Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Hippies are lots of fun, as long as they are not involved in commerce. Phil MacNutt.

Another well-known quote claims, “If you can remember the 60s, you weren’t really there.” Well, I was around in the 60s and I can’t remember much, does that make me a bona fide hippy then? No: in fact, as I was born in 1961 the reason I can’t remember most of the sixties is down to my tender age at the time and not to the regular consumption of hallucinatory pharmaceuticals! So why the talk of hippies? Is permaculture a harmless hobby for "weirdy-beardy-sandals wearers", or something practical and replicable on a farm scale? Who better to ask than Val, a smallholder with over 20 years experience, who currently has a flock of 50 sheep and an inventive wool business and has just been on a full permaculture design course run by three vegetarian/vegans. Here, unexpurgated, is her take on permaculture and her course.

I think the course at Monkton was actually very good in some ways and very bad in others…..what do I mean? Well for those who have/had no practical experience of farming, smallholding or even growing their own in their garden and who have not really considered what impact their lifestyle choices might be having on the planet it was a dynamic life changing experience and several of the participants on the course have radically altered their lifestyle as a result. Others were attending the course because they knew something about them and their attitudes had to change and were at a crossroads in their lives and wanted to DO something!

On reflection it probably even made me evaluate exactly why I do what I do and wonder if I could use permaculture design to sort 'the wheat from the chaff' of life and focus more closely on why I do what I do! It also helped to remind me why I am a WWOOF
(organisation placing volunteers on organic farms) host and why I run courses: basically to introduce sustainable living to those who haven’t really come across the idea.

From the point of view of someone who already works the land and farms the course was a bit of a disappointment. I am not in a position of having a perfect plot of land at my disposal and neither are many farmers so zoneing
(one of permaculture’s many theories) has to be very subjective! Also there was I felt on the course the same lack of understanding of small farmers that I interestingly encountered from a young 'oik' working for the Soil Association, (organisation that certifies organic status in the UK) which is that farming is divided in two: on one hand there are the permaculturists and their little plots or the organic farmers and on the other there are intensive monoculturist barons ripping up hedges, ruining the countryside etc! In reality this is total tosh! Most ordinary smallholders and small farmers live on a very low budget, with low inputs of anything artificial, cannot afford fertilisers etc and do what they have always done for many years but without a label! They produce good local produce and suffer at the hands of the middlemen etc and cannot afford to compete with organic farmers, nor can they afford the outlay to officially go organic but probably are as organic as the next bloke!

I felt the course really attacked farmers in general, which wasn’t good as the other participants could have been easily swayed to the view that all farmers are bad! I must have made the instructors lives difficult (I didn't mean to) by keeping on putting in my bit, e.g., that in zoning you could not possibly put cows up on the hill beyond the woodland! That it was important not to destroy delicate habitat to create something else. That if a chicken tractor was used hedges would NOT keep hens in and foxes out! And what DO you do with hens that are too old to lay if you are a veggie! I also needed hard case studies of established permaculture working on plots larger that 3-4 acres in the UK, not just Nepal(!) but with not much luck other than the wonderful Ourganix near Bridport.

All in all I think its great on a small and personal level but there needs to be more down to earth teaching of permaculture principles to farmers by farmers as they are not impressed by the “weirdy-beardy-sandals” image! This must be addressed if permaculture is to be achievable which it really has to be!

Thanks Val. I know that there are a few farmers or smallholders that read this—Steven and Joan, Pip and Janet, Monica and others—so please post a comment and let us know your views. (Click on the link for Val’s own blog).