It's a noun, and the definition is: the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. It's an old idea. Native Americans practiced it to a certain extent—tending and maintaining natural ecosystems to encourage wild food production. More recently, in 1929, a guy named Joseph Russell Smith wrote a book called Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, a summary of his experiments with growing tree crops with annual crops and foraging livestock underneath. An Australian named P.A. Yeomans followed that with Water for Every Farm in 1973, also championing the idea of a permanent, self-sustaining agriculture. Ruth Stout and Esther Dean promoted a technique called "no-dig gardening," and in Japan, a man named Masanobu Fukuoka called for no-till orchards.
But it wasn't until the mid 1970s that permaculture got a real name. Around that time, two guys named Bill Mollison and David Holmgren started looking at sustainable agriculture in Tasmania. They were having a serious problem with dependency on non-renewable resources and loss of biodiversity and topsoil. They wrote a book called Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements. It took off, and they started a center called the Permaculture Institute dedicated to getting the word out and teaching other people how to grow sustainably.
These days it's having a revival. Young people like Kevin Brennan—the forager I told you about last week—are enthusiastic about the idea of an agriculture that doesn't need so much human input. In our area UMass Amherst is a particular leader—this year they won the White House Champions of Change award for their new permaculture gardens on campus. They're hosting a Permaculture conference next weekend, and their are still spots open for people who're interested.
I wish I could go. I'll be at the wedding of one of my best friends, so instead I've checked out a book from the library called Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Homescale Permaculture.
From what Kevin's told me, a lot of permaculture is based on planting fruits and nuts. These things tend to grow on trees or long-lived bushes, which means that once you plant them, they will feed families and communities for years and years to come. They don't require much labor, and if you select your varieties properly, they don't require much water or fertilizer or other care either. The idea is to mimic natural ecosystems by planting and maintaining species that do well here on their own.
On the Cape, a few obvious ideas are cranberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries. But Kevin mentioned others. The new Hybrid American Chestnut! Hazelnuts, or Filberts. Butternuts. Tropical-ish banana/mango-esque fruits called Paw-Paws. American Persimmons! It's all pretty exciting.
There's a group called the Northern Nut Growers Association that has a lot of info on what species of nuts do well up here. The Fedco Tree Catalog is also a great resource—the company is based in Maine, which means that all of the plants are hardy enough to thrive here.
And finally, here's some inspiration. Kevin told me about a guy named Mark Shepherd who runs a 106 acre permaculture farm in Wisconsin. It's one of the first big perennial farms in the U.S., and it's profitable. It grows chestnuts, hazelnuts, apples, hard cider, pastured pork fed on hazelnuts, grass fed beef, organic produce, and more.
Kevin's hoping to start a permaculture farm on Martha's Vineyard. He says he's not quite to the land-buying stage yet, so he'll have to farm on someone else's land, but he thinks this will be a great way to build community and relationships. He's hoping to grow local organic nuts, fruits, and raise livestock. He think's they'll sell like hotcakes, and I think he's right.
P.S. About the photos: the chestnut photos were taken on our honeymoon in Italy, where fruit and nut trees—and perennial agriculture—are common.