OK, here goes. I’ve been studying bits and pieces of a Plan to Save America via Permaculture for a long time and I think the time has come to invite ‘delegates’ to participate in the plan. [pictured at left, Native American 'congress'] First, I will cover why I believe that America needs saving. Secondly, I will talk about the technical solutions we have available to do the ‘saving.’ And thirdly, I will talk about ideas for actually pulling this off on a large scale, which I do believe is possible if we put our heads together. I’m calling this a ‘congress’ because I want lots of input from people – a congress of sorts – and I want people to understand how dire this is and – just as the colonists in the 1770s felt the urgent need to ‘do something’ about the English king and so formed a congress – so I feel that we need to ‘do something’ about the direction our nation is headed and I’m not seeing success via other methods.
EXACTLY HOW AND WHY DOES AMERICA NEED SAVING?
Lots of people realize that America is in trouble but I don’t think very many people realize how the problems in America are fundamentally tied to our agricultural practices. For about 48 years, I didn’t either. Then I started reading Joel Salatin’s books in earnest and in one of his books he told about how North Africa – now called the Sahara Desert – was once lush and green and how it became a desert through bad agricultural practices. Wow! That thought stuck with me for the next several years and suffice to say that he’s right and this phenomenon is now happening all over the world. Go to my blog at www.truthmatters.info and type ‘Sahara’ into the search box and you’ll get some interesting reading on this topic. In reading the works of other Permaculture leaders, it dawned on me that the fundamental necessity for building a strong nation is not an army or an air force or a navy or even strong families. It’s soil. Yes, that’s right … soil. Without soil, you cannot grow food, thus cannot have any families at all, strong or otherwise. And of course, without families, you have no cities, no counties, no states, no nation. A friend of mine, Dan Grubbs, has a blog entitled “It’s the Soil Stupid” and I think he’s right. It is. It really is. That’s the foundation for any nation. If you don’t believe me, go to the Sahara Desert and tell me what nation is there. I don’t find one. You’ve got some on the edges, but none in the middle. It’s a desert! You cannot have a nation in the desert and if you’ve read my articles at my blog, you will know that America is headed straight for “Deserthood.” So that, in humble opinion, is why America needs saving. And yes, I know, “blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” and other verses like that, but also keep in mind 2 Chronicles 7:14. “If my people … etc etc … you know the verse …” How does it end? It ends by saying God will heal our LAND. Not heal our bodies, not heal our families, not heal our government. Heal our land. Isn’t that interesting? Friends, I believe with every fiber of my being what Joel Salatin says “Heal the land and many other things will be healed.” Link here. How do we heal the land? Repent, according to 2 Chronicles 7:14. Repent of what? Well lots of things, and preachers are good at covering a lot of it and blessings on them for covering those things. But one thing they typically don’t cover is Genesis 1:28 – the bit about subduing the earth. Are we subduing the earth? I don’t think so. Rather, I think by and large we are exploiting it. I actually think the Native Americans that we Europeans displaced did a much better job of “subduing the earth.” Yet they were the “savages” and we were the “civilized ones?” Go figure. A related set of verses are the ones that talk about “tilling the ground” which I believe is a mistranslation and should be rendered “serve the ground.” Link here for my article on that topic. So, to sum up, I believe that America needs saving because we are literally destroying our ability to feed our great, great grandchildren with our flawed agricultural practices. And lest anyone think I am veering off into earth worship or some such thing, let me assure you, I’m not. The Scripture says in James 2:14-17 …
“14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
My perspective is that far too many people in our world today are “lacking in daily food” and more and more will be in the coming years, so I would like to “put works with my faith” and try to do something about it. Something a little more long lasting than handing out peanut butter sandwiches to homeless people. Not knocking that. I’ve done it. But it’s not a permanent solution. So that’s Point 1 – America needs saving. And “it’s the soil, stupid.” Thanks, Dan Grubbs, for a wonderful slogan.
THE TECHNICAL SOLUTION FOR SAVING AMERICA
OK, so our soil is dying. How to fix that? This has taken me a long time to figure out but I think I’m close. Love to have your feedback. If we say that our soil is dying, this implies that soil can be alive. What? Yes, that’s right. Healthy soil is a complex web of life and when we till it and leave it uncovered most of the year so it erodes and saturate it with harsh non-renewable chemicals and fertilizers, we destroy the life within it thus ensuring that it will become a desert in the future. This is a big study in itself, but suffice to say that the Native Americans mostly had living soil because they worked WITH Nature, not against it like we Europeans do. Now, 500 years later, thanks to our “make war, not love” philosophy with respect to soil and soil organisms (and higher organisms as well for that matter), we have mostly dead and dying soil. Our soil has basically become a substrate for chemical fertilizers with very little biological life in it. We boast about being able to produce 200 bushels of corn per acre, but the sad secret that even these corn farmers don’t realize is that this will come to an end at some point. Besides that, our corn/soybean/wheat based agriculture is literally killing our national health. Recent scientific paper on that here. This can be fixed, and people like Mark Shepard, author of the recent book “Restoration Agriculture” and recent speaker at the Permaculture Voices Conference has over the last 16 years, demonstrated with his own 106 acre farm in Viola, Wisconsin one solution for the dying land problem. Mark took a 106 acre crop farm with dying soil and has transformed it into what I would call a “Perennial Permaculture Paradise” complete with trees, bushes, vines and rotationally grazed animals. Mark’s big point is that he can produce 5 million food calories per acre just like a corn or soybean farmer, BUT … with NO INPUTS and NO ANNUAL REPLANTING! That seems like a big deal to me. Search my blog for “Shepard” for further reading. (Only one “p” in his name) Please take a few minutes to let this sink in. A corn farmer is producing 200 bushels of corn per acre X ~60 lbs per bushel X ~400 calories per lb = 4.8 million calories. Mark, on the other hand is producing a little more – 5 million or so – from a beautifully organized pattern of approximately the following plants per acre: 86 chestnut trees, 34 apple trees, 120 grape vines, 208 hazelnut bushes, 416 raspberry canes, and 520 red currants. These are all planted in rows on 23 foot spacing to provide alleys with perennial grasses for grazing Mark’s “flerd” – a mixed flock/herd of cattle, sheep, hogs, turkeys, and chickens. Mark planned his farm according to P.A. Yeoman’s principles of “keyline” planning for maximum water retention, maximum plant growth and sensible road building placement. For an excellent quick primer on this system, go to www.heenandoherty.com and watch the short video on the home page by Darren Doherty. Darren has commercialized P.A Yeoman’s farm planning system (link here) and now consults with farms all over the world. He has also been selected as Joel Salatin’s international agent – no small achievement. Darren Doherty is a guy to watch, I believe. My review article on Darren’s work is here.
GETTING MORE SPECIFIC WITH THE TECHNICAL SOLUTION
Now, before we get too excited and go off half cocked, we need to ask an important question. Is Mark Shepard’s farm plan optimum? Well in many ways, yes, I believe so. Compared to corn and soybean farming, there is no comparison, in my opinion. Mark’s plan heals land and produces food calories sustainably with no inputs except tree / bush / animal maintenance labor and harvesting labor. And it theoretically can feed 5 people per acre (1 million calories per year is the approximate requirement for an average adult). Which is all great … BUT … what kind of calories do we really want from a Permaculture system? Well, that’s a hugely important question. And for me, the answer is pretty much milk, meat and eggs as a foundation, with garden produce being of secondary importance. I call this a Weston Price type diet – similar to Paleo, but some important differences. Link here for discussion on that. Dr. Stephan Guyenet has some great material on this too HERE. Dr. Weston Price’s complete volume is here. With this in mind, my plan would be similar to Mark’s, but my goal would be to produce the 5 million calories per acre primarily from meat, milk and eggs instead of nuts, fruit, meat, milk, and eggs. My own personal diet includes about 700,000 calories per year from milk, 70,000 from eggs, 120,000 calories from meat and perhaps 100,000 from butter and carbohydrates like sugar in my coffee, cookies and chocolate bars. To achieve this would require a large percentage of dairy animals in the rotationally grazed herd and if we want to achieve the 3 dimensional forage growth that Mark Shepard achieves, the choice for dairy animals would be goats, not cows because goats eat leaves and small branches. Cows – as far as I know – mostly eat grass which only grows one dimensionally, not 3 dimensionally like trees and bushes. Keeping all this in mind, I have done some preliminary calculations on calorie production. There are many unknowns at this point, but what I do know is that grass forage (in a Mark Shepard type setup) can be as high as 6 tons per acre. I know this from Joel Salatin’s reports of 400 “cow day” pasture on his farm. 1 “cow day” = about 30 lbs of grass, so 400 cow days per acre means about 12,000 lbs or 6 tons of harvestable grass per acre. Add tree and bush cuttings and I’m doing more guesswork as to yields from that. (we’re talking about cutting tree /bush limbs every day manually to feed goats – got this from Dr. Charlotte Clifford-Rathert, link here about some of her work) But let’s make an educated guess and say we could get another 6 tons per acre from 3 dimensional forage production / coppicing / etc, if we do everything right. So our maximum theoretical forage yield – considering grass and tree / bush prunings might be 12 tons per acre. If a goat requires 1 ton of forage per year, then that represents a theoretical carrying capacity of 12 goats per year. If we allocate this all to dairy goats, then we’re talking about 150 gallons per year X 12 = 1800 gallons of milk per year X 2500 calories = 4.5 million calories per year from milk. I do believe we could add a flock of chickens into this herd of goats without getting a drop off in dairy goat production because the chickens are eating things like bugs in addition to grass, plus they are manuring the grass increasing productivity. How many chickens in the flock? I don’t know. Maybe 10 chickens per goat? I’m totally guessing here. From this 12 goat / 120 chicken “baseline” flerd, we can modify anything we want to for variety – substitute a hog for 2-3 goats, giving us more meat and less dairy, and/or 1 sheep for 1 goat or what have you, and we also need to account for Murphy’s Law and for time to get all the forage producing plants productive. Mark Shepard’s theoretical maximum is 5 million food calories per acre. I would come nowhere close to that starting out – if I do everything right and start with a wooded piece of land, I might be able to produce 2 million calories per year – maybe if I’m lucky. But I’m going to be conservative and say I can only produce 1 million at least for the first few years. That is, I think I could feed 1 person per acre sustainably with no input from this type of setup. As for labor, I think it would be minimal. I believe on a 10 acre parcel of land with 10 people involved, based on my firsthand experience with rotational grazing, labor would be no more than 2 man hours per day, which would include moving the electric fence, water and portable shelters for the flerd daily, milking the dairy animals, gathering eggs, cutting tree branches for the goats, etc.
So to summarize and recap this section … my short term goal would be to produce 1 million meat / milk / egg calories per acre, sustainably with no inputs starting out with wooded acres. I currently own a 10 acre piece that has about 3 wooded acres and I would not even attempt this unless I get at least 2 other people to join me to help with daily chores. 4 people total (me plus 3 others) would be better because then no one person has to sign up for more than 2 days per week of chores. I think I could support 4 people on my 10 acres with this plan even though 7 of my acres is grass so I may roll with that.
MEDIUM TERM GOAL
I won’t spend much space on this now because I really want feedback from knowledgeable people I am connected with before I go planning for the future too much. Suffice to say for now that from my “bridgehead” of wooded ground, I would begin planting a “food forest” in adjacent non-wooded ground, consistent with the type of food calories desired (in my case “Weston Price” type food calories) So for example, on my 10 acre piece, I would hire Heenan-Doherty to create a plan for the entire 10 acres, then begin implementing it. As this becomes productive, my 10 acre property would be able to support more people and, in time, hopefully be able to support 10-20 people (1-2 people per acre) sustainably with no outside inputs. If this goes well, all involved would gain confidence and hopefully begin letting leases on cropland and begin “Heenan-Doherty-izing” them as well. This will be a hurdle for two reasons – (a) cropland is expensive to lease compared to woodland or even pastureland, (b) cropland takes some significant inputs to ‘revive’ it to the point of enough productivity to support a grazing herd (c) it takes several years to get a food forest going so as to get 3 dimensional photosynthesis happening. I have had extensive discussions with Greg Judy about how to get the grass going using sheep but more planning is needed and there needs to be a viable financial model for all involved.
LONG TERM GOAL
The long term is basically to create a successful system, then “rinse and repeat.” To take an analogy from biology, a living cell is a very small, duplicatable unit which is automatically duplicated millions of times during the growth cycle of a new organism. What I want to create is a very successful “cell” which can be duplicated in an economically favorable way far and wide, the end game being to build a much stronger America by duplicating successful “cells.”
HOW WILL ALL THIS WORK TO “SAVE AMERICA”?
Well, as John Lennon said, IMAGINE. If we can be successful at creating, say, a 100 acre piece of land which supports 100 people sustainably with respect to most of their food, water, shelter and energy needs what further needs do they have? Some, to be sure. We’re not going to “go Amish” and do away with iPhones and MacBooks and Volvos. All we’re doing is trying to produce as much of people’s needs as we can LOCALLY. And when I say locally, I really mean LOCALLY. I mean right there inside the subdivision. For an example of how this is currently being done in small way, please refer to the report “Building Communities With Farms” written by Dr. Michael Sands a few years ago. It’s a great report and I guarantee it will stimulate your brain cells with respect to this type of thing. The take away message I get from Mike Sands is … it’s a great idea to integrate food production with living spaces. So now I have given you a tour inside my brain as to how this thing can grow into “Sustainable Subdivisions.” A very important issue here is “Home Owner Association” rules for these sustainable subdivisions. I’ve proposed sharing of daily chores, but obviously in a subdivision of any size, there will be people who have no interest in daily chores and would rather pay for the service. I say fine. I’m not proposing that we do away with our money system – I just want to make food production healthy, local and cheap and I want to produce as much cheap energy and cheap building materials as possible LOCALLY. Without doing any rigorous calculations yet, it seems to me with a properly set up system, we should be able to offer subdivision residents some pretty cheap healthy food (and building materials and energy). If the Amish can sell me milk for $2/gallon and $1.50/lb ground pork, why can’t we do the same in my proposed subdivisions? But Dave, why would you sell so cheap? My response is “why not?” if I can and still make it worth my time. I will actually enjoy the production labor so long as I have help so I don’t feel like a slave. Why would I charge my fellow man exorbitantly for something I enjoy doing anyway? That’s the Amish philosophy and I like it.
Now let’s go further on this scary tour of my brain …
What if you filled an entire county with this type of “Sustainable Subdivision”? And what if your county government imposed high tariffs on all food products, building material products and energy products produced OUTSIDE the county? Do you think that would be a stimulus to local (in county) production? I think it would. It’s a old scheme that was used successfully in the early USA and I don’t see why it would not work now as well. Now keep going. If most of the things people need were produced right inside their own home county, what need would they have for welfare payments from the state? Or from the federal government? I believe that as this thing grew, there would be less and less need for the state and federal governments and thus those governments would become less and less relevant, ergo less and less powerful. Mega corporations also would become less and less powerful because there would be far less demand for their products from these new “self sufficient counties.” County government officials would eventually be more powerful than state or federal officials due to this new self sufficiency but this power could be tightly controlled and reined in due to the close proximity of the people to the county government. I’ll stop here for now, but there is much more I am envisioning including revolutionizing health care and education automatically as part of this plan.
A WORD ABOUT LAND OWNERSHIP
At the risk of sounding like a collectivist, let me make the observation that from the perspective of stewarding land and ensuring it’s health for future generations, the idea of private land ownership, compared to the Native American concept of land ownership, has been a disastrous idea. In the hands of the Native Americans, there was “plenty buffalo, plenty beaver, no taxes, etc” and – I might add – land which was actually building topsoil and much more diverse, vibrant ecosystems instead of the current situation where it is degrading and species are going extinct like there’s no tomorrow. So I’m scratching my head asking “what did private land ownership really gain us?” I’m thinking nothing good. So … what’s the alternative? Certainly not government ownership. That’s been a dismal failure where it’s been tried. I don’t have the answer but I think it’s an important question. What I would like the answer to be is “the land should be owned by those who will steward it best.” How to achieve this? Local subdivision ownership of the land? Rich guy owns the land, subdivision residents lease from him under some arrangement? I don’t know. What I do know is that I have owned land and not owned land (been a tenant) and the differences do not seem as great to me as they once did. A great example of a guy who, rather than owning a great deal of land, instead controls a great deal of land via good stewardship is Greg Judy. Greg advocates NOT owning land for the purpose of doing rotational grazing. What if we took that same approach when thinking about creating sustainable subdivisions? Another important question is “what is the essence of ownership”? Is it not control? Is it not the right to do the things we want to do on that land? I think that’s it pretty much. I can tell you for sure that my attitude has become “as long as the landowner – whoever that might be – lets me live on the land and have animals and plant trees and and a garden and play soccer and hunt and fish with my kids in exchange for some fair price, then I’m happy. Why do I need to OWN it?”
It appears to me that many workers in our society are now operating under a mild (or not so mild) form of slavery. It’s obviously not as bad for most people as the slavery situation in America in the early 1800′s but it ain’t great for all too many people. Talk to someone who works for Dollar General or Walmart and you’ll see what I mean. Most hourly wage workers these days work long hours for very little money but they have the same expenses for food and everything else that we all do and to me that’s a mild form of slavery. Sorry, but just calling it like I see it and under my plan, I believe this sort of thing would diminish, mainly because the power of ALL currently powerful entities who are currently inflicting this mild form of slavery would have their power and influence curtailed. Wouldn’t that be great?
And that, ladies and gentleman, is my rough plan for “Saving America With Permaculture.” I welcome your comments.