Learning About Permaculture Design from Organic Annual Vegetable Farmers

Some people will tell you that there is no place in permaculture for annual crops. I’m known as something of a perennials enthusiast myself. But permaculture is in part a design system that can be applied to many areas of our lives, and this certainly includes annual crop production. In 2002 I was privileged to spend the weekend interviewing a panel of highly experienced organic farmers through my work with the North East Organic Network (NEON).

At the time Dave Jacke and I were writing Edible Forest Gardens (see here and here) and I was absolutely amazed to see the parallels between the annual crop planning and rotation system and the permaculture design process. Even today that experience is one of the strongest influences on my own design practice. Though it took a few years, a book was finally published based on NEON’s work. It’s called Crop Rotation on Organic Farms: A Planning Manual, and you can download it here for free. I co-wrote one of the chapters which is largely a transcript of the panel.

The introduction of the book states:

Crop rotation is a critical feature of all organic cropping systems because it provides the principal mechanism for building healthy soils, a major way to control pests, and a variety of other benefits. Crop rotation means changing the type of crop grown on a particular piece of land from year to year. As used in this manual, the term includes both cyclical rotations, in which the same sequence of crops is repeated indefinitely on a field, and non-cyclical rotations, in which the sequence of crops varies irregularly to meet the evolving business and management goals of the farmer. Each field has its own rotation, and, consequently, each farmer manages a set of rotations.

I had previously always thought that farmers had relatively simple rotations that they put on "automatic pilot" for each field. For example a field might switch from tomato family crops to brassicas to squashes and back over the course of three years. What I learned is that the process is a much more dynamic and deeply integrated into the overall farm planning process. I also learned that many organic farmers on our panel believe in the power of perennials to restore soils, and incorporate multiple years in perennial crops like hay and even dwarf apples for this reason.

During the panel we used a workplace training curriculum called DACUM (Design A CuricculUM), which breaks the job (in this case "managing a crop rotation system") down into larger duties, each of which is comprised of smaller tasks. Through my employer, the New England Small Farm Institute, we had previously had great success using DACUM to create an "occupational profile" for the Northeast (USA) small-scale sustainable farmer, which you can download here for free.

I’d like to share just a few of the topics that popped out for me from the chart that we created. Here are the duties (letters) and just a few tasks for each one (letter-number). These are just a few of the 93 total tasks in the chart. For much more please review the table on pages 12-13 of the crop planning manual.

A) Identify Rotation Goals

A6) Balance acreage, at whole farm level, between cash crops, cover crops, livestock, and "fallow" (e.g., bare soil, stale seed-bed, sod/hay, permanent pasture, or woodlot; consider role of livestock in fertility and weed control)
B) Identify Resources and Constraints B9) Identify cultural constraints based on equipment (e.g., row width, irrigation)
C) Gather Data C9) Categorize crops
C10) Categorize fields
D) Analyze Data D3) Compare crop cultural needs to field characteristics (e.g., soil test results, crop residues)
E) Plan Crop Rotation E4) Consider harvest logistics (e.g., access to crops; field and row length, minimum walking and box-carry distance, use of harvest equipment, plan for ease of loading onto trucks
E8) Determine the field locations of most profitable, beneficial, and "at–risk" crops
E9) Determine field locations of lower-priority crops
E16) Develop guidelines for contingencies in case rotation does not go as planned (e.g., written or mental guidelines for improvisation; principles, priorities to use to make on-the-spot decisions)
E17) Use senses and imagination to review plan (e.g., field plans and logistics; walk fields and visualize rotation, "farm it in your head")
F) Execute Rotation F10) Plant crops (follow plan and planting calendar as conditions permit; capture planting windows, "seize the moment"; adjust plan as needed based on contingency guidelines [see E16])
F13) Adjust actions according to field and crop conditions (e.g., weather, soils, weed pressure; assign crops to different fields or beds to adjust for wetness or other problems; replant if necessary, abandon crop or replace with a cover crop to cut losses)
G) Evaluate Rotation Execution G10) Measure performance against rotation goals (positive or negative outcomes)
H) Adjust Rotation Plan H1) Identify successful combinations and repeat (set successful rotations on “automatic pilot)
H4) Tweak crop mix (e.g., based on market data and field performance; consider adding or abandoning crops or elements of rotation as necessary)
H5) Tweak field management (e.g., change planting or plowdown dates, crop locations; shift crop families to different fields; put poorly performing fields into hay ahead of schedule)
H7) Start process over

To me that sounds a lot like what Jonathan and I do when we manage our forest garden, though we may use a longer time scale. This is particularly true after the initial design and establishment. These farmers have to deal with a constantly evolving situation. Their plans go awry when fields are too wet to plow in spring, or a new market opportunity opens up. In our forest garden, things die or taste bad and must be replaced. Gaps open and we need to be ready to fill them quickly or give a chance for weeds to establish (or lose the chance to do something productive in that patch this season). These farmers all had guidelines and contingency plans ready so they could roll with the punches and improvise a successful season no matter what got thrown at them.

One of the most important things that happens in these farmers’ rotation plans is that they match crops to fields. A key component of this process is categorizing the crops and fields (see tasks C9 & C10 above). Here are some of the ways that these farmers categorize their crops and fields.

Crop Characteristics

The table below lists crop characteristics from most to least important, as ranked by expert farmers.

Field characteristics

These relatively permanent characteristics of a field are difficult to change; many affect the type of equipment that can be used in the timing of operations.

  • Botanical family
  • Market demand
  • Season of planting, harvest, labor, and land use
  • Susceptibility to pests and diseases
  • Cash versus cover crop
  • Ability to compete with weeds
  • Annual, biennial, perennial, or overwintering annual
  • Direct-seeded versus transplanted
  • "Givers" versus "takers"
  • Heavy versus light feeders
  • Cultural practices (for example, spraying, cultivation, irrigation)
  • Preferred seedbed conditions
  • Space requirements
  • Income per acre
  • Effect on cash flow
  • Harvest timing
  • Costs per acre
  • Tolerance of mechanical cultivation
  • Ability to trap nutrients
  • Root versus leaf and fruit
  • Drought tolerance
  • Row versus block planted
  • Large versus small seeded
  • Deep versus shallow rooted
  • Tolerance of poor drainage
  • Shade tolerance versus intolerant
  • Pollination requirements
  • Recent planting history (1 to 5 years)
  • Within–field variability
  • Proximity to water source
  • Erosion potential
  • Drainage
  • Sunny or shady
  • Known problems with weeds, insects, diseases
  • Poor tilth or hardpan, wildlife
  • Slope
  • Moisture-holding capacity
  • pH
  • Soil type
  • Aspect (north, south, east, west)
  • Air drainage — frost pockets
  • Size
  • Cation-exchange capacity
  • Proximity to barn or access roads
  • Stoniness
  • Shape (corners, road lengths)
  • Proximity to similar fields

I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like a lot of the factors I think about when designing or maintaining a perennial permaculture system. Interviewing these farmers and then spending a few months writing up the chart and chapter has really influenced the way I think about design and had an impact on the design chapters in Edible Forest Gardens volume two as well. Whether you are growing annuals, perennials, or both (as I do), I think you’ll find this chapter has something to offer you. We all have so much to learn from farmers and researchers. Perhaps they even have a few things they could learn from us.

The rest of the book is truly fantastic and features an overview of crop rotation science, sample actual cropping sequences from our expert farmers fields, a planning procedure, ideas about crop rotation, transitioning to organic agriculture from conventional, and some very interesting guidelines for intercropping. It also has excellent tables in the back looking at opportunities and challenges in following one crop after another, and how to use rotation to minimize diseases, weeds, and pests.

Further Reading: