The Keyline Contribution to Permaculture
Without Percival Alfred (P.A.) Yeomans and his Keyline concepts Permaculture as we know it would not exist. Bill Mollison is quick to tip his hat toward this debt in the very first paragraph of Permaculture Two: Practical Design for Town and Country in Permanent Agriculture. Here, after making the claim that Permaculture is different from all other approaches to agriculture due to its use of “conscious design,” he respectfully qualifies, “with the notable exception of Keyline concepts.”
In fact, most of the major themes that were developed into the permaculture approach were exploratory trails originally blazed by the practical visionary, P.A. Yeomans.(1) His relentless experimentation, fearless ‘trial-and-error’ mistake-making, tireless reflection, ongoing adjustment, and ‘learning by doing,’ (as well as his unique set of skills and knowledge in hydrology and engineering) made him one of the most innovative ‘adaptive managers’ of agricultural history.
The Keyline process he developed was the first farm/ranch planning approach to:
- Focus on the whole (holistic)
- Recognize the critical importance of goals, and especially prioritized, holistically-considered decision-making for planning (2)
- Acknowledge the role of people as a crucial part of the system — maintaining that land health was “a direct reflection of the people”
- Use conscious design sensitive to ‘place’ in farm landscapes
- Integrate the land improvement tool of livestock grazing with technology (Yeomans Keyline Plow) to accelerate fertility succession
- Pay attention to the importance of scaled organization of agro-ecosystems (recognition of nested hierarchies and the interplay dynamics between levels) as an explicit dimension needed to effectively plan for permanence
- Increase flexibility, adaptive capacity, and resilience of the whole-farm. (3)
In short, Yeomans proclaimed and actually enacted a clear-eyed way forward towards the very “permanent agriculture” (what today is called ‘sustainable’ or even ‘regenerative’ agriculture) that was his life’s passion, purpose, and aim.
The Keyline Scale Of Permanence
The backbone, the veritable vertebrae, of Yeomans’ Keyline Design system, and the outcome of fifteen years of adaptive experimentation in a broad-acre environment characterized by dynamic uncertainty, (4) is Yeomans’ Keyline Scale of Permanence (KSOP).
- Water Supply
- Subdivision Fences
So, what is the meaning of this 8-factor list, and what can you do with it? Yeomans’ “full explanatory title” for this list gives a clue. He calls it:
The Keyline scale of relative permanence of things agricultural, for the planning, development, and management of agricultural lands.
Like many experienced and successful farmers, Yeomans was a natural systems-thinker. As such he recognized that “the planning of one aspect cuts across all others.” It is for this reason that he built his scale as a sensible ordering device for use in planning. In practice he used the KSOP for prioritization and as a decision-making guide for planning fertile farm landscapes that are robust to the fluctuations of time.
While all of the scale’s factors are understood to be inter-related parts of a complex whole that will exhibit dynamic interplay between levels, the specific order of his scale is hierarchical (in both the nested and ranked senses of the word), and based on scales of time as well as energy. So how does that work?
The eight factors occur each in distinct levels ordered by amounts of time and energy. Yeomans used ‘relative permanence’ to discuss the time-scale element for each factor. The flip side of this is the relative difficulty needed to change that factor, which can be seen as an amount of energy.
In order to facilitate faster grasp of the relationships between all of the factors, during my Keyline courses I’ve developed a simple graphic learning-aid that presents the relationships visually to make the whole scale more intuitive ‘at-a-glance.’ (5)
Along the horizontal x-axis we see increasing units of time moving from the left to the right hand side of the graph. This means the last, or 8th factor on the KSOP (furthest to the left in the graph), soil, is potentially the fastest changing/least permanent variable of the lot! (6) Of course, the discovery and development of a process capable of building soil fertility in a matter of a season to a few years was one of Yeomans’ most revolutionary contributions to a permanent agriculture.
Next, along the vertical y-axis of the graph, the higher up the factor (also higher in the hierarchy of the KSOP) the more energy it takes to make a change, and the more difficult that will be. These are the slower changing variables of any system, setting the context.
Use Of The Yeomans Scale
Using the KSOP in planning, development, and management decision-making is, at the core, a matter of consciously designing the various factors to ‘fit’ into their given context. A matter of matching the horse-power to the cart! Of fitting the house atop the foundation. Yeomans gives the ‘everyman’ example that one will normally buy a tie to match the suit and not vice versa! How much more important when dealing with whole livelihoods and landscapes! This is why the order is important.
The first factors of climate and landshape (and to a degree, water supply) are more or less the fixed context within which any operation will have to adapt itself. These are the design parameters, if you will. The remaining factors have more flexibility and are a means to skillfully accomplishing that adaptation and co-evolution with attention, resourcefulness, intelligence, and hopefully some measure of elegance and grace. (7) This is one area where permaculture principles come into play as very effective guidelines for further developing this part of Yeomans’ order.
Once implemented, Yeomans observes, “nature sooner or later signifies approval, or disapproval.” His Keyline Scale of Permanence is designed to give your design, planning, and management the best chances for garnering this “approval.”
This is why the various scaled factors exhibit a nested, Russian-doll, order (or “annidated,” to use Mollison’s term) in the KSOP. So lower levels can be designed for the best ‘fit’ with their context.
As higher levels are the ‘context’ for lower levels, they asymmetrically constrain and exercise some controls on lower levels. The amount of rainfall your land receives (KSOP Factor 1. Climate) will ‘control’ how large a dam you might consider building.
At the same time, activity of lower levels can feed back into and significantly affect the dynamics of higher levels. If you get your soil fertility and soil water-holding capacity to high enough status (KSOP Factor 8. Soil), you may be able to save the time, energy, and expense of building any dam at all!
So, while all levels and their interactions must be heeded in good design, the general KSOP pattern begins with the higher, larger context scales.(8) The patterns established by these Factors then directly affect the subsequent design and pattern for each following factor in the order. The spatial layout for water affects the pattern of access roads affects where you might locate your tree shelterbelts, and on down the scale. Essentially, “designing from pattern to details,” as David Holmgren later distilled it.
By creating such a simple but ordered design process that works directly with the scaled and nested organization of nature itself, Yeomans empowered farmers and land stewards everywhere to be able to more simply work with, and adaptively fit their operations within, nature’s complex dynamics.
The Keyline Scale of Permanence continues to be used and taught by an increasing number of sustainably-minded consultants and educators. And, like many of Yeomans visionary ideas, this one continues to be better understood by more practitioners with time. World-wide now, it is growing in application and relevance, and continues to be developed even further (see, here, here, here, and here).
As Yeomans foresaw, the systemic crises of conventional treadmill agriculture and its feedback effects to its own larger-scaled environmental context continue to magnify at an increasingly rapid pace. The systemic solutions he encouraged are more relevant than ever, and, hold the possibility to do as he claimed and “reverse the process of deterioration with equal speed.”
Yeomans’ Keyline Scale of Permanence, a true-original “pattern for permanence,” remains today as he always intended it to be, a gift of his hard-won experience, and “a contribution to the development of a modern planned agriculture that will be stable and permanent.”
Owen Hablutzel is a consultant and educator (etc) who serves as a director of the Permaculture Research Institute, USA
Yeomans’ Keyline® Design Approach is being combined today with Holistic Management® and Broad-acre Permaculture processes for an ‘amplified’ version of this evolving approach. Learn more near Portland, Oregon, at a 3-day workshop that includes a hands-on Yeomans’ plow demo:
- Keyline Design for Whole Farm Fertility — August 24-26, 2012, Oregon, USA. (Download PDF info here and here.)
- In the chapter devoted to the Keyline Scale of Permanence we find many if not most of the catalyzing themes that Mollison and Holmgren developed very well, expanded-upon with their own genius, and essentially re-formulated into “permaculture.” These themes include:
— Reading the landscape, ‘landscape literacy’ (landshape)
— Micro-climates, increased edge, system diversity (trees, shelterbelts, etc.)
— Patterning and zones of use (though often taught as being original to permaculture…). Yeomans references patterns and patterning frequently, and tells a story about a dysfunctionally zoned dairy-farm that brings out the importance of zoning and relative position (“sites selected having regard to all other more permanent features” — a proto-‘Sector Analysis’), among other examples
• Acceleration of succession (soils, etc.) and stacking functions (the many functions of trees he consciously planned and used)
• Animal integration (Yeomans’ was always a grazier-integrated approach)
• A focus on creating a greater presence of perrenials in the landscape
• Emphasis on a conscious and logical design approach
• Sought a “partnership of technology and tradition.” (Particularly his knowledge of earth moving, hydrology, and land engineering.) Such tradition as “agricultural lore and tribal law… handed down for generations…” And envisioned them “properly co-related [to] form the basis of a new permanent agriculture”
• Even a perspective of human responsibility for land stewarding, essentially an ethic of ‘earth care,’ is announced by Yeomans at the end of this important chapter.
- Yeomans emphasized that, “every decision should be based on adequate consideration of the whole plan of development.”
- All of these Yeomans’ themes have subsequently been taken up by others and further developed through a variety of frameworks anticipated by Yeomans, including: Permaculture, Holistic Management, Adaptive Management, Agro-Ecology, Resilience and Sustainability Science… a process that continues.
- As Yeomans described the climate in which he worked: "… poor agricultural climate so typical of Australia’s farm and grazing lands of the mid-temperate zone… temperatures are often high… rainfall is insufficient and unreliable and droughts of a few months occur every year; flooding, destructive rains occur about as often as the severe longer drought. The position of excessive run-off followed by rain shortage for pasture and crops is a more or less constant feature…"
(from chapter V of The Challenge of Landscape)
- Please download this graph if you might find it of use, and use under a Creative Commons Share-Alike license, 3.0
- Like many other relationships in natural and human systems (from earthquakes and avalanches, to city size and traffic jams) the pattern of relations between these time-scales roughly obeys a logarithmic power-law distribution.
For example, the “relative permanence” of a climate-regime (Factor 1 on the KSOP) may be on the order of tens of thousands of years (that our present climate appears to be undergoing a radical and geologically rapid shift towards a new Anthropocene regime does not nullify this… the Holocene, which we are leaving behind, lasted 10,000 years). Changes in landshape (at landscape scales) will tend to occur in the several thousands of years time-scale, whereas the supply and layout of water, along with roads and their effects may last ‘mere’ hundreds of years. Buildings and fences, order of decades. And soils can change for the better (or worse) quite quickly (order of years).
The same rough power-law relation would apply to the y-axis, but using joules and mega-joules, or other units of energy, rather than units of time.
- ‘Elegance and grace’ include attention to aesthetics, which were certainly part of Yeomans’ conscious awareness in farm design. This is but one of the many functions he specifically calls out for trees in farm landscapes. It is a matter of no great controversy that his properties held highly-pleasing aesthetic values, with their placid bodies of water, wide pastures, grazing herbivores, and interspersed tree-belts.
In fact, in this aspect Yeomans had hit upon the deep savannah ‘nostalgia’ of our Pliestocene-shaped human genome, which has been shown to be a universal human ideal landscape preference (witness your nearest public park, and suburban ‘lawn-scapes’ — ok folks, possible Mollison had it wrong in his analysis of class-privilege and Veblen-style ‘conspicuous consumption’ as the source of human ‘lawn-longing’).
- We might argue here that with the implicit understanding of social and ecological organization rendered through his Keyline Scale of Permanence, Yeomans has anticipated Hierarchy Theory (a dialect of General Systems Theory, and Complexity Theory). A decent introduction to this is found here.
This would add to a long-list of frameworks Yeomans anticipated, such as in endnote (3).
* Except where otherwise noted, all quotations of P.A. Yeomans cited in this article are from chapter IV in The Challenge of Landscape (1958).