Permaculture Farming: How We are Closing the Loop and Working with the Land

Before we get into the methods we are implementing here at the Upper Humber Settlement to develop our own small-scale permaculture farm, we must first explain what permaculture is to give you a better understanding of why we are doing things the way we are.


What is Permaculture?


Permaculture is a design system that utilizes natural patterns and rhythms to create self-sustaining ecosystems. This can be done on any scale, from a small garden to large-scale farms.


These design systems are informed by whole-systems thinking, a mental framework that is applied to all aspects of the farming process. In other words, before making any land modifications or adding any inputs (fertilizer, pesticides, water,


soil, etc.), the long and short-term consequences of these changes are thoroughly investigated for their impact on the sustainability of the farms ecosystem. This can be achieved through split-testing, in which little modifications are made to one area while the other is left untouched to evaluate the effects on plants and soil quality.



The goal of permaculture is to establish a regenerative system where the land is not only able to support human life but also improve the surrounding environment. This is achieved by creating ecological corridors, using natural pest control methods, planting native species, and a host of other sustainable practices. Permaculture tries to rely on as few inputs from outside the farm as possible and the inputs that are used from outside the farm should have a positive impact on the environment around us.


Permaculture farming is becoming more and more popular as people become more interested in sustainable living. It is a great way to reconnect with nature and learn how to work with the land instead of against it.


If you want to learn more about what Permaculture is check out this article by GroCycle


Why is permaculture important? How is it sustainable?


Permaculture is important because it helps us live more sustainably. It teaches us how to work with nature instead of against it, and how to use the resources that are available to us locally. It forces us to consider all implications of our actions and changes made to the land, orienting the farmer once again around the long term as opposed to solely thinking about short term cash cropping. You must consider what crops and methods will allow the land to produce food for the longest, not the fastest. This makes permaculture a more sustainable way of farming than traditional methods.


Why is permaculture a more sustainable way of farming than traditional methods?


Large Scale Monocropping
Photo Credit: EOS.com

In our view, Permaculture is a more sustainable way of farming than traditional methods because it takes into account the whole ecosystem in which the farm exists.


Traditional methods often involve monocropping, heavy tilling of the land, using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and irrigating with precious water resources. These methods while additive to the land at the beginning, cause the plants to grow faster and larger than they otherwise would, creating an unsustainable vicious reliance on these methods. After a few years of these "traditional methods", the soil becomes depleted of vital nutrients and relies solely on these methods for any crops to grow.


Permaculture, on the other hand, utilizes natural tactics such as using sawdust or straw mulch to retain moisture, using companion plants to reduce pest spread and impact on crops, and disturbing the soil as little as possible to allow it to create its own healthy microbiome in which the plants thrive. This means that permaculture farms are less reliant on inputs from outside the farm. They also tend to use less water in areas where little precipitation falls from the sky by growing plants that would naturally survive in those environments without excess help from humans. Permaculture designs are adaptive and additive to the local climate and resources as opposed to forced and detractive.


Does permaculture actually work?


The short answer is yes, permaculture farming does work. There are many successful permaculture farms around the world that are producing food using only the resources available on their property.


Here is a list of a few farms that are succeeding in permaculture.

Why We are Implementing Permaculture Methods.


Mark has always been a farmer at heart and has been working in the industry since he was 15. Since starting his farm career, he has worked in a variety of positions, departments, and roles in several different agricultural businesses. He has experience in dairy barns, general barn/farm maintenance, annual hay harvesting, land excavation and more. But he always sensed there was something about large-scale farming employing "modern techniques" that was harmful to nature and a burden on the environment rather than beneficial. He knew there was a better way he just didn't know exactly how he would go about it and how it would make for a profitable long-term viable business in the Humber Valley Region.

Then in 2019 while vacationing in New Zealand we had the opportunity to work on a larger-scale permaculture farm under development which was working with permaculturalists, biologists, environmentalists, and zero waste management techniques. This was his first exposure to the word permaculture and it finally hit him "this was the answer". Watching the New Zealanders work with the land doing things totally different than what you experience here in North America had his mind thinking of ways to apply similar principles to what we can do in the cold climate of Newfoundland. Techniques such as sheet mulching, companion cropping, no dig crop beds, permaculture zoning and incorporating animals into your design to help deal with pests. By employing these strategies, farmers have developed a more closed-loop system where each component of the farm helps the other thrive, and so we decided this was what we would do here at The Upper Humber Settlement to become a sustainable and resilient farm.


So what is Closed Loop Farming?


Closed loop farming is one of the core goals of implementing permaculture techniques and while is it not always possible to close the loop right away it is something that permaculture farms are constantly working towards.


Closed loop farming is a type of permaculture that takes into account the whole ecosystem in which the farm exists. In closed-loop farming, the farm becomes a self-sustaining system in which all of the inputs and outputs are accounted for.


In traditional farming, there is a lot of waste that is created as a by-product of the farming process. This waste can include things like animal manure, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and water runoff. Closed loop farming seeks to reduce or eliminate this waste by incorporating it back into the farm in a way that benefits the crops. For example, animal manure can be used as fertilizer, captured rainwater can be used to irrigate the crops, and animals can be used to control pests. By cycling these wastes back into the farm, closed-loop farming creates a more sustainable system in which the farm does not rely on outside inputs for sustenance.


How are we Closing the loop and What steps did we take to start our permaculture farm?


Before visiting New Zealand we already had general ideas of how to work with the land in order to be more in harmony with the natural environment around us. When we bought our land here in Cormack it was covered with trees and alder trees. So we set out to remove enough to start our farm. We used a local sawmill to turn all the trees we removed from the land into the home that is now located on the property.


We tilled the ground once to make our crop beds and used a sheet mulch tactic to kill off the weeds present in the locations we wanted to start farming. This allowed for the nutrients of these weeds to be retained in the soil and reduced the labour costs of manually weeding all of these beds ourselves. Retaining the organic matter of the weeds was one of our first efforts to begin closing the loop and by not tilling our land every year we have created a great ecosystem for the mycelium to thrive in the soil and further improve the health of the growing medium. If you are interested in why mycelium is so important in the health of your soil check out Suzanne Simard's book Finding the Mother Tree.


We started small not knowing what vegetables would work best in which areas of the property. Over the years we have progressed in our understanding and connection with the property and continue to get more yield and less crop loss due to pests and inadequate growing conditions. Mark has determined what crops grow best in which part of the property and what mulch types each crop prefers to grow in. It is a continuous learning experience and we are constantly developing more permanent design pricing principles and crop rotations to employ on our farm.


We started incorporating companion crops to help deal with pests and ensure that each soil horizon was not depleted of nutrients. We added ducks to our farm to help combat snails and to create natural fertilizer which can easily store and used on the crops as needed. These ducks are then fed by the weeds we remove from our crop beds throughout the summer furthering our goal of closing the loop and having nothing on the farm be wasted.


Over time we added chickens to the mix in order to not only deal with pests but also to help weed new areas of the farm. These chickens are housed in a mobile chicken coop we can move around the farm giving them new grazing ground every a couple of weeks and to prevent killing the pasture crops. They work every day adding nitrogen to the soil and aerating the land to help their own summer pasture flourish.


During the winter we keep the chickens in a stationary coop that we add wood shavings to for bedding. As the winter progresses and the bedding gets soiled, we add more shavings stacking the new on top of the old. By the end of the winter, this pile of bedding and chicken waste is a foot or thicker. It is then used as fertilizer in the spring throughout the farm and the plants love it. This is called the Deep Litter Method. This method also works to keep a good temperature in the coops ensuring the chickens are comfortable through the winter season.



In the last few years, we have added pigs to the farm as well, as another means of naturally removing shrubs and weeds from different parts of our farm. While pigs are hard to sustain in a closed loop system, especially with a farm our size. They do help close the loop for our friends and neighbours. Pigs will eat anything and that is great news in a society with lots of food waste. We get food from people with apple trees that grow to many for just them to eat. We give any food compost from the Bed and Breakfast to the pigs before it makes it to the compost. We even partnered with a business called Loop that allows us to acquire expired food from the grocery stores in the area in order to feed our pigs (which they quite love).


Although we're new, we've been working hard to create a small-scale permaculture farm that has as a positive environmental impact as possible and also minimizes food waste in Western Newfoundland and every year we see huge improvements in our farm and our yields.


What steps should I take to start a permaculture farm?


This is a question we get asked a lot since starting our farm. This is a tricky question to answer as every biome and microbiome can differ dramatically as to what plants will thrive in that area. Our advice would be, just start, preferably start small so you don't fall into a rut of having to use fertilizer and pesticide to deal with large issues on your farm. Once you perfect it on a smaller scale you can build out and deploy your tactics on a larger portion of your farm. Remember though tactics that work in one part of your farm may not work in another, so don't be surprised if you get different results when you move your crops to another section of the farm.


But if you implement the tactics we touched on above and modify them to better suit your regional location and with a little hard work, you will get great results! The feeling of reward, in the end, knowing that your farm doesn't require large input from outside sources and is instead helping with real-world problems such as food waste and carbon sequestration, you will get a sense of deep satisfaction.


Which cash crops will be the most ideal for a permaculture farm?


This is the last topic I want to touch on. I know earlier in the post I said that Permaculture isn't solely concerned with cash cropping the land in order to produce the most profitable return on what you are planting. But that does not mean you don't want to work towards maximizing high-value crop yields to help ensure your business becomes profitable and maintains profitability (we are a business after all). So how do you balance the two?


In our experience, you need to find high-value vegetables that thrive in your local area and on your farm. Once you know what those vegetables are, you should work towards maximizing their yield within the given area you have allocated for them on the farm. This should not be done to the detriment of the soil's nutrients because if you overplant they will deplete the soil and you will not get as much yield from that plant over the subsequent years. Finding that balance will ensure you get the max output from your property each year and over the long run.


After identifying what crop does the best in each area on the farm, you need to work towards finding what animals and companion plants will live in a symbolic relationship with your cash crop. This will help increase yields by reducing pest damage and reducing labour costs required to deter pests from eating your crops.


Some small-scale producers focus on salad greens and lettuces, some use garlic as their main crops, and some focus on fruit trees and develop systems that work with the trees and land for maximum yields and lowest environmental impacts. We would love to learn what cash crops work in your area and on your land because it will be different for everyone.


Conclusion


These are some of the steps we are taking at The Upper Humber Settlement to create a closed-loop permaculture farm here in Western Newfoundland. It's not easy and it takes a lot of hard work, trial and error, and there is definitely no silver bullet to making it work. But if you employ some of the tactics we mentioned about and stick with it. You will be on your way to doing the same.


If you are interested in learning more about how we are developing The Upper Humber Settlement as a sustainable permaculture farm join us for a Farm Tour here on the property.


We love sharing what we do and how we do it so that our community can learn a little more about not just where their food comes from but what it took to grow it, harvest it and put it on the table.