Ranch Musings: Permaculture in Canada

Regular columnist David Zirnhelt says there has been a recent resurgence in interest in permaculture

David Zirnhelt

Observer Contributor

There has been a recent resurgence of interest in permaculture. A review of a 2017 Master’s thesis on the topic was reported in an article in the most recent issue of Small Farm Canada (Sept./Oct. 2019).

The article is titled “Permaculture comes of age: Can a growing system with high environmental principles be commercially viable?”

Climate change and the economic difficulties in agriculture may be spurring this new interest.

What is “permaculture”?

It is the growing of perennial (growing for many years) plants in a designed system, often with space for annual crops. This is a lay person’s definition. There are technical definitions, but they mean essentially the same as my definition.

Some people are turned off by the idea because they think it is a hippie gardening concept.

Now, the new interest is whether many crops can be grown on commercial farms and done so profitably.

There are only a few dozen farms in Canada purporting to be commercial permaculture operations.

Some of the science cited in this 2017 thesis, by Sara Hirschfeld, University of Guelph, indicate that various crops in the right combinations can produce more revenue and production that single crops, even though any one crop in the diverse cropping may have reduced production of up to 25 per cent.

But the sum of all the crops is more than if the area was mono cropped (only one crop).

So, the problem is that we can’t look to many examples of this kind of farming to inspire us.

If you are interested in this concept of permaculture, then I commend this Small Farm Canada article to you, along with the Hirschfeld thesis.

Ranchers practise a form of permaculture on the fields that grow forages, although some “farm” up their fields to optimize the hay or forage (grain, legumes) they need for their cattle and sheep.

To the extent that natural areas of trees, brush and grasslands are left on some parts of the ranch, then this diversity can be seen as permaculture.

One farmer interviewed said he felt that permaculture as a technique was highjacked by “the homestead, home garden, back-off-government people.” However, he says it has a lot to offer farms.

This idea centres on crops that can be grown together in a vertical landscape: things growing on the ground, at bus height and the taller trees. So, you might have mushrooms growing under berries, which are overtopped by fruit and nut trees and even taller timber species. Once established, most of these crops don’t need annual cultivation, resulting in cost reductions.

The farm operator can concentrate on harvesting and processing costs/efforts instead.

A person can look to what the Indigenous peoples did and do here and see usually a minimum of cultivation, but nevertheless encouraging certain plants and animals by techniques such as burning on the forest edge to enhance production of balsam root or raspberries, to mention two crops.

I look around me and wonder if domesticated hazelnuts will produce economical crops. I know the birds and the squirrels get the wild varieties once they are ripe. I also wonder about nurturing the elderberries, highbush cranberries and hawthorn which populate our biome.

Permaculture supporters will say that these plants need to grow proximate to the farm if they are going to be harvested economically. One can’t go too far and hope to make a living from their efforts.

One of my dreams is to have acorns growing (on oak trees) to feed pigs just by the trees dropping them on the ground. I may not live that long, as it might take 100 years.

Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad legacy: “that crazy old man, our great-great grandpa planted these, back in 2014-15.”

David Zirnhelt is a rancher and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake.

READ MORE: Ranch Musings: Human health, soil health


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