Permaculture in Vale da Lama
Further to an article in this issue of “Permaculture Magazine” (see PM#91, Spring 2017, article “Regenerative Farming” by Walt Ludwick), this page is to elaborate on some of the topics merely touched-on in that article, not necessarily known to all “Permies”, such as:
- Ecological tools: like HugelKultur, Holistic Planned Grazing, AgroEcology;
- Economic tools, such as Business Model Canvas, CSA, Holistic Management;
- Cultural tools: DragonDreaming, Sociocracy, Holacracy, S3, WorldCafé, Forum.
Links above point to external sources, but for more on our understanding & application of these tools, click on the separator tabs at left below.
This page should also serve as a primer for partners of the farm and others interested to know “the way we do things around here”. It reflects the extent to which, since hosting our first PDC (Permaculture Design Course) in 2008, we have applied the tools of Permaculture on our farm, as well as the particular focus and limitations inherent in our context. Links have been inserted wherever possible to those sources of information that we have found most helpful to our own application.
This is a living document, subject to ongoing edits. To whatever extent information herein falls short, please email the author, who will try to answer the need.
Since permaculture concepts were first formalized in the book Permaculture One by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, many derivative works have been published, even by the co-authors themselves.
Principles have been stated in different forms – e.g. Mollison, e.g. Holmgren – and even the underlying ethics have been stated in different ways (Earth Care and People Care are common ground, but Fair Share has been variously interpreted as Surplus Share or Future Care). In any case, all these variations are perfectly consistent with one another, each variant emphasising a different nuance – so “vive la difference”.
In the context of this farm, Permaculture provides set of design tools, based on patterns observed in the natural world, for creating sustainable landscapes, lifestyles and economies. It provides a common language for design, aligned with our ethical imperatives and simple enough for us all to understand, that becomes ever more expressive with every new project that we do. It is open to other tools and frameworks that are not part of the “permaculture canon” per se (in fact there is no such thing) that we have also found to be useful on this farm – see following 3 sections – applied in such a way as to ensure alignment with both our ethics and the laws of nature.
A word about design process from the school of hard knocks: some follow OBREDIM flow (Observations, Boundaries, Resources, Evaluation, Design, Implementation, Maintenance), others follow SADIMETS (which bundles the first 3 items into Survey, and follows the Maintenance item with Evaluation, Tweaks and Sharing), but in our experience, the old saying- “No design survives its implementation” – has always held true… And to that we would add “and when it comes to Maintenance, the original designer has long since moved on!”.
For this reason, we have found important wisdom in the Savory Institute’s framework of Holistic Management, based upon its maxim- “Assume that your assumptions are wrong” – and its framework of operational planning tools built to enable dynamics steering of operations based upon feedback from the environment as soon as it comes in; more about this in Ecology section. Our organizational governance methods follow the same principles; more about that under heading of Culture.
Care of Earth begins with understanding our physical context and the living systems that animate it. So it helps to have a survey of our property (image below – left photo), detailing boundaries and the energies flowing through from outside, most notably in our case solar and wind patterns and flows of human traffic via roads and established paths, structures and infrastructures. Initial focus is on the “lay of the land” the climate in which we operate.
This is where the work of P.A. Yeomans comes in handy, particularly his Keyline Scale of Permanence, which prioritizes elements of landscape in order of relative stiffness or durability. Climate is the thing we can do least about, obviously (although MICROclimates are another matter that can mitigate climate to some extent), and Landform is the next high-level factor related in a similar way (again: terraforming at scale is scarcely possible, but small changes can have surprisingly significant effects).
The next issue to consider is Water, which follows the Landform in a way that (image below – right photo) – watercourses running down valleys along lines perpendicular to those more closely-spaced lines on a topographical map- and must be considered carefully in the design of all lower-level elements, such as Roads and Trees and Buildings.
At this point, we must come to terms with the harsh reality of the climate context in which we operate, and the fact that many design patterns so popular with permaculturists in more humid climates – e.g. raised beds, herb spirals, and such structures that promote good drainage, but also expose plantations to drying effects of sun and wind – do not work well in our Mediterranean Hot-Summer climate. Indeed, according to this NASA map highlighting global desertification zones (image below), Algarve right on the edge of a most-threatened area, and clearly trending that way – what Alan Savory would call a Brittle climate, based on periodicity of rainfall. Essentially: because of the long dry and windy season, dead plant material does not fall to the ground and rot, but stands oxidizing in place and stunting further plant growth and soil development, such that rates of runoff and evaporation exceed the rate of total precipitation, and hence – absent corrective intervention – the land tends to get drier as the years go by. This runs counter to the rationale of Permaculture Zone 5 – i.e. “leave it alone and land will recover”- which is generally true, but not in under certain conditions, certainly not in the span of a human lifetime.
The good news is that there are things that we can do to increase the rate of EFFECTIVE precipitation on our lands – that is to say, the % of our annual rains that neither evaporate from the surface nor run off-property downhill, but rather are absorbed in our biota (plants and soil aggregates) or else infiltrated to replenish local aquifiers. To understand this whole business of rainwater conservation from first principles all the way through to practical implementation details, the most useful resource we have found is Brad Lancaster, who has published a series of 3 books on the topic, along with numerous entertaining & informative YouTube videos. Key points to remember are:
Begin with long and thoughtful observation (always, in Permaculture Design), then:
1. START at the top, with small and simple solutions, to
2. SLOW the downill flow of water, SPREADING it laterally, to
3. SOAK the SPONGE that is organic matter that you will build over time, to
4. SINK the water gradually to the roots of your plants and the underlying groundwater table.
This is the 4-Step process that you can use to both track and enhance the regenerative process that Mother Nature has evolved to build habitat that is ever-more conducive to life.
Attending also to the human consumption side of things: of course we should economize wherever we can, but inasmuch as effluents are a necessary part of our life equation, we should think of them in terms of two liquid streams – black water (what comes from flush toilets) and grey (the rest: sinks and showers and hoses) – treating these streams as resources of nutrient-rich (and pollution-light, if we take care in our selection of cleaning products) water for our plants. In this problem space, two resources that we have found most helpful are:
- Blackwater: André Soares at IPEC in Brazil has developed a special form of W.E.T. (Wetland Ecological Treatment) System known as the Banana Septic System; and
- Greywater: Art Ludwig is the go-to guy on this topic, having written the definitive guide to “Create an Oasis with Greywater,” and providing an excellent page of resources on the topic.
Going back to first principles, from which Permaculture Principles are derived: Earth is a closed system with respect to matter, but open with respect to energy, thanks to that great nuclear fusion reactor in the sky, our sun. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, but merely moved and/or transformed across whatever gradients exist in any more-or-less complex system… And the Big Idea of permaculture design is to design systems that keep energies upcycling, or circulating locallly in such a way as to generate increasingly abundant ecosystems at all levels.
In the farm context, one closely related discipline from which we have adopted many ideas and tools is the field of AgroEcology, which has many principles in common with permaculture, i.e. Zones based upon natural flows of water and energy, vertical stacking of functions, maximizing edge effect, time stacking based upon nature’s own patterns of successions, across seasons, cycles of birth and death, and natural emergence of more complex life-forms.
At Quinta do Vale da Lama, some of the most important tools:
- the pattern of Food Forests, as taught in our context by Ernst Gotch (see video “Life in Syntropy”;
- the pattern of HugelKultur, presented in a most accessible way by Paul Wheaton;
- rangeland management with alan savory: holistic grazing plan.
In the context of extensive farmlands, perennial AgroSilvoPastoral systems are the most productive AND efficient systems per hectare of land, by far.
Taking it on faith that people (the ones with whom we deal, anyway) are inherently motivated by both self-assertive and integrative tendencies, the challenge in our social landscape is to create an environment that derives maximum benefit from both intrinsic drives. In other words: an environment where both individual AND collective are able to both survive AND thrive, without compromise to fundamental ethics and values.
To this end (never fully achieved, but spiralling ever-closer to this lofty aim all the time), we have found certain tools to be of great practical value, including:
- for Vision and Values Alignment: The Dragon Dreaming process developed by John Croft is what got our merry band off on a sound footing, once our collective grew to the point that alignment became an issue. It began with the dream of the founders, which went through a process of death and rebirth in the life of the collective, emerging through successive iterations into a strong sense of one shared purpose that brought us all together – “A transformative experience of living and learning closer to nature” – that holds us all together and manifests in our many spheres of action in different ways.
- for Collective Impact: The World Café process has been used at different times to engage outside energies and cross-pollinate ideas and initiatives in a maximally constructive way. This works well when people are in the same space together, which context can be expanded using the OpenSpace Technology developed by Harrison Owen, which some of partners have employed to good effect. Loss of momentum can be a problem once the group disbands and energies disperse, but tools such as Skype (for real-time interaction) and Trello (for asyncronous project communications) go a long way to help bridge those gaps.
- for Governance: As organization emerges around a common purpose, the issue of Governance (i.e. rules of the game) will naturally arise: how do such rules develop and evolve to keep pace with organizational growth and changing conditions? To satisfy this need, we began (as many groups do) with the way of the council, and decisionmaking by consent, but once that became to slow and problematic (as it inevitably does), we experimented with essentials of Sociocracy, namely:
- Holonic Organization (Circles, with double-links for two-way flow of information & energy)
- Decisionmaking by Consent (NOT concensus!), including the process of election to roles; there is a defined process for this, as with all decisions of organizational governance.
Building upon this foundation, we found Holacracy to be a more robust system, which brings certain tools (including a written Constitution) that have served the business well… But in the context of social enterprise (e.g. PND) and community, it is not really feasible to implement. In those contexts, we have found it more practical to pick-and-choose appropriate tools from the extensive S3 arsenal, which incorporates elements of both S’y and H’y progenitors, plus a whole lot more.
- for Interpersonal dynamics: Three different tools have been particularly helpful, namely:
- Nonviolent Communications (a.k.a. NVC) to teach and maintain norms of civilized discourse
- Zegg Forum: on a periodic basis, plus whenever interpersonal tensions become palpably problematic, we have used it for both: and
- Seasonal Gatherings: timed to solar solstices and equinoxes, to keep our energies aligned with natural patterns, to appreciate and celebrate the special gifts of each season.
Finally: Believing as we do in the immortal saying of Margaret Mead – “Never doubt that a small group of determined people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has” – on the basis of our own experience, we can attest to the truth of this, AND the wisdom of that nameless sage who added: “If you want to change the world, throw a better party”. To keep our culture running on renewable energy, vs burning its “fossil fuel” (whether you call that Goodwill or Intrinsic Motivation or Qi or whatever), these little rituals can go a long way.
With its roots in the Greek word Oikos a multi-faceted concept, for those with interest to explore, the economic model of the family-owned Mediterranean Farm has always been a polycultural affair, by that token fundamentally aligned with Permaculture Principles. As this model became increasingly hard to sustain, in the face of fossil-fuel powered global trade, new models and tools have become a necessary complement.
In the Quinta do Vale da Lama context, tools that we have found most useful are:
- for Agile Enterprise Modelling: the Business Model Canvas is our most fundamental tool: lightweight, intuitive, with just enough structure to cover all essential bases. As a plug-in to that tool, the Value Proposition Canvas puts additional focus on the interface between customer and product – that problem-space where additional focus is most often needed in the business of farming (where, let’s face it, most of us are production-minded, but marketing-oriented… Not so much!).
- for Strategic Thinking: SWOC analysis is the classic tool, what we have used over many years, but more recently, we’ve come to appreciate the power of Blue Ocean Strategy, which has helped us to find our way to focus on those things that we alone are in a position to do, steering clear of the weeds that are competitive zero-sum thinking.
- Holistic Management: Once clear as to scope of our Whole Under Management (which falls out from comprehensive Boundaries and Resources survey), our current Forms of Production (obvious) and Holistic Goal for the farm (if you’ve done Dragon Dreaming, you have this), then we need a framework for dynamic steering of operations based on timely feedback from the environment. This is where the Holistic Management framework really adds value -not only for extensive rangeland operations, employing Holistic Planned Grazing, but for management of any complex system in a dynamic environment.
Overall: Heeding wisdom from E.F. Schumacher (former manager of UK Coal Board, of “Small is Beautiful” and “Buddhist Economics” fame), Nobel Prize winning economist Mohammed Yunus, and Joel Salatin’s latest book “Fields of Farmers” (a particular favorite of this farm’s owners), we are actively encouraging spin-off and partner-proposed MicroEnterprises, and so far finding this a most rewarding path. To that end, the aforementioned tools can be helpful, so long as you don’t let them get in the way of good communication. As in everything: use whatever works!
Operationally, the many streams of activity on this poly-cultural farm are managed under the auspices of 3 different forms of organization:
- AgroTourism: is the business of Vale da Lama Lda., serving accommodations and food and immersive experiences of Mediterranean farm-based lifestyle;
- SocialEnterprise: is the purpose of Projecto Novas Descobertas, a NGO/ non-profit membership association that offers nature-based learning experiences (such as childrens summer camps, permaculture courses and workshops, etc.)
- Property Development (i.e. improving carrying capacity of the land) is the long-term interest of the farm owners, Nita & Walt (N&W).
Each entity manages its own affairs autonomously, per the structures and policies pertaining to its own legal status; each exercises stewardship over its own defined domain, while collaborating over shared resources (e.g. water, roads, various infrastructures) and partnering on related projects – large and small – for greater collective impact.
Some of the most interesting and multi-dimensional collaborations involving resources shared across lines of stewardship include:
PARTNERING WITH ANIMALS
… And of course events large (e.g. Seasonal Gatherings) and small – as in “mingas”, or ad-hoc work-parties where partners and neighbors pitch in to help each other out, and do some “wool-gathering” while we are at it.
As such projects are interrelated at levels – EcoLogical (i.e. one water, one mycellium network), EcoNomic (one production’s waste becomes the raw material of a different production) and EcoSocial (a rich web of symbiotic exchange) – the emergent result is a Holistic Ecosystem where the whole is much more than the sum of its parts, and we see the system growing ever-more resilient and abundant over time.
That is our goal in Regenerative Farming & Permaculture Design, and we’ve found it important, on the scale at which we now operate, to monitor how we are doing via the M&E (Monitoring & Evaluation) system that we have evolved. This involves everyone in observing & tracking those data seen as critical to the success of their operations, which data is fed into an analytic process based on the following conceptual model:
This model, imperfect as it is (bearing in mind that “the map is not the territory”) is proving to be quite useful in terms of developing a common language for communicating about our aims/ interventions / results – putting Permaculture Ethics at the center – and balancing different factors of our work to ever-greater regenerative effect, via energetic pathways established along lines of Permaculture Principles.
Within the scope of a one-page overview, this is the best we can provide right now (updates to follow soon; stay tuned!). For those who want to know more AND engage in a more active way, we offer the following:
This Practical PDC (Permaculture Design Course), running from October 1-15, delivers the international standard 72-hour certificate program, with added practical elements to facilitate deeper learning of applicable skills. Moreover: graduates become eligible to apply for internships following the course. To learn more, click banner above.
To know more, click above.
And as always, if you want to remain up-to-date with developments on these and other fronts around the farm…