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032 – Helen Atthowe sustainability efficiency

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In this podcast, Paul debates with Helen Atthowe about how sustainability and efficiency as we currently measure it cannot coexist. Helen has decades of hands on experience working directly on sustainable farming in Montana in addition to having been able to learn directly from Fukuoka. She has also been active as a Missoula County Horticultural Extension Agent who trained Paul as a Master Gardener in 1996. She currently works on a 2000 acre, 60 crop conventional organic farm.

The discussion begins with a statement that Helen has been thinking on the matter of sustainability vs efficiency and how the organic farm she is working on currently is extremely efficient. Their yield averages equal or better than fields using chemicals. It is not, however, sustainable. It is her belief that to move to a sustainable model of agriculture, we have to have a smaller population. Several truly sustainable models are mentioned, but Helen believes that they are not as efficient by the fact that efficiency is measured as yield per acre.
Paul and Helen disagree about the idea that sustainable agriculture won't be able to match the yields of our current system. Paul believes that acre for acre, permaculture can produce more food per acre than a monoculture. Helen believes, based on her experiences, that perennial plants require too many resources to be locked away and lower the yields over annuals. Wes Jackson is mentioned in relation to the work on trying to improve the yields of perennials. Annuals put more energy into producing seed since they don't need to survive afterward. The increased difficulty on the grower of stacked systems is mentioned.
Paul counters that some plants can be stacked in a polyculture to be equally productive as they would be as a monoculture. Helen notes that this is called Overyielding, but only holds that same efficiency in specific combinations. She believes that mimicking natural systems can come close to it. Paul feels that if permaculture systems can be optimized and stuck with for the required time to get moving, it can pull even.

Fukuoka's productivity is mentioned as a measure of how it can be done. Helen notes that there are no major farmers who've been able to match Fukuoka's production with the same techniques. Paul states that Fukuoka said not to do it exactly his way. Helen admits that without grains, her system did better with vegetable production, but wasn't as sustainable. She wasn't able to match traditional yields consistently because of the amount of energy that was tied up by the nature of biology. Helen wants to work with techniques to see how far they can be taken, but doesn't believe it will be enough for the population at its current level.
Paul counters that people said Fukuoka's system could never work, but then did. While alive, he was a top producer of rice per acre, though it is countered that the numbers immediately dropped after his death and that they stopped doing it exactly as he had and have started adding manure to his fields. Paul feels that the key is that he was told he could not possibly do it, but then went on to have rice production higher and a bonus crop on that same acreage. The philosophy is more valuable than the techniques. One of Paul's important measures is to compare with those in your own area, where the soil and climate are similar.

Helen agrees that we can compete with neighbors, but that it can't forever when your hands are tied on bringing in outside inputs. Paul must disagree, based on his own knowledge of various growers and documentation. It is his assertion that because Fukuoka consistently produced his high yields, it is possible but that we just aren't doing what is required. Paul's local agriculture is not using the land effectively and even disallows gardens.
Helen clarifies that she sees a lot of armchair activists who talk about food systems without experience, whereas she has had her hands in the dirt for 25 years. She knows firsthand how lean the eating can be if you only eat what you can grow or trade for. Years of experience are the only reason she is able to manage it if and when she wishes. Most people will at most do some and fill the gaps with the local coop, farmer's markets or other stores without thinking about what it takes to get that food produced and to them. Only eating truly local is biologically complex. She says it is possible, but not with the current population. Helen also hates the idea that we would use every piece of 'wasted land' just for food production.

The conversation turns to lawns and how out of hand they can get. The implication is that instead of going into wild places, extreme lawn space could be better used. Paul wants more carefully measured permaculture systems that track costs, yields, etc. Helen agrees that more studies of biological and economic efficiencies.
After discussing the system further, Paul brings up that economics can be a more accurate measure than yield. He forwards that there may be more food per acre, but it is so unliked that it's only worth very little per pound. Money is a measure of how much that product is actually wanted. Paul thinks that permaculture can win on almost any measure of efficiency at its peak. Cancer is mentioned as one cost that gets ignored with modern agriculture. Paul relays a story of how he helped someone years ago who had been spraying carcinogens to deal with aphids for years and whose sister was in the hospital for cancer. He speaks of how he struggled with the requirements of the Master Gardener program he was there as part of and the limitation not to favor organic in suggestions.
Helen agrees that we need to change how we think. Again she notes that the only way to have a system working the way it needs to be sustainable is with a lower population. Fair and sustainable mean we have to shift what we expect. Paul doubts that most people who say 'sustainable' realize how hard it is. He thinks he is more optimistic than Helen, but also notes he has far less hand's on than she does.
Paul feels Fukuoka proves it is possible, but only if you are willing to fight hard to make it that way. He notes this includes fighting against even his own interns. Paul holds up Sepp Holzer as another who is managing to do the same sort of examples. Helen suggests Paul do exactly the same sorts of things and notes that now that she's sold her farm, she plans to go even further than before and try to do it without animal inputs. It is stated that very few people actually do create a teachable example of permaculture despite how many say they intend to.
Paul asks a question that is deftly sidestepped by Helen and when called on it, replies “I think you're asking the wrong question.” Paul states how he is trying to help people transition from conventional into permaculture. It is expressed as two languages and needing an interpreter as a go between for it to work. Each side uses different words and different metrics. He mentions his farmer's Roundup-Ready alfalfa field and it leads to a discussion of how the cost of alfalfa is going up and how it is connected to many farmers moving towards cover crops as a way to save costs.

Paul disagrees that permaculture can't match traditional and forwards that it can even do more. He poses another question to Helen about the permaculture production levels and how far they fall short as currently practiced. Helen's response is focused on understanding the land itself. If you add inputs from anywhere else, the levels will always be better than those places which stay within the biological limits of that area. When she limited herself to localized inputs, she couldn't get the same yields as an organic farm that was pulling in massive numbers of outside inputs. This included when she applied Fukuoka's methods. She did not measure it numerically to be certain of how far her attempts were from the alternate farm.
She feels that there are some years when your system will match, but over the extended period of years, inconsistency will lead to lower averages. She originally set out to use organic and agroecology to match the traditional farms, but has since come to believe that it isn't the correct question. Instead, she wants to find a fair and equitable biological system based in reality. She wants people to pay attention and focus on reality.
Paul believes that we can keep up with an expanding population and that Fukuoka proves that it can be done. Helen pokes a little fun about Paul needing to get started on the practical application of his knowledge, though they both agree that each has experience in areas the other does not yet. “Don't listen to anyone else, listen to the land.” Paul points out that Helen used to feel Permaculture was mostly 'flowers and rainbows'. After seeing a productive permaculture, she recognized that her own activities did fit into it. Most systems she had seen previously were ineffective and poorly executed.
Exposure to this farm in Panama opened her up to permaculture. Taking what she has learned, she intends to apply it all into her new forest farm. Helen's site, Veganic Permaculture, is noted, along with richsoil.com and permies.com. Paul states that he feels the forums are the single most important thing he does and that he needs to emphasize it more.

Relevant Threads

Helen Atthowe: goddess of the soil
Masanobu Fukuoka
Perennial Plants

Credit: D. Logan

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