What Does Permaculture Mean to You?

This week’s post comes from Mericos Rhodes, who is a MAIS student at Oregon State University. His M.A. studies combine the fields of Horticulture, Food in Culture and Social Justice, and Public Policy Mericos’s capstone thesis will be comparing the history, practices, philosophies, available research funding, and scientific basis of four agricultural approaches: biodynamic, permaculture, organic, and regenerative farming. Mericos is a farmer, himself. He’s also a deep thinker and eloquent speaker and writer. We think about farming in two very different ways: I am more of a scientist and he is a practioner and an artist. I look forward to our conversations, because I always broaden my perspective after talking with Mericos. He’s truly been a delight to have in the lab. (-Gail-)

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What does the word ‘permaculture’ mean, to you? 

Maybe ‘permaculture’ brings to mind an herb spiral, with rosemary, thyme, and some basil crowning it in summer. Or you may envision intricate systems of swales, which slow down and carry water to ridgelines. Maybe it’s as simple as letting ducks into an orchard. Or maybe ‘permaculture’ means nothing to you, at all!

Permaculture spiral in progress. Photo by James Keller. https://www.flickr.com/photos/semaphoria/2468761366 Creative Commons license.

Well, permaculture is most definitely a thing. Yet it’s a slippery thing, a concept full of emergent behaviors and biodiverse adaptation, unsuited to singular, rigid definition. Permaculture has been growing “from the bottom up,” and its distributed growth takes as many forms as there are watersheds on this planet. Indeed, one of the difficulties of defining permaculture is due to its fundamental principle that no particular crops, tools, or techniques are universally beneficial, for land management and food production. Learn your land. Learn its quirks, its frost pockets, and its native flora and fauna. Let what you learn guide you. Of course, following these principles will lead to vastly different techniques and plantings, across the world’s different ecosystems.

Unlike “conventional” industrial, yield-driven modern agriculture farms, no two permaculture farms will look alike. Even the cultural trappings of permaculture affirm this diversity: instead of “conferences,” permaculture people gather in “convergences,” to share evolving ideas and practices. 

The distributed, evolutionary, informal nature of ‘permaculture’ makes it a nightmare for rigorous research. During my very first conversation with Dr. Langellotto, she brought this up. My application letter had mentioned an interest in applying permaculture to broad-scale agriculture. Just seeing “the P word” made her wary, she said. Luckily, my interest wasn’t a deal breaker, it was an inspiration: Dr. Langellotto suggested that I direct my interdisciplinary research towards defining permaculture in a way that researchers could use to study it.

So part of my inquiry is a simple question with a complex answer: “What is permaculture?”

Along with permaculture, i will also be examining organic and regenerative farming. ‘Organic’ has been codified by the USDA, a process that has directed more funding, research, and legitimacy to that type of farming, but has diluted the whole concept, in the eyes of many elder organic farmers. ‘Regenerative’ is a newfangled, five syllable word that seems to refer to farm practices that actively build soil health, rather than depleting or even simply maintaining it. The word is tossed around more and more, with relative impunity.

Can we create a system that defines, legitimizes, stabilizes, and preserves the spirit of ‘regenerative,’ in a way that ‘organic’ no longer does, for many farmers and ecological eaters? Is that possible for permaculture? That’s the hope, and the motivation for my studies.

If all of this sounds more qualitative than the research that you may expect from a horticulture department, that’s because it is! However, I am loving being a part of the Garden Ecology Lab, and the Horticulture department, because the plant and insect-focused research being undertaken by my peers constantly grounds me. All of these types of agriculture and land management are, after all, just different ways of interacting with plants, animals, and soil. My hope is that my presence here may inspire those who think so beautifully about horticulture and all of its related fields to deeply consider how our work affects the biodiversity of life on this planet, climate change, and the role that our human species can play in healing the Earth.

About Gail Langellotto

I'm a Professor in the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University, where I also coordinate the statewide Master Gardener Program.
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2 Responses to What Does Permaculture Mean to You?

  1. Jane Schneider says:

    I am a home gardener who would like to learn more about Permaculture, Regenerative Farming, Forest Gardening, Restoration and Organic Gardening and how they intersect with each other. I am restoring 10 acres of flood plain and want to incorporate all of the above topics. I read Acres USA magazine and thoroughly enjoy the Garden Ecology Lab articles.

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