An Introduction to Permaculture in Nebraska, Part 2

In the land of beef, corn, soybeans, the High Plains aquifer and center pivot irrigation, Nebraska has enormous opportunities for the Permaculture practioner to stand out and make healthy impacts throughout our urban and rural communities. It isn’t difficult to dream the way J Sterling Morton did 100 years ago and visualize the future of Nebraska’s landscapes. Mr. Morton’s dream of expansive orchards were not realized for the longterm, however we still have the luxury to imagine the Nebraskan agricultural future from here and now using intelligent design on our landscapes. 

In this second chapter, I hope to discuss some of the ways Permaculture ideology can help a Nebraskan’s day-to-day routine be more earth-friendly by making conscious decisions that reduce our individual footprint. The first ethic of Permaculture asks us to take care of the earth. As a result of our reverence for Mother Nature, all of earth’s living systems will flourish. My favorite Permaculture quote comes from deceased Japanese Permaculture superstar Masanobu Fukuoka. He states that the “ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but rather the cultivation and perfection of human beings”. While the most popular visions of permaculture specifically address the sustainable procurement of food, there is much needed discussion on the entire production/consumption cycle.

In addition to resilience and passive abundance, another important Permaculture theme is ‘cycles’. The production/consumption (P/C) cycle is the most important expression of permaculture within a society. According to Permaculture principles, the P/C cycle of our individual lives should focus on the concept of a “closed loop”. The closed loop refers to the P/C cycle in the context of your residence, your community and your region. The most ideal Permaculture inhabitation would produce its own energy, food, clothes, compost, materials and shelter while producing no waste.

The second ethic of permaculture asks us to take care of people; those close to us. Much of a permaculture design system focuses on creating “abundance through passive means”. This means we are creating perennial edible landscapes that produce food with minimal maintenance and inputs. This approach could best be described as creating ‘forage’ systems with varying seasonal harvest times. If you have ever harvested apples from an apple tree, you may realize that this windfall of fruit is a gift to a farmer who really only worries about ‘harvesting’. As we create systems that create abundance for our home and community, we realize that so much ‘production’ depends on a healthy supply of inputs or amendments initially to create healthy soil conditions. Over time, the living permaculture system will return nutrition back to the soil seasonally.

Additionally, even if a family’s discarded waste cannot be reused or upcycled, at least it can become soil. The third ethic of Permaculture allows us to come full circle. Instead of ‘throwing things away’, the excess time, materials, money and energy created in our collective systems of abundance place people in a position to help those less fortunate. In addition to returning much needed nutrition back to our soils, we must consciously accommodate the needs of all people without wasting that which can be reused or upcycled. Ultimately, the soil is the most delicate piece of our global design puzzle and the soil must be built up for our children and grandchildren to grow food effortlessly.

After all three ethics are followed, we will achieve ‘sustainability’, Permaculture-style. However, Permaculture specifically likes to achieve this sustainability with a little help from Mother Nature.

The level of sustainability inherent in Permaculture can best be described as the sweet spot where nature provides more assistance for your life (food, energy, heat, shelter, clean water, cooling, community), without needing some form of elaborate mechanization or complicated maintenance process. If there is a natural process or design consideration that performs a task better(more ecologically-conscious) than the man-made counterpart, then that is a permaculture solution.

Permaculture can be described as the ‘bridge’ that represents the ‘harmony’ between people and nature. Many past cultures have no archaeological footprint other than the living ecology that now hints at intelligent design through some form of terraforming like tree patterns, geoglyphs and overlapping biospheres. I fear those who recall 20th & 21st century homo sapiens will describe our landfills, pavement, slums, golf courses, climate change, plastic, loss of arable soil and the dramatic reduction of biodiversity most prominently as our terraforming legacy. 

One should not conclude that Permaculture is anti-technology. Permaculture is only interested in the best-designed technologies. Permaculture principles endorse technology that has 1)a minimal exotic resource footprint 2)provides a practical utility given the longevity of the product design, 3)contributes to a larger design objective of stacking functions and 4)elevates the living standards of many people at the same time.

The technology described in this Permaculture utopia should sound somewhat like a Swiss Family Robinson story crossed with 18th century Native American society crossed with the movie Mosquito Coast and then crossed with the writings of Jules Verne. This is really the point. The future permaculture society has already been imagined through the eyes of science-fiction authors and social science professors. Egalitarian societies that consume resources slower than their ability to replenish the soil have always been imagined as the most enlightened of all societies. Furthermore, progression of mankind should be measured in our compassion toward the living world, not toward some technology arms race that allow us to have larger homes, eat globally exotic foods and disengage from society.

Many parts of the world adhere to different levels of sustainability. However, there is no society in modern times that has confronted sustainability as a matter of survival more than Cuba. As a modernizing island society once dependent on cheap oil, Cuba lost its’ Soviet Union-subsidized oil imports in the early 1990’s. Accustomed to the luxuries that a cheap oil nation enjoys, practically overnight, the people of Cuba had to learn how to run society without oil. It took a few years, but there were enough people still alive who could pass on traditional agrarian and culinary methods that strictly follow the seasonal cycles. Consequently, global volatility caused by energy markets and climate change has motivated many societies around the world to embrace Permaculture as THE way to bring productivity back to our local communities.

As the world confronts the prospect of economic and climate volatility, many leaders of Permaculture are traveling the world spreading the great ideas to those people living in sustenance farming situations so they can benefit from low-tech soil/moisture accumulation design systems. Our ecosystems that surround our farming systems need to be ecologically healthy. The resilience of our food production systems in the face of any volatility is only as stable as the natural systems that support our existence on this earth. Nebraska is mostly insulated from much of the world’s volatility. However, as the world realizes the effects of our global industrial age, there is no region in the world that should not be bracing themselves for uncertain times.