Farm-scale permaculture: how it can work

Matt Dunwell
Monday, 1st January 1996

In 1990, when Matt Dunwell and Jan Davies took over Ragman's Lane Farm in Gloucestershire, England, the Valuer commented that its 50 acres of grassland could only provide half of one salary. The following spring, Bill Mollison gave a permaculture design course on the farm which was well attended by a number of serious students and teachers. It propelled them into the 'murky' world of permaculture - more specifically to try and adapt some of the principles so that they made sense in a commercial setting. Today, vegetables, an orchard, woodland, pigs, chickens, a pond, a blacksmith's forge and a direct selling set-up have all been added to the cattle, sheep and grass. In this article Matt Dunwell introduces the subject of broadscale permaculture and describes why it is different from doing it in your back garden

At Ragman's Lane Farm we have roughly 25 head of cattle, 40 ewes, 3 sows and between 25 to 125 chickens. In addition to Jan and myself, three other full time people work on the land - two employed and one self-employed, and a further self-employed blacksmith working from a forge in the farmyard. The long term plan was always to involve more people, but to expand slowly. In any communal working environment, I think it is important for individuals not only to have their own living space, but also to have time, if possible, to establish their role or niche before other people are involved. Sustainable farming is long term, and it is easy for the social side to implode before any of the long term harvests are gathered.

The Outdoor Larder & The Business

It is important both at the teaching and design stage, to differentiate between home garden permaculture and the use of permaculture in commercial situations. We quite often get visitors who specifically want to see perma-culture in a commercial environment and comment that the examples they have seen are disappointing when seeking ideas on how to set up a business using sustainable principles. This serves to illustrate the difference between what may be an outdoor larder for a family or community, and a system that is capable of growing produce that will support a business.

Home garden permaculture accommodates the principles of permaculture design more readily; the use of diverse cropping patterns, building in relationships between plants and animals, a downpipe here, a jostaberry there. This is the hallmark of a peasant smallholder from where many design ideas originate. Broadscale permaculture in commercial situations tends to be less intricate. It is more compromised by the practicalities of the market. It is difficult to harvest vegetables unless they are planted in blocks or rows - a vista that has caused many permaculture visitors searching for keyhole beds to roll their eyes and foam at the mouth. This does not mean to say that you cannot build in permaculture design on a big scale.

For instance, we have half an acre of comfrey that is planted to catch run-off water and nutrients from our largest field. It is harvested for liquid manure and sold to the Henry Doubleday Research Association. The crop is permanent, soil building, uses a potential pollutant creatively, and makes money - using only a scythe, fork and a rather large plastic barrel. This would be basic permaculture in a home garden with room for improvements. In broadscale systems, however, it is difficult to build in more relationships into the design without it becoming impractical.

Pigs & The Landscape

Visitors who have experience with a backyard pig that is fed garden waste, let out on sunny days and used occasionally to turn a plot of land, may remark when they see our pigs merely grazing the pasture, fed mostly on peas and barley, that this is not permaculture. This is a good example of the compromises of perma-culture in a commercial context. Three sows produce roughly sixty piglets a year. If they are bought on to porkers and baconers, they will get through twelve tons of feed a year. It takes a lot of garden waste to feed that many mouths and, in practise, it is hard to compete with a combine harvester producing a daily ration of pig food for 20p. Try and replace that with home grown perennial fodder and you end up paying yourself 25p an hour.

We are certainly looking at feeding pigs with other fodder; we currently feed comfrey, typha, pond weed, and a large part of their diet is grass. I am also considering harvesting the abundant acorns this year but, before you all break into a cheer, there are problems about actually implementing this. The pigs are in a different field. We could move them under the oak tree but that would involve a fair amount of tractor work to move the arks. It would mean that the pigs (visited twice daily, therefore ideally suited to zone 2 at the most) would be in the farthest field. I'm not sure the crop justifies it. If we try and harvest the acorns seriously it will involve putting a skirt around the tree trunk to keep off the squirrels, and netting the acorn drop - all time-consuming stuff. In reality what will probably happen is that when the birds and squirrels have had their fill, I will come along and rake up the remainder - not ideal, but practical. We would like to use pigs to do a bit of ploughing, but we are on silty clay and an unringed pig (we ring our pigs to stop them rooting up the pasture), left to its own devices, will take the structure out of the soil in less than a week - long before it has turned all the ground and eaten the roots with textbook obedience - leaving it resembling concrete. On our land there are perhaps two weeks of the year when the soil conditions are good for pigs to be turning it. This requires an approach that is soil orientated not pig orientated, i.e. the pigs need to be whipped out as soon as it rains and put somewhere else - OK for a backyarder, but quite tricky with a large number of pigs that suddenly require housing, feeding and watering somewhere else.

Animal Feed & Permaculture Principles

We are particular about the concentrates we buy. We don't use made up pig feed as it contains copper additives and sometimes antibiotics. We don't use compound feeds that have fish meal or soya meal. Soya is often sourced from tropical climates and the use of imported fish meal in agriculture is threatening global fish stocks. Of the total world catch nearly one third is used for feed and fertiliser. We even use conventional feeds grown locally rather than organic feed because the latter travels further due to the smaller number of suppliers and consumers. We are, however, trying to source local organic feed. So these are the compromises of commercial permaculture - they are largely invisible.

Five years into our management of the farm, to the critical eye, it is still a green desert - a misleading term to describe grassland. It is true that a new sowing of Italian Rye Grass will be a monocultural desert, but there are many different pastures and ours is building into a diverse permanent pasture. We are gently eating away at the edges and today the landscape itself is far more diverse, having planted three acres of trees, dug a half acre pond, converted a barn into a teaching space, set up charcoal and cider enterprises, and put an acre of land under vegetables. The vegetable enterprise is run by Mandy Pullen and is now a fully fledged Box System.
Creeping Permaculture

I am more in favour of a creeping permaculture, colonising the edges, than broadscale reduction of pasture. Grassland often has a bad press in permaculture circles. It is true that as a means of producing food for humans it is inefficient compared, for instance, to vegetable crops which can be eaten directly, but it is also a forgiving crop, yielding land for trees or vegetables with very little argument. Pasture is in our culture; our landscape is held down by the relationship between farmer, beast and grassland. Many farms on the east of the country have neglected grassland and as the cow byres are pulled down to make way for grain silos, the topsoil gently slides out into the Wash.

More pertinent to permaculture practitioners is the fact that many acres of good pasture have been 'lost' under poor management by the removal of stock without any clear idea of how a system will be maintained, thus productive sward becomes bramble patch. Yes, it is good biomass, but there is a world of difference between a well thought out design to produce biomass or wilderness, and a thistle and dock patch that is setting seeds across half the county. I can rave about this because I am well versed in such matters. There is a strong argument for keeping the stock on the land until you have a clear idea of what alternative system you will be using. With judicious grazing stock keeps the land sweet; permanent pasture is soil building, and if you are looking for a low maintenance system, it cannot be matched. Our grassland is split into three blocks and kept under a three year rotation - cows, sheep and silage. This is to keep parasites to a minimum, maintain a rich and even sward, and is standard practice for most organic farmers. The pigs fit in where possible, and follow a rough three year rotation. Our meat, veg and fruit are sold direct to customers in Bristol, Gloucester and the Forest of Dean. This is one of the main permaculture principles of the farm, for my money, but again largely invisible to visitors.

Diversity & Food Miles

Selling direct has a fundamental impact on the nature of producing food. It encourages diversity as you are looking for a harvest over a long period. For example, we have planted fruit trees that crop over a four month period - over thirty different varieties of tree. Compare this with a commercial grower who may want to harvest in one hit. Most vegetable varieties are bred to crop in this way. We are more interested in indeterminate varieties that flower and fruit over a longer period. For commercial reasons, this is one of the main characteristics bred out of vegetables, resulting in the loss of so many old varieties that are perfectly respectable vegetables and superior in many respects (they taste good, for instance). If the trend of direct selling grows then maybe... maybe the breeders will start to reprioritise the characteristics they are looking for, or at least stop the haemorrhaging of old varieties from the List. (Some hope I hear you say, but tell me another way that will turn the heads of plant breeders.) Selling direct also confronts the issue of transport. We mainly deliver into Bristol, a journey of 30 miles. This may look excessive, but compared to the distance UK produce travels, let alone imports, it is modest. Customers buying through a box system are encouraged to eat with the season (yes, I know, we are all sick of courgettes!), and this makes an enormous difference to the average 'Food Miles' in our weekly shopping. (Food Miles are simply the distance your food has travelled to reach you with the inevitable use of fossil fuels, e.g. many of our apples travel 14,000 from New Zealand.)

The Wisdom of Experience

Lastly, permaculture is about resources. The biggest resource, and the one most consistently wasted by the permaculture community, is the wisdom of conventional traditional farmers and growers. Our neighbour, Rusty, has been a constant source of information based on a solid thirty years of farming experience. We have our different approaches but there is nothing, but nothing to rival long term experience of dealing with land and animals. Five years into farming at Ragman's Lane Farm, I am still learning from our contractor (who cuts the silage) about our land. He grew up on and around the farm and has unrivalled knowledge about which springs will fail in a dry summer, and where a dam wall might leak due to a streak of yellow clay. The true potential of permaculture cannot be realised until we learn to work with conventional thinking as well as challenging it.

For details of courses being run at Ragman's Lane Farm, contact:
Matt Dunwell
Ragman's Lane Farm
GL17 9PA
Tel: (01594) 860244
Fax: (01594) 860123
Overseas: (int. code + 44 - 1594)