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.
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.
This subject is going to take up a large chunk of the blog, yet I am the least experienced and the least knowledgable on this subject compared to the other two. I’m not a farmer, a botanist, an ecologist, a geologist, a meteorologist, a soilologist, or a politicologist. I just really love food, and I love America. I even love American food. And there’s no question that our food systems need to change–both for our health and our security.
I grappled a lot with what to call this theme–wrestling between the words restoring, reviving, revolutionizing, healing, and transforming America’s agriculture. It may seem a bit arrogant to you for a non-expert such as myself to call for a transformation in our food system, but doing that would be no less herculean than working on converting the Arabian Peninsula into productive land, which I’m already working on. Besides, this is what I’m passionate about and everyone starts somewhere.
I’m going to use this space to become an expert on how all those ologies influence our food system. I’m going to read and study our food system, and then all that learning is going to be condensed here so that you don’t have to do all the sorting. I also plan to interview experts and post those here (which may even expand into a podcast).
Over the next few years, this is what I plan to explore regarding America and its food, though I reserve the right to not go in the order I’m setting out here, and to add or subtract topics. If you follow along, then at the end you’ll be an expert too!
1: Setting the Stage
- The Anthropocene: Hunters/Gatherers vs. Farmers Vs. Gardeners
- The Oil Age
- Post WWII & The Pax Americana (Yes this has to do with food. Come back later to find out why!)
- The American farm in 2014
2: The Problems with Industrial Agriculture
- Erosion & Topsoil Loss
- Cides: pesti, fungi, and herbi
- Fertilisers & Other Oil Byproducts
- Soil Health & Soil Carbon
- GMO’s: The Ugly, the Bad, and the Potentially Good
- CAFO’s, superbugs, and delicious meat
- Water and the American West
- Why arguments of Organic vs. Conventional are lame and entirely missing the point
- Why “sustainable agriculture” isn’t
3: Policies Create Incentives; Incentives Drive Behavior
- Getting to the bottom of the Food Bill
- The rise of the large farm, and Big Agriculture
- Politics, Policies, Politicians, and Power
4: An Opportunity for Innovative Disruption; Transforming America’s Agriculture
- The Ecological Agriculture Umbrella: Regrarianism, Restoration Ag, Permaculture, Holistic Management, etc.
- The Profitable Farm
- The Problem is The Solution: Leveraging Big Companies To Change the Incentives
If you love to eat, or if you would like your offspring to eat in the future, stick around, sign up for updates, and we will become experts together and work on transforming America’s agriculture.