“Agriculture is the explosive topic of the 21st century.”
—Delphine Darmon, Founder and CEO at Demain N’attend Pas (Tomorrow Doesn’t Wait)
In the 20th century, industrial farming revolutionized food production by focusing on efficiency and maximizing yields. “Between 1960 and 2015, agricultural production more than tripled, resulting in an abundance of low-cost fare and averting global food shortages,” says the UN Environmental Programme.
However, while this modern approach is successfully feeding a part of the world, it has brought unintended environmental consequences, such as disrupting soil microbial ecosystems with synthetic fertilizers and harming beneficial pollinators with pesticides. Monoculture farming has led to decreased fertility of the soil, and over-tilling leaves soil vulnerable to erosion.
Permaculture: A Sustainable and Profitable Alternative
Many proposed alternatives to industrial agriculture have been tried, but often these do not produce the yields needed to feed the general population. Surprisingly, permaculture, short for “permanent agriculture,” on the other hand, can provide high yields while protecting and regenerating the soil and natural ecosystems.
Permaculture is not just a set of agricultural techniques but a philosophy of working with nature. It was developed in the 1970s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who saw the land deteriorating around them. They were inspired by the Aboriginal Tasmanian reverence for and understanding of nature.
They developed permaculture by cultivating different, interdependent, food-producing plants that mimic the complexity and variety of natural ecosystems. The results are abundant harvests while creating biodiversity to regenerate the soil and build resilience against pests, diseases, and adverse weather events. This approach includes creating “food forests,” i.e., integrating productive trees and shrubs of different heights into farming systems to shelter crops, reduce flooding, and add fruits and nuts to the farm’s yield.
Permaculture’s holistic approach encompasses farm design, energy efficiency, the use of renewable resources, the circular use of waste, and water conservation through capturing and storing water within the landscape.
Permaculture’s holistic approach encompasses farm design, energy efficiency, the use of renewable resources, the circular use of waste—feeding animals with vegetable waste and enriching the soil with manure—and water conservation through capturing and storing water within the landscape. Its designs are based on sunlight, wind, and water patterns, and the land’s topography. Its principles can be applied in varied settings, from deserts to rainforests and even urban environments (such as community and rooftop gardens).
Permaculture philosophy is both revolutionary and pragmatic: It creates abundance while regenerating soil in the process and allowing farmers to assess what does and does not work in time to devise changes accordingly.
Case Study 1: La Ferme du Bec Hellouin in Normandy, France
An exceptional example of the transformative powers of permaculture is La Ferme du Bec Hellouin (the Bec-Hellouin Farm), founded in 2003 by Charles Hervé-Gruyer and Perrine Bulgheroni.
The farm began as a large family kitchen garden to provide fresh food for their family. Hervé-Gruyer was originally a navigator and ecology teacher on his marine boat-school (Fleur de Lampaul); Bulgheroni was an international lawyer and an advocate for the underprivileged.
The couple had no experience in farming. Their discovery of permaculture in 2008 marked a shift in their farming approach, turning their humble garden into the pioneering agricultural success that has attracted media attention and meticulous study by scientists, and earned them awards, such as the Right Livelihood Award.
The design for their farm blends tradition and innovation, drawing inspiration from 19th-century Parisian market gardeners, Amazonian tribespeople, and other indigenous people Hervé-Gruyer visited in his travels, and Asian Effective Microorganisms (EM) practices.
Key features of the Bec-Hellouin farm include:
1. Low-till agriculture practices.
This avoids erosion and preserves soil composition and the vital, microbial life within it. It has been proven that on the farm “[t]he concentrations of total OC (organic carbon) and nitrogen (N) in bulk soils were higher under permaculture practices, due to significant inputs of manure and compost, resulting in higher concentrations of the bioavailable nutrients Ca (calcium), Mg (magnesium), K (potassium), and P (phosphorus).”
2. Food Forest.
Productive trees and shrubs are integrated with crops, providing a diverse habitat for wildlife and benefits such as shade, wind protection, natural composting, and nutrient cycling. According to Hervé-Gruyer (as quoted in https://www.choosenormandy.com): “[S]everal studies … show that we have lots more earthworms, wild bees, birds and more … We’ve counted some forty species of wild bees and some sixty species of birds, including rare and endangered species, that are nesting on our farm.”
3. Diverse Crop Selection.
Over 380 varieties of fruits, vegetables, cereals, herbs, and medicinal plants are grown.
4. Water Management.
Natural water sources are utilized efficiently, with systems in place for rainwater harvesting, storage, and irrigation.
The farm's productivity has stunned researchers. Despite its small scale, it produces a ten times higher yield than mechanized organic farming. The farm operates on the principle of intensive, hand-managed, densely arranged, small-scale agriculture and uses draft animals instead of machinery.
Despite its small scale, [the farm] produces a ten times higher yield than mechanized organic farming.
The farm covers nearly fifty acres. Their approach allows them to cultivate a substantial variety of produce on only 0.9 acres of land and supply up to 100 vegetable boxes per week to local customers and high-end restaurants. They also graze animals, grow trees on their land, and have ponds that contribute to the beauty and magic of the site.
Between 2011 and 2015, INRA (the French National Institute of Agricultural Research) and AgroParisTech conducted a research program to study the farm's methods. The study concluded that small-scale farming, conducted largely by hand, is not only sustainable but also highly productive. As a result, according to the French Ministry of Agriculture, 80% of French organic market-gardening farming projects now follow the Bec-Hellouin model.
Hervé-Gruyer and Bulgheroni share their knowledge and experience via the Bec-Hellouin Farm permaculture school. They also teach seminars at the Université Domaine du Possible, a farm school which is dedicated to spreading permaculture to large farms. Hervé-Gruyer, with his daughter Lila, is now producing a series of Permaculture guidebooks called Resiliences. Bulgheroni is planning a large permaculture farm for city-dwellers who want to return to the land and for Romani people. She is also setting up an adopt-a-farm program for corporations. Their book, Living with the Earth, Volume 1: A Manual for Market Gardeners—Permaculture, Ecoculture: Inspired by Nature was just published in Great Britain and the USA.
Case Study 2: The Permaculture Literacy Program in the Philippines
An example of grassroots organizing to establish a permaculture educational program is Merly Barlaan's building a permaculture training center in Carmen, Bohol, a rural area in the Philippines, where she grew up.
After working for fifteen years in the UN office of the non-profit NGO Women’s Federation for World Peace International (WFWPI), Barlaan saw the gap between the UN’s idealistic agenda and the lack of progress in local communities. She returned to the Philippines in 2012 to work on the grassroots level in her predominantly agricultural hometown area.
Her initial venture into organic farming was met with challenges, such as high costs and low yields, which led her to research better alternatives. In 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she discovered permaculture and found Raoul Amores, head of the Regenesis Project and an experienced permaculture practitioner, in Bohol.
Creating a Permaculture Training Center
In 2021, Barlaan donated a hectare (2.4 acres) of land and raised funds from private donors, including support from WFWPI, for the building of a permaculture training center in Carmen. With permaculture teacher Amores and his daughter, Yani Amores-Dutta, she established the Permaculture Literacy Program to educate and certify individuals in permaculture, teaching the skills to implement sustainable and high-yield farming practices and to become permaculture educators themselves.
The training center’s inaugural cohort of forty-four young people graduated in December 2022. They have since gone on to share permaculture principles and practices with their families, communities, and local government leaders, which is significant since many young people in the Philippines tend to leave farming.
Barlaan and her team, including project co-managers Christine Rose Bulayo and Dale Cyril Dejecacion, are in the process of helping transform the entire district of Bohol into a permaculture hub in the Philippines. They envision permaculture not just being a farming practice but a way of life, practiced in every backyard garden and even on balconies.
Barlaan and her team are in the process of helping transform the entire district of Bohol into a permaculture hub in the Philippines.
Their ambitious goal is to see permaculture principles integrated into the entire Philippine educational system, promoting sustainable living from an early age through high school, college, and even master’s degree programs. (In fact, the University of the Philippines Open University is already offering a continuing education course on Permaculture Systems Design.)
Barlaan's approach to teaching permaculture combines traditional Filipino farming knowledge with modern scientific methods. It paves the way for young people to gain the knowledge and inspiration to continue working on their families’ farms, even if only part-time, thus reducing migration away from rural areas and leading to a more ecologically harmonious and prosperous rural development.
Hervé-Gruyer, Bulgheroni, and Barlaan are timely role models who show that individual actions at the local level can influence politicians and policies. Permaculture reconciles human needs with the needs of the environment, creating systems that are not only productive but also regenerative.
*Marion W. Miller is a French bilingual researcher, writer, and editor now residing in Northern Virginia. She has master’s degrees in Business and Economics and International Economics and Economic Development. She has also ministered for community development and world peace. As a grandmother of eight, she cares deeply about environmental stewardship and preserving natural wonders for future generations. She has traveled to many natural sites in countries around the world and now retreats to the gorgeous Shenandoah Valley National Park area whenever time allows.