Permaculture and the ‘Nature’ of Farming

It was great to see a whole mix of people, young and old, turn out to view the film night sponsored by Innisfil in Transition. The documentary, A Farm for the Future, introduced the idea of permaculture as an innovative and more sustainable, less energy dependent and less labour intensive way to manage a farm.

It was not just about using less machinery and less fuel. Some of the concepts shown included mixing natural and cultivated areas more closely to nurture soil and manage water, using some trees or shrubs as a livestock feed, structuring the cultivated landscape in successive layers, and making more use of nuts instead of relying on grains. It was generally agreed among those present that efforts should be made to educate more people about the concepts presented in the film – the urgency to be less reliant on fossil fuels for food production, the revival of some ‘old ways’ that have proved to be enduringly wise and the introduction of some new ideas.

I began to think about this in the context of my recent experience with the Innisfil Farmers’ Market, which allowed me to meet some area farmers and visit their farms. I found extremely knowledgeable people with a strong commitment to natural, organic practices, a willingness to try innovative ideas and a multi-generational devotion to preserving a rural way of life in the face of financial, ecological and social challenges.

Permaculture is not a new idea. The term was apparently coined in 1959 from “permanent agriculture” and Canada’s first permaculture farm plan was designed in 1988 near Arthur, ON. Climate change and peak oil have just made the need more urgent. There are many resources available to learn more about permaculture including books, courses, conferences and videos.

I recently heard about a farm in Wellington County, Cherryvale Organic Farm, that implements permaculture principles. Their vision is “to be the ‘farm of the future’: local, organic, and self-energizing. Our aim is to farm with the smallest possible ecological footprint.”  Judging from the web site, a great deal of marketing savvy has gone into making it a regional and web attraction. Is this perhaps the future of farming?

Other ideas are gaining ground as well. Vertical farming combines greenhouse techniques in a multi-storey building with multiple energy producing and resource conserving technologies. A new book, The Vertical Farm, by Dr. Dickson Despommier describes the benefits of this approach:

  • Vertical farming protects crops by growing them indoors, thereby increasing the harvest per acre
  • The shielded crops do not require pesticides and herbicides
  • Recycling water and nutrients in vertical farms conserves both resources
  • Vertical farms growing non-food plants could treat municipal waste water and then return the treated water to cities for a second use
  • It is possible to grown plants in vertical farms year round
  • Vertical farms can be built near population centers for lower transportation costs and fresher produce

“Towns would have to change current municipal ordinances for vertical farming to succeed. Dr. Despommier said that current city ordinances discourage urban framing when they should be encouraging it. He believes that entrepreneurial vertical farmers will open vertical farms once these changes happen.” (Vertical Farming and Its Effect on Bergen County, Oct. 13, 2011)

Can a building be zoned for agriculture? Vertical farming is quickly moving from the stage of a glossy concept image to actual operation with business plans and investment proposals. A few examples have recently made the news:

  • In Berrien County, Michigan an entrepreneur has proposed to create a farm using 15,000 s.f. of a 50,000 s.f. warehouse formerly owned by a plastics company, claiming it would produce 10 to 15 tons of local produce. (Farming Start in Berrien County, WSBT-TV, Oct 4, 2011)
  • In Chicago, a project to convert a former meat packing plant to farm production received a $1.5 million economic development grant. “The Plant will combine some standard urban farming techniques with some new ones specific to this facility to eventually become a net-zero energy vertical farm… Illinois is requiring at least 20 percent of its food purchases come from local sources by 2020… Once fully operational, The Plant aims to divert more than 6,500 tons of food waste from landfills each year to meet all of its heat and power needs, offer low rent and energy costs for it tenants, and give 125 more Chicagoans jobs.”  Details are provided on The Plant website.  (Chicago’s First Vertical Farm Secures $1.5 Million in Grant Funding)
  •  Over in Connecticut, a company called MetroCrops is pitching the idea of converting a derelict, abandoned industrial building into agricultural use. “A grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture [will fund] a six-month test project … at UConn’s Depot Campus in Storrs, where the company hopes to interest investors. From there, Phase II would be a working pilot module, planned for Bridgeport.” (Fresh produce, straight from the factory, Connecticut Post, Oct. 18, 2011)

Is this factory approach a realistic prospect for Innisfil? Could the “employment lands” at highway 400 include a pseudo Holland Marsh producing crops on the upper floors of a multi-story greenhouse farm, with processing and packing on lower floors and shipping on the ground floor?

Or will sustainable small-scale, local, urban farming prevail? With enough interest and support, could there eventually be a permaculture demonstration farm in Innisfil? Could it serve as a resource to educate students about the prospects for a more resilient and sustainable agricultural sector? Or perhaps, students themselves could plan and create a permaculture garden to educate a new generation? If any readers are aware of permaculture farms or projects in Simcoe County, please share with a comment below.