by Rafter Sass Ferguson, University of Chicago
Changing the Face of Farming
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THE BIG PICTURE
It's 2012. 10,000 years since we started domesticating plants. 3000 years since we invented the plow. And 70 years since the rollout of what we now call ‘industrial agriculture,’ with it’s intensive use of chemicals, fossil fuels, and irrigation.
And today, agriculture does more damage to the environment than any other human activity: biodiversity loss, soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution. This is the face of modern farming.
We need to change that. The question is: how?
Permaculture is one proposal for a different approach. It’s a fast-growing international movement with projects on every inhabited continent. The idea is that if we thoughtfully design our farms to fit the landscape, and intensively use biological resources in place of industrial technology, then we can grow our food in ways that build ecosystems instead of destroying them. Imagine a world in which all farms create habitat, build topsoil, sequester greenhouse gasses, and clean the air and water. It’s a beautiful vision.
But does it work? That's a tricky question, because there has been no systematic evaluation of permaculture farming. There is no published research. There are plenty of books, magazines, and websites - but nothing in the scientific literature. Whether you are a policy maker, a struggling farmer, or an activist, you’re left with some questions that are very hard to answer: What really happens when permaculture is taken up as an approach to farming? What kind of impact has it had so far? How do we know?
The US is the single largest exporter and importer of food in the world.
Practices applied here matter globally – so examining permaculture farming here in the US would be a a good way to start answering these questions. But are there enough permaculture farms in the US for us to learn something significant? Until recently, no one knew. The common assumption - that I shared - was that the farming sector in US permaculture was not significant. I got to prove myself wrong.
WHAT I'VE DONE SO FAR
In my preliminary research, I conducted a web survey of permaculturists that - despite the handicaps of being only available in English, and kind of long, and offering no reward for participation - received over
900 responses from over 40 countries. This survey was the first of it's kind.
I saw that 10% of US respondents were reporting farming as a signficant source of income. This was much more than expected. So when I put away my flawed assumption and went looking for US permaculture farms, I found them - over 150 so far, and the list is growing. This is a big deal, and one of our very first opportunities to systematically assess the actual and potential impact of the permaculture approach to farming.
MY RESEARCH PLAN
It’s time to see what is happening on the ground. With your help, I'll do field research at 50 permaculture farms in the coming year. I'll be using a balanced mix of methods in order to address sustainability, profitability, and quality of life, and to include the farmer's goals and perspective.
The centerpiece of these methods is something called participatory functional mapping, in which I work with the farmer to map and evaluate the distribution of different ecological, production, and cultural functions throughout the farm landscape. This functional mapping will reveal the complexity of farming systems in a way that conventional agronomic methods can't. It will also help forge a strategic connection between permaculture farming and the rapidly growing science and policy support for 'multifunctional agricultural landscapes.'
GOALS AND OUTCOMES
Evaluate how permaculture influences farming practice in the US, in terms of key ecological, economic, and social outcomes.
Forge a connection between permaculture and existing science and policy.
Help move forward with the larger conversation about sustainable agriculture.
To serve these goals, I'll be sharing the results of this research in many ways: as reports for a popular audience, papers for scientific journals, and workshops for farmers. I'll also be blogging updates, photos, and videos from the field.
This is not about 'proving' or 'disproving' permaculture. These are hard times for all farmers - no matter what their approach. Whatever we learn about permaculture farms in this project will improve our understanding of the challenges and opportunities ahead as we work to change the face of farming.
WHERE DOES THE MONEY GO?
The methods I'm applying are sophisticated, but also - happily - they are cheap! It's actually getting to the farms that takes some funding - and I do have to be there, to ensure consistency in the methods and documentation. Accordingly, all the money that is raised goes to onething: getting to the farms. The project goal of $5000 is enough to get started and reach about 30% of my research sites. Every dollar beyond that helps me include more farms in the project, learn from the ingenuity and experience of more farmers, and paint a more complete picture of what's happening on the ground.
Please contribute at the level you can, and help spread the word. Your support makes a difference for the future of farming.
Rafter Sass Ferguson, University of Chicago