The Permaculture Solution – an Interview with Warren Brush
Interview by Leslee Goodman of the Moon Magazine
Warren Brush [see author profile] describes himself as a certified permaculture designer and teacher, a mentor and storyteller. He is co-founder of Quail Springs Learning Oasis & Permaculture Farm, a former cattle ranch located in California’s Cuyama Valley — one of the remotest places within a three-hour drive of Los Angeles you can imagine — where his team demonstrates and teaches permaculture design principles and practices.
Prior to creating Quail Springs, Brush and his wife, Cynthia Harvan, began a program for homeless youth in Santa Barbara, California, which they then expanded to include children and teens from diverse racial, social, and economic groups. Wilderness Youth Project (WYP), an independent nonprofit organization, mentors diverse youth and families by taking them into nature. Each year, WYP spends many days in the Cuyama Valley, tracking animals, learning earth skills, building shelters, tending fires, and stewarding the land.
The Wilderness Youth Project is still taking kids into the wilds, but in 2004, Brush and Harvan, with the help of a Santa Barbara foundation, acquired Quail Springs. They moved to the land to lead the caretaking and development of the ranch as a permaculture learning and demonstration project. Since then, many dedicated and inspired people have taken part in developing the organization that Quail Springs is today—and people have come from all over the world to learn permaculture design principles and practices. In addition to permaculture design and application for food production, Quail Springs teaches natural building, Earth-based skills such as foraging, sacred hunting, tanning, and fiber arts, and offers Sustainable Vocations, a permaculture design-certification program for young people aged fifteen to twenty-five.
Brush and his permaculture design company, True Nature Design, are often called to consult and teach internationally. He recently returned from a five-country teaching stint in Europe just in time to teach a two-week permaculture design course for international development and social entrepreneurship. He was kind enough to speak with me by phone one afternoon while a local Chumash leader was teaching. His is a hopeful vision for the Future of Food. – Leslee Goodman
The MOON: You’ve been quoted as saying that permaculture is now feeding more people than all the world’s aid programs combined. That’s a pretty remarkable claim. Please tell us more.
Brush: That’s actually a quote from Geoff Lawton, of the Permaculture Research Institute in Australia, an organization created by Bill Mollison, who is considered “the father of permaculture.” Lawton made that statement four years ago, in 2009, from PRI’s own research. I find it a credible claim. Around the world, nearly two and one-half million people have completed the Permaculture Design course, which is a seventy-two hour course that teaches the basic methodology of permaculture, which is about consciously designing with nature to achieve highly efficient and stable systems.
The reason it’s credible is that, when you mimic natural systems, rather than the monocrop systems of corporate agriculture we’re accustomed to, we can produce up to ten times the nutrition per square foot. For example, when you plant food in multiple layers like you would see in a forest — even if you’re just planting a raised bed — you get ten times the productivity of a monocrop. And at the same time you’re building soil, you’re recycling wastes, you’re providing valuable ecological services that mimic nature, which the monocrop system does not. You don’t see monocrops in nature. You see diversity in nature.
The MOON: So why do you think that corporate agriculture hasn’t jumped on the permaculture bandwagon?
Brush: Because Permaculture is a decentralizing movement. It can’t be done on a large scale without involving many people, which is an entirely different way of farming that looks more like times past, when we had communities of small farmers. Rather than one farmer having five thousand acres, permaculture has a thousand people each farming five acres. Which is a much more stable way of producing food — for people, if not for profit.
However, a lot of corporate agriculture is starting to look to permaculture for improving efficiency and profits. Estimates are that the modern agriculture system uses ten calories of energy to produce one calorie of food. That is completely unsustainable. Yes, we’re producing a huge amount of food, but we’re mining resources in order to achieve it. At some point our caloric savings account is going to be depleted. We’re burning through energy capital at an appalling rate. We’re stealing from our children and grandchildren in order to produce cheap food today, which is something that no sustainable — or ethical — culture in the world has ever done, or would ever do.
A lot of people who are doing large-scale agriculture find that at first they get high yields, but over time, as the soil is depleted, they have to keep buying more and more fertilizers, pesticides, treated seeds, and so on, from a corporate suppler. If they were left to an open market, where their food had to compete without government subsidies, they wouldn’t be able to make a profit — and so they wouldn’t farm that way. So much of the modern agriculture system is surviving only because of government subsidies in support of corporate profits. But we’re starting to see farmers in the United States and all over the world who are really desperate for change. We get a lot of farmers coming to us who are looking for ways to wean themselves from the huge industrialized energy inputs that they have to pay for. The only way to have manageable scale profitability is to mimic nature as closely as you can. It’s only when you push against nature that it costs energy — which ultimately costs money.
This applies not just to agriculture, but to urban design, architecture, water management systems, everything. Look at Las Vegas. The whole thing is designed to survive only with huge energy inputs in the form of fossilized sunlight, or oil — to deliver water, to keep buildings cool, to power neon lights, to ship food and everything else people need to live. It’s a huge energy sink, which represents poor design.
The MOON: I thought the Green Revolution was the hope for feeding the world. What happened? Isn’t it true that corporate agriculture is the reason why only two percent of Americans can work at farming and feed two hundred twenty million of us… with food to export to the rest of the world? Can permaculture compete with this level of productivity?
Brush: Consider the overall ecological footprint of the so-called Green Revolution. It isn’t “green”! The level of productivity that corporate agriculture has achieved is not sustainable. The UN commissioned a study of the effects of the Green Revolution in Africa. The study involved twenty-seven leading scientists in different disciplines — agriculture, hydrology, soil science, sociology, ecology — and the results were published in a document headlined, “The Green Revolution Has Failed Africa.” The report detailed how the Green Revolution created centralized systems of food production, which are extremely vulnerable to disruption. It created widening disparity between rich and poor. It destabilized entire cultures, where people no longer know how to produce their own food, and the system too often doesn’t provide it for them. And we’ve exported this system globally.
Moreover, a lot of the calories our food system now produces are empty calories — they fill people up but they provide poor nutrition. If fact, they’re carrying toxins and compounds that the body doesn’t know what to do with, and so we’ve got biocides showing up in our fat cells. We’re starting to see cancer rates skyrocket as increasing chemicals find their way into food and housing environments. In the U.S., we’re seeing the whole host of health effects related to obesity from this type of food system.
Plus, it takes ten times the energy input for each calorie output in the American food supply system. We’ve spent something like two hundred and fifty million years of fossilized sunlight — in the form of fossil fuels — in the last fifty years. That’s something that can’t continue. It takes ninety-eight tons of plant material, degrading over millions of years of pressure, and heat, to become a barrel of oil, which is stored sunlight energy. We’ve designed all of our systems — energy, manufacturing, transportation, agricultural, how we move goods and water — around these intense forms of stored sunlight. That’s a finite resource.
Sustainable systems work on real-time sunlight. All of our ancestors, every sustainable society, works with real-time sunlight. That’s really the definition of sustainability: meeting the energy needs of human settlements — and even perhaps a surplus — with real-time sunlight. Throughout history we’ve had oil wars — because oil is that intense, stored sunlight in the form of liquid energy. Before petroleum we had whale oil wars. Before that we had olive oil wars. It’s all based on an understanding that stored sunlight energy can change the dynamic of how you work on the land. You couldn’t send an army to conquer another people if they had to feed themselves at the same time. They had to be able to carry food with them — stored sunlight energy — or take it from the people they conquered. I have a really strong belief that the degradation of our food system by Western agriculture — where we’ve lost the genetic diversity of our food, we’ve lost the bioregional relationship with the land — is responsible for the depression, despair, and dissatisfaction so many people feel.
In Santa Barbara County ninety-seven percent of food dollars leave the county, and at the same time, nearly ninety-six percent of the food grown in Santa Barbara County leaves the county, as well. So we incur these huge energy and transportation costs moving things around. Which means we don’t have a stable, secure food system. An increase in gasoline prices, a truck drivers’ strike, an interstate shutdown — can disrupt our food supplies. And at the same time, we don’t have a local food culture in this country anymore. Culture used to derive from our landscape, which affected everything — our food, our architecture, our clothing, our music — it all came from place. Now we’re part of a globalized homogenized culture — which is to say, no culture. I think that’s a loss for humanity. When you no longer have culture it means you’ve lost your sustainable way of living.
The MOON: You’ve touched on numerous problems with corporate agriculture, but at the same time, it’s what’s feeding most of us. Can you be more definitive in outlining the problems with it?
Brush: A big obvious one is economic. It costs more to produce food the way we’re doing it now than it returns financially. It couldn’t survive without government subsidies. Most of the farmers in America are welfare farmers. They’re being subsidized to do what they’re doing — and they’re not happy about it. They’re not proud of it.
The other primary problem with corporate agriculture lies at the foundation of all food production: soil. Our soil is measurably, quantifiably, being degraded wherever you see current industrialized agricultural practices applied. We are losing arable land, while we’re increasing population. We’re losing topsoil. We’re losing soil fertility. Farmers have to apply increasing amounts of fertilizers and pesticides to be able to maintain yields.
Agricultural practices must build soil or they will not last. The more biocides and chemical fertilizers you add, the more you degrade the soil’s biology — its ability to work for you and for the plants. Agriculture depends on soil microbiology — a soil food web — that modern agriculture doesn’t honor and, in fact, destroys.
A third problem is tillage. Tillage physically disrupts the soil microbiology. Large-scale mechanical plowing and harvesting are practices that came to us out of northern Europe, which is a very unique, temperate microclimate that benefited from thousands of years of forests building very deep soils. That history and microclimate doesn’t exist throughout the world, but we’ve exported this type of farming to tropical climates and arid climates and grasslands, and the soil is not able to withstand it. Plowing inverts the soil and destroys all the microbiology that nature tries to regenerate.
Modern agriculture is also based on export crops. Wherever you see monocrops, you’re seeing food for export out of the community. Farmers all over America go to Costco to get their food because they don’t eat what they grow. Farming communities can’t even feed themselves because they’re only growing garlic, or carrots. It’s a crazy time we’re in! And it’s so unstable. The Green Revolution has not only destabilized our ecology, but it’s also destabilized our economy, our culture, our understanding of how to grow food.
When you say “only two percent of the people” have to be farmers now — as if there’s something wrong with farming — that’s a bad sign. If the people who are growing our food are considered less valuable than people doing something else, there’s something wrong with our priorities. Every culture in the world was completely integrated with its food production system. Food production was a core part of their culture. People are so cut off from that now; they’re cut off from the knowledge that sustains their own existence. They’re so out of touch with how the choices they make affect their environment, their planet, that they don’t seek the scars they’re creating all over the world. In the United States we don’t see how many people around the world are suffering because we’re still mining their resources in order to maintain the lifestyle we live.
It’s said that it would take five Earths to give everyone the lifestyle enjoyed by people in the United States. Of course there aren’t five Earths, so the American way of life is totally unsustainable.
There’s also a loss of beauty involved with our present way of doing things. I think that sense of beauty and connectedness is what so many Americans are craving. I would be interested to see whether the rise of modern agriculture and industrialization parallels the rise in depression.
In permaculture, we’re trackers. We’re constantly looking at feedback loops to see what’s working; what’s not working; and make adjustments. That requires looking at things holistically. If you’re looking at agriculture as something separate from your waste streams, from how you get your water, from your housing, transportation, your forests and wildlands, then you’re working against, not with, nature.
This linear, silo-thinking is causing great damage to the Earth. Everything cycles; everything is interconnected. We can make changes, we can feed people in a way that restores, rather than damages, the Earth but we need many, many people to start to grow gardens; to start buying local foods, and to be in relationship with the people who provide food that they do not provide for themselves.
There is a re-localization going on. We see it in the Slow Food movement, in the Slow Money movement; in the Transition Town movement; in the community-based natural building movement. And it’s beautiful. I believe people are communal by nature. We’ve evolved over thousands and thousands of years as village beings. There’s a depression that results from being isolated and “independent” and ultimately suckling from the udder of mass consumerism, rather than from the udder of the land and community that surround us and supports us and our future generations. It’s not only a philosophical thing; it’s also very pragmatic.
If you want stability and resilience for your family and community you need a diverse, local food system. If you live in a city in the U.S., you’re nine meals away from living in a food desert. If you don’t have trucks coming in, you’re nine meals away from being out of food. That’s not stability, or security and nowhere is there resiliency for you and your family if you live that way.
The permaculture movement can change that — and the reason we’ll be successful is that we’re a grassroots movement without a head. We go under the radar of corporate regulations, government funding or interference because we’re simply a collection of ethics and principles that guide our design methodologies around the world. Wherever these design principles go — whether to a village in northern Liberia or the backyards of Beverly Hills — they create beauty in alignment with nature.
Can these design principles feed the world? Yes! But it’s not going to look like the model we have now. It’s like Einstein said: You can’t solve a problem using the same consciousness that created it. We have to change our consciousness — and I believe design is the way to do it because it’s endlessly creative. There’s not one way — every situation will have its own solution.
That’s why so many young people come to Quail Springs. They know intuitively — they have a whole-body awareness — that the way we’re doing things is not right, and they want to learn another way. And the truth is, the problems of the world are increasingly complex, but the solutions are embarrassingly simple.
The MOON: So what are the set of ethics and principles that make up permaculture?
Brush: Real basically, permaculture is a design science that harmonizes with natural systems, and it involves a set of ethics and principles that guide that process.
For example, consider an orchard. People plant a single type of fruit tree in long rows, so many feet apart, with so many feet between the rows, and nothing — but perhaps orchard grass — in between. That is common in modern agriculture, but it is something you never see in nature. What you see in nature is forests made up of many kinds of trees and other plants growing in multiple layers: root layers, the FBI layer — fungi, bacteria, and insects — herbaceous layers, low-growing shrubs, mid-story plants and over-story plants. Some climates have emergent plants; plus, there’s vining, and animals, and an incredibly diverse and integrated pattern that nature recreates over and over again wherever you see a natural forest.
Now nature doesn’t always grow forests with human food needs in mind, but permaculture is about mimicking natural designs for human settlements. So we design our food system borrowing nature’s pattern, applied to human needs for food, forage, and fodder. As it turns out there’s a vast history of humans practicing food forestry — in Asia, among the Mayans, and the Moroccans — you find thousands-of-years-old food forests. So here at Quail Springs we’re cultivating our own little food forest.
When we started to plant it out, we were unsure of ourselves because it felt counter to what we’d been acculturated to. We planted it out, mimicking the succession process that would take place if nature was going to create a forest. Some plants are pioneers and prepare the environment for succeeding plants, creating over time a forest that would be heavy in food for humans.
We’re in a very unique environment out here. We’re in a dryland environment that gets six inches of rain a year. In fact, this past year we only received four inches of rain. So we have a very slow-growing food forest compared to if you were in, say, a tropical environment. We planted all kinds of things: root crops, low-growing mints and dryland herbs, mid-growing Jerusalem artichokes, higher-growing elderberries, datura and many types of native plants; mid-story stone fruits — plums and apricots — plus apples, jujubes. Then we put in a nitrogen-fixing over-story, which also provides shade to mitigate the heat we have here. The over-story includes plants like robinia, or black locust, which we coppice (cut back so that new shoots grow). We’ve got some kinds of fast-growing dryland poplar, which provide leaf litter to build up the soil. Or whole system is based on building soil while we grow food, and as we grow our forest, we create a micro-climate that supports an increasing variety of plants. It’s a long-term strategy within our more immediate food farm system.
We were visited by a university professor of orchard science, who took one look at what we were doing and said, “You’re going to have to rip out half these plants because there is no way that this apricot tree is going to reach full expression here, and you’re going to get fewer apricots.”
Food forestry takes a completely opposite approach however. Food forestry says, “Yes, you’re right; we’re going to get fewer apricots. But within the same three-dimensional space in which that apricot tree is growing are also twenty or more other animals and plants that are going to provide a rich variety of foods — and therefore offer ten times the nutrition.”
It happened that the following week one of the top food forest advisors in the world was here. He looked at our baby food forest, shook his head, and said, “You’re going to have to double your plantings.” That’s the permaculture approach.
And that’s just one aspect of it. Next, I might consider, “How are my human wastes going to be dealt with in a way that contributes to the functioning of the system?” One of ways we did that was to build an orchard toilet — a movable toilet that could return some of our wastes to the soil. Then we realized that for integrated pest management we could run our chickens and turkeys and ducks through the orchard. They not only ate the bugs, they also provided fertilizer. Plus, since they were getting all that protein in the form of insects, it cut down on the food we had to provide for them.
One thing I want to emphasize: permaculture is not a farming, or gardening, technique. It’s a design methodology — in this case applied to agriculture. But you could apply it to anything — to buildings, to waste cycling, to water harvesting. I think people get confused about that. They say things like, “Should I do organic gardening, or should I do permaculture?” Organic gardening can be incorporated; biodynamics can be incorporated.
The MOON: Are you able to feed yourselves from your efforts? How many of you are there at Quail Springs?
Brush: Right now we are providing about eighty percent of the food needs for our permanent residents — which are about seventeen to twenty of us. It fluctuates a bit with our travel schedules. Also, bear in mind that the food forest is our investment in future food production. We also have a more conventional garden that produces food for our immediate needs.
We’re just babies at this. We started Quail Springs nine years ago, but we’re operating on a two-hundred year plan, which will ultimately be a thousand-year plan: How can we provide a yield for ourselves now, while simultaneously build up the soil and increasing the land’s productivity for future generations?
Another thing we’re doing, which is a really big story, is rejuvenating our springs, which most people believed had died. The Cuyama Valley has been deforested and overgrazed and deep wells have drained the groundwater. As a result, most of the springs, as well as the river, are completely dried up. Ours was just a trickle nine years ago — and then, only at night when the trees weren’t transpiring. Now we’re getting sixty gallons a minute.
The MOON: Wow! How did you do that?
Brush: We did a mix of things. One was intense planting. A lot of people deforest riparian areas, thinking the trees are soaking up all the water, but we did the opposite: we planted. We did a lot of earthwork to flow the water, spread it, and sink it. We built a gabion* system. We removed the cattle, which had been here for over one hundred years, and that allowed the land to revegetate. And there’s a whole lot more to the story than that. The bottom line is that, through a whole variety of interesting watershed management practices we’ve been able to restore our springs, even through this severe drought that southern California is currently experiencing.
This is one of the problems I’m most often called in to address: how to rejuvenate springs. The most difficult problem is usually political. We understand the science, the methodology; what’s more typically lacking is the willpower.
The MOON: How so?
Brush: The politics of place and profit prohibit it. Say you’re on Lake Victoria, Kenya. The mountaintop where all the springs used to flow used to be communal land, which was stewarded for the benefit of the tribe. But when they adopted a westernized system of land ownership, the water was no longer managed for the common good. People sold off their land, and deforested it, and all but a few of the springs dried up — and those few flow at just a fraction of their previous output. So no solution can be implemented without the agreement of the landowners.
Here at Quail Springs, we’re the farthest privately owned property up a particular canyon in Cuyama Valley, surrounded on three sides by national forest. It’s ironic, but we can go into the forest and take timber, or we can overgraze — totally legally — with just a simple permit. But if we want to go into the forest and do reclamation work, slowing erosion or reforesting, we have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an environmental impact report. Our regulations have been created for the benefit of industry. The cattle and timber industries are gatekeepers for a lot of the regulations that have to do with our forests. So we have to be Ninja-like, and work under cover of darkness, so to speak, if we want to benefit the land in the national forest.
I just completed an eighteen-program tour in five countries in Europe, and they are so much further ahead in terms of stewarding their landscape. In Germany, there is no clear-cutting allowed, whatsoever. They have a rejuvenation program for all their forests, which encourages the people to do many, many small beneficial things on behalf of the forests. One of the lead forester in one of my forestry classes was so excited because so many things we were advocating are things they’re already doing in their forest department. America is behind — and really setting itself up for catastrophic failures if we don’t change. When you have your regulatory system held captive by the industries it’s supposed to regulate — industries which are mandated to make a profit for the few, even if it’s at the expense of the environment and the society — it’s not going to last. It can’t be sustained. I really hope that Americans wake up and make a turn, because it’s exciting to design our way out of this. We know how to do it. We just need the political will.
To give you another example, according to California building law you cannot build a non-toxic house. We worked with a person on the code committee of the national Green Building Council; we worked with the head of the California County Building Officials Association. I mean, we worked with the top people in the country, and they couldn’t advise us on a way to legally build a nontoxic house. Basically our laws have been set up to mandate the use of highly industrialized, processed materials that have a lot of chemicals in them. That can’t be maintained over time, either. But no political administration wants to tackle it. They continually say, “Let the next administration handle it,” because they know it will be a fight.
But change will come. We can either design our way out of our present situation, or change will be forced upon us as a result of crisis.
The MOON: That leads into the question I have about one of the permaculture principles outlined on a website you recommend: www.permacultureprinciples.com. One of the principles advises that, “The permaculture approach is to focus on the positives, the opportunities that exist rather than the obstacles, even in the most desperate situations.” Why is that? It seems to me that you have to point out the problems with our present system to show people why change is necessary. If I didn’t know about the horrors of corporate farming, why wouldn’t I keep supporting it? It’s cheaper!
Brush: It’s because people get overwhelmed. There’s so much evidence that things have to change; I don’t think people are unaware of the problems. But when you call attention to the problems without giving a solution, people become paralyzed. They run into a wall of impossibility. They think, “Oh my God, the problems are so big, there’s nothing I can do.” So we have to give them possibilities. Scientists around the world are presenting the data that systems are crumbling — ecologically, socially, culturally. Plus there’s mounting anecdotal data such as extreme weather events. But focusing on the problems is like exercising by only lifting weights — only contracting your muscles. You have to stretch them the other way, too. Because I believe it’s the same muscle. We designed our way into this mess, and now that we know better, we can design our way out. We can apply conscious design to whatever the conditions and circumstances of our lives are now. And that, I believe, is exciting.
I tell my students, “You know, we can never go back. We don’t want to go back to something behind us. What we want to do is forge into the future in a way that’s never before been seen that also honors where we’ve been. I’d like to see us incorporate indigenous living — the values of sustainability and stewardship — into the science that we’ve since acquired. That way of living is highly productive, highly decentralized, highly egalitarian, and the profits stay within the community — meaning there is far less debt enslavement that benefits a tiny group.
I don’t think Americans are against hard work; I think we’ve bought into a view of wealth that it’s related to dollars, rather than wealth that we create with our hands, our ingenuity, our love. That kind of wealth is beautiful. It’s reflected in the food we eat, the homes we live in, the clothes we wear. It’s a way of life that involves listening — listening for your calling. This is actually the root of the word, “vocation.” Vocare… it means to name, or invoke, one’s calling, one’s gift, that which you can share with the world.
*Gabion: a basket or cage filled with earth or rocks, usually as some form of support or abutment.