Lots of people in permaculture want land, and there is a lot of discussion about how to obtain it. For most this stems from a desire either to be a farmer, or just to produce their own food but have a different kind of career than farming. Agriculture is going through some major transitions at the moment–demographically, environmentally, and politically.
THE BIG PICTURE
Farming is approaching a generational shift; the average farmer is 60 years old and is going to be looking to turn the farm over to someone else sooner or later. This is the subject of Joel Salatin’s book “Fields of Farmers.” Who will take over that land is a big question, and the answer will determine how all that land is managed.
Environmentally, agriculture as a whole needs a revolution. Current agricultural practices are not just unsustainable, but destructive. Monocultural cropping systems result in topsoil loss, biodiversity loss (including bees!), and use up more water than nature allows for. Dead zones in major waterways like the Gulf of Mexico , the Chesapeake Bay, and many others are largely the result of agricultural fertilizer runoff. An agriculture that destroys soil is an agriculture that will inevitably collapse; something that can’t go on forever won’t.
Politically more and more people are becoming aware of the perverse incentives that are part of the US food system–subsidies, water rights and allocations, and commitments to monocultured annuals result in a food system that makes healthy food expensive, and cheap food health-threatening. It’s also a food system that is fragile to shocks like drought; a system that is breeding superbugs through the overuse of antibiotics; a system that puts many farmers in poverty or de facto indentured servitude.
CHANGING THE SYSTEM: DISRUPTING INNOVATIVELY & CHANGING LAWS
In the United States, there are only two ways to change the ag system. The first is by changing the laws. The general impression I get is that to change the laws in the United States, you either need a popular uprising, or you need to be a big business that can afford to fund political campaigns, lobbyists, lawyers, and propaganda. If the US is indeed an oligarchy, then oligarchy is the path to follow to change the laws.
The other way to change the system is to make the current one obsolete; make Monsanto and Bayer and Tyson Foods, and all the other companies that make up the current agricultural oligarchy as relevant as the typewriter. This requires creating entirely new agricultures that replace the current ones in a way that is more profitable, and establishing patterns for transitioning typical farms from the current system to the disruptively innovative one.
The truth is, both have to happen and they’re interconnected; the laws have to be changed, and a new system needs to disrupt the current one, and it should be simultaneous. Permaculture and some organization–a super coop or something along those lines–that abides by its precepts have to become the next big agriculture. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to change the incentives driving the current system, and you will not change the way farmers farm.
PUT THE HORSE IN FRONT OF THE CART
Never in the history of agriculture have farmers been those who were in power and made the laws. Those that create raw materials historically and currently are those that are also poor and unempowered. It’s not the diamond miners who own DeBeers; It’s not the chicken farmers who own Purdue; Pharaoh was never a cotton or wheat farmer, though cotton and wheat were the foundation for much of Egypt’s riches. No it is those who control those raw materials or traffic in them that can gain power, and this brings us to the crux of the matter: If money is what’s holding back the permaculture community from obtaining land, then we need a different system. Saving up money to buy land, and then figuring out regenerative farming and what you’re going to sell is, in my opinion, a failed model. It’s too slow, and only the most pioneering folks are able to make it work. That’s not to say the model i’m proposing is easier. But I think it can be much better.
The next 20 years presents a huge opportunity to gain access to massive amounts of farms as older farmers look to retire, and also presents a huge need to change tack as drought, topsoil loss, drained fossil-water aquifers, and growing dead zones expose the dangers of current agriculture. How will permaculture as a movement seize these opportunities?
My answer to that is what I am calling Product Driven Land Acquisition (PDLA), which flips our current design order on its head to account for financial and economic issues. The model for PDLA is as following:
1: Design and sell a physical product to replace something in everyone’s house that can be perennial based.
2: Create and sell the product and grow that business.
3: Once the business is succesful, use the funds to buy land that will grow the perennial ingredients for that product. (ie go vertically integrated on your supply chain)
4: Design a guild based on the climate and land that grows the foundational product of your business. This allows you to expand into less profitable areas while relying on the foundational product you’re already selling at volume. The ecology you plant is based on that product and the climate it will grow in, and then you diversify into other products based on that guild. Not all of the products have to be value added or niche, but it is the profit of your foundational products driving the financial side of the ecological guild.
5: In addition to designing an ecological agriculture, you will also have to design an ecology of businesses that account for the different kinds of economic activity you’re involved in.
I’m going to give one example: cotton. Monocultured cotton is a huge ecological problem. It was a desire to enter the cotton business that caused Uzbekistan to drain the entire Aral sea. Now that the sea is gone, the residues of pesticides that ran into the sea from industry & agriculture are being blown across Uzbekistan, causing serious health problems and increasing the rate of salinization of the land. In other words, growing cotton in Uzbekistan is now causing cotton to fail in Uzbekistan, and just happened to destroy one of the world’s largest sources of fresh water, as well as the fish and tourist industries intricately linked to it. So here we have a clear ecological problem caused by industrial agriculture.
How to disruptively innovate cotton? Many people say the answer is hemp. Hemp requires 1/2 the water cotton does, grows in much colder and more temperate climates, and can be grown without the use of pesticides. Hemp textiles are objectively stronger and last longer than cotton ones, and hemp is also valuable as a paper crop and a seed crop.
The problem is, I can’t find a single hemp clothing company that makes clothes that actually look like real clothes. You can’t wear hemp clothes without looking like a hippie. So how would I disrupt cotton? I’d start a jeans company that makes hemp jeans that actually look good. Start in the higher end jeans markets until you’re moving volume and have decent revenue, and start out by sourcing my hemp from China where it’s not illegal to grow it.
Once I could afford a lobbyist, i’d hire one to go to Montana and start showing the state government how much profit it’s losing by now allowing hemp to be grown, and that that my company would love to source its hemp from Montana rather than China because we want to put a “grown in America/Made in America” tag on it. I’d show how many jobs this would create and how much economic activity would result. I’d partner up with other groups that want to legalize pot and hemp and get the state law changed. Once the law is changed, I’d have proven revenues and cash flow that would allow me to vertically integrate and buy a few thousand acres in Montana. Then I’d design my permaculture guild around hemp and start diversifying my products based on that guild, creating other companies to account for them. I’d end up with a perennial ecology in Montana that competes with cotton on the global supply chain, eliminates demand for pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, and have an ecology of businesses developing market power and providing value to lots of people.
This is my idea of product driven land acquisition. Rather than trying to buy land and then figuring out how to farm it, I think it would be better to create a product that reliably supplies revenue & creates demand for a particular type of farm, and then vertically integrate my supply chain by buying farms to supply that product.
This may seem very idealistic, and some steps in this process are relatively untested. Ecological agriculture leading to an ecology of businesses is a big idea with little practice behind it, and as far as I know very little conversation around it up to this point. I think it’s the direction we have to go in if permaculture is ever going to move from being predominantly in peoples’ backyards to being predominantly how people farm.