Permaculture as farming paradigm

In our farming - can we mimic GOD's wild ways of cultivating the earth?

There are many of us who have caught this bug and started farming.  From our front yards to one hundred acres there is a movement toward the land—to grow on it, cultivate it, and draw from the abundance of it.  But agriculture is only one option for getting to these things and perhaps the most dangerous option.  As Wes Jackson has said, “farming is humanity’s original sin.”  This does not mean that there isn’t good farming happening, Wes Jackson’s work at the Land Institute is testimony that there is, but in farming we must recognize that agriculture began an assault on the land that has led to its destruction.  Grain agriculture has been particularly damaging—it was the growing of grain that led to both the formation of the first civilizations and the collapse of their soils and that cycle has been around ever since.

To avoid the damage of agriculture we must seek a form of cultivation that builds the soil rather than depletes it and works in concert with the surrounding ecosystem rather than being its constant threat.  For many this has been permaculture—a way of growing that emphasizes perennial plants and seeks to imitate natural growing systems as much as possible.  Given nature is the pattern.  Permaculture is a wonderful form of agriculture and one that I seek to use more and more in my own gardening.

But there is already a model available to us that involves a perfect mix of perennials and annuals, with animals in a regular rotation—the given wild.  In the wild, plants and animals work together in concert, annuals and perennials, preditors and prey, herbivors, omnivores, and carnivores occupying every layer.  The wild is a place of abundant food, from the wild plantains that grow everywhere around my house in Arkansas to the deer that move in herds through the local forests.  The creation, the wild, is filled with abundant food.

Given that food is already growing in the wild, why not simply skip the imitation of nature as in permaculture and go directly to the wild?  This is a question I’ve been thinking about lately as I tend my garden and see edible plants growing all around it that I’m doing no work to maintain.  The more I’ve reflected on this, the more I’ve wondered if Adam was really much of a farmer.  The picture we get from Genesis is that of a manager placed in a lush garden already planted.  Adam’s job was to manage it.

This leads us to our other option for cultivating the abundance of the land—wildlife management.  I’ve known several wildlife managers over the years whose jobs were to encourage healthy game populations within state Wildlife Management Areas or private game reserves.  In both cases the managers would monitor the wildlife populations, encourage good habitats, and sometimes plant crops that would encourage healthy wildlife populations.  What if farming looked more like wildlife management—managers working in existing wild landscapes to cultivate and encourage its abundance through a mix of permaculture and management of the abundance already there?  Such a form of cultivation would certainly be less monopolistic in its enterprise than even the best farm of cleared land and straight rows, providing habitat and a shared abundance among many animals.  Here animals would be truly free ranging, their life simply taken as food in the midst of a wild life.

Of course I still garden and I’m not sure how to fully embrace this vision of Wildlife Management, but I think it points to something closer to what might be our true vocation—not the growing of food in landscapes cleared of the wild given by God, but rather a careful management and cultivation of the abundance already there.  This is our work, to make our farming be more like wildlife management.

Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield (M.Div. Virginia Theological Seminary) is ordained in the Episcopal Church and serves a parish in his native Arkansas. is the author of 'This is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit and Deeper Faith', 'Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us',and the small collection of essays 'Farming as a Spiritual Discipline'. Ragan works to live the good life in partnership with his wife Emily and daughters Lillian and Lucia.

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