The Designer Has Not Yet Become the Recliner

There’s a big conversation going on right now on a regional permaculture listserve I’m part of, broadly about where we’re at in the permaculture “movement”, as it were, and where we might be going.  It’s great stuff to be hashing out.  And since I have tree crops on the brain these days, it brings to mind this classic moment in Bill Mollison’s early movie, The Global Gardener, where Bill lies down in a hammock in the middle of a lush, superabundant tropical food forest, and says, “And this is where the designer becomes the recliner.”  Everyone laughs!  And we get the message – perennial food is about doing less work than what’s needed for annual crops.  Sounds great, doesn’t it?  That image (and others like it) is a big part of what drew me and many, many other people into the world of permaculture design and regenerative agriculture.

Thirty years after that movie was made, though, the core original promise of super-abundant, low-work food forestry – remaking the Garden of Eden, as Dave Jacke so elegantly puts it in Edible Forest Gardens – remains, in many ways, unfulfilled.  The title of this post says it – the designer has not yet become the recliner.  We don’t have huge, productive agroforestry commons feeding thousands of people yet.  We have scattered small-scale forest gardens that at best supplement the diets of their gardeners’ families, and an even smaller and more scattered handful of experimental larger-scale tree crop systems that have mostly not begun to yield to their potential yet.  The “danger of falling fruit” and staple-crops vision of J. Russell Smith (link is to full-book PDF of Tree Crops, in the public domain) is still a long ways off.

So why is that?  It’s instructive to look at a few multiple potential reasons (all of which I think play a part):

–It takes perennial food systems a long time to mature to the point of being overyielding, low-work polycultures – decades in many cases.  We don’t have these in the Northeast right now because we don’t have any examples that are big enough and old enough yet.

–The promise of food forestry is as yet unfulfilled in northern temperate climates.  The tropical world already has large, diverse, superabundant tree crop gardens in every region and subclimate.  Partly that’s because the tropics are so freaking favorable to staple tree crops (go salivate over some of the tropics-related links at Eric Toensmeier’s place and you’ll see what I mean), and partly it’s because the traditions of food forestry in the tropics have been in many regions relatively uninterrupted.  In contrast, European coppice agroforestry was mostly interrupted in the 1700’s, and North American tending the wild practices were almost completely interrupted continent-wide by the end of the 1800’s.  It’s been a long, steep relearning process for most people in most of the northern temperate world as a result (small-scale Russian perennial food gardening being a notable exception).

–As we’ve discussed here in multiple previous posts (here and here, for example), there are big structural obstacles to financing larger-scale regenerative ag enterprises, especially growing tree crops.  What I want to add to the previous conversation is how significant super-cheap fossil fuels, and major, ubiquitous externalizing of social and ecological costs, are to these structural obstacles.  It’s really, really difficult to do agriculture in a way that’s both truly healthy for people and the planet, and profitable and capitalizable, because of how cheap food is on the commodities markets thanks to the oil/subsidies/externalities perfect storm.  It’s not easy being green, or being socially/economically just and responsible, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is.

What we do know, though, is that forest gardening in northern temperate climates works.  It produces diverse, healthy, low-maintenance perennial food from early spring to early winter, with moderately high work and moderately low yields initially, but with work decreasing and yields increasing gradually over time.  Moreover, perennial agriculture still does all the cool things we’ve always talked about (stabilizes soil, moderates microclimates, sequesters carbon, creates and diversifies habitat, reduces the need for chemical inputs and tillage, etc.) and is slowly but surely starting to emerge into the agriculture/food mainstream as a practice to be taken seriously (for example, this and this from recent NYT).  That’s a pretty darn good medium-to-long-term value proposition if you ask me, and we shouldn’t lose sight of the power and reality of that original motivating vision, even as we recognize how much further we have to go to reach it.

As a related bonus, a (very incomplete) mind map of productive land use economics.  Thanks to Gregory Landua of Gaia University and Nova Monda Chocolate (holiday gifts!) for the conversation that led to this:

“So much time, so little to do…” 🙂

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