Every facet of the modern industrial economy is predicated upon cheap energy. Not only that but an expanding supply of cheap energy, to enable economic growth. A key facet of the economic growth paradigm is that we free the workforce from the chore of food production by creating vast surpluses via industrial mono-cultural food production systems. Agri business. There is of course a fundamental flaw in this system.. or several in fact.. that the energy supply can endlessly grow is an obvious weak point in the plan, and the thought that by replacing the complexity of biology with the simplicity of monoculture that we could actually build something sustainable using these methods. Agribusiness burns 10 times more energy in the form of fossil fuel than what it produces in food and it does it at the expense of diversity which turns out to be the key mechanism by which nature and evolution flourishes.
The Wakelyns, is no ordinary farm, it is one where they have been exploring the alternatives to monoculture, and more importantly they have been producing the data to back up most of the key premises in permaculture design. That diversity gives resilience, that feedback and natural selection allow plant populations to evolve and respond to a changing environment. So it was tremendously exciting to be invited there to speak on the subject of Permaculture, agriculture and energy to help set the context for the vital research and experimentation they are doing there.
Wakelyns is no ordinary farm, as you can see in the picture below the narrow strips of horticultural land is protected by strips of agroforestry, in this case 2 rows of hazel trees each side, forming a living barrier to wind and pests, also providing habitat for beneficial birds and insects and contributing significantly to building an ecosystem rather than a constantly degrading agricultural system.
The fields are all trials of different aspects of working with biodiversity.. exploring the relationship between crop yields, nature and wildlife, soil stability resistance to disease and much more. Apart from anything else their work challenges the idea of ‘produce’ – we only usually measure the yield of a farm in terms of how many KG per acre.. rather than in terms of what we have produce sustainably, or what is the yield in terms of how much wildlife have we also supported, or top soil accumulated, which in the longer term are of course much more telling measures.
I am particularly fascinated by the work being done by the Elm Farm Research trust at Wakelyns as they are generating the data, the statistics ad research work that provides the evidence to support the core of the permaculture design theory. Sharing a platform with Dr Wolfe speaking a few weeks ago was very interesting as our talks almost cross referenced each other.. i provided all the bigger picture examples that he had the data and research to support. It is this academic rigor that in many ways has been the missing ingredient in permaculture.. we havent had the time or resources to do the hard research.. not least because first you have to build the farm or project before you can collect the data. This is very fruitful ground to be exploring, and of course the other dynamic is that permaculture is catching up as finally the academic work is being done as the subject matures and reaches ever wider appeal and involvement.
Emma Maxwell, above is an experienced RHS grower who is currently doing her MsC in Organic Horticulture at Schumacher college. SHe is moving moving between a world of research and scientific papers whilst bringing a huge body of practical and observed first hand experiences to the academic world. The edge between bological and horticultural research and small holding and community growing and as well as urban and guerrilla permaculture is a very interesting and potentially fruitful one.