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Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

By Lynda Waddington 3/12/10 10:15 AM

ANKENY, IOWA — Whether they realized it or not, the roughly 250 family farmers, workers and consumers gathered in Ankeny, Iowa, Thursday night fired off their own point-by-point response to a letter from two Republican senators that urged the U.S. departments of agriculture and justice to maintain the existing status quo in the agriculture industry.

Speakers line up to comment at Thursday night's townhall. Photo by  Lynda Waddington, Iowa IndependentSpeakers line up to comment at Thursday night’s townhall. Photo: Lynda Waddington, Iowa Independent

The often rambunctious townhall event was organized by a coalition of groups concerned that everyday people do not have adequate opportunity to express their opinions on the agricultural industry at a joint U.S. Department of Justice and USDA antitrust workshop on Friday. And it had one overarching message: “Bust up big ag.”

“We are here today to make sure that the voices of everyday people are heard loud and clear and send a simple but powerful message to our government regulators and elected officials,” said Barb Kalbach, a fourth generation family farmer from Dexter and board member for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. “Bust up big ag, pass policies that promote sustainable agriculture and local markets, and put people first during the workshop series by prioritizing public comments and input and adding more family farmers and consumers to panels.”

On Wednesday, however, two Republicans in leadership positions on the Senate Agriculture Committee urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to do just the opposite.

“We urge you to ensure that these sessions are balanced and reflect the wide array of producers and business operations in modern-day agriculture,” wrote Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Pat Roberts of Kansas.

After noting that “American agriculture is responsible for feeding the world,” that many industry “segments have become more vertically-integrated” and “other small and successful agriculture businesses have merged” to meet demands, the senators note that change is often met with frustration.

“Such change has led to better income margins for producers and processors as well as lower prices for consumers,” they wrote, adding that competition issues have been “studied extensively by several entities including the United State Congress and, specifically, the Senate Agricultural Committee.”

Although Chambliss and Roberts appear to call for a wide swath of American agriculture to have representation at the meeting, it is difficult to overlook the key point of their correspondence:

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Eric deCarbonnel
Market Skeptics

If you read any economic, financial, or political analysis for 2010 that doesn’t mention the food shortage looming next year, throw it in the trash, as it is worthless.

There is overwhelming, undeniable evidence that the world will run out of food next year. When this happens, the resulting triple digit food inflation will lead panicking central banks around the world to dump their foreign reserves to appreciate their currencies and lower the cost of food imports, causing the collapse of the dollar, the treasury market, derivative markets, and the global financial system. The US will experience economic disintegration.

The 2010 Food Crisis Means Financial Armageddon

Over the last two years, the world has experience faced a series of unprecedented financial crisis: the collapse of the housing market, the freezing of the credit markets, the failure of Wall Street brokerage firms (Bear Stearns/Lehman Brothers), the failure of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the failure of AIG, Iceland’s economic collapse, the bankruptcy of the major auto manufacturers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler), etc… In the face of all these challenges, the demise of the dollar, derivative markets, and the modern international system of credit has been repeatedly anticipated and feared. However, all these doomsday scenarios have so far been proved false, and, despite tremendous chaos and losses, the global financial system has held together.

The 2010 Food Crisis is different. It is THE CRISIS. The one that makes all doomsday scenarios come true. The government bailouts and central bank interventions which have held the financial world during the last two years will be powerless to prevent the 2010 Food Crisis from bringing the global financial system to its knees. Financial crisis will kick into high gear.

So far the crisis has been driven by the slow and steady increase in defaults on mortgages and other loans. This is about to change. What will drive the financial crisis in 2010 will be panic about food supplies and the dollar’s plunging value. Things will start moving fast.

Dynamics Behind 2010 Food Crisis

Early in 2009, the supply and demand in agricultural markets went badly out of balance. The world was experiencing a catastrophic fall in food production as a result of the financial crisis (low commodity prices and lack of credit) and adverse weather on a global scale. Meanwhile, China and other Asian exporters, in effort to preserve their economic growth, were unleashing domestic consumption long constrained by inflation fears, and demand for raw materials, especially food staples, was exploding as Chinese consumers worked their way towards American-style overconsumption, prodded on by a flood of cheap credit and easy loans from the government.

Normally, food prices should have already shot higher months ago, leading to lower food consumption and bringing the global food supply/demand situation back into balance. This never happened, because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), instead of adjusting production estimates down to reflect decreased production, has been adjusting estimates upwards to match increasing demand from china. In this way, the USDA has brought supply and demand back into balance (on paper) and temporarily delayed a rise in food prices by ensuring a catastrophe in 2010. Overconsumption is leading to disaster.

It is absolutely key to understand that the production of agricultural goods is a fixed, once a year cycle (or twice a year in the case of double crops). The wheat, corn, soybeans and other food staples are harvested in the fall/spring and then that is it for production. It doesn’t matter how high prices go or how desperate people get, no new supply can be brought online until the next harvest at the earliest. The supply must last until the next harvest, which is why it is critical that food is correctly priced to avoid overconsumption, otherwise food shortages will occur.

The USDA, by manufacturing the data needed to keep supply and demand in balance, has ensured that agricultural commodities are incorrectly priced, which has lead to overconsumption and has guaranteed disaster next year when supplies run out. An astounding lack of awareness

The world is blissful unaware that the greatest economic/financial/political crisis ever seen is a few months away. While it is understandable that general public has no knowledge of what is headed their way, that same ignorance on the part of professional analysts, economists, and other highly paid financial “experts” is mind boggling, as it takes only the tiniest bit of research to realize something is going critically wrong in agricultural market.

All someone needs to do to know the world is headed is for food crisis is to stop reading USDA’s crop reports predicting a record soybean and corn harvests and listen to what else the USDA saying.

Specifically, the USDA has declared half the counties in the Midwest to be primary disaster areas, including 274 counties in the last 30 days alone. These designated are based on the criteria of a minimum of 30 percent loss in the value of at least one crop in a county. The chart below shows counties declared primary disaster areas by the secretary of Agriculture and the president of the United States.

The same USDA that is predicting record harvests is also declaring disaster areas across half because of catastrophic crop losses! To eliminate any doubt that this might be an innocent mistake, the USDA is even predicting record soybean harvests in the same states (Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama) where it has declared virtually all counties to have experienced 30 percent production losses. It isn’t rocket scientist to realize something is horribly wrong.

USDA motivated by fear of higher food prices

The USDA is terrorized by the implications of higher food prices for the US economy, most likely because it knows the immediate consequence of sharply higher food will be the collapse of the US Treasury market and the dollar, as desperate governments and central banks dump their foreign reserves to appreciate their currencies and lower the cost of food imports. Fictitious USDA estimates should be seen as proof of the dire threat posed by higher food prices, as the USDA would not have turned its production estimates into a grotesque mockery of reality if it didn’t believe the alternative to be apocalyptic.

While the USDA may be the worst offender, the US isn’t the only government trying to downplay the food situation out of fear. As one Indian reporter writes, governments are lying about the looming food crisis. Some experts and governments, in full cognizance of the facts, want us not to create panic and paint a picture of parched crops and a looming food crisis. This, they say, would push up food prices unnaturally, lead to hoarding and ultimately result in a situation where many more millions across the world would go hungry. And whether it is the developing world or the developed, it is those at the bottom of the pyramid who are the most affected in such scenarios. This leads to a confusing divide between reality and government pronouncements, or even between the perspectives of government departments.

Confusing divide between reality and government pronouncements

For months now, the media has been reporting two distinctly, contradicting realities. One of these realities is filled with record crops and plentiful supply, and the other is filled agricultural devastation and ruin. It has been a mad, frustrating experience to read about agricultural disasters and horrendous crop losses in virtually every state combined with predictions of a US record harvest, sometimes in the same article.

A Reality of record crops and plentiful supply

The accepted, “official” reality is found in USDA crop and WASDE reports. In this reality, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is projecting the largest US soy crop on record, at 3.3 billion bushels, and the second-largest corn crop at 12.9 billion bushels.

Below are the government’s numbers for US soybean production by state. The USDA is expecting record high soybean yields across the Midwest in 2009, leading to production numbers significantly higher than the 5 year average. The large increase between the August and November estimates also indicates that the USDA doesn’t believe crops suffered much damage during the fall harvest.

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Jennifer Grayson of Red, White and Green wrote an excellent article for HuffingtonPost on the challenges of avoiding Genetically Modified foods.This topic is especially important given the recent report about Monsanto GM Corn being linked to organ failure in independent lab studies.

Besides the obvious health reasons, there are also moral reasons for boycotting GMO foods. Monsanto, who controls 90% of the GMOs, is an evil company. Now I don’t use that word lightly, but they’re evil. They seek control all of the building blocks of food on the planet. And their methods for reaching that goal make mafia tactics seem ethical. (watch Monsanto documentary here)

Despite the challenges of no labeling requirements in the U.S., Grayson gives some good practical advise on avoiding genetically modified foods. Read her article below.

Eco Etiquette : How Can I Avoid Genetically Modified Foods?

I’m on a kick to boycott all GMOs [genetically modified organisms] because I don’t want to support environmentally toxic agricultural policies. But how do I know for sure that the food I’m buying doesn’t somehow contain genetically modified ingredients?

-Mary

This week’s headline-grabbing news that agriculture giant Monsanto’s genetically modified corn was found to cause organ failure in rats is sure to send panicked shoppers into an anti-frankenfood frenzy. The good news is that this is precisely the kind of damning study (GM corn + animals = death) that will help bring to light the potentially catastrophic consequences of scientifically altered crops. The bad news is that even those who see that light will have a difficult time completely boycotting genetically modified organisms, or GMOs as they’ve come to be known.

That’s because GMOs aren’t just limited to the foods we eat; they’re also in the clothes we wear (cotton is one of the most prevalent GMO crops) and in the everyday household products we use. Those who buy giant jugs of distilled white vinegar to make DIY eco-friendly cleaning products might be interested to know that their vinegar may, in fact, be distilled from GMO corn. I say may, because if you live in the United States, there’s no proof that the products you buy or the food you serve your children hasn’t been genetically tampered with. While the EU, Japan, China, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand have labeling laws for GMO foods, there are no such requirements in the US, despite the fact that a 2008 CBS News poll found that an overwhelming 87 percent of Americans would like GMO foods to be labeled.

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On the CSU Campus, there is a storage facility for seeds that is described as “insurance against global change.” It houses billions of seeds under the auspices of a Fort Collins division called The National Center For Genetic Resource Preservation. If the government is taking seed protection so seriously, then it behooves the personal gardener to develop a similar seed bank savings account that can offer real value in a world where traditional currency continues to show weakness and pressure as the global economy wobbles. By saving your own seeds, you can take part in evolution, as well as increase your self-sufficiency.

Before the rise of commercial seed giants like Monsanto, local gardeners were adept at selecting seeds from their healthiest plants, saving them, and introducing them to the harvest for the following year, thus strengthening the species. Through local adaptation to pests, genetic diversity was further ensured.

While seed prices seem low enough for most people to buy packages at their local nursery, the quality of mass-produced and genetically modified seeds has raised concerns. Many of these genetically modified seeds are deliberately engineered by seed companies not to germinate when the seeds of the mature fruit are re-planted. The strongest harvests will come from the land where the species has proven its worth against the elements specific to that area. The resulting harvest will generally be much more bountiful and enduring than what a standardized package of seeds can provide.

That said, there are some basics to know for ensuring that personal seed production and storage result in a growing savings account. The guide below is a very general overview. Seed production and storage contain many variables based on climate, plant or flower type, number of crops, and area biodiversity. This guide is more fully discussed at the Colorado State University Extension site, and at Virtualseeds.com

1. Pollination methods — there are three methods to take into consideration: air-borne, insect, and self. Of these, self-pollinated crops offer the best opportunity for seed saving; to avoid cross pollination, it is necessary to separate varieties by a few rows of another crop.

2. Root crops — not all garden plants produce their seed at the end of the growing season. It may be necessary to dig the roots in fall to obtain seed, then store and re-plant when weather permits.

3. Hybrids — Hybrids result from a deliberate cross between inbred lines. Although popular for vegetables due to being more vigorous and uniform, hybrids can be a disappointment for a gardener who has unknowingly planted a hybrid. Only the person who controls the original parents can produce the hybrid seed.

4. Harvesting — Seed is extracted from fruit after it ripens, but before it rots. Separate the seed from its pulp and dry at room temperature. Leave pod crops on the vine until the pod dries. Harvest before the seed is dispersed.

5. Storage — Once the seed is dried, gently hand rub to rid it of any chaff, then store it in an envelope in a cool, dry, rodent free location. The seed will germinate best the following year. It is best to re-plant every year and select the best plants for seed.

There has never been a better time to re-connect with nature and your local community. As the global financial crisis continues to produce dependence and insecurity, a seed savings program is a wonderfully productive solution toward maintaining one’s independence and security.

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By all honest accounts, 2009 was a terrible year for traditional agriculture worldwide. Extended weather events have cut many crop harvests in half. Farmers are going bankrupt as crops fail, commodity prices are exploding, and millions of people more have been added to the list of those who go hungry on a regular basis. The world economy is still in tatters, which paints a bleak picture for any hope of receiving government assistance. Meanwhile, Earth’s population continues to rise, and is estimated to reach 9 billion before reaching a point of balance.

2010 looks to be a time of immense hardship; yet, in times of hardship come great innovation as people are spurred from their complacency and forced to become participators in their own survival. The Organic Revolution is focused on self-sufficiency as the primary component toward reaching the goal of living sustainably. Despite how power brokers have aimed to co-opt the movement, individuals must remain steadfast in their pursuit of living a simpler, healthier, and less-dependent lifestyle.

As I have highlighted before, our modern way of life is centered on mega-cities. This will continue, as the percentage of the global population living in, or very close to, major cities rises to 80%. It would make sense, then, that any new movement or new system should begin here, as it will benefit the greatest number of people.

There is an innovative new way of creating food with a limited footprint by using the concept of the skyscraper in order to use plentiful vertical space to supply cities with organic produce. This new system is called Vertical Farming. According to Vertical Farming’s founder, Dickson Despommier, a thirty-story building could feed 50,000 people. An estimated 165 of these “farmscrapers” would feed all of New York City — each building with the footprint of 1 city block (approximately 1 acre). His calculations were based on a project he assigned to his students at Columbia University.

Indoor farming is, of course, nothing new, but as Despommier mentions on the Vertical Farm Web Site, “What is new is the urgent need to scale up this technology to accommodate another 3 billion people.” The concept of Vertical Farming solves a multitude of problems; Verticalfarm.com lists 15 advantages. Here are some highlights:

* Year-round crop production: 1 indoor acre is equivalent to 4-6 outdoor acres or more (strawberries for example would be a 1 acre indoor to 30 acre outdoor equivalent

*No weather-related crop loss

*All VF food is grown organically: no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers

*VF virtually eliminates agricultural runoff by recycling black water

*VF dramatically reduces fossil fuel use (no tractors, plows, shipping)

*VF converts abandoned urban properties into food production centers

*VF could reduce physical conflicts resulting from battles to control limited resources

And Vertical Farming is not limited to produce; preliminary plans include chickens, ducks, geese, fish, crustaceans, and mollusks to be raised within the same building, creating one large integrated system of food production.

Vertical Farming could very well be THE answer for supplying the world’s growing population who are destined to go hungry if innovative solutions are not implemented quickly. The economic crisis has indeed left abandoned buildings and empty malls and houses in its wake. I think of Detroit, for example: what a great concept Vertical Farming would be in a place that has upwards of 50% unemployment, and a completely ravaged urban environment. Buildings can now be bought for pennies on the dollar, and the vast unemployment offers a ready and willing labor pool. Vertical Farming is urban revival at its most basic and needed level.

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We are now three to five generations removed from the rural backbone that strengthened America.  The world at large has undergone a similar transformation as the promise of easier work created a migration to big cities.  These mega-cities could be seen as an experiment gone awry, as general well-being has declined, suicide rates have increased, people work longer hours, and the cost of living has risen to the point where personal savings is virtually non-existent.  These conditions have led to rampant crime, pollution, corporate malfeasance, and a dog-eat-dog type of competition that I would describe (historically) as temporary insanity.  The recent economic crisis has been the final straw for many people, as promises of a better, easier, and more creative life seem to have been sold to us by carnival-style tricksters who are laughing all the way to (their) bank.  But there is a always a silver lining, in my view.  We now have a wonderful opportunity to recapture what we have lost over the last hundred or so years — independence.

Here are my top reasons for becoming self-sufficient; these are based on fundamental, systemic concerns for why undertaking this life change will not be a fly-by-night fad, but rather a long-lasting means for personal independence.  A companion article will follow on Jeff’s blog; he will give some immediate tips for taking back the reins and living a more self-directed life.  The following are listed in no particular order:

  1. Being free of market manipulation – The traditional market-driven investment vehicles are more and more obviously controlled by traders and banking institutions.  The recent debacle with the private Federal Reserve Bank is just the icing on the cake to a previous decade full of Ponzi-type schemes to defraud investors and flat-out steal money from people’s hard-earned retirement (Enron to Madoff).
  2. Hedging against inflation – Have you noticed the price of goods lately?  Prices on produce and necessities have doubled in the last 2 years.  People might have a choice whether or not to buy stocks or gold, but people have to eat — the current increases in basic goods portend hyperinflation, and will not ease anytime soon.
  3. Increasing health and wellness – It has now been revealed that some “organic” items have been falsely labeled.  In addition, a host of “GMO-free” brands have been exposed as deceptive.  GMO food lacks the nutritional value of what can be grown in the average backyard.  GMO mega-corporation, Monsanto, has a sordid history, and has continuously trampled on our trust.  It is time that we do the work ourselves.
  4. Building community strength – I constantly hear people say, “I don’t even see my neighbors, let alone know anything about them.”  Of course not:  80-hour workweeks and grabbing meals to go doesn’t exactly promote community interaction.  With such little time to interact with our immediate community, it is no wonder why many people report feeling disconnected.   In these trying times, it is a local community that can offer the best support.
  5. Working for yourself – Working hours are increasing, pay is often decreasing, and corporate executives are taking bigger bonuses than ever.  This is leading to a prevailing disgust, as people are being forced to admit that they are living lives of near indentured servitude.  Even for those not working in corporations, working for someone else is rarely as satisfying as creating and working for something where every minute you spend is yours alone.
  6. Having more free time – We have been taught to believe that life on a farm is arduous sun-up to sun-down drudgery where you collapse at the end of the day.  This is not so much the case anymore.  Sure, the setup of any farm or self-sufficient endeavor is often time-consuming and laborious, but new technologies and new skills of manufacturing food via permaculture and aquaponics are offering low-cost start up and minimal maintenance, as these techniques serve to create symbiotic systems that are remarkably self-governing.
  7. Generating food and energy security – The planet is running out of food and traditional energy.  Climate volatility, market forces, GM foods, a rising population, and rising costs of harvesting and transporting food are all conspiring to create food shortages even in the First World.  This trend will not reverse.  And our oil-soaked way of life is being threatened by mounting evidence that the oil lifeline could be disconnecting rather soon.  We should be looking to the air, sun, geothermal, and wave power to wean us from the energy grid.
  8. Acquiring an appreciation for life – As one gets closer to life-giving forces, there is a natural appreciation for how things come into being.  When you have created your garden, toiled there, selected the best for harvest, and have prepared that food for your family and community, the significance of what you have taken part in can be transformative.
  9. Restoring balance – Nearly everything in our society is at a peak, or is drastically out of balance.  The systems and governments to which we have looked for balance restoration are missing in action.  We must take it upon ourselves to restore our own financial and environmental balance sheet.  The best way to do that is to reduce our over consumption.
  10. Becoming a producer, not a consumer – This is the best way to reduce your cost of living and increase your self-sufficiency.  In the U.S. over 70% of the economy is based on people buying things.  This is a clear sign of imbalance and, by extension, is not sustainable.  Furthermore, we also have seen corporations race to the bottom to find low-cost production . . . on the backs of desperate people.  The exploitation of the Third World to clothe, feed, and entertain the First World is something that most people do not want to think about, but it is abominable.  Again, new technologies are making it easier than ever to produce your own food, and even your own clothes.

As the cliche goes: Freedom is never free.  But it sure beats the alternative.

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To me, there is no job more important than producing healthy food in a sustainable way. Admittedly I’m a newbie to this particular topic, but I feel my passion growing with every bit of new information I find.  Can there be anything more beautiful than mimicking nature to produce an abundance of healthy food? Sustainable farming methods are gaining huge traction based on their fantastic results.

It is estimated that about 80% of our food comes from industrial single-crop farming and feed-lot livestock, all of which is factory processed to our plate. This method is an efficient assembly line however it is utterly dependent on fossil fuels, has been proven to spawn disease, thoroughly kills any organic life in the soil, and grossly pollutes any waterway that it touches. Is this is how we expect to feed our growing population forever – efficiency over quality, biotech over nature, oil over organic, and rampant pollution?
Wonderful books like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, and corresponding movies like Food Inc and The World According to Monsanto, are making a huge impact on the public. Conscious customers are driving demand higher for organic and local foods. Therefore, more farmers are now adopting sustainable methods because they have proven to produce better products.
Two farming methods have really taken root and are beginning to flourish without the need for pesticides, fertilizers, or large amounts of fossil fuel. It is telling that both methods mimic nature to control pests and produce abundance. In other words, these methods work with nature rather than fight it with chemical additives and antibiotics.

The first method of rotational pastured livestock, or more simply – grass farming, has been popularized by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms (featured in Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Inc). Polyface focuses on healthy pastures and soil to raise the highest quality cattle, chicken, eggs, turkeys, rabbits, and pigs.  It all starts with the grass which Salatin calls a grand “salad bar”.

Polyface’s method is a beautiful stage show of nature at work. First, the cattle are grazed in a specific area of the bountiful pasture where they eat the fresh salad bar and dung the field. The herd is moved almost daily to new thick pastures. Following nature’s example, they then bring the poultry birds behind the cattle to eat the dropped grains, scratch the cow dung for bugs (which keeps pests to a minimum), all while their dung adds significant nitrogen to feed the grass. Salatin’s philosophy is to let the animals be what they were born to be, and to use their natural behavior to limit the work on the farm. For instance, they have developed a composting method where the pigs, through their tenacious rooting, turn the compost for the farm. Every action has a purpose and nothing is wasted.
It’s so simple it should be obvious – that following nature to create healthy pastures for happy animals will make for a much higher quality product than factory farming methods. And because there is less labor, machinery, and chemicals involved, Salatin says they can make a nice living. He claims single-crop growers with oil intensive practices make about $500/acre, while he says his pastures produce roughly $5000/acre. Buying clubs, local chefs, and retail shops all rave about Polyface’s premium quality, and their food purity tests off-the-charts, especially compared to factory farm chickens that have been filled with antibiotics and washed in bleach. I would say there is sufficient motivation for farmers to take notes – and they are.
The second method is permaculture gardening, which is an interdependent system where a large variety of complimentary plants are strategically located for the benefit of the entire garden. This design system is brilliant for urban micro-farms, kitchen gardens, self-sufficient homesteads, and even large scale family farming. The philosophy of permaculture gardening is to recreate nature in a profound way to produce chemical-free food.
Permaculture works something like this; you design an entire edible habitat based on the natural capital of your setting. Then, place plants to methodically balance the soil, water, and pests. For instance, a nitrogen fixing plant may be planted next to a nitrogen hungry plant, which may sit next to an ornamental that deters predators, and so on. Permaculture is also a closed circle philosophy where all resources are optimized though conservation and recycling. The immense food yields per acre are astonishing when using permaculture methods and the results are also drawing many newcomers.
Many homesteaders have utilized these techniques for years before Bill Mollison coined the term “permaculture”in the 80s. However since then, the definition of permaculture has grown to encompass sustainable design systems for all aspects of our existence – agriculture, water, housing, business, community, and wellness.
Now that conventional agriculture methods that depend on cheap infinite oil are proving to be unsustainable at best, permaculture’s popularity is exploding. Numerous businesses, institutes, courses, and internships are popping up to spread nature’s gospel.
Learning about these methods has given me new-found optimism about living in a sustainable way as humanity progresses. These techniques can truly provide a future of what has been previously called an oxymoron – Sustainable Abundance.

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