In many ways, permaculture was formulated as a response to the damaging and inefficient methods of modern industrial agricultural production. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren recognized that the way much of the food in the Western world, at least, is produced is damaging to the land, damaging to the native ecosystems it commandeers or borders, wasteful in the extreme and, in the end, damaging for us as consumers and guardians of the Earth. Permaculture suggested an alternative rubric of food production focused on sustainability, diversity, localism, closed systems of energy to reduce waste, protection of nature, and cooperation rather than competition between producers. This was in counterpoint to the monoculture, large-scale, destructive method of commercial production.
While it can take a major shift in attitude and mindset to approach agriculture in terms of sustainability rather than simply profit, the good news is that there are some simple techniques that can make farming much more sustainable. This will make farms more ecologically sensitive, less wasteful of resources, grow more nutritious food and, hopefully, improve the life of those working on the land. Many of these techniques are familiar to permaculture practitioners, but they can easily be scaled up for commercial farms as well.
Farmers have used crop rotation for centuries as a technique to keep the soil healthy and avoid depleting it entirely of nutrients. Different crops are planted in different locations over several years in such a way that the succeeding crop helps replenish the nutrients the previous one has taken out of the soil, or vice versa. The most common way is to plant grain crops after legumes. Legumes fix high levels of nitrogen in the soil, which the grains need a lot of but are less able to secure. Crop rotation also helps prevent diseases. Most diseases attack a single crop, so rotating can eradicate them from the site. Leaving a field to go fallow or planting a cover crop before the main cultivated crop are also excellent ways of reserving the health of the soil.
While planting lots of different species of plant is an excellent method of sustainable farming, it is not often possible for commercial farmers who have a market for a certain crop. However, by planting diverse varieties of the one species, they can accrue many benefits. Having multiple varieties makes the crop stronger as there is more genetic diversity. This means that it is less likely to succumb to a disease or pest, as these tend to favor a specific variety. Therefore, the farmer has less need of pesticides and so recues costs.
Crop diversity is also a great way to control pest populations. A variety of plants will attract a wider variety of insects and other creatures, such as birds and bats, some of which will hopefully predate those that could damage crops. The use of natural predator-prey relationships to control pests also means the farer has no need to use chemical pesticides (which can cause ecological problems by running off the land into the water table and water bodies) and so saving money. The farmer can release populations of beneficial insects such as ladybugs and lacewings onto their crop to control pests. Alternatively, they can plant the edges of fields with flowers that will attract insects. Keeping or planting trees on the farm will attract birds, as they are somewhere to nest, and bats, as the trees provide somewhere to roost.
In a way, managed grazing could be considered akin to crop rotation, only with animals instead of plants. Essentially it involves moving livestock to different pastures so that they can graze on different plants. This helps provide the animals with a good range of nutrients, but also means they are less likely to be exposed to build-ups of disease or infection, which can happen if they are kept on the same pasture for a long time. Moving livestock between pastures is also good for the soil, as it is not compacted through excessive footfall (reducing erosion) and the manure left behind by the livestock helps support rapid regrowth of pasture plants.
One of the biggest causes of greenhouse gases – and thus drivers of climate change – is transportation in vehicles using fuel derived from fossil fuels, and growing food for consumption in other parts of the country, or even internationally, requires a lot of transportation. Selling food in local markets helps reduce these emissions. There are many other benefits as well. Food sold locally needs less packaging, as it does not have as long between harvest and sale as food grown for distant markets. Selling locally also keeps money in the local economy and allows producers to engage directly with their customers. This fosters good community relationships, with customers more likely to support local producers – meaning even those farming on a small scale can make a living.
A commercial farmer is going to have greater energy needs than the smallholding permaculture gardener, simply due to the much larger size of the land under cultivation. However, he can still utilize alternative, sustainable forms of energy to perform many function on the farm, rather than relying on fossil fuel-powered machinery. Vehicles can be converted to run on biodiesel, which is manufactured form cottonseed oil. Such a conversion should prove fiscally beneficial over the long-term as biodiesel is generally cheaper than conventional fuel. A wind turbine can harness energy to drive electrical motors, although with the larger open spaces typical of a farm, solar power may be more convenient. Installing some solar panels on the land can provide energy to heat water or buildings, and provide electricity to power, for example, electric fences or lighting. Again, a financial investment is required to institute such systems, but over a longer timescale the cheaper cost of energy rewards the investment. Sometimes, if the farmer produces more electricity than can be used on site, they can sell it to the municipal system, potentially providing another source of income.