I’ve just come back to Saudi Arabia after a 3 week trip to California, which involved speaking at PV3 and attending a 10 day course taught by Daren Doherty on the Regrarians Platform. The course was held at a ranch in Santa Barbara, and involved a day for each of the elements of a modified Keyline Scale of Permanence.
Let me start off by saying that I was blown away by this course. The Regrarians platform fills the major gap in professional sustainable land management & design. Permaculture teaches principles, a new way of thinking & ethics, and it was the lingua franca of the students at this course. Holistic Management is the best management system for regenerative land use that I am aware of. What both permaculture and HM lack is the process for design. This is what the REX course does; it gives a process for integrating permaculture design & HM into a cohesive whole. Together, the 3 of them form a framework and foundation to create professional designs & plans that are effective, efficient, and appropriate to the context you’re in. As such, I consider this course essential for anybody serious about becoming a professional in the field of designing regenerative land and water use.
Here’s an example:
It is a permacultural moré to have as many species of interplanted everything as possible. Many folks when developing a food forest boast about having 50 or 80 species spread between 7 integrated layers. We’ve all seen Geoff Lawton’s videos walking through a food forest saying, “here’s an X, and here’s a Y, and here’s a Z, and look over here, it’s a J!” There is abundance everywhere in those videos, and I admit that on a gut level those are very sexy forest systems. There’s so much diversity! There’s so much stuff growing! So much life and abundance! It’s true.
On the other hand, I suspect this norm in the permaculture world is one of the reasons why permaculture implementation is largely limited to homesteads and small farms. Getting 80 species into one area is a ridiculous way to plant if you want to efficiently harvest and sell a crop, especially tree crops. On large scale agriculture, you have to harvest efficiently, which is impossible when you have ecological hodgepodges. Those hodgepodges require serious labor, which requires serious money, which almost no farmers have.
On the site I’ve been working on in Al Baydha, harvesting was not much of a consideration when we did our initial design. The questions were: Can we actually get things to grow here? Our objective was a closed canopy system alleyed with grazing strips, modeled somewhat after a food forest in Morocco. But never did we consider, “If these grow here, how are we going to harvest them and get them to market? How will we integrate drip irrigation lines with fencing, grazing systems, tree crops, and a way to harvest efficiently?” The lack of that question is going to affect the potential profitability of our demo site in Saudi Arabia forever.
I knew 5 years ago that on that site we would need to integrate fencing with access with water with grazing with forestry: Those are the basic components for a sustainable silvopasture system. That’s a complex system with many moving parts. Integrating all of those pieces into a cohesive whole was something I had no process for doing. I could figure out which zones things would go in & figure out how the outputs for one had to get to the inputs of another. But I did not know how to organize them in a cost-effective way that would allow for the end goal of harvesting, processing, and selling.
Now I do.
On a more personal note, I was fortunate to connect with some stellar people who take land management, water management, agriculture, and sustainability very seriously and very passionately. It was a blessing to rub shoulders with 30 folks working on a very high level and learn together. I think everyone who attended came away with a lot of energy, a rekindled desire to learn, and a lot less complacency.
Thanks to Darren Doherty & Lisa Heenan & Family for the work they are doing. I appreciate them sharing their mistakes so openly, because it means I don’t have to commit the same ones in my own work. This REX course is next-level stuff and essential to people who want to get into large-scale regenerative agriculture.
Yesterday and today I couldn’t make it out to Al Baydha because we had 22 mm of rain in Jeddah. That’s less than 1 inch. However, 1 inch of rain in this city wreaks a certain kind of havoc, as you can see in the photos below:
Part of the issue with flooding is that mountain valleys due east of Jeddah direct water to the city, so it’s not like an inch of rain on the city is the only source of the water.
But a major part of this flooding is that Jeddah has no buffer zones where water can drain to; the whole city is concrete and pavement, with 100% runoff rates. This is a massive failure of design; there are numerous spaces that if they had been done differently, could have greatly ameliorated the floods in Jeddah, and those spaces are duplicated in patterns throughout the city.
Here’s example #1:
There are 3 borders to the water on this street–to the left of the barrier is another 2 lane street, with another elevated sidewalk next to it. Total width of the streetscape is probably 17 meters, with 12 dedicated to the four lanes, and 5 dedicated to elevated walkways and trees.
The solution is obvious: lower the sidewalks and the planted medians enough to absorb the water on the street. 22 mm of rain over 12 square meters of road is 264 liters of water for every meter of road. For the medians and the sidewalks to absorb that much water, they would only have to be sunken 53 mm, a little more than two inches. With trees that perform hydraulic redistribution they could absorb more than that. But you could also sink them down a full foot–5 times deeper than you need for that particular road, so that it can absorb runoff from other roadways. This median dynamic is repeated throughout the city, on most major roadways. The other aspect of this poor design is that within 2 days, a water tanker with desalinated water in it will drive by to water these trees.
Water everywhere, except for where the trees can get to it.
This may seem like a tremendously minor issue, but roads are currently the lowest spaces in the cityscape, and without a sink for the water, it multiplies over kilometers. Let’s take one of the main thoroughfares of Jeddah, Malik Road. Malik road runs north-south along the coastal side of Jeddah, and after driving most of it today, i couldn’t really see anywhere for water to leave the road until it reaches an underpass.
A look at the roads shows the total width to be about 80 meters, the main dividing median to be 15, and two other dividers splitting up the main road from service roads that are about 3 meters each. This doesn’t include the sidewalks that exist, as they’re not everywhere. Here is what that median looks like up close:
Notice that the median is raised about 50 cm, with grass, palm trees, and shrubbery planted thereon. The other medians are also raised, which means this road is essentially a sloped container when it rains. There are a few places for water to flow off onto side roads, but those are just other roads that are also flooding. The total width of this street is 80 meters, 59 of which is hardtop, and let’s take a 5 KM length. With 22 mm of rain, that is 6500 cubic meters of water finding the low point of that road. Multiply that by all the streets in Jeddah, and it’s no wonder that less than an inch of rain causes such problems: the whole streetscape is upside down.
Here’s where that road’s lowest point occurs: an underpass with water at least 3 meters deep at the bottom, after 22 mm of rain.
Yet the solution is simple: sink the medians and the dividers enough to absorb all the runoff.
The other major source of runoff is from rooftops, but this also has a simple solution. Almost all buildings already have a water storage tank, that are accessible to trucks that bring in desalinated water. Drain the roofs into these tanks, and a huge amount of runoff will be eliminated. Simple filters can handle the first flush eliminating dust and debris, after which the water is clean.
In a city where a gallon of water is more expensive than a gallon of oil, and where desalination takes up 20% of national energy consumption, it makes no sense to create a cityscape that makes no use whatsoever of free water falling from the sky. Yet that is exactly how Jeddah functions now, and the solution put forward by multinationals has been to drain that water into the sea as quickly as possible.
an upside-down street in Jeddah
The principle for handling water in cityscapes in dryland situations is to take advantage of run-off from all surfaces, by elevating roads and buildings, and lowering green spaces to act as sinks and catchment for that runoff. By that standard, Jeddah’s streets are upside down. By putting them right side up, it could dramatically reduce road-scape flooding, seasonally decrease street-scape watering from tankers carrying desalinated water, and reduce damage, delays, and inconveniences caused by rain.
Here are the top 3 ways I answer the question, “What can I grow here?”
1: Existing Local Practices
In more developed areas there are lots of ways to know what people are already growing. Garden clubs, nurseries, seed-saver clubs, permaculture meet-up groups, etc, are all great ways to find out what’s growing in your area, and even to get some local seed that could be better adapted to your place. Especially in more developed areas of the world, where you can find organizations with a click o’ the internet, this is an easy and probably the most common way to find out what you can grow.
But what if you are somewhere you don’t have those associations, and where the internet gives you very little information? One method is to drive around neighborhoods or public buildings and look at the gardens they are growing. Especially at public buildings, these will often be maintained by immigrant workers, who tend to import practices and crops from back home if they are from a similar climate.
For me working in Saudi Arabia, I’ve visited some gardens run and maintained by Philipinos, who have brought moringa and sweet potato here. Initially I wouldn’t have thought to plant Moringa Oleifera here, because its native climate is more tropical and much more humid. However, i’ve observed some succesfully grown here, so I integrated them with my guild at work, in addition to the local Moringa Peregrina. Immigrants are a cultural edge and their introduction of exotic food plants can lead to innovative tries in your guild.
2: Local Historic Practices
Before industrialization, everybody except for a very few ate local. Traditional peoples and their food practices, whether currently existing or not, can point you in the direction of some plants that will be useful, and perhaps largely forgotten. Acorns, for example, were a staple of the pre-colonial peoples of New England, though I would venture to say that very few New Englanders consume them now. There are thousands of plants that can provide food, fiber, and medicine, that are almost entirely unknown to modern people, though in the past that was only sometimes the case.
3: A Climate Analogue
Latitudes are a reflection of solar patterns
A climate analogue is a catalogue of other areas on the planet that share key characteristics that are similar or identical to the characteristics of the land you want to design for. Through a climate analogue, you can find nearly-identical climates across the globe, and then by researching plants in those areas, find all kinds of cool things you didn’t know you could grow. Here’s an example:
Take a look at the middle of the west coast of Saudi Arabia in the map above. It’s just inside the sub-tropics; now follow that latitude across the globe and note where it hits a western coast. Then do the same for the same latitude south of the equator (so if you’re looking at 20 North, you’ll want to look at 20 South as well because it’s the same solar pattern, just with the seasons flipped).
For my area in Saudi Arabia, following those latitudes, you hit the following areas: Coastal Namibia, Western Australia, A part of the Atacama in Chile, Mexicali, Mexico and the southern regions of the sonoran desert, Mauritania, A chunk of India, and Bangladesh. Those are the areas in my climate analogue. By researching traditional food plants from these areas, i can construct a guild of useful plants that are already growing somewhere with identical solar & in many instances climatic circumstances. In my own situation, every location on my climate analogue except for 2 are coastal deserts, just like the region I work in.
So that’s a very simplistic example. Here are the 6 characteristics you ought to look at when constructing a climate analogue:
C: Distance and direction from the nearest ocean, sea, or large body of water.
Those are the 3 most important. If you get a match on those 3, likelihood is that the next 3 will be comparable. These are:
D: Precipitation–if your analogue matches are the same on precipitation, then you know you can meet water sustainability by planting those imported plants.
E: dominant winds
F: major geographical features that would affect climate–mountains, rivers, seasonal storms, etc.
Bear in mind, none of the 6 characteristics above need to be identical, and you could eliminate the latter 3 altogether depending on the geography of your land. The more similar the matches you find in your climate analogue, the more succesful you will be implanting members of your guild from those areas.
If you are fortunate, after you build a climate analogue you will find 3 or 4 areas whose climates are very similar to yours. Then it is time for research. The same techniques you used in finding out already existing practices where you live, are the same you will use for these other areas that you have identified through your climate analogue.
Here are some plants i’ve adopted into my guild that I wouldn’t have thought to plant otherwise, or didn’t even know about when I started:
1: Moringa Oleifera can be found in Gujarat and Rajasthan, India, both of which match the climate analogue. This, combined with seeing it nearby in Jeddah led me to planting it out in our desert.
2: Pithecellobium dulce and honey mesquite (prosopis glandulosa). Both of these trees are native to Mexico, including the range on my climate analogue. The pith is pictured above.
3: Mongongo –this is the staple crop of the Bushmen in the Namib desert. I haven’t been able to plant it yet, but it should grow in Saudi Arabia because Namibia matches on all 6 of the above characteristics, and even has matching soil types.
4: Watermelon. Watermelon grows wonderfully in Saudi Arabia, and many people grow it here by flooding fields off of flash floods and sowing with watermelon seeds. Watermelon also happens to be native to Namibia.
5: Agaves (native to Mexico and the Sonoran Desert)
A Final Note on Natives vs. Non-natives
Just because you can grow something doesn’t mean you should. Know your goals for what you want to grow, consider the surrounding context and community, and bear in mind that people have moved plants all over the globe for a long, long time. It’s true that if we only ever grew natives, Italy would have no tomatoes, Ireland no potatoes, India no curry, Thailand no chiles, and the USA no wheat. However, that doesn’t mean you should throw caution to the wind, either.
A climate analogue can open up your eyes to lots of possibilities about what you can grow. If you combine that with a knowledge of local historical plant usage, you can come up with some wonderfully diverse guilding.
We’re two days off from when I left the Permaculture Voices Conference in San Diego, and perhaps the greatest thing for me was the immense, pervasive, encircling mass of positive energy I felt from a huge number of people there. Everybody there is working on solutions, and the optimism and hope and community-affirming feelings of the whole conference was a tremendous pick-me-up.
I found this to be true not just on the conference level, but also on an individual level. I do not often meet a person who makes me feel so comfortable that I can be completely open even though I don’t know him/her, and that happened to me multiple times in a 4 day span.
With that being said, here’s a quick breakdown of some things I wanted to get out there:
Learning to Read Cultural Landscapes
A lot of folks in permaculture are great designers for things on the ground. We have a huge comparative advantage that comes solely from our ability to read landscapes, integrate those landscapes with climatic information, and to let the land reveal to us what kind of design will facilitate the greatest efficiency and gain in fertility. This advantage is big enough that folks are starting to notice–hence Ben Falk’s post a while back about his presentation to people at USAID and their desire to acquire people with this climate literacy.
What we have not done as well in the permaculture community is to gain the same literacy on a social level. Just as landscapes have keypoints and keylines, human society also has leverage points, geographies, and patterns that we ought to use to tailor our strategies. Inevitably as we design for bigger and bigger problems, we bump into human organizations–boardrooms, congresses, clubs, institutions–that we need to approach and work with, and by and large we don’t know how to do it. This is what I addressed in my presentation, which was called “Culture as Climate: A model for reading social landscapes and increasing the adoption of permaculture.” The other title I was considering was, “How to use culture to instigate cultural change.”
I’m not an expert designer at this point–my experience has been deep, but narrow. What I do know is culture, and I see this as a gap in our collective expertise, so I hope that the folks who attended and who listen in the future can find utility in my approach.
My Takeaways from PV2
1. More Appreciation for the Purples
I came away from PV2 with a greater appreciation for purples. Some of you folks might know Paul Wheaton’s purple-brown scale of permaculturalists. I’ve always considered myself more of a brown. But I got to rub shoulders and meet with some people that I think of as way more of a purple, and I found them to be impressive, and I learned a lot from their experiences.
It is true that permaculture needs more peer-reviewed studies, more science to back it up and to confirm what is largely anecdotes, and more experimentation on a bunch of land-based models, from the urban up to the broadacre scale, and I’m not sure it’s going to come from the purples.
That being said, it is crystal clear to me that people systems are much more difficult than natural systems–and this is where the purples excel. The ones who know what they are doing know how to help people get along with other people, how to facilitate decision making, and how to keep community cohesive. That is a desperately needed skill in a society where we would rather text than make a phone call because peoples’ voices are too personal for us. So one of my takeaways from PV2 is a greater appreciation for the purples. I’m not into your woo but I am into your social skills.
2: Capitalism (the system now) vs. Anarchy
Toby Hemenway’s Keynote talk was on anarchy–not on building a society without laws, but a society without rulers. I can appreciate aspects of the vision he put forward; there are examples of functioning anarchistic villages where the people were quite happy and had a good community going–particularly in Italy post WWII (Thanks to Erik Ohlsen for pointing out those historic examples to me).
However, hanging onto that anarchistic vision directly contradicts my point from above–which is that just as climate and geography determine how we approach the land, the social and invisible structures (that are a direct result of our culture) should dictate how we approach making change happen on social and political levels.
I’ve got a much more extensive post to write on this, but my concern from Toby’s talk is it will encourage people to disengage from the society we have, which in my opinion is the exact opposite of what we need to do to build a sustainable civilization. After some mulling in a couple conversations with Chad Stamps, Grant Schultz, and a few others, I think there may be some useful tension in this conversation.
3: Admiration for Many and Moving Ahead
I’m blown away by the caliber of people who showed up to this conference. There was very little fanboyism or hero worship that I could tell, and a lot more of problem-solving, model-comparing, networking and business development, and a lot of potential for collaboration. I’m determined to try to keep the new relationships I made with a lot of people substantive. It would be really easy to turn a conference like this into a good time where we met cool people, but without following up and taking action it’ll just turn into happy memories.
Finally I want to thank Diego for putting on a fantastic conference. I’m excited to see what he does next year, and hope to be a part of it.
Today i’m headed to the Permaculture Voices Conference in San Diego. I’ve been looking forward to this for a year. Last year I couldn’t make it–in part because i didn’t want to pay the money it would have cost to attend and stay at a hotel, and in part because i couldn’t get away from work.
About 8 months ago I wrote Diego, who runs PV, and said, “take a look at what i’m doing–maybe you’ll think it’s interesting.” I was hoping that he’d invite me to speak at this year’s conference so that I could afford to come. It lead to a podcast and a speaking invitation. I’m tremendously excited to be going.
While at PV2 I plan to do some liveblogging of the talks I attend, so stay tuned.
Here is a preview for my own talk:
A practiced permaculturalist can look at a landscape, and integrate the climatic, geographic, and hydrologic factors, as the basis and context of a fantastic design. These conditions are the starting point of how we approach earth care.
In my experience, people systems are much trickier than earth systems, and I think the permaculture world needs to develop models for how to approach them in a systematic and intelligent way. There are corollaries to climate, geography, hydrology, and keylines in the social realm, and those need to play a major part in how we should approach people care. My take is that just as climate is the starting point of design for earthcare, culture is the starting point for people care, and should be the main determining factor in our strategy for creating and approaching invisible structures.
As part of the model, here is a preview for what you need when approaching a foreign culture, whether that culture is in another country, or in the boardroom of a company or organization you want to approach. You need:
1: A Guide
2: A Sheikh
3: To Sing the right song
5: To Solve a Pain
If you come see my talk, you will learn how to use culture to expand your circle of influence, to develop the right approach to people care for your context, and to increase the adoption of permaculture wherever you may be practicing.
The people in Al Baydha have two significant problems when it comes to food. First, very little of their food is produced locally, and second, their diet is significantly lacking.
This is what most folks eat in Al Baydha:
breakfast: white bread, a few olives, cream cheese, honey, dates, and Arabic coffee.
Lunch: Rice with plain Kefir
Dinner: Either a repeat of breakfast or lunch, but perhaps with chicken.
All day: Tea with sugar.
Additionally, once or twice a month, people will choose to eat lamb or goat, or they will be invited to a party where local lamb or goat is served. Oftentimes they will have raised these animals themselves. Camel’s milk is also available to those who keep camels, which is either drunk raw and fresh, or mixed with tea. Not surprisingly for a group of ex-nomads, their most nutritious staples are still from their animals. However, those animals, if not fed imported alfalfa and grains, do not survive.
A Ramadan Iftar, considered the best meal of the year.
Thus the majority of their calories is coming from bread and rice, and the more nutritious foods are their dairy, dates, olives, and meat. Only the dates are local. I consider the meat half-way local because one one hand, the animals are living in Al Baydha, but on the other, the animals are only alive because they are eating imported alfalfa and barley. So it almost doesn’t count. I consider the dairy to be the same–locally produced but 100% dependent on imports for production. The rice is from India, the United States, or Japan. Some of the wheat is locally grown, but next year all subsidies for wheat growers will cease, at which point, Saudi Arabia intends to import ALL its wheat (which is a water-wise decision). The tea is lipton or a local brand, most likely grown in Kenya.
To be fair, it would be sheer lunacy to try to produce all that stuff here in the desert, simply because the water is not available, and those things are not suitable for growing here. The point of a good permaculture design is to answer what the land would like to be, not what can be imposed on it in the short term with no eye to long term consequences.
Can we replace these imported staples with local perennial plants and do it in a water-sustainable way? And can we do it at scale?
I think the answer is yes, but it would take a long time for them to be adopted. . While most desert peoples in the past were either nomadic pastoralists or nomadic hunter gatherers, neither of those options is available anymore. Yet there are plants from other desert peoples that can be used here to replace staples. Particularly, I am thinking of the mesquite pod as a replacement for wheat, Moringa and Mongongo as replacements for oils and nuts, restored perennial grassland and tree-based grazing plants, agave and honey for sweeteners, hibiscus for tea, and a host of other plants providing drought-hardy, heat-loving desert fruits and vegetables.
So here are the objectives of the food forest we’re trying to design:
1: replace imported annuals with local perennials
2: Get the local perennials established as a cogent ecology.
3: Provide all needed food (so must have fat and protein-heavy sources) and nutrition (significant vegetable and fruit production).
Here’s how we can do it:
Bread is a staple of human civilization and has been for thousands of years. Saudi Arabia is about to become totally 100% dependent on wheat imports for bread and pasta production, which is water-wise. How can we produce a substitute for bread? The answer is in this pod:
A pod from prosopis juliflora ie mesquite
Mesquite (Prosopis) is not native to the Middle East but it is quite common now. Both the prosopis cineraria and the prosopis juliflora are common in the gulf region, and even viewed as invasive (read: thrives). What many people do not know is that mesquite pods were a staple crop for native peoples in the American Southwest, and can be ground into a naturally gluten-free flour. Additionally, the sap is useful for medicine, and green pods can be used to make a molasses. Check out Mark Moody’s farm in the video:
These trees require no more than 5 liters per week to get established. While their roots can go very deep and have been the main culprit in some area’s falling water tables, they are also known to perform hydraulic redistribution, which means they can keep nearby shallow soils wetter in dry times, thus helping nearby foliage to survive drought. More study would have to be done and breeding would be done to maximize production and taste, but this could replace imported wheat as the main ingredient in bread.
2: Proteins and Fats
While the preferred source of protein and fat here is easily red meat (particularly sheep and goat), the current system of grazing animals for one month or two out of the year, and providing imported alfalfa, barley, and straw for the other 10 months, is completely unsustainable. Forage trees need to form a large part of the design, both as a way to meet the need for meat and dairy production (from camel and goat’s milk). But there are two other trees as well that are drought, salt, and heat tolerant, and are known to produce large amounts of nuts. Here I am talking about the Mongongo (Schinziophyton rautanenii) and the Drum Stick Tree or Ben Oil Tree (Moringa Peregrina). Additional to the Moringa Peregrina, the Moringa Olefeira could also adapt as a forage and vegetable tree.
The Moringa Peregrina, or Arabian Moringa.
The Arabian Moringa is native to this region, but almost totally ignored, which is a shame because it has enormous potential. This is the tree responsible for the famous “Ben Oil” which was used by Romans, Egyptians, and Persians, as the basis for much of their medicines, perfumes, and cosmetics. The oil is produced from seeds that come from pods like those in the picture:
Moringa Peregrina Seed Pods
The oil from this tree is not only delicious, versatile, and widely applicable, but very expensive. According to a Moringa farmer I spoke with from Madina, he has sold the oil for as much as $1000 USD per LITER. It could grow across the entire Arabian Peninsula as a sub-story tree, providing vegetables (the pods are edible), oil, and animal fodder (from the crushed oil-less pods). Then we wouldn’t have to buy hydrogenated vegetable oils produced from annuals half-way around the world.
After the Moringa, and I can’t even decide which of these two trees is cooler, is the Mongongo, the staple food of the Kalahari Bushman. This tree grows on top of sand-dunes in a latitude and climate almost exactly the same as the Makkah/Jeddah region. Bill Mollison was reportedly rebuffed when trying to teach gardening to the !Kung, “Why should we garden, when there are so many mongongo trees in the world?”
Nuts growing on a Mongongo Tree (source: biodiversityexplorer.org)
The nuts on these trees are 57% fat by weight, 24% protein by weight, and are rich in calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, and vitamin E. There is an external layer that can be made into a jelly or a preserve and the nuts themselves are eaten plain, used to produce oil (which is sold in cosmetics and skin treatments), or roasted. They are reportedly a favorite of elephants, which makes me wonder if camels could get at them. One tree can produce hundreds of kilograms of nuts in a good year. If any reader can help me get some mongongo nuts, I will plant them in Saudi Arabia and we will start growing a more resilient, water-wise local food source!
Mongongos could be a major staple crop overstory in an extremely arid food forest.
These are two of the main crops that could grow as members of a food forest here in Saudi Arabia, that could be used to replace imported staples such as wheat and rice. Next we’re going to get into a more varied diet that can grow here in a water-sustainable way and replace other aspects of the local diet.