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Awareness and Collaboration in Sustainable Agriculture

Introduction

As of the time of this study in 2007, the neglected field of sustainable agriculture is actually quite small. Like any other field it has its specialties and its factions, its champions and adversaries. Some practitioners and theoreticians advocate a hi-tech approach built on our ever-progressing technologies, while others inveigh against this philosophy on the grounds that such methods are unnecessary and wasteful. In the latter variety, some advocate a garden in the image of a forest, while others urge one to plant in the image of a meadow. Almost all published practitioners dwell in much depth on the interrelation of organisms in the living, producing land, between roots of bulb and the twigs of a tree, between the flower and the thrush, the hornet and the caterpillar. Strangely, though, in the literature of these various methods of the very small field sustainable agriculture, they rarely seem to mention each other.

At least so far as my research has taken me on the matter, I have found paltry references in one manual by one method founder of any different manual or method creator, either in credit for ideas borrowed and reshaped, collaboration, or even merely the acknowledgment of another’s existence. Such a dearth of references is shocking when one considers how small a world sustainable agriculture is, and how much smaller at the low tech end of the spectrum.

It is my intention to perform a small study of this population via interviews with three individuals in three different areas of sustainable agriculture. So as to be better prepared for understanding their perspectives and the basis for their answers, I shall investigate three methods I have already studied and have theoretical knowledge of. These methods are as follows:

Permaculture

Founded by Bill Mollison. Possibly the most famous and widely-used sustainable agriculture method, I’ve heard permaculture described by several metaphors that it is not a method, but a system of design. Among these are “it’s a toolbox, not a tool” and “it’s a wardrobe, not a coat hanger.” Permaculture takes sustainable agriculture methods and designs them in an efficient, ecologically diverse shape. One of the first rules of this design is that what you need everyday in terms of food and resources should be grown closest to your habitation, and what you need the least frequently should be farthest, with varying degrees between. Permaculture also follows the philosophy of biomimicry to find the most efficient designs for crop locations and groupings, water collection, and housing location.

Biointensive Gardening

Founded by John Jeavons. Biointensive gardening operates under the philosophy that farmers should use the least amount of land, water, fertilizer possible in the interest of conserving existing resources under the strain of growing human population density. It heavily emphasizes not growing crops, but soil and calories. That is, building soil is essential to continued food production on the planet, and we need quality, healthy soil to grow nutritious crops. Biointensive utilizes long, narrow beds with closely spaced plants to provide micro-climate and protection from pests.

Earthship Biotecture

Founded by Michael Reynolds. While Earthship Biotecture is primarily an architectural pursuit of building self-sustaining homes out of recycled materials, one of the primary aspects of an Earthship is its function as a year-round greenhouse to grow food. Food can grown in the botanical cells (planters) aligned against the south-facing glazed front, as part of a mini-wetlands approach to a contained grey-water purification system. While this aspect is often mentioned in Reynold’s manuals, he gives few details and often cites personal anecdotal evidence that plants simply grow fantastically due to the nutrients in the grey water being filtered through the planters.

By email I contacted or was recommended to three individuals in these fields for my interviews:

Permaculture: Geoff Lawton, Director of the Permaculture Research Institute in Australia

Biointensive Gardening: Steve Moore from the Center for Environmental Farming Systems of the North Carolina State University

Earthship Biotecture: Jonah Reynolds, Earthship inhabitant, educator, and builder

For the purpose of giving a rough understanding of the interviewees’ broader cultural backgrounds, I feel it is worth pointing out that all three were white males, with high levels of education, and that one man was Australian and the other two American. All three men had experience in their fields of almost 30 years.

Methodology

I chose to do semi-structured personal interviews because I wanted to learn two kinds of information: answers to questions I already had in mind before contacting the interviewees, and tangential information that would arise when interviewees answers provoked new questions. I performed the interviews via Skype 2.0.0.6, an internet telephone service, and recorded the conversations with Call Recorder 2.2.1 from Ecamm Network. All interviews were recorded and published with permission, written and/or verbal. Any content which the interviewees wished to be edited from the recording was removed before publication. All calls were made from Skype to landlines in Australia and the United States. I made all the calls from Hangzhou, China, to New South Wales, Australia; Los Angeles, United States; and South Carolina, United States, respectively. Each interview lasted from 30 to 45 minutes.

My basic format for the interviews was as follows:

After brief dialogues via email or on Skype as we began the interview, I asked all the interviewees to first describe their background in their particular field. If they wished I described in more detail my ethnographic project for which I was doing the interviews. I then asked them if they were aware of the other two sustainable agriculture methods I was examining, and if they were, to what degree. Then I inquired if they had ever used the other methods, if they communicated with practitioners of the other methods, and how they felt about the degree of communication and collaboration in the sphere of sustainable agriculture. From this point the interview usually branched off in other directions, and I asked new questions inspired by the interviewees’ answers. Though I was recording the interviews, I kept notes during the course of the conversation. I then let each interview “sit” while I ruminated on it, added those thoughts to my notes, and listened to the interviews again.

Though this is a section on methodology, I find it an appropriate place to disclose my biases in the project, both my opinions and the different frames of mind in which I interviewed each person. Firstly, I began the project with an interested general knowledge of all three fields, and as a proponent for all three methods in combination. I also entered the interview process with a rough hypothesis that practitioners of sustainable agriculture may in fact know very little about each other.

Interviews

Permaculture

Geoff Lawton is the Director of the Permaculture Research Institute in Australia, and has worked with permaculture for 27 years. He has taught permaculture courses in 26 countries, and I found him to be incredibly well informed about global sustainable agriculture systems and the technical details of practicing them. When I asked Geoff if he knew of biointensive gardening and Earthship biotecture, he said he did, and was familiar with both in various capacities. He said he had heard of biointensive gardening when it first started, and sometimes used the method in his permaculture design, and he had done consulting for people with Earthships on their properties. He believed both to be very effective systems if used in appropriate locales, but he hastened to point out that permaculture is not a system of method, but a system of design, of which sustainable agriculture is only a part.

He illustrated his point with this metaphor: “Biodynamics, and biointensive agriculture, and gardening, are like coat hangers in a wardrobe. They hang up the information just the way that coat hangers hang up different types of clothes. We don’t design the coat hangers, we design the wardrobe.”

He stressed that many different methods of sustainable agriculture, and related sustainable tools, worked, but that they must be used appropriately according to climate and landscape. For instance, he said one wouldn’t use Hawaii’s volcanic slope agriculture anywhere where there were no 64 degree slopes.

When I asked Geoff his opinion of the rate of communication between practitioners of sustainable agriculture, he said he thought there was a lot of communication with the advent of the internet. He feels that sustainable agriculture is “growing exponentially,” to the point where his research center and its international siblings can’t keep up with the inquiries being made due to lack of funding. He seemed to feel that the globalization of information was helping spread sustainable agriculture around the globe. Describing a class he taught in Tanzenia, Geoff said that the Australians, Austrian, and Americans who flew to Africa just to take the course spread interest about permaculture in the local people; if Westerners flew in just to take it, they felt it must be important. I asked if there was much communication between permaculture centers on different continents, and he said yes, but only when they needed to.

A theme I found very interesting in Geoff’s answers was that he advocated communication through demonstration and leading by example as opposed to what he called “talk-fests.” He also had a lot of hope for multimedia such as video to help people communicate about sustainable agriculture and permaculture.

Another very interesting point that came up was academia’s role in communication about sustainable agriculture. I asked Geoff if he thought academia could help spread information about sustainable agriculture since that was what I was doing through this study, and to my surprise, he said no.

“I think it would probably slow it down. … Sustainable systems mean you have to have interactive diversity in the disciplines, it’s more about the connectivity between disciplines than the disciplines themselves.”

Academia, he said, forces information into specific disciplines, with little communication between disciplines. There were, however, some exceptions, such as university programs in the United States like Tulane University in Louisiana, and Wisconsin and Minneapolis where professors had taken permaculture design courses and were disseminating the information through the formal education system.

Earthship Biotecture

In my second interview I spoke to Jonah Reynolds, son of Earthship developer Michael Reynolds, who works in the Earthship organization with design, building, and education not only in the United States, but around the world. At the beginning of this interview I spent several minutes satisfying my curiosity about what Jonah thought of the food-growing potential of an Earthship, and learned that a new Earthship model named the Phoenix is under construction, newly redesigned to better explore maximum indoor food-growing potential. Jonah said that this Earthship design utilizes two greenhouse corridors along the sunward face rather than just one, and can provide most of the food for a family of three.

Next I began asking him about biointensive gardening. He replied that he was unaware of the method, so I described its basic principles to him. Jonah said that while he would be willing to utilize any method that aligned with Earthship principals, such as conserving water and growing food responsibly, the Earthship organization would probably never advocate a method for official integration into an Earthship. He said this was because those choices needed to be left to the individual or family who lived in the Earthship, but he did say they might suggest methods if they integrated particularly well with Earthships. In a similar vein to Jeff Lawton he stressed that an Earthship is but one of many tools people can use for living sustainable. He felt that it was his and the Earthship organization’s duty to making living sustainable as easy as possible. One thing he said on the subject I found particularly interesting.

“It shouldn’t be the responsibility of the inhabitant to live right. … It’s up to us as architects and designers to provide a building, residential or commercial, that takes care of people and the planet.”

In this way he said he believed an Earthship is a transitional technology that will help make sustainable living more acceptable to the mainstream. “They don’t have to think,” he said, “all they have to do is live.”

When I asked what he felt about the level of communication between practitioners of sustainable agriculture, Jonah said he believed the “industry of sustainability” as a whole suffers from fragmentation. Some people are in it for profit, others are operating by conventional methods that don’t suit the nature of their practices, and others overspecialize and over-technologize their methods.

He went on to say that he believes the way information about sustainable agriculture and other sustainable practices will spread is by the convenience of standardization. He believes sustainable methods need to be “cookie cutter,” easy enough that anybody can do them, and avoid being overly technical. Towards that end, he believes the Earthship organization and other sustainable living institutions should be in the business of putting themselves out of business. “We need to get to a place where we’re not the alternative, we’re the conventional.” He said that the general population needs to tell designers what they want, and the designers will make it.

Speaking with Jonah confirmed for me that Earthships are on the fringe of the sustainable agriculture movement, obviously since they were building an entire indoor system that included climate control, water catchment and recycling, and power generation. While he says the Earthship organization has collaborated with the permaculture institute in northern California and other sustainable agriculture or plant specialists over the past 30 years, their priorities for the botanical cells have always been in the area of water treatment. They are designed and planted according to how well they will process sewage. Plant selection depends on how well plants can absorb water and break down organic particles. Food growing is an extra benefit. He said that he actually sees an Earthship as an indoor version of permaculture, that is, a design system for meeting all the basic human needs.

Biointensive Gardening

I conducted my final interview with Steve Moore of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems of the North Carolina State University. He has been working in sustainable agriculture for 30 years, originally using horses to work his land, and became involved with biointensive gardening which utilizes more direct human attention.

Steve knew about both permaculture and Earthships, and said that he believed that a permaculture system incorporating an Earthship with outdoor biointensive gardening growing the bulk of the crop would be a good combination of sustainable agriculture tools. He expressed that he felt people outside of biointensive gardening viewed it as very peripheral, though, due in large part to its low-tech methods and the fact that since biointensive intends to feed the growers, there is no huge profit margin to exploit.

Steve told me many of his insights about communication in the world of sustainable agriculture, and between sustainable agriculture and the mainstream. He felt that many people turned away from sustainable agriculture because they were offended by the “doom and gloom” reasoning of peak food, peak oil, and water shortages. He explained that he thought there was quite a bit of communication between practitioners of sustainable agriculture, but because perspectives can clash, that criticizing each other’s methods was detrimental to what communication there was. Steve feels that sustainable agriculture needs a unified camp, both for progress and for acceptance by the academic community.

Working in North Carolina State University, Steve said that the academic community often finds sustainable agriculture unreasonable if it results in no profit. Later he expounded that, “You know, the academic community doesn’t accept anything unless it’s four-block replicated design that’s had peer review. Then they will be willing to take a look at it.”

Thinking of Geoff Lawton’s comments about academia slowing down the progress of sustainable agriculture, I asked Steve if he thought that academia would compartmentalize the field too much to be viable.

“Agriculture is really culture, culture of food,” he said in response, “and I think that there needs to be a broader political dialogue and vision of what a sustainable food system should be in its broadest, simplest context. … And I think until that happens things are compartmentalized and fragmented. It makes for duplicated work and slow go.” When I asked him what would help spread information about sustainable agriculture and help build the unified front he feels the field needs, he went on, “It was the consumer that drove organic farming to what it is today, coupled with the farmers of course. We need to cultivate those buyers, those consumers, that they’ll push us to really define sustainable agriculture, just like organic was defined in 1992 with the National Organic Standard Board.” He added that the people needed to demonstrate that they wanted sustainable agriculture in order for the government to implement such a standardization.

Despite the clashes in perspectives and over-criticizing Steve saw in sustainable agriculture, he said that he actually feels that communication between practitioners is quite good.

“Farmers adopt practices that other farmers have. So I think there’s good communication in among practicing farmers of sustainable ag. Agriculture has always been unique. I mean, what business can you go to where people will open their door and say, “Look at my crops, this is how I grow ‘em.”

Conclusion

As often happens in research, I found my original hypothesis disproved. Awareness and collaboration between methods, it seems, are not an issue, they are a given. Through the course of my interviews I found myself using the terms “awareness” and “collaboration” less and less, and instead asking the interviewees about communication within the sustainable agriculture sphere. Their opinions were different, but I do not believe contradictory. They each had fascinating themes within their answers that shed some light on how each of them defined communication in their field. Geoff Lawton prefers a pragmatic communication of demonstration and example, while Jonah Reynolds outlined an abstract communication within the capitalist paradigm of supply and demand with pragmatic reasoning. Steve Moore’s view of communication hinged on common vision and unification, and on communication within the American democratic context between people and their leaders.

Though I only had the opportunity to interview three people in this field, I believe from the broadness of their sustainable agriculture backgrounds I can draw a rough sketch of the state of communication within the sphere of sustainable agriculture.

In sustainable agriculture, unlike many other crafts, there are no craft secrets. Not only are people willing to tell you their ideas, they’re eager to. The entire endeavor would be self-defeating otherwise. While many have a preferred method, in my three interviews I did not find the attitude I feared I might, that “our method is the best and only method.” Instead, all three men independently agreed that all these methods work well and can work together well too, even if they had personal preferences for their particular philosophy.

On the issue of improving communication within the practice of sustainable agriculture, I found an interesting theme in all three interviews. All three men touched upon the issue of standardization for ease the spread of information. Geoff Lawton spoke of it in the context of the permaculture design class, a 72 hour course that teaches you how to design for any a climate. Jonah Reynolds spoke of it in terms of “cookie cutter” blueprints that anybody can understand and build. Steve Moore addressed the issue of a standardized idea and vision of what sustainable agriculture is.

So communication within the field is not as smooth and unified as it could be, and there is sometimes conflict, but ultimately everyone in each method wants the same thing: a sustainable human existence on our planet. They’ve simply taken different approaches to reach it.

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