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Landscapers embrace sustainable agriculture

In the search for secure and sustainable agriculture, some say organic isn't good enough. An alternative landscape design system known as permaculture creates complex local agro-ecosystems. Despite its hippie image in the U.S., scientists say permaculture works, and could be headed for the mainstream. Ohio's first-ever permaculture design certification course took place at a plant sanctuary in Meigs County.

Peter Bane is preparing 31 students to build a swale an earthen construction that prevents rainwater from rushing off a hillside. The sun is relentless and the thermometer tops 90 degrees. Students roll sleeves, hike skirts and swig extra water but everyone attends to the task at hand.

The swale is one lesson in the two-week curriculum of the permaculture design course. Bane is one of the course instructors.

"Permaculture is a made-up word and it comes from two words, permanent agriculture," he said. "We also understand it to mean permanent culture or the organization of structures in society to support care of the land and care of people. So permaculture is a design system based on principles of ecology."

Permaculture is best known for its highly productive landscapes that are local and sustainable. Permaculture incorporates layers of edible plants including trees and shrubs as well as more conventional crops. It emphasizes complex and efficient interconnections among component parts.

To illustrate, Bane describes a system he once installed to bring warm running water into a house that originally had no plumbing.

He used a system of gutters to collect rain water from the roof into a tank, and piped it into the house. To keep the water in the tank from the freezing, he stacked straw bales around it, then sent the gray water from the house back out through the straw. The moist straw began to compost and heat up keeping the water in the tank from freezing.

"At the end of the winter, when all this straw is starting to sag and collapse I clean it all out and I go mulch it on the garden, and then it's plant food," Bane said. "So we have a cycle whereby these resources are used many times."

Every permaculture landscape is unique, but they share this robust complexity born of careful observation.

In the U.S., permaculture sometimes has a counterculture image. But academic ecologists say both the motive and methods are sound, and could bring permaculture into the mainstream.

Martin Quigley is the director of Campus Landscape and Natural Resources at the University of Central Florida. He says permaculture is free of the problems of conventional agriculture.

"Our globalized annual agriculture is dependent on inorganic fertilizers produced from petroleum, heavy machinery which is dependent on petroleum, shipment of crops around the world, which is dependent on petroleum, depletion of the soil because of annual cultivation and overloading of chemicals-- pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers-- which have polluted every aquifer in the civilized world," Quigley said.

Few scientific studies have addressed permaculture directly, but Kristin Mercer, a researcher in ecology at Ohio State University, says it is consistent with ecological theory.

"The intention that's important is the intention of reducing use of resources, trying to kind of harness what we can from the inherent ecology of these systems to try to do some of the work for us, to replace some of the inputs for us," she said.

Joe Kovach is a professor of entomology and member of OSU's sustainable agriculture team. He agrees that permaculture works, but says it can be associated with a divisive attitude.

"What I don't like are permaculturists being elitist, or saying well we're better than organic people, or organic people saying we're better than conventional growers," Kovach said. "You know, it's like you get this competition between groups."

The permaculture instructors say they respect the organic food movement, but ultimately it's not enough. Florida ecologist Quigley says that simply eliminating synthetic pesticides and fertilizers doesn't make a farm sustainable.

"They're trying to do this bizarre hybrid of modern agriculture but without the chemical inputs," he said. "And it's kind of pathetic. Because real organic agriculture means using perennial crops, mixing your species and spreading your risks."

Permaculture allows for some centralization at a local level not everyone has to farm. And even if they did, Quigley says, established permaculture landscapes take less work than typical mowed lawns.

For the permaculture students in Meigs county, however, the swale project is still a lot of work.

The participants include college students, professional landscapers, land owners and farmers. One of them, Doug Cook, wants to take permaculture awareness with him to Africa through the Peace Corps, and then back to his family's farm in New Hampshire.

"I would bring it back to my little community because it's a very small town and I'm sure everyone gardens and I'm sure everybody would be interested in doing it a little more efficiently and with a more conscious effort to preserve what we have for future generations," Cook said.

Students completing a second segment of the course in August will earn certificates in permaculture design.