Is permaculture a real solution to agricultural distress?

Permaculture farming, which spread across the West as part of the hippie movement, is fast gaining ground in India among subsistence farmers and those who want to grow their food

By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi, Meenakshi Sushma, Shreeshan Venkatesh
Last Updated: Friday 24 November 2017 | 11:13:05 AM

New civilisation, primitive wisdom

Is it a hype or the ultimate answer to farmers' plight, food shortage, and environmental challenges posed by industrial agriculture? An analysis by Down To Earth.

At first glance, the farm resembles a hurriedly laid out landscape where unintended vegeta tion and overgrowth have set in following a long neglect. Located in Telangana’s Pasta pur village, the farm has stretches of bushes interspersed with trees of custard apple, passion fruit, teak, almond, gooseberry, moringa and so on; the tree trunks tightly embraced by twisted vines and branches adorned with beehives along with fruits. Poultry birds play on a bullock cart as rabbits peep through fronds of the thick undergrowth. At places, safflower, mustard, lentils, flaxseed, onions and tomatoes grow in smaller patches in perfect harmony with weeds. In one corner, a few tree stumps are being fed on by termites. But Narsanna Koppula, who runs the farm, says an order underlies this randomness, and that’s the order of permaculture.

The farm, spread over 10 acres (a little more than 2 hectares), is home to at least 100 varieties of plants. They are all being grown keeping in mind a design that facilitates coexistence of competing species and perennials with seasonals, and ensures that the farm makes the most of the ecosystem services, such as sunlight, wind and rain, says Koppula, who also spreads awareness about permaculture under non-profit Aranya Agricultural Alternatives. For example, he adds, all tall trees on the farm are confined to the western and southern boundaries and the eastern side has been left open. This ensures that the other plants and crops remain protected from the harsh afternoon heat and strong winds while benefitting from the morning sun.

At places, species like teak, tamarind, black plum and casuarina have been planted on the west in rows so that they act as windbreaks and guard the semi-arid soil against erosion. The field of sorghum is interspersed with nitrogen-fixing crops such as safflower, lentils and chickpea so that they fulfil the nitrogen requirement of sorghum plants. They act as green manure and ensure soil fertility. Even weeds are allowed to thrive as they can be used as mulch. Local grasses, which grow in abundance, are used for thatching and as fodder. “At the heart of permaculture lies the idea that a plantation should offer multiple benefits, right from food and fodder to timber and fertiliser,” says Koppula, who has been practising permaculture for 30 years.

Narsanna and Padma Koppula grow enough on their 0.5 ha farm in Telangana to last the whole year

The concept is not new. It was first prop-agated in the 1970s by Australian biologist Bill Mollison. It gained acceptance in India after several enthusiasts were influenced by Mollison during his visit to the country in 1987. According to Mollison, permaculture is the “conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.” Mollison passed away in September 2016. By then his idea had grown into a movement and spread to 140 countries. Today, more than 3 million people across the globe practise permaculture, and claim that the novel farming system is the only way to make agriculture sustainable in the face of extreme weather events such as recurrent droughts and unprecedented floods, land and soil degradation due to excessive use of synthetic fertilisers and manure, and a growing population.

A farm for the future?

In 2009, the UN gave a call to scale up food production to feed the global population, which is estimated to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, with 70 per cent of them living in urban areas. In such a scenario, Koppula says, it is imperative to produce more with less resource, build resilience among small farmers, improve soil health and encourage people to grow their own food. And all these can be achieved through permaculture, he says, adding that the food grown on 0.5 ha of the Aranya farm is sufficient to meet the year-round needs of his family of four.

“The fear that there may not be enough food to eat by 2050 is a conspiracy devised by international organisations and governments. Our conventional agriculture system focuses only on a few market-driven crops. Over the period, consumers too have restricted their choices to those cereals and pulses,” says Koppula. Padma Koppula, who helps Narsanna in running the farm, adds: “We have stopped looking at what nature has to offer us and neglect a wide variety of foods. For instance, we only consume five to six of the 40-50 varieties of pulses that were once available in the country. Several wild and uncultivated foods, such as tubers, millets and fruits, which continue to be the source of nutrition for tribal and forest dwelling communities, have got sidelined from our food basket.”

Since the principles of permaculture discou rage monoculture, it opens up the opportunity for growing a wide variety of grains, fruits and vegetables, and widens one’s food basket.

Permaculturists claim that the benefits go beyond achieving self-sufficiency in food. For example, the farm generates manure for the soil, thus saving on fertiliser cost. “In chemical farming, the focus is on feeding the crop using synthetic manure. But in permaculture, or any other non-chemical agriculture practices for that matter, emphasis is on nourishing the soil which in turn keeps nursing the plants,” says Sultan Ahmed Ismail, a soil biologist and ecologist who runs Ecoscience Research Foundation (ERF), a non-profit based in Chennai.

Permaculture also helps curtail expenses on labour. “Perennial plants are integral to a permaculture farm. Since they do not require regular tending, one can plant cleverly to counter labour shortage by planting perennials on a large part of the farm. In Aranya, 75 per cent of the plants are perennial,” says Padma Koppula. Clea Chandmal, a permaculturist in Goa, leaves her farm untended even during the monsoon which is potentially the most damaging time of the year for crops. “Permaculture allows farms to weather harsh conditions just the way forests would do,” says Chandmal.

Little quantification of yields has been done for permaculture farms, which makes it difficult to judge whether this agricultural system can replace conventional farming and would be able to feed the world. But permaculturists are optimistic.

The water harvesting structure ensures year-round water supply to Supriya and Anil Gaddam's farm in Telangana's Andole village

Malvikaa Solanki, a permaculturist in Gundlupet taluk of Karnataka, who propagates the idea through non-profit swaYYam, says while conventional sunflower seeds have 30 per cent oil content, the seeds grown on her farm are sturdier and bigger in size and have 40 per cent oil content. “I also harvest 700-1,000 kg of peanut from an acre (0.4 ha), whereas the average yield of the country is 1,066 kg per ha,” says Solanki, who harvests enough cowpea, green gram, pigeon pea from her 2 ha farm to feed her family round-the-year.

When asked whether permaculture can help India feed its 200 million food insecure population, the largest in the world, Solanki says hunger is related to both quality and quantity of food. Nutritive values are highly compromised in today’s food. “The problem lies not only with production but also with distribution of food. But no one talks about the huge amount of food that gets wasted every day,” she says. In permaculture, the focus is not only on ensuring food security, but also on ensuring diversity of food, seed security, nurturing of the ecosystem and, more importantly, protecting health of communities.

While the idea is seductive with promises of both bounty and sustainability, a seemingly obvious bottleneck is that not all ecosystems are equally productive. For example, a farm in the arid Vidarbha region cannot be as productive as Chandmal’s farm in the rainforest. But Chandmal claims that one can improve productivity of the farm irrespective of the ecosystem by introducing the right design. “Ecosystems may appear poles apart but there are similarities between compo nents that make up the ecosystem and the way they function. For example, all ecosystems host a variety of bacteria, fungi and soil-dwelling microbes. So one needs to select plants that can adapt to these components and satisfy human needs,” she adds.

Although Chandmal is confident of the science, she is reserved about the potential of permaculture in future food production. “I can tell you from my experience that the system is powerful. But its future depends on factors other than science because this is an industry with political and economic implications,” she says.

Lack of data undermines hope

Like Chandmal not everyone is optimistic about the potential of permaculture. “Permaculture is not a magic bullet,” says Debjeet Sarangi of Bhubaneswar-based non-profit Living Farms. “How can it feed the world at a time when we are taking away land, cattle and seeds from the farmers,” he asks. “Besides, most experiments so far have been limited to personal consumption. There is nothing to show that it would work at a commercial scale,” he says.

Satya Raghu, who runs Kheyti, a farmers’ group in Hyderabad, says the farming practice is not suitable for small farmers who depend on agriculture for a living. “Since production from a permaculture farm is limited, the farmer will have to make a trade-off between hunger and principles,” says Raghu. It would therefore be wrong to depend on permaculture, organic or natural farming to feed the world population, growing at an unprecedented scale, he adds.

A food expert, who did not wish to be named, says in permaculture the idea is to create a food forest. But the forest ecosystem is radically different from that of an agricultural field, which requires a refined ecosystem. So, mimicking the forest to produce food is like tampering nature, he says. The government can at best introduce a policy on permaculture as way of protecting land, he says.

Uma Maheswar Rao, principal scientist (agriculture division) with the Indian Agricul tural Research Institute in New Delhi, says permaculture is meant for small or slightly bigger ecosystems and is thus not enough for food security. In fact, all alternative farming systems, including permaculture, organic farming and non-pesticide management methods, emphasise on using local resources and not disturbing the local environment. “Since agriculture is region-specific, we cannot have a blanket solution for every place. So, it is better to let everything flourish. Even monoculture has its own advantage. Though it invites more pests, it plays a critical role in creating buffer stock of cereals,” Rao explains.

Seed preservation is an integral part of permaculture. It ensures that natives varieties do not 
get extinct

Shyam Khadka, India representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), says the philosophy of permaculture is relevant in the current ecology. But displacing the Green Revolution agriculture with permaculture as the sole methodology for production at this stage is difficult. “We also do not even have so much land required for permaculture. However, striking a balance between permaculture and the Green Revolution agriculture is necessary,” he says. Permaculture can make the Green Revolution agriculture more sustainable and help feed the large urban non-farming population, he adds.

“Many alternatives suffer because of ideological fixations. So adapatation is important. Without it, permaculture will remain an elite concept,” says G V Ramanjaneyulu of Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, adding that integration of different agriculture models is important for the success of agriculture as a whole.

Can it resurrect environment?

Just like the dearth of information on food production, little work has been done to assess the impact of permaculture on ecology. Alfred Szilágyi from the Szent István University in Hungary and Immo Fiebrig from the Coventry University in England are in the process of assessing whether permaculture is sustainable. The results of the assessment are yet to be made public. Fiebrig says the best explanation for the lack of research on the subject probably is that the concept and practice of permaculture spread around the world through non-academic, grassroots or anarchic routes, carried by the “hippie movement” of the 1970s. “Permaculture is entering scientific debate only now and is being looked at mostly from the social sciences perspective as a socio-political movement of the Global North and people—mostly with a non-farming background like me—who are dissatisfied with the modern society,” Fiebrig adds.

Some say permaculture can also help deal with global problems such as climate change. Is this a hype or real potential of the farming system?

It is estimated that at least 50 per cent of the carbon in the soil has been released into the atmosphere over the past centuries. Some environmentalists say permaculture could be a way to bring this carbon back to the soil. Recently, American environmentalist, author and activist Paul Gerard Hawken proposed a comprehensive plan to reverse global warming through his project Drawdown. Hawken estimates that the increase in regenerative agriculture (which has some aspects similar to permaculture) from the current 43 million ha to 400 million ha by 2050 could result in a reduction of 23.2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, from both sequestration and reduced emissions. This is equivalent to 65 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions in 2015.

But all experts agree on one aspect of permaculture: its power to rejuvenate soil. In this system of farming, land is not cleared by burning. Rather, mulching is practised as a rule. Even roots of plants are left in the ground to degenerate naturally. To ensure a rich biodiversity in their arid farm in Andole village of Telangana’s Sangareddy district, Supriya and Anil Gaddam recently collected saplings from government and private nurseries of the region and used those as mulch for growing the first cycle of plantation. The mulch keeps feeding moisture to the roots of fruit trees, which have now reforested another 2.8 ha of the farm, with the promise to give plenty of fruits in a few years. As per the rules of ecology, animals play a key role in the regeneration of a healthy ecosystem. So chickens, bullocks and cows have also been integrated in everyday activities at the farm. While the chickens provide eggs and enrich compost for plants with their excrement, the bullocks help in ploughing the fields.

Upbeat despite scientific validation

The need for scientific validation of this neo- farming system was pointed out by Mollison as far back as 2005 in an interview: “I know a Filipino man who always plants a chili and four beans in the same hole as the banana root. I asked him, ‘Why do you plant a chili with the banana?’ And he said, ‘Don’t you know that you must always plant these things together.’ Well, I worked out that the beans fix the nitrogen and the chili prevents beetles from attacking the banana root.”

In permaculture, cattle are reared along with crops to maintain a healthy ecosystem

Despite lack of research and government support, permaculturists are using common sense to fight problems that ail the country’s agriculture sector. For example, Aranya does not have an irrigation facility and depends on rainfall. It manages the problem of water shortage through rainwater harvesting. “In semi-arid areas, water harvesting is the only source of water for crops and for retaining soil moisture. Contour bunds across the farm help in proper distribution of water across the farm and recharge of water table. We also have a water purification system where grey water from the kitchen is treated and recycled for irrigation,” says Narsanna Koppula.

Supriya and Anil Gaddam have turned their barren farm into an oasis in the arid region by setting up water harvesting structures, such as swales, trenches and percolation tanks. These structures have now recharged four borewells in the village that had run dry. “We also grow water-efficient crops, such as millets, wheat, mangoes and guavas, to efficiently manage the water resources. The Singur Reservoir that supplies water to Hyderabad and its surrounding areas is next to our 38-ha farm. But we have not taken a drop from the reservoir since establishing the farm some 15 years ago,” says Anil Gaddam.

Understandably, practitioners are upbeat about this newfound farming system. Rosemary Marrow who runs a permaculture farm in Austra lia says, “Permaculture is the most promising alternative we have. This is because it is adaptable to all environments, from 10-storey buildings and balconies to large farms and is based on ethics and principles.” It is not possible to compare a monoculture with a highly productive cultivated ecosystem because scientists find it difficult to value. For instance, how can one compare year-round food availability, timber availability and reduced pest infestations with just 2.5 tonnes of rice per hectare. “We are yet to put a value on several benefits that a permaculture farm provides. Some of those are windbreaks, round-the-year flow in the river and soil moisture in a dry season,” she says. Maybe, we can gauge the value of permaculture by estimating the cost of damage caused by industrial agriculture to the environment and the future, she suggests.

Permaculture makes more sense when one keeps in mind the harms caused by conventional agriculture, such as increasing soil salinity due to intense chemicals, high demand for water and the lack of organic matter in the soil.

ERF’s Ismail lists the benefits of permaculture practices. It does not assault the soil system and takes care of water management. It not only provides food and nutrition security but also ensures farmers’ livelihood and land security.

Chandmal insists that permaculture relies almost entirely on science, but this science is way different from the currently accepted norms of agricultural sciences. “Agricultural science today has had the unfortunate outcome of separating the farmer from the soil, which is the life source for any plant. It is the most critical, yet least understood aspect of agriculture that has been reduced to just a few nutritious components (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) which are periodically supplemented inorganically without bearing in mind that there is already a natural system in place to fix the soil with these components,” she explains.

Permaculture holds promise for subsidence farmers. But they will shift only if they have access to native seeds, given the knowhow to manage labour, and are demonstrated the success of the farming.

—With inputs from Ayush Shukla

Blending new with the old

Negation of new technology and retaining what goes well with tradition is the core of permaculture


PERMACULTURE, A combination from “Permanent Culture”, stands for responsible and wise use of natural resources, in a way that will sustain life for the present as well as the future generations. It is a philosophy and practice that enables people to design and establish productive systems to provide for their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in harmony with natural systems.

A lot of issues that our farmers are facing today are because they are incorporating incorrect or out of context modern farming solutions. Modern farming methods are driven by complex technologies that require a lot of energy, most of the time non-renewable, whereas manual and human resources are the basis of traditional farming practices. Most of these are close to natural processes that mimic nature and are renewable, leading to being more energy efficient resources. To explain this better, in permaculture, there’s a concept of “negation to negation”. It means that whichever method is relevant and applicable should be utilised and the rest be negated.

Whichever method one chooses, it’s important to think of three aspects: nature, earth and agricultural practices. The overuse of limited and polluting energy resources in most modern farming technologies make them energy-inefficient. We are currently mostly depending on them for our energy needs, and need to look for alternatives. The real sustainable energy comes from natural processes. India has a massive advantage of having strong human resources that are precious to generate and transfer energy.

In agriculture, we have a lot of diverse tools available. Tools need not always be mechanised (fuel-dependant), many can be used manually. The energy used through mechanised technologies does not always bring the best outcomes. For instance, planting trees with a machine may be quicker, but the amount of energy used won’t equal the manual, positive energy and care given to the plants while doing the operation and creating more favourable initial conditions for the plants to grow.

Appropriate technology in farming methods can be defined by different key criteria. It must be familiar and accessible to people in the context in which it is used. It must be based on local people’s traditional knowledge and skills, be developed with locally available materials and resources and be understood by a common person. It must be based on the use of resources that are abundant in a given environment. For instance, at the Aranya Permaculture Farm, the biogas system for cooking in the kitchen is alimented by buffalo dung. At the same time, it provides compost for the close-by banana grove where other plants like spices grow for cooking purposes. Rich biomass material is available through abundant leaves falling from trees for mulching, creating a vegetal cover spread around the plants to retain moisture and humidity in the soil and the roots, and reduce watering needs. Wood is abundant, thanks to the numerous trees. It is used for firewood and cooking. The ash is used as an efficient cleanser for utensils and is used to enrich compost content, besides natural building.

Illustration: Tarique Aziz

Permaculture is not an anti-technology movement; it questions our need for modern technologies and the way we make use of them. Most of them are not easily accessible to Indians in terms of costs, maintenance and skills, leading to dependency on experts (usually external) and the companies which sell these kinds of technologies. Permaculture favours much more simple and close-to-nature farming technologies and methods that can be implemented by the majority of people and adapted according to the needs and resources available in each context, including geographies.

Most modern technologies require expensive materials and resources, and more often, induce damage in the long-term on the health of the environment. An example of modern technology that is destructive and is reducing the potential of any life is Bt cotton. Bt cotton generates seeds that cannot be saved and grown again, which goes completely against the idea of a self-regenerative system and has made a majority of farmers in India depend on biotechnology corporations to buy new seeds regularly instead of saving seeds from natural species and using them for the next sowing season.

However, not all modern technologies are destructive. Grafting is a technique of combining a cutting from one tree with the rootstock of another. This horticultural technique allows to make weak plant varieties in a given environment grow with the support of local species from the same family acting as the base material for being stronger in that environment. This technique does not require much energy or highly-technical material to be implemented, and helps increase the biodiversity and strengthens the ecosystem.

A key element in permaculture is to look for the most energy efficient elements and systems to work and live with. Technologies and methods that require more energy should be the last option available. The goal of permaculture is to highlight the natural and most sustainable options for energy use and farming practices (see ‘Harvesting Hope’ on p46 to know about how marginal farmers in Maharashtra, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have adopted permaculture techniques to eke out a living).

One of the arguments behind the use of motorised farming methods is to produce more and be able to provide abundance for a majority of people. We forget that abundance does not come from modern technologies but from permanent reproductive systems. The best technologies are the ones that are closest to natural processes, have limited interference on the environment but have an extended impact bringing long-term benefits to the environment. The more technologies and farming methods are appropriate, the more empowerment they bring to their users.

The way we produce and use energy is largely related to the scale of agricultural land one works on and the time available to develop farming activities. The use of machines should be justified by compensating the damages caused such as pollution and disturbing the soil.

In co-working with communities across Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Aranya Agricultural Alternatives considers it as a social responsibility to display such options of farming practices that generate lower costs and lessen the dependency on external factors, but provide more resilience and autonomy.

(The author is the co-founder of Aranya Agricultural Alternatives)

People behind the change

Interest in permaculture has increased tremendously and so has the number of practitioners


Management student
Rangareddy, Telangana

Madhu Reddy has converted her old mango farm, Aiyor Bai, in Yacharam village to a fertile permaculture farm. She started in 2014 and now has more than 1,000 plants and trees and over 50 species. Initially, Reddy faced difficulty in explaining things to her farmhands as they were used to conventional techniques, like burning, to clear the land. But now even her farmhands are seeing things her way. As an added benefit, 23 bird species have made the farm their home.


Permaculture consultant
Valpoi, Goa

Clea Chandmal has been practicing permaculture for over 20 years. She says that conventional agricultural science has linked successful agriculture with external inputs in closely controlled and regulated techniques. This has separated the farmer from the soil, the life source for any plant. It is the most critical, yet least understood aspect of agriculture that has been reduced to just a few “nutritious” components (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium). These are periodically supplemented inorganically without bearing in mind that there is already a natural system in place to fix the soil with these components.

Soil health cards issued by the government to farmers do not indicate the levels of organic nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, but rather rate soil health based purely on inorganic nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium infused in the soil by fertilisers. She feels that farmers need to value trees that they cut down believing that nothing grows under trees and they will reduce productivity. This myth needs to be busted as trees support several soil dwelling organisms and provide valuable services that contribute to soil and water conservation. Since their shadows move with the sun, trees actually regulate heat and light which can be better for certain kinds of vegetables in extremely hot places.


Hyderabad, Telangana

Laxmi Nadendla says that you do not need huge swathes of land to practice permaculture. She has around 40 trees and plants in her urban garden. Every 20 days or so, she adds compost and mulch around the plants. Light mulching during monsoons and heavy mulching the rest of year is followed to preserve moisture in the ground. She maintains two compost pits and a small drum of vermicompost.

Greens fill up large pots which are self-sustaining. Diversity is what makes these pots healthy because there is a lot of earthworm activity in them. Nadendla has also put in a rain harvesting system that can collect over 2,000 litres of water and recharges the borewell. She has also planted a mini bamboo forest to arrest soil erosion. She gets 60-70 per cent of her vegetables from the garden in winters. In fact, last summer, some days the output was about 17 kg of fruit and vegetables per day.


Permaculture teacher
Assagao, Goa

Peter Fernandes practices permaculture at home and has managed to create a 600 sq m “food forest” in five years. His motivation was borne out of a frustration with an economic system that exploits agricultural workers who, in turn, have flooded the market with produce of inferior quality to ensure profitability.

He says that agriculture can bring financial satisfaction, but the main function of food, which is to provide nutritional satisfaction, remains unmet. Currently, there are 180 plants in his food forest, most of which are edible, and a poultry pen with 10 birds including chicken, ducks and geese. He says that the selection of plants is a vital aspect of permaculture. Suitability of plants, not dietary choices, is a better criteria while designing a space.


Runs a non-profit
Bandipur, Karnataka

Malvikaa Solanki points out that permaculture is a mix of India’s traditional farming methods which were prevalent till the Green Revolution. These decentralised, local methods were geared towards self sufficiency and sustainability rather than centralised and monopolistic capitalist food systems. Permaculture is a coming back of these ancient systems, with a deeper and scientific understanding of how these practices work.

In the four years that she has practiced permaculture, her washed off, exposed, overgrazed and denuded piece of land has become a living oasis of diverse species of trees (fodder, timber, forest and fibre), grasses, fruit (local and drought tolerant), bushes, wild weeds, reptiles, insects and birds.

Their are hundreds of earthworms on the land. She has started to save seeds too and shares them with neighbouring farmers in the village. She built her house with soil from a lake next door and the de-silting of the lake increased its water holding capacity. This recharged the open well, which, a decade ago, was the only drinking water source for the village.


Corporate firm
Panchkula, Haryana

Manisha Gupta's 1.6 hectare farm, Aanandaa, is located in the foothills of the Morni Hills. When she bought it, the farm was completely barren and the soil was yellow, brown and powdery with no organic matter. But what was barren six years ago is now a closed canopy ,with more than 500 fruit trees, including mango, litchi, sapota, peach, pear, banana, papaya, fig, pomegranate, lemon, orange, tangerine and guava. And there are birds and bees.

Wild hare, monitor lizards, a variety of snakes and mongoose have made the forest their home. Neelgai and wild boars are occasional nocturnal visitors. There are about 4,500 trees from almost every local species. The crops are doing well, especially wheat, millet, pulses, legumes and oilseeds. The water channels, swales, ponds and pools that intersperse the farm, provide precious groundwater to the trees throughout the year.

“However, we have a 50-50 success rate with vegetables. Our ponds still do not retain water through the year. We need to till some part of the land, but we know that each year we are getting better and that’s what matters,” she says. Her immediate neighbours are reluctant to give up chemical farming because they cannot possibly endure even a few years of loss. But she has influenced them to plant more trees which, she says, is a start.

Harvesting hope

While farmers say it is too early to know permaculture's profitability, they are attracted by its low input cost and round-the-year revenue potential

Samamman and Manikamma say permaculture has made farming possible in the dry, unproductive laterite soil of Bidekanne village in Telangana

Clea Chandmal swears by permaculture. After successfully practicing it for over 20 years in Goa, she recently tied up with non-profit Conservation Wild-lands Trust to train farmers in 10 villages inside the Pench National Park, on the border of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, on permaculture. For the trainings, she has helped the community develop two 0.4 ha plots and six backyard kitchen gardens using permaculture in the buffer zone of the national park.

Raju Sawan Khandate, a farmer from Maharashtra’s Kolitmara village, one of the 10 villages where the non-profit is promoting this tech nique, says his decision to shift to permaculture last year is already reaping dividends. “My family has stopped buying vegetables. Permaculture also provides handy income during the non-productive seasons,” says Khandate, who is growing pumpkins, fruit trees along with moong and til in his 0.2 ha land. He has already earned Rs 3,000 by selling pumpkins grown during the non-productive seasons between two harvest cycles. “The pomegranate and chikoo trees are still too young to bear fruit but once they are ready, they will give me income through the year,” says Khandate.

Praveen Kumar of Telangana’s Domagudu village says permaculture is commercially viable. He first experimented with the farming technique in 2014 after he attended a permaculture workshop by Hyderabad-based Aranya Agricultural Alternatives. Today he grows paddy, pulses and vegetables in his 2.4-ha land and sells them to organic shops. Talking about earnings, he says though his farm yield has gone down by 15 per cent, permaculture has reduced his input cost by 20-25 per cent. He adds that the permaculture crops also sell 20-25 per cent higher than regular crops. “The yield is low because I am still transitioning to permaculture. It will go up in the future,” he says.

Like Kumar, two women, Samamman and Manikamma, in Telangana’s Bidekanne village also turned to permaculture after Aranya organised a workshop in their village. They say permaculture has made farming possible in the dry, unproductive laterite soil in their village. They have built contour trenches for water conservation and grown local grasses around them to avoid water runoff. They maintain a tree cover around their farm where they have planted vegetables, niger, interspersed with millets. “They make three times the money they used to make before they adopted permaculture,” says Narsanna Koppula of Aranya.

In fact, the richest person in Bidekanne is a widow whose fortunes turned after she started permaculture in 1991. Chindramma started farming after Aranya helped her buy a 1.2 ha land for Rs 9,000. Today, her annual income is Rs 5,00,000 and she owns several small land tracts that add up to 9.2 ha.

Unlike Chindramma, most farmers are too new to permaculture to be able to quantify their profits. But the technique is growing popular among farmers because of its low input cost and ability to give dividends even in the lean periods, says Santosh Tungare, project manager, Conservation Wildlands Trust. “Farmers from 85 villages around Pench have already signed up for our December workshop,” he says.

Profit inevitable

The profit potential under permaculture can be estimated from the fact that another older technique, which also relies on local inputs, is giving farmers good dividends. Permaculture follows several principles that are a part of India’s traditional methods of farming. Similarly Zero Budget Natural Farming that won Maharashtra farmer Subash Palekar a Padma Shri in 2016 rests on the principle that farming should not be investment intensive. Instead, it should rely on local crop varieties and natural pesticides. The native cattle breed is a major component in this farming system which consumes the local weed varieties of grass. Its dung and urine are used as pesticide and fertiliser. This technique also uses mulching, mixed cropping patterns and crop rotations to maintain the soil nutrients.

Palekar says relying on the local ecosystem translates into high yield. While under conventional farming, a 0.4 ha land produces 1,200 kg of basmati rice, the yield can go up to 2,400 kg in farms practicing Zero Budget Natural Farming. Similarly, in the case of Bansi wheat, the production is only around 600 kg per 0.4 ha under conventional farming, but it is as high as 1,800 kg per 0.4 ha through zero budget natural farming. Seeing the benefits, more than 4 million farmers across the country have gone back to this traditional farming system.

Agriculture by accident

A lot of micro-farms in modern Europe follow permaculture's principles without knowing it

After the Second World War, a dogma emerged in Europe: Increasing the economic efficiency of agriculture required mechanisation, massive use of inputs, product specialisation and farm size expansion. More than 70 years later, evidences of the unsustainability of these guidelines are obvious: Loss of hundreds of thousands of agricultural jobs, soil and water pollution, massive loss of biodiversity, deterioration of food quality and loss of cultural landmarks for farmers and other citizens alike.

This dead-end, to which industrial modernity leads us, does not just concern the agricultural world. The reduction of humans and nature to objects defined by their economic utility alone aggravates social, environmental, political, racial and gender inequalities. Against this model of society where there is a loss of social ties and links with nature, a growing number of people in Europe are now choosing to settle on very small farms, in order to implement eco-designed and eco-driven agriculture. This movement is particularly strong in the organic market gardening sector, which is more accessible because it requires less surface area to live on than cereal production or livestock farming.

My research team works with such people. To be a peasant who produces varied, healthy and good vegetables is for them a life project that contributes to transforming the whole society. They intend to combine their personal aspirations—to live and work in a pleasant environment, to reconnect with other living species, to work a lot but with pleasure, not to sacrifice everything to the superfluous—and political, ethical and moral values. Respect for nature, contributing to their community’s well-being, building a world free of violence in which it would be good to live and which would not be guided by short-term economic rationality alone.

And the farms these peasants develop are economically viable too. My team and I are currently working with about 60 very small vegetable farms. Two-thirds have been in existence for more than three years. Nearly 80 per cent of them achieve economic results equivalent to or better than those proposed by development organisations as references for organic market gardening in short supply chains. Their income ranges from 0.9 to 1.5 times the French minimum wage, excluding benefits in kind, but most farmers consider it to be above the minimum wage they consider acceptable. This situation is all the more remarkable because the areas they cultivate are three to seven times smaller than those of the farms corresponding to these references.

Illustration: Tarique Aziz

So what makes these farms tick? The first condition of success for them is to contribute to building a community that shares these values. What allows them to make a living from selling their vegetables is that they are diversified, healthy and ultimately not too expensive. It is also because these vegetables incorporate the same ethical values that form the basis of the market gardeners’ project, values that their “customers” recognise to be theirs as well. Therefore, the latter are more partners than consumers, participating in a community where material resources, labour, tools, knowledge and trust are exchanged. Very few of the market gardeners we work with explicitly claim permaculture. But when we look at the values that guide their actions, the way they intend to participate in building a better world, the same fundamental ethical principles are at work.

When we go into the details of the farms’ operations, we discover that their success is also due to the ability of market gardeners to base their practices on the “ecological intelligence” of their situation—soil, climate and resources offered by their community. If these farms are productive and resilient, it is because farmers “work with” and not “against”: minimum tillage that does not disturb the soil; managing water sparingly; coping with weeds; dealing with diseases and pests; choosing the right species; carefully tending crops from soil preparation to harvest. At the heart of the principles that organise their practices is a fundamental rule: favouring synergies between their farm’s different components, seen as an ecosystem to produce abundantly, without chemical fertilisers or pesticides and with minimum mechanisation.

The cultivated landscape’s heterogeneity is key to strengthening these positive interactions. These very small farms cultivate 30 to 80 species, 75 to 200 varieties: vegetables, aromatic plants, fruit, green manures, vines, shrubs and trees. This diversity of species, by multiplying the interactions between these numerous ecosystem components, reduces the impact of disease, ensures better circulation and more sustainable use of water and nutrients and mitigates the effects of climatic hazards. Visiting these farms can give the impression of some confusion at first glance. Observation then reveals a coherent organisation in space and time, as a result of a global, systemic reflection, often implemented right from the settlement of the farm. This reflection aims at an “objective ecological rationality”. It also integrates ergonomics and working comfort, aesthetics and satisfaction of all senses. Over the years, the initial design often evolves considerably, depending on the experience gained, both from production and markets, from changes in point of view, to new resources offered by the deepening of their local integration.

Global vision incorporating sensitive dimensions, willingness to adapt to the ecosystem’s functioning and to rely on natural and cultivated biodiversity, inventiveness in the very definition of what constitutes a resource, willingness to save these resources and guarantee their sustainability, even if it is at the cost of less productive efficiency. The principles that the study of these very small vegetable farms reveal are close to those of permaculture. These principles are not translated into immutable technical dogmas. The “permaculture without knowing it” practiced by these market gardeners is evolutionary, adaptive and reactive to changes. Helping them to explain these principles is probably the best thing that scientists can do to contribute to the development of an agriculture that responds to strong ethical values, which are the foundation of a more harmonious and just society for our future and that of our children.

(François Léger is a French researcher at Agro Paris Tech. He coordinated a four-year study in a permaculture farm in Normandie, Northern France)

(This story was first published in the 16-30th November issue of Down To Earth).

Create a permaculture farm

Turning a barren piece of land into something green and fruitful is a challenging task. In the 1970s, Australian environmental designer and co-founder of the permaculture concept, David Holmgren, laid down 12 principles to carry out permaculture. Down To Earth talks to farmers as to how they follow these principles

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