An Introduction to Permaculture

An Introduction to Permaculture & the continuum of world food production & Where To Go Next

An Introduction to Permaculture


Michael Pilarski has been studying and practicing agriculture since 1972.  He studies food production systems from around the world and throughout recorded history.  His specialty is permaculture and he is one of the pre-eminent permaculture teachers in the Pacific Northwest.

Michael has also taught in other parts of the US as well as Canada, Belize, Australia, Nepal and the Hawaiian Islands. He brings together the disciplines of permaculture, agriculture, ethnobotany, and restoration ecology. Michael has recently moved to Northwest Montana.

Michael’s talk  will include a short introduction to permaculture, and an overview of the types of food production currently existing in the world today and how they fit into a continuum of sustainability vs. unsustainability.

Every kind of farmer would benefit from applying permaculture design and techniques on their farm. Results would include: Increased productivity, reduced outside-input costs, better pest-predator ratios, better bottom lines, healthier soils and land, better image in the public mind and hence more support from the public.

 Reorienting our agriculture to the sustainability end of the spectrum can have profound affects on the world.

1) From being a contributor to 1/3 of the world greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture can become the main way we sequester carbon and reverse dangerous, climate change trends.

2) Our food supply can once again be full of minerals, enzymes, vitamins, etc instead of full of toxins, pollutants and GMOs.

3) This will increase the health of humanity, both as individuals and as a whole.  This will greatly reduce the current levels of disease and ill health, both physical and psychological and the consequent high costs of health care we have today.

4) We can retire approximately half of the world’s current farmland thus creating more area for us to share the world with all the other species.

5) Agricultural lands can deliver nutrient-dense foods to our plates as well as cleanse water and air, decrease floods and contribute to a healthy world.

We know how to achieve this now through the combination of the best of traditional agricultural systems with the best of the new systems including ones such as permaculture, aquaponics, natural systems farming, forest gardens, Holistic Management and more.

Permaculture is a whole-systems approach to designing farms, yards, cities, forests, and other land units.  Permaculture has a set of ethics, a set of principles and a design methodology.  Permaculture design is both a science and an art. Permaculture has thousands of strategies and techniques in its toolkit gathered from around the world and throughout history. Permaculture is dynamic and on the cutting edge of coming up with solutions to humanity’s problems.  Permaculture draws on many other disciplines and leading schools of thought.

Permaculture was first developed in the 1970s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.  It has now spread around the world with over 300,000 people graduated from permaculture design courses.  Permaculture is still very young.  The first book on permaculture, Permaculture One, was published in 1978. Today there are hundreds of books on permaculture in many languages. 


Permaculture Ethics

1) Care of the Earth

2) Care of the people

3) Dispersal of surplus towards above ends – Fair share.

Permaculture Principles.  There have been two major sets of principles developed so far. The first set elucidated by Bill Mollison (Sometimes referred to as the Mollisonian Principles) and the 2nd set developed later on by David Holmgren (referred to as the Holmgrenian Principles).  There are overlaps between these two sets.  Besides these two sets there have been many other principles developed by other permaculturists with varying degrees of recognition within the movement.  My handout includes a list of these different principles.  I am sure many more principles will be developed over time. This is not a static situation.


Permaculture Methodology

This is my own particular rendition of the methodology. There are many renditions in the permaculture c ommunity, but most of them follow these steps, more or less.  Some people break this out in much more detail.


Some strategies techniques specific to permaculture

Zone planning

Sector planning

Sheet mulching

Cycling of nutrients, water and energy in the system as long as possible before exiting.

Permaculture looks at how many crops can be grown on as small an area as possible and modern agriculture is out to see how many acres it can grow one crop on.

Permaculture is similar to Biodynamic agriculture in emphacizing the reduction of off farm inputs.  Permaculture is about making the farm as ecologically sound as possible. Its value to conventional farmers might be less about ways to increase production as in ways to cost costs.  There are many ways to improve farm finances.  One is to increase production and another is to reduce expenses. Many farms have large gross sales but small net income.  Better to net $100,000 on $300,000 gross sales than to net $25,000 on $400,000 gross sales. It is not the gross that counts at the end of the day, it is the net income. 

Every kind of farmer would benefit from applying permaculture design and techniques on their farm. Results would include: Increased productivity, reduced outside-input costs, better pest-predator ratios, better bottom lines, healthier soils and land, better image in the public mind and hence more support from the public.

 Continuum of farming/agriculture methods

The continuum of farming methods in the world from most sustainable to least sustainable.

There is a vast continuum of farmers and farming types in theUnited Statesand globally. 

** On one end of the spectrum are the finest achievements of modern agriculture with highly mechanized, large-acreage monocultures, characterized by huge inputs of industrially produced outside inputs, GMO seeds, pollution of soil, water and air, labor exploitation and turning out low-nutrition, poisoned food.

** On the other end of the spectrum are the farmers of the world who use a large diversity of crops (usually integrated with livestock); use low mechanization; use no or few outside-inputs; use methods that builds soil, cleanses water and air; is family owned and does not exploit labor; and turns out high quality, nutrient-dense food.


The vast majority of farmers fall in between these two extremes. There are many types of farming in the world. There are a lot of gray areas and hardly any farms fit neatly into one category. There are people who have devoted their life to studying and comparing the types of farming in this continuum. Michael is one of them.  Most of his studies have been focused on the organic end of the spectrum. Here are some types of farming we can put on the continuum.

This list is from best to worst types of farming.  This is my personal opinion and most farmers are a mix of varying types listed here.

Here are two graphics Michael has prepared of different agricultural methods and how they fit into my subjective continuum of sustainability/unsustainability.

Graphic #1 is a list of different food production methods and where they fit into my continuum.  The placement of these different production methods onto this continuum can be much debated. In fact, the practitioners of each of these different methods can be placed onto a continuum of their own which would range from most sustainable to least sustainable.  The organic farming continuum for instance can range from very sustainable to very unsustainable.

Graphic #2 is a pie chart of how important each of these food production methods are to meeting current world food production. It shows that unsustainable agricultural methods are currently being used to meet the majority of current food production and sustainable methods currently meet a low amount of food production.  I believe that these two relative positions will be greatly changed over the next 50 years in favor of sustainable methods. The relative percentages are my current guestimates and are not based on rigorous research. This is a project that deserves much more attention. 

Continuum graphs can be made within each type of farming. Organic, non-organic, Palouse Hills wheat farmers, even individual farms. Where do you rate your farm on the sustainable/non-sustainable continuum for your neighborhood? 

>> Permaculture is a wholistic design methodology which leads to highly productive, biodiverse and carbon-rich ecosystems and includes a high degree of reliance on native plants and native ecosystems. Developed by Australian’s Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s and spread internationally since.

>> Best-developed examples of hunter-gatherer management (since ancient times. Very few surviving examples but there is significant information in early and current writings. The best elucidation of how hunter-gatherers managed their ecosystems to improve food production is in Nancy Turner and Douglas Deur’s recent book “Keeping It Wild: Traditions of Plant Use and Cultivation on the Northwest Coast of North America”. The importance of this work is worldwide.

 >> Analog Forestry is a system which seeks to establish analog ecosystems with architectural structures and ecological functions similar to the original climax or sub climax vegetation. It also seeks to strengthen rural communities, socially and economically through the use of species that provide commercial products. (Developed by Ranil Senanayake in Sri Lanka in the 1980s)

>> Rainforestation Farming. An ecosystem approach combining rural development, biodiversity conservation and rehabilitation and sound resource management. It aims for a species mix and structure similar to the original, local rainforest and includes indigenous fruit and forest trees as well as shade demanding crops.  (Developed in the Phillippines).

>> Sustainable systems of pre-industrial, traditional agriculture. The best preserved examples are inAsia and some Pacific islands. Ancient systems developed and improved on over millennia.

>>  Pastoral nomadism. Here we are talking about the best-developed systems in harmony with the environment. Ancient, but little practiced nowadays.

>> Ecoagriculture applies an integrated ecosystem approach to agricultural landscapes which enhances rural livelihoods, conserves or enhances biodiversity, and develops more sustainable and productive agricultural systems. It is a term coined in 2000 by Sara J. Scherr and Jeffrey A. McNeely. Their book describing it is: Ecoagriculture, 2003, Island Press).

>> Natural Way of Farming  A system of agriculture that seeks to follow nature by minimizing human interference: no mechanical cultivation, no synthetic fertilizers or prepared compost, no weeding by tillage or herbicides, no dependence on chemicals. (Developed by Masanobu Fukuoka in Japan).

>> Holistic Management describes a systems thinking approach to managing resources that builds biodiversity, improves production, generates financial strength, enhances sustainability and improves the quality of life for those who use it. HM has mostly been applied to livestock ranches.  (developed by Alan Savory of Zimbabwe and the US)


>> Forest Farming/Forest Gardening. Early pioneers were J. Russell Smith (USA), Toyohiko Kagawa (Japan), and Robert A. de J. Hart (England); and more recently, David Jacke (USA).

>> Biodynamic Agriculture is a method of organic farming the emphacizes the holistic development and interrelationships  of the soil, plants and animals as a self-sustaining system. It also includes the influences of lunar, solar and stellar influences. (Initially developed in Germany and Europe at the inspiration of Rudolf Steiner and now found worldwide).

>> Grow Bio-Intensive. A whole-system farming method characterized by double-dug raised beds, composting, intensive planting, companion planting, carbon farming, calorie farming, and the use of open-pollinated seeds, Developed by John Jeavons in California from French intensive gardening.

>> Aquaponics. Intensive, integrated fish and vegetable production in greenhouses. Developed over the last decade by Will Allen inMilwaukee,Wisconsin

>> Home Gardens. Found throughout the world with many national and climate characteristics but each one unique. Usually high production and largely done by hand. In total they produce a significant amount of food.

>> LEISA (Low-External Input, Sustainable Agriculture) uses agro-ecological approaches to reinforce ecological principles that are in line with local ecosystems and which contribute to poverty alleviation  (Developed in Asia, Africa and South America)

>> Agroforestry and its offshoots, agrosilvopatoralism (livestock & trees), pisci-agroforestry (fish & trees), api-agroforestry (bees & trees), silvi-horticulture (home gardening under trees). Agroforestry is a collective name for land-use systems and technologies where woody perennials (trees, shrubs, palms, bamboos, etc) are deliberately used on the same land-management units as agricultural crops and/or animals in some form of spatial arrangement or temporal sequence. In agroforestry systems there are both ecological and economical interactions between the different components. (Initially developed in Africa, AF spread to Asia and Latin America and more recently to industrialized countries.

>> Agroecology, (not really a type of agriculture per se but applicable here. The goal of agroecology is to develop and manage sustainable agroecosystems. (Developed by Miguel Altieri and Stephen R. Gliessman of California). A comparison of natural ecosystems, sustainable agroecosystems and conventional agroecosystems can be found at their website.

>> Multifunctional Agriculture.  As outlined by the IASSTD.  Combines sustainable food production with environmental services c ombined with social services.

>> Keyline System of Soil and Water Management. A whole farm design system characterized by maximum storaged of water in the soil, diversion channels, system of linked dams, flood flow irrigation, tree belts on contour and a pattern of keyline plowing with the Yeoman plow to store water in the landscape and rapidly improve soils. (Developed by P.A. Yeoman inAustralia in the mid 1900s.)

>> Regenerative Agriculture. Going beyond organic farming to regenerate soils, wildlands, local environments and communities.

>> Organic farming. A system of agriculture that encourages healthy soils and crops through such practices as nutrient recycling of organic matter (such as compost and crop residue), crop rotations, proper tillage and the avoidance of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The original kind of agriculture. In its modern form, J.I. Rodale was responsible for popularizing the term and it has been much developed in the last 40 years.

>> Swidden agriculture, sometimes termed slash & burn (of which an improved form is slash & mulch). Swidden is often a form of agroforestry and can be done sustainably in its highest forms with long enough time between rotations. Ancient and formerly more widespread.

 >> Eco-Agriculture, (a broad array of ecological farming techniques, which developed a lot from the magazine “Acres USA, A Voice for Eco-Agriculture”. Charles Walters was the originator of the magazine and long-time editor). William A. Albrecht was a soil scientist who contributed greatly to our knowledge of soil functioning. [Note the almost identical name as that proposed by McNeely and Scherr over 30 years after Walters]

>> Bio-Agriculture. Tainio Technologies inSpokaneWashington.  Very similar to Eco-Agriculture, it focuses on soil health.  

>> Conservation farming. Recent innovations to reduce erosion and pollution in broad-scale agriculture which were developed during the Dust Bowl and up to the present. Promoted by the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

>> Subsistence, small-holder farming using unsustainable practices. Under development since ancient times.  These days most subsistence agriculture is unsustainable due to overworking, smaller plots of land because of population growth and lack of access to land.

>> Mixed agriculture. Modern industrialized farms which integrate crops and livestock.

>> High External-Input Agriculture. (HEIA) Modern industrial agriculture. Usually single or few crops or types of livestock and no integration of livestock and crops.

>> Corporate, large-scale, industrialized, monoculture farming and CAFOs(Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) characterized by pollution, GMOs, and labor exploitation. Damaging to the Earth and to society.

The pie graphic accompanying this article is a first attempt to show what percentage of the world’s food supply is provided by each of the different types of agriculture. Wild fisheries and aquaculture still need to be added to the pie graphic. This is just a first attempt.

This continuum essay is a work in progress. Michael Pilarski

An experienced and educated permaculturist has familiarity with as many of these other forms of agriculture as possible. Each farm situation is different and we can adopt/adapt methods from any these farming types as needed. Here are some techniques and strategies that permaculturists draw on.

Some techniques and strategies to study

Holistic Management has very strong financial planning.

Keyline plowing is very useful topsoil improvement, reducing soil compaction and stopping erosion.

Weeds as a resource should be explored.  Some have value as commodities, others can feed animals, be used for mulch, compost, etc.

Contour farming.

Broad-base terraces in large, sloping fields.

Livestock Integration, a la Joel Salatin

Beetle banks and other habitat strips.

Self forage systems for livestock.

Increasing wetlands in the system. Holding water on the landscape longer.

Developing local markets and closer farmer to consumer links.


Native plant crops


Herbal leys

Increased use of nitrogen fixing plants and microbes

EM (Effective micro-organisms)

Increasing fungal component of soils.


What do I think the agriculture of the future will look like?

1) More emphasis on perennial crops and less on annual crops.

2) More emphasis on regionally and locally adapted crop varieties.

3) More emphasis on wild foods and crops derived from native plants.

4) A much wider number of crops (and livestock) on farms, both on individual farms and in a locality.

5) Less processed food in people’s diets.

6) Mostly organic food production.

7) Few large-scale, confined animal production.

8) Much higher amount of food production by gardeners and by small-scale farmers in peri-urban areas.

9) More farmer to consumer marketing.  Local food is going to become much bigger than the organic market is today.  Consumers increasingly want to know where their food comes from and want to know their farmers.

10) More regional food production and less transportation of farm products around the globe.  A trend away from specialization and globalization of food towards localization of food supplies.

Large-scale, industrial farmers of today may become the dinosaurs of the future. Farmers of today can profit by following these trends.

Food production methods from best method to worst.

  • Permaculture
  • Best hunter-gatherer management
  • Analog Forestry
  • Rainforestation Farming
  • Natural systems agriculture.
  • Sustainable, traditional agriculture
  • Best of Pastoral nomadism
  • Ecoagriculture (from Scherr and McNeeley)
  • Natural Way of Farming (Fukuoka)
  • Holistic Management
  • Forest Farming/Forest Gardening
  • Biodynamic Agriculture
  • Grow Bio-Intensive (John Jeavons)
  • Aquaponics
  • HomeGardens
  • LEISA (Low-External Input, Sustainable Agriculture)
  • Agroforestry
  • Agroecology
  • Keyline System of Soil and Water Management.
  • Regenerative Agriculture
  • Organic farming
  • Aquaculture
  • Bio-Agriculture. Tainio’s Technologies.
  • Eco-Agriculture
  • Conservation farming
  • Swidden agriculture
  • Subsistence, small-holder farming using non-sustainable methods
  • Mixed agriculture.
  • High External-Input Agriculture. (HEIA)
  • Corporate, large-scale, industrialized, monoculture farming
  • and CAFOs

Leave a Reply