will get us where we want to go financially while accomplishing all the goals I began this article with in part 1: caring for people and the earth, while improving quality of life. Viral change. Leverage.

So, can we have our FIRE cake and eat it without burning down the planet and ourselves too? Does a $500,000 nest egg sound achievable for folks looking to simplify their lifestyles? Are their investments we can make that don’t make the world worse off at our expense? Can we instead invest in the kind of world we want to see? Is there a realistic plan for “Permaculture FIRE?”


My honest assessment is that Permaculture offers many ways to reduce cost of living as well as some important regenerative investments. And some will be able to happily make that happen. High earners with jobs in engineering, computers, business or medicine may be able to save up $500k in just a few years while learning some major Permaculture skills through the process of being frugal. For them, a conventional FIRE approach may be the best path to their dreams, and Permaculture might be the key to making their frugal lifestyle both fulfilling and regenerative.  

But for others of us, the dream of early retirement often represented by the FIRE movement may not be desirable, or it may only build up unrealistic expectations, especially for people who simply want to prioritize their permaculture, homesteading or simple living goals. If your income is only around $25-30k to start with, and there are good reasons to not want to do what is necessary to earn more, then consistently saving $5-10k/year could be a challenge, and at that rate it will only take, hmmm, 50 years or more to reach retirement. 

Once we free ourselves from consumer culture and realize that the question really is: “Your Money or Your Life?” then we may decide that seizing that time NOW is more important to us than the deferred reward. 

But in that case, changing our relationship with money is even more powerful and transformational. For example, the first few steps on the YMOYL path are to eliminate debt (and with it any high monthly obligations) and to save up a few months worth of expenses in an emergency fund. With no (or few) high-interest debts and a 6-month slush fund, imagine the freedom and security you’d have. Imagine what different choices you’d make if you had 6 months to find a new job if you needed to, or accept a risky new opportunity if it called. 

For many of us, our hope is that Permaculture or homesteading will be our escape plan from the rat race, not a nest egg, the stock market, and eventual retirement. What we’re suggesting is that there’s real potential to combine the tools of Permaculture with tools in YMOYL. 

This starts with the first three rungs of the Financial Independence Ladder to Freedom, as Vicki Robin calls it:

  1 Freeing your mind from money and consumer culture and building the financial intelligence necessary to see how our pavlovian programming makes us waste our life energy on things that only make us miserable, so we can start investing in what we really serves us. 
2 Get free from debt. Consumption is the carrot that keeps us wasting our lives, debt is the stick. Part of this is to change our behaviors to stop investing in our own chains, and the other part is systematically paying down debts, starting with credit cards and other high-interest loans. 
3 The third rung is to directly invest in our freedom by building up an emergency fund large enough to cover 2 months, or better yet, 5 or 6 months debt. This is the tool that allows us to say “take this job and shove it,” or to say yes to other opportunities as they arise. Imagine what you’d do if you could take a 6-month sabbatical to start a new business, find a higher-paying job, learn a new valuable skill….

I’ve come to think of these three steps as some of the most important work of Permaculture, or for anyone who wants to work to make the world a better place. With this goal accomplished, you’ll be able to bring your full self to your work, with less stress, more honesty, more freedom, more clarity, and more ability to help others make smart choices.

If these first 3 rungs have a lot to offer aspiring Permaculturists, then Permaculture Design has a lot to offer the last 2: 

4 The 4th rung involves drawing on all our non-financial forms of capital, including our knowledge, experience, natural capital, relationships, and so on. In the new edition of YMOYL, this is referred to as the ABCs of wealth.
5 The final rung is building up savings to get you to early retirement.

For some of us, this roadmap might be exactly what we need. But Permaculture design, with a rich set of tools for non-financial capital for rung 4 and a bank of viable regenerative investment opportunities for rung 5, can provide us with more options than the traditional FIRE scenarios. 

After we used the first 3 rungs of the Ladder to start freeing up our ideas around money, Kim and I realized we didn’t want to seek FIRE in the race for FI and “retirement,” we just wanted to feel FREE: Financially Resilient and Economically/Ethically Empowered. We wanted to “catch and store” (Holmgren, Principles) energies that would allow us to weather the storms of an economic system that appears to us to be failing. And we want to be resilient enough that we can survive even if important projects we take on fail, or if “life strikes” in some other expensive way. And we want to feel economically empowered. We want to be able to choose to start projects, organizations, or businesses we think are important. And we wanted to feel in control of our own economic destinies, rather than relying on other fragile systems for our livelihoods.

But we also want to be ethically empowered, so that if an employer or investment opportunity ever conflicts with our values, we can afford to say “take this job and shove it.” And finally, that word “empowered,” we want to feel like we have the agency to invest in creating the kind of lives and society we want to see. Now that’s feeling “FREE.” 

And we also wanted to begin investing in manifesting the kind of lives we wanted to live, and kind of world we wanted to live in. 

In the next article we’ll apply our Permaculture Design analysis to steps 4 and 5 of the  “Financial Independence Ladder to Freedom” ( ) give examples different forms of practical non-financial capital, look at what makes a good “regenerative investment,” and we’ll explore what Permaculture FREE scenarios could actually look like, talk numbers and look at investments and income streams in the context of Permaculture and homesteading.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The FIRE Path to Financial Freedom (and The Most Important thing We've Learned about Permaculture)

The FIRE Path to Freedom?
(The Most Important thing We’ve Learned about Permaculture)

Well now that’s quite a loaded headline! Clearly, we’re going to talk about money and the current popular “FIRE” (Financial Independence Retire Early) movement - but first! - what is the most important thing we’ve ever learned about Permaculture, homesteading and living with the land? What single concept has had the biggest positive impact on transforming our lives since we first heard the “P word” on WEFT Community Radio back in 2001?


The whole point of the Lillie House project as we originally envisioned it, was to create viral change by helping other people transform their lives, landscapes and society, through better connection with nature, our higher selves and our communities. We wanted to find the actions that would have the biggest effect on changing our own lives and we knew that if we could model beautiful, rich, free ways of living that had a transformational effect on the world around us, then we wouldn’t have to twist people’s arms to create change, they’d line up for it like it’s the new iPhone. 

That’s leverage.

But to do that, we knew we’d have to find a path that was accessible and replicable to as many people as possible. And we knew that path would have to help people be better off, happier and healthier at each step of the way. In Permaculture, which is a system for ecological design, we’d say people have to be able to obtain a yield (Holmgren, Permaculture Principles) from every bit of time, energy and money they invest in their transformational adventure. It’s a goal that’s more often discussed than actually pursued.

And Permaculture also taught us that we’d need to identify the key leverage points where we can get the most positive personal and societal transformation for the least effort. Such leverage points need to be high return on investment (ROI.) We’re looking for actions where we can quickly get 80% of the value from just a 20% improvement (the 80/20 principle.) That way we can make an adventure out of working on improving just one area of our lives for a while, obtain a big lasting yield from it, then move on to invest in other transformational experiences with a high ROI. 

And the very best leverage points stack functions and allow us to “Care for the Earth and Care for People” (Mollison, Holmgren, The Permaculture Designer’s Manual) while simultaneously creating lives for ourselves that are more beautiful, abundant, rich, and free

And they have to be fun. It has to be an adventure

After 10 years of observation, study and practice, and another 7 dedicated actively trying to figure out the best leverage points, we think we’ve got a good idea about what a dozen of them are and how people can best pursue them. 

Any one of these leverage points will help us build a better life, but when we stack them together, these transformational adventures create a program of study and action that can improve our lives and can make us truly powerful agents of positive change. 

I won’t take the time to go into all 12 in this article, but to understand the principle, here are our top 3 examples with a high personal and social ROI:

  1. Basic foraging, because it’s an adventure that transforms “weeds” and “wilds” into beloved friends, and helps us begin to “see nature” and beneficially tend the wilds in our communities.
  2. Extensive forms of gardening like natural gardening and forest gardening, because they teach us the most, have the highest ROI, and - unlike some other forms of gardening - they actually benefit biodiversity, clean water, and sequester carbon. And finally,
  3. Transforming our relationship with work and money. 

Phew! There’s the money. In journalistic terms that’s called “burying the lead,” but my experience in my community circles of activists, artists, artisans, homesteaders, gardeners and farmers, people just want to learn about pretty new plants and beautiful sustainable gardens while making the world a better place - AND the last thing people ever want to hear about is money. In fact, for many of us, money is a taboo topic, either just too frustrating, or even seen as the “root of all evil” (and not the tasty kind of root, either!)

But quite honestly, transforming our relationship with money is the leverage point that will likely have the most positive impact on us as individuals, on the Earth, and society at large.

(You know we are a beautiful and deeply, ahem, idealistic community when we need to convince ourselves that discussing money might be as important as eating weeds.) 

Perhaps this discomfort with money explains why some of the most deeply beautiful people I know are also in deeply precarious financial positions. 

Perhaps it explains why new farm businesses file bankruptcy at a higher rate than any other business, and even high-profile homesteads and permaculture projects fail at an alarming rate. 

And perhaps it explains why a guy who claims to have eventually worked up to making minimum wage is frequently called “the most successful farmer on the planet.”

And maybe it’s also why people are lining up to pay $1000-3,000 for online classes and “business models” openly claiming to teach how we can make around $3/hour for a whopping $10-15k/ year. Yes, look past the “earn $1,000,000 a year!” headlines and read the fine print that the big bucks are GROSS and the take home is often minimum wage.

What the prospective homesteaders and farmers buying this content really want is a ladder to freedom, a way they can escape the rat race and find a simpler way of life.

In my opinion, these would-be agents of transformative simple living are LITERALLY paying people to teach them how to fail at their goal. The reality is, it doesn’t matter how frugal you are and how much voluntary simplicity and community reliance you cultivate, if you’re planning to make $6/hour working 70 hour weeks, you probably aren’t going to stick with it for long.  

In Permaculture, this approach to “profitable farming” is called a Type 1 error: a system designed to fail. 

But at least those people are taking a stab at their dreams. Many of us are so paralyzed by our frustration with money, that we never figure out how to finance our dreams, or truly commit to taking our first steps. 

And, finally, not to put too fine a point on it, perhaps this resistance to talk about money is why so many of my incredible activist friends remain dependent upon the very same systems that they’re fighting to tear down. 

This is why transforming our relationship with work and money is so important. 

Kim and I think it’s so important that we’ve done workshops and even put together a whole free starter class to get you going. 

But in my classes and workshops, my top recommendation has always been to pick up a copy of Your Money or Your Life(YMOYL) a guide to achieving financial independence (FI) by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. These days, there’s a whole growing online community devoted to the idea of achieving “FIRE,” Financial Independence, Retire Early. This includes different strategies like Fat FIRE, where you retire with a big play fund, and Lean FIRE, where you retire into relative simple living on a smaller nest egg, and even Barista FIRE, where you continue part-time at Starbucks for insurance and supplemental income.  But still YMOYL sets the standard and focusses on changing our relationship with money. Now, Vicki Robin has a fantastic new edition of YMOYL that is even more compatible with Permaculture. This isn’t just standard retirement advice, it’s a blueprint for changing our lives and our society. In my opinion, it’s a book that should be at the very top of every activist, organizer, homesteader, aspiring farmer, and permaculturists’ reading list. 

In Part 2, I’d like to dig in a little further, introduce a few of the concepts you’ll find in YMOYL, and apply our Permaculture Design. Could  Permaculture FIRE be your path to freedom? 

And if are one of the many Permaculturists who took up the cause after achieving Financial Independence, I would like to hear from you in the comments!

Coming soon, Part 2 Permaculture FIRE or Permaculture FREEdom?

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Only a Bowl of Rice - Permaculture/Homesteading Edition

Being on FB homesteading, farming and Permaculture groups, one thing I see constantly are complaints about money and work. A major reason people pursue farming in particular is to escape "the rat race." But they never re-design their ideas about money, so either they take the leap and end up just as stressed as before, or they never figure out how to finance their dreams in the first place, and never even get started. 
There's an ancient Chinese story Kim and I have often told ourselves when we're stressed about money and work, to put it all in perspective.
"What have you come to ask about?"
The two young adventurers had stopped for rest on the long hillside trail to the cottage of a wise person who was renown for their wisdom and good advice. 
As they talked, the two discovered that they had essentially the same problem: they both felt frustrated by their jobs, burned out from work, poorly treated and undervalued by their supervisors. 
When they reached the cottage, they decided that they should ask their question together. As they explained their situations, the sage listened: "We get no respect! No one listens to us! They just exploit us for our labor like we're machines. It's unbearable and I feel like I can't go on another day."
The sage took a long, slow breath, then smiled. 
"Only a bowl of rice."
The sunset filled the valley as they made their way back down the hillside, trying to decipher the advice of the sage.
"Are we only working to feed ourselves, provide our needs?"
"Most of my frustrations from work are because I've expected it to give me meaning, love, respect, enrichment-"
"- excitement, purpose..." the other continued. "And that is what hasn't worked."
"But at the end of the day, perhaps work is only a way to pay the bills." 
The two adventurers set back home to the city with this new perspective.
The first, aware that the job was only paying the bills, let go of their unfulfilled expectations, and started seeking purpose outside of work. With a sense of meaning, respect, goals and achievement separated from money, it became easier to choose to stay in the job, and continue saving and ascending the work ladder by day. Sometimes the stress would rise, but hey, "it's only a bowl of rice," made it tolerable.
It took less than 24 hours for the second to tell their boss to "take this job and shove it!" They moved back home to the country and bought a small family farm on the edge of town. If work was only to pay for needs, there were better ways to do it. Here, food was free, there was no need to maintain an expensive wardrobe, or social obligations, and with an occasional renter housing paid for itself, too. Sometimes it seemed like there wasn't enough money, but what was money, after all, than a bowl of rice?
Many years later when the farmer was visiting friends in the city, they recognized a familiar face smiling from across the bar. Reunited, the two old adventurers compared their life stories, surprised that they had interpreted the sage's advice so differently. 
The first had gone on to eventually become well-compensated in their profession, and had the resources to become a respected artist and teacher as a second career.
The second had had a beautiful life as a respected farmer and teacher of land-based skilled trades. 
"So, which one of us was right?"
Together, they returned to the sage's cottage on the hillside. After listening to the two stories, the old sage took a long, deep breath:
"Only a difference of perspective."

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Syntropic Permaculture in Temperate Climates

("Syntropy" at Lillie House.)

Or Syntropic Agriculture and Temperate Climate Permaculture Design

Syntropic Farming is a farming revolution grown out of Brazil and made famous by Ernst Goetsch and the Life in Syntropy short documentary. Syntropic Farming seeks to cultivate resilient ecosystems that are abundant, financially viable and heal abused land.

- Ernst Goetsch, creator  of Syntropic Farming

Key points in this article:
- Syntropic Agriculture is trendy new growing system, but what distinguishes it? 
- What are the key techniques and novel features of Syntropic Agriculture?
- Can it be put to use in temperate climates? 


If like me, you're keen on having a human-habitable biosphere on planet earth in the coming decades, then the most exciting technological leap of the last few decades has been the rapid wide-ranging experimentation occuring at the intersection of sustainable food systems and regenerating functioning ecologies. With the current agriculture system being probably the single largest driver of climate change, mass extinction, ocean dead zones, community disruption, and a whole host of other problems, this constant churning synthesis of new "systems" of sustainable growing is very hopeful. It can also be difficult and a bit bewildering to keep up with. 

After a break-through success with the documentary Life in Syntropy, one new system called "syntropic agriculture" (S.A.) or "syntropic farming" has quickly grown in popularity. Like many sustainable Ag trends, this system, the work of Ernst Goetsch is mix of good applied ecological insight, practicality, poetry, philosophy, and just enough nuttiness to make it spiritually fulfilling to engage with, and I absolutely love it. It is a very similar system to what we use at Lillie House, and recommend to our students and clients. Like sustainable agriculture leaders before him, Steiner, Fukuoka, Dr. Hankyu Cho, Mollison, etc. Goetsch is an abundant producer of quotable quotes.

The laws (of nature) are given, it isn’t up to us to create or modify any of them. We need to act in a beneficial way for all participants, for all the affected ones, in order to be considered useful and welcomed beings in the system”  -Ernst Goetsch

And while one should take any farming poetical philosophy with a grain of salt, this shouldn't be viewed as a limitation. Our relationship with the land, food and ecosystems is utterly sacred, perhaps our most sacred thing, and any practical approach to growing food must recognize that. It is modern "scientific" agriculture's failure to recognize that intuitive spiritual component, our profound human responsibility for other species and the health of the systems we inhabit, which is the cause of our current multi-faceted crisis.We actually need an abundance of farm philosophers to appeal to every sensibility if we are to have any hope of salvaging our biosphere. In the case of Goetsch, he has created a vocabulary that synthesizes some of the language and vocabulary of modern ecology and agroecology into poetry and platitude in a charming way, though some critics allege that it risks the appearance of pseudoscience. 

(Image via this excellent article from Agenda Goetch.)

Perhaps one of the biggest innovations of Syntropic Agriculture is how it has transcended poetry alone, and has become famous largely due to its beautiful use of film and photography to capture and convey the importance of regenerating the land, and rekindling the human relationship with nature.

Since syntropic agriculture (S.A.) utilizes design, tree crops, no-till, and mulch, many are wondering how this new system relates and compares to Permaculture, whether it works, and whether we in temperate climates can put this tropical system to work in our climates (such as in this article from Propagate which posses some thoughts  on the question.) On this last note, I have seen it frequently stated temperate farmers can "simply substitute apples for tropical tree crops" to make syntropic agriculture work. I feel I can say with a great deal of certainty that in many if not most temperate climates, that simplistic advice would yield very poor results. Yet, at Lillie house we have adapted some traditional patterns that are very similar to those used in syntropic farming, and believe these could be put to use very effectively in most temperate climate situations. 

 In this article, we'll look at the basic "active ingredients" of syntropic agriculture, its relationship to Permaculture Design, and how it could be adapted effectively to temperate climates from a Permaculture perspective. In other words, we'll attempt to develop some guidelines for a Syntropic Temperate Climate Permaculture, for those looking to integrate S.A.'s key features into broader designs. 

Syntropic Agriculture and Permaculture Design: Syntropic Permaculture? 

While Syntropic Agriculture seeks to create resilient agro-ecologies, Permaculture Design is a broader design system for human habitats, including agro-ecologies. Permaculture Design proposes a general design process for our lives, and the smart Permaculture Designer might look into systems like natural farming, Korean Natural Farming, or Syntropic Agriculture to see if they get us where we want to go. Permaculture itself does not actually propose any specific type of growing system or set of techniques, only this process for contemplating and deciding which might be useful in a given context. This system of design typically works "from patterns to details," so we might begin this discussion by observing and analyzing Syntropic Agriculture as a set of "patterns" or "active indgredients" that could help us meet our design objectives. 

Key Features of Syntropic Agriculture

To get a better understanding of Syntropic Agriculture, let's take a look at its key techniques, or "active ingredients." If you're familiar with Permaculture, I invite you to think about how these patterns relate to those common to that system before I elaborate on the topic below.

Syntropy: To begin with, the namesake principle of Syntropic Agriculture is, of course, "syntropy." Readers of Lillie House will know that the key feature we discuss in our particular school of Permaculture is Negentropy, or negative entropy. Syntropy is another proposed term for the same phenomenon. This refers to the observation that while man-made systems like cars exhibit "entropy," losing energy over time and reverting to chaos or less useful states, natural systems of enough complexity appear to "catch and store" energy, rather than losing it, growing more organized, more diverse,  resilient, abundant and useful over time. This is especially seen in ecosysems in the process of "ecological succession," where degraded ecologies (such as a clearcut forest) grow in complexity over time (returning back to a forest after going through stages of grassland, shrubbery, and young forest.) Syntropic Agriculture, like any good Permaculture, seeks to work with this process and put the power of negative entropy to use. And while Mollisonian Permaculture included design recommendations for percentages of canopy in a system that S.A. lacks, it shares the final goal: a rich, functional agroforest system dominated by trees. 

Heavy Pruning: The single most characteristic method S.A. uses to work with succession is frequent heavy pruning for use as mulch, which accelerates the amount of carbon and biomass produced by the ecosystem. In Permaculture and Regenerative Ag circles this would be called "chop and drop." Certain trees are planted specificially for the purpose of cutting to provide fertilizer. This is reflected in many common traditional patterns frequntly used in permaculture designs, including many traditional temperate climate systems, as we'll see below.  

In Syntropic Farming, we work the design aiming to arrange different species all the way from the implementation of the system and continuing at each step in the conduction of our plantations, managing them to produce their own fertilizer. For that purpose, we plant trees, grasses, and herbs in high density. They should share the characteristic of vigorous regrowth after pruning. A good farmer manages them accordingly. The periodic pruning results – in addition to the supply of light for our crops – in organic matter in large quantities which, on top of the soil, create a prosperous life in it and, indirectly, fertilize our plants.

-Ernst Goetsch
Deep mulch Once these trees are cut, they are applied as deep mulch, both chipped and as whole, cut logs. In some cases, this would appear to be a large labor and energy input. However, much could also be said for the research-based value of deep mulches and "nurse logs." We'll explore this more later.

Minimal mechanical tools necessary. S.A.seeks to reduce the need for mechanical tools. This is probably a goal for many temperate climate Permaculturists, so it will be interesting to see if S.A. offers economically viable tools that can be adapted.

High density and diversity. Simple enough, dense polyculture increases the health and productivity of the system. This is a key feature of our systems at Lillie House and probably have almost universal application. 

Article on using the density and diversity of the French Intensive system.

Recipes, or "Consortia" (Designed plant communities.)  "One of the characteristics of Syntropic Farming is the use of consortia of plants in high diversity and density. From the initial moment of planting, the goal is to co-create agroecosystems similar to the original ecosystems of each place, both in its form, as in its function and dynamics" - Dayana Adrane. In Permaculture, we refer to these as "guilds," and offer some more concrete tools for evaluating the roles of plants within designed plant communities.

Differences in a temperate climate

With these key features, which have a good research basis and are likely to be effective, it's easy to understand why Syntropic Agriculture works. But does it work in a temperate climate? Yes, these same patterns are proven to have value in temperate climates as well, though there are big differences and some conceptual barriers to making it work effectively and economically. 

The first is simply that we're working with entirely different crops. We will  not be growing "consortia" including bananas and shade-grown cocoa will not be our primary cash crop. However, given that all 6 of our most valuable crops per acre in Michigan this year (as well as a plethora of valuable runner-cups) are all shade-grown forest crops, so with careful crop choice we should be able to create agroecologies that are profitable even in later stages of succession. And while apples would be unlikely to work well, be healthy or economically viable, we actually have a wide range of options to build valuable systems that actually would work well. These would depend largely on what's native and valuable to each region, but in North America might include high-value crops like paw paw, serviceberry, maple, and persimmon. 

And while in the tropics you can create a local market "vegetable" CSA with mostly tree crops like avocados, breadfruit, jackfruit, and plantains, and still more vegetables can be grown in the understory, in temperate climates we have few calorie tree crops and less light to feed an understory layer. These are all features we could design around, and there are traditional systems that evolved in temperate climates to meet those needs.

Beyond crop choice, everything moves moves more slowly in temperate climates. Succession is slower. Decomposition is slower. Nutrient loss and cycling in the soil is slower. Plant growth is slower. We can't just plant trees and expect them to be significant sources of mulch in one year. We can't just chop trees and expect them to have completely broken down in a matter of months. But because growth is slower, we also do not need to. We have less need to store fertility in duff, as less is needed, and it more easily accumulates in the soil. So, overall, there needs to be a much greater emphasis on early succession in temperate climate systems than in the tropics. Food forests need to become as valuable as possible as early as possible, or they are likely to fail or be seen as a burden. 

A final major difference is that sun light and photosynthesis are much more abundant in tropical climates. Many crops can be grown in the understory, even with a fairly dense canopy. In temperate climates, if we want to grow any annual crops, we have to plan for more light infiltration. And this also means that there's going to be more competition for resources in temperate systems, so it will be more important to maximize cooperation and avoid elements like interplanting with grasses that may strip crops of needed nitrogen.

Beyond those major differences, there are many small differences that add up. Disease is managed quite differently. Apples, could not take the kind of pruning recommended in syntropic agriculture, and poorly pruned trees could become a vector for disease that could impact the productivity of a whole system. Pests cycles respond differently as well, due to the cold winter season. 

So overall, there's no direct correlation for importing syntropic agriculture in a simplified form to temperate climates.  

But since the best Permaculture utilizes research-based and proven patterns, let's transpose some of the active ingredients and techniques of Syntropic Agriculture into "patterns" that we can apply in a design, picking patterns that are proven to work well in temperate climates. 

Recommended Temperate Climate Patterns for Syntropic Permaculture

These are patterns that make up the basis of our growing system at Lillie House, are research-based and very comparable to the work of Ernst Goetsch, as reported in his published works.  Overall, I love systems that use trees very densely to control the land, prevent weeds and pest problems, build fast biodiversity, carbon and fertility, and provide ample mulch. I think the following patterns, adapted from Syntropic Agriculture could be valuable to almost all garden and farm systems at any scale. I especially see potential as an alternative to Regenerative Agriculture for managing broad acreage in economically viable ways that more closely resemble the traditional, evolved systems of the temperate climates. Goetch used S.A. to manage large acreage even with the tropical growth rate of Brazil. Broad-acre Permaculturists could put S.A. inspired techniquest to work to create profitable land management systems that more closely resemble the designs of Mollisonian Permaculture, the mosaic woodland and agriforest systems of Europe and Japan. To me, these would appear to have some built-in expectations for function and profitability, and would be a new niche for intrepid broad-acre Permaculturists. 

Slashmulch: S.A. has pioneered the idea of Working with grasses as a valuable element in an ecological system, as opposed to seeing them as a major weed. This is what we have done in our slashmulch systems at Lillie House. Slashmulch has been considered to be one of the most sustainable forms of agriculture ever created by humans. However, grass interplantings would be very difficult to use with vegetable crops in temperate climates due to competition for nitrogen. 

(Slashmulch 3 Sisters planted without tilling, sheet-mulching or removal of lawn.)

Chop and Drop: In Permaculture, this is the technique of heavy pruning plants and weeds to create mulch in site. Also used in S.A.

High Diversity and Density: Techniques of using high diversity and density are the backbone of our system at Lillie House, as well as in Bio-Intensive and French Intensive gardening. To learn more about how we employ them in vegetable gardening visit: Bio-Intensive Permaculture

Polyculture and Guilds: These are the Permaculture equivilents of "consortia" or recipes in S.A. 

Miyawaki technique: A research-based forestry technique using high diversity and density. In a productive system, some of this density can be used to "chop and drop" as the system matures, similar to S.A. In an S.A. inspired system, many of these trees would be "sacrificial," being cut for mulch as the system develops. We have put that technique to good use at Lillie House. 

Hedgerows are another proven, long-evolved temperate climate system that has been used for creating mulch, fertility, diversity and biomass. In Permaculture and Bio-Intensive systems, these are often used to create mulch through frequent pruning. This is a technique we use at Lillie House.  

Mosaic Woodland landscapes: This is a tradition agriforestry style of Temperate Europe and Asia which maximizes sun infiltration into annual crop systems while providing biomass, fertility, and biodiversity services. To explore such systems, visit our Pinboard gallery on Traditional Forest Garden Systems

Sun-traps designs place the tallest trees to the north, and shorter ones to the south, so as to maximize sun infiltration. Horse-shoe shapes may be used to create microclimates and maximize annual and perennial vegetable production. Sun trap design could be key in adapting Syntropic Agriculture to Temperate Climates. Sun trap design also more closely resembles traditional systems, as well as many of the tropical systems of Ernst Goetsch than does conventional Regenerative Agriculture. 

Nurse trees (also sacrificial trees) and nurse plants are a research-based approach that are perhaps an under-utilized pattern in many Permaculture systems. This is a technique of planting support trees to help nurture and establish target crop plants. They are a major feature at Lillie House that we use in areas where we want to reduce maintenance. I especially enjoy working with catalpas as nurse plants, as they establish easily even on sandy or degraded soils, provide ample mass, cut easily, and produce large shady leaves. They may also improve soil carbon via an interaction with the catalpa worm. 

Nurse logs have been found in research to be nearly as effective as woodchip mulch in conserving water and promoting growth. Nurse logs are also energy efficient, as they do not have to be chipped to be used. It is not necessary to neatly cut logs as in S.A. systems for them to be effective. In temperate climates they may last longer and work well as bed or path edging. 

Deep mulches area always welcome in any system in any climate. 

Matching mulch to crop and succession is perhaps more necessary in temperate climates, where nutrients are stored longer in the soil and plants grow less rapidly. We probably have more to gain by emulating natural ecologies, selecting woody mulches for tree systems for example, and grassy mulches for vegetables which evolved in grassland systems. 

(Tree-based fertility system at Lillie House.)

Implementation Process

Aside from knowing a list of techniques and patterns one can utilize for a growing system, to be practical, one must also have an idea of implementation and establishment. 

On smaller acreage, it's possible to just integrate some of these patterns into the existing landscape or garden system. Plan and develop useful hedgerows and forest garden areas around the perimeter of growing areas in a suntrap configuration. Possibly add sacrificial trees like catalpa. Work with invasives like autumn olive as chop and drop mulch. Start using nurse logs and deep mulch in the garden. Explore bio-intensive gardening and polyculture interplantings. Using these patterns, you will arrive at a system with much of the form and function of tropical S.A. systems, or what we has worked very well for us at Lillie House. 

On larger acreage, more thought towards process and implementation is necessary, and will depend greatly upon what the cash-flow needs are, what priorities and goals are, who will harvest and how. But the basics will involve selecting high-value crop plants that can be sown and established in successions. A final system design would probably include hedgerows, Miyawaki type plantings, paddocks, and forest gardens, as well as periodic clearings for annual cropping. Succession will move from an initial disturbance with annual maincrops, through phases of "slashmulch" using perennials as mulch, through old field and shrubland, choosing crops and sacrificials as they arrive, until the final stable configuration is arrived at. This might be in rows such as with Regeneartive Ag. or it might be in sun-trap designs of openings as in mosaic woodland patterns.  

Ultimately, I expect experimentation with Syntropic Agriculture patterns is likely to lead to novel profitable income models in temperate climates that rapidly regenerate ecosystems as well. If you're working on that project, I'd like to hear about what you're doing. 


1. Natural Recovery of Species in Agroforestry and in Soil Recovery, Ernest Goetsch, Fazenda TrĂªs Colinas Agrosilvicultura Ltda. 45436 Pirai do Norte Bahia, Brazil, August 1992
3. Life in Sytrnopy

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

I Wish I Understood this Before I Started Farming! (Why Permaculture ≠ Farming)

"The opposite of a bad idea is rarely a good idea, it's usually just another bad idea." 

In America's frantic and polarized culture, this axiom is one of my favorite thinking tools. It's an oldie-but-goodie that's being re-popularized by John Michael Greer.

Lately, I've been sharing a lot of negative-sounding research and perspectives on the current "profitable farming" craze, but it's NOT that I want to discourage people.

I want people to succeed gloriously in creating beautiful, rich lives with greater connection to the land - living WITH the land, not OFF it like some beast of burden. And I think that goal is completely attainable.

(And here are some reasons smart folks are turning to the land for a livelihood)

Folks feeling trapped in the out of control dumpster fire of modern American worklife often want to head straight into hardcore homesteading or farming, get some acreage, a managerie of animals, and simultaneously start market farming. I see this all the time. Several popular "farming business models" even promote themselves as ways to learn about farming while making a living do it. (That should be a warning sign in itself.) 

Out of the fire and into the fryer. This is NEVER a good idea. Some may survive the heat, but that doesn't mean it was a good idea. Why not just get out of the fire?

If you've looked into farming at all, you've heard the stories and advice of those Regenerative Ag gurus who bought acreage, took on massive debt, invested in thousands of trees with a 90% attrition rate, started experimenting on livestock, lived in hovels with dirt floors and tarp roofs for 20 years until farm insurance speculators drove up their land prices enough that Trulia told them they were suddenly millionaires. Their advice? Just do what they did! Easy! Or perhaps you're more inspired by the intrepid enrepreneur veg-farm start-ups that managed to pull "$150k!!!" (fine print: that's gross, net is minimum wage) after staving off bankruptcy for 3 years by charging super-premium prices in upscale markets with no mortgages and lots of free money and labor. They SURVIVED! So now they cash-flow big money each year selling "profitable farming" workshops!

But just because they survived wandering blindfolded through the field of pit-traps they set for themselves, doesn't mean blindfolds and pit-traps are good investments.

Everyone knows most new businesses fail, and the numbers for farm businesses are absolutely the worst of the worst.

We look to the famous farmers and Permie celebs on magazine covers that "survived" for advice, when - because the biggest problem is high attrition rates for new farms - when we SHOULD be looking at the ones that failed. This is called survivorship bias. Another great thought tool every farm entrepreneur should be familar with:.

Finally, another great thought tool from the world of poker: if you're at the table and you don't know who the mark is, you're the mark.... (the one who's going to lose.)

So here's the thing everyone's keeping a secret: Farming is the most direct interaction with the market you can have. Sorry, but it always has been, always will be. It's what you'll read in farming briefs from the 1910s or 1890s, all the way back to medieval farming manuals! Or watch the BBC "Historic Farm" series for the cliff-notes version. Permaculture creator Bill Mollison talked about this stuff ALL THE TIME. It's all about supply/demand, market forces and buying low, selling high.    

(That's a whole chicken, cleaned, frozen, packed, shipped, prepped, cooked, packaged, and kept heated for $2. You gonna be profitable competing with that in your backyard?

Right now, land prices are super high. Cattle prices are very high. Hog prices are high. Prices on heirloom poultry are super stupid freaking high. But market prices on beef, milk, pork, eggs and fryers are kept ridiculously, artificially stupid low (see graph for example.) You can literally buy a whole chicken, already cooked and prepared at Walmart for $2. THAT'S LIKE A DOLLAR CHICKEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Nursery stock is stupid cheap, but upscale vendors are reselling literally the same stock for a 4000% mark-up to would-be farmers financing with Ag loans. Vegetable prices are just plain silly and meanwhile there's a growing glut of vegetable farmers competing for a customer base that research indicates is currently declining. Local farmers markets are consolidating in most markets into super-large events with tons of competition. New farmers think they can undercut the competition, but in the studies I've seen, the veg farmers making money are ones able to charge 4-10 TIMES above market rates. 

(Dead on economic analysis from A hog has 1/4 the buying power it had in 1960)

Now I cannot fathom sustaining chickens that cost HALF as much as a 16 oz bottle of water forever into the future.... But what IS highly profitable right now is "profitable farming" classes, especially online ones. I call this "new digital farming," and it ain't all bad. (Others have started calling it "Youtube Farming.") Most farmers will need some way to decouple their income from the productivity of their land if they don't want to end up exploiting their land. But given how silly the promises have become ("learn to be a millionaire off an acre!" is a literal quote from one ad going around) and expensive they've become ($1,500 - $4000!) I think even "profitable farming" classes have reached their peak. Given the spending power of your average farmer, I'd say this market looks worse than blood from turnips.

And I don't know any of those gurus who will tell you those most important "secrets" (i.e. 101 level farming basics) I just told you in that paragraph above. Why would they let the air out of their own bubble? In fact, some will be mad that I did. And for FREE even! But if we're not careful, when that profitable farming bubble pops, it's going to blow up a lot of really valuable Permaculture, local food, and sustainability initiatives with it.

Anyway, none of this means you can't actually farm profitably or live with the land. But it does mean you have to be clever. How are you planning to beat the curve? How will your designs support that plan? 

If Ag briefs show you can make $30k off a 1,000 hog herd if you can demand top prices, and you're planning on a dozen hogs being your main Ag product for the first 10 years, you're going to end up scrambling to pay off your $100k of "regenerative ag" infrastructure. Look at studies on time requirements for various farm tasks: unless you got some kind of magic system, those hogs are just going to cost you more time to care for than they'll save you in "work," no matter what your guru says.... 

Careful Permaculture design can help you make war on costs and meet your income goals, but only if you have clear goals and a detailed business plan to begin with. Many new Permie business plans only ever get as far as: "Buy farm, become Sepp Holzer, make BANK on farm tours and classes." 

But more importantly, despite what some of the famous gurus are selling, you don't have to farm to "do Permaculture." Although you're literally not allowed to share this radical secret knowledge on the Permies forum, Permaculture has nothing to do with farming. It has to do with designing your landscape and life to better meet your needs.

So why do you really want to homestead or farm? Is it:
To have a simpler but richer lifestyle?
To reconnect with nature and natural rhythms?
Because you love being around and caring for animals?
To find right livelihood?
To make a living OFF the land by exploiting the earth, animals and human laborers? 
Or would you rather live WITH the land, in cooperation with your ecosystem and community?
Because you want to raise your family around these things?
Because you want to take control of your family's food and health?
Because you want your children to be reslient, healthy and know how to grow their own food?
Because you want to fight ecological collapse and climate change while helping your community?
Because you want to prepare for the uncertain and dangerous future we appear to be creating for ourselves?
Because you want to save your family farmstead?
Because you want to help feed your community?
Because you want to learn about farming?
Because you have some notions about "self sufficiency?" 
Because you want to live some "farming lifestyle" that is probably just a total myth? 

You can design your life to accumulate all these things, and have a higher positive social, economic and ecological impact, without farming. In fact, it's highly likely farming would only get in your way and hold you back. Ask: Is it possible that our preconceived notions (or the notions sold to us by digital farmers and University Extension services) about farming and homesteading are just a blindfold?

What do I really want? How can I design my life to accumulate what I really want? Answering these questions and daring to take off the blindfold, that is the "REAL" Permaculture. 


More honest analysis on farming livelihoods:

The economics of SPIN Permaculture