Permaculture Opportunities for Small Farmers in the Willamette Valley

Author: Amy Garrett, OSU Small Farms Program

Publish Date: Spring 2011

Permaculture has spread around the world as a grassroots movement of farmers, gardeners, activists, designers, and teachers. There are many design concepts in the study of permaculture that could benefit those building the infrastructure for a new farm, and potentially increase long-term efficiency and profitability.

Permaculture is a set of techniques and principles for designing sustainable human settlements and economic systems, as well as productive agro-ecosystems that have the integrity of natural ecosystems. This article will touch on some of the ways permaculture design can be a useful tool for small farmers in creating integrated sustainable farming systems by using a whole farm approach, water catchment systems, and increasing plant and animal diversity. Some local resources and educational opportunities will also be provided for those interested in learning more.

Many of the components of permaculture design, such as increasing biodiversity, creating beneficial insect habitat, raising small and/or large livestock, mulching, building soil and digging ponds to hold rainwater for irrigation are not new concepts. According to permaculture designer and teacher, Andrew Millison, one of the goals of permaculture design is creating “intentionally patterned perennial infrastructure of multifunctional productive plants.” It is through well thought-out design and putting all the energy and resources that enter your farming system to work (e.g. stacking the functions of each element of the farm system), that time, effort, and money can be saved.

According to permaculture designer and teacher Jude Hobbs, there are a lot of new farmers moving onto land that are interested in creating these kinds of holistic farming systems. In establishing a small farm, there are multiple things to consider at the very beginning including water rights, soil quality and conservation, marketing, and the creation of a business plan just to name a few. Teachers of permaculture, advise farmers to start small expanding out from the house, work intensively, and then grow into it. Jude Hobbs recommends starting with one acre, getting perennials, greenhouses and water catchment systems in place. The perennials take a few years to start producing, so the sooner you can get them established the sooner you will start harvesting! Getting a greenhouse up extends your growing season and expands your window for produce availability. Installing your watering system before you plant is critical for some crops considering our very dry summers here in the Willamette Valley.

As all well-seasoned Oregonians know, a majority of the rainfall we have in the Willamette Valley happens in the winter. Conversely, in desert regions most of the rainfall happens in a few days. The goal then is to catch the rain when it happens so that it can be used when there is no rain. Harvesting rainwater can be a less expensive and, in many cases, much cleaner water source than the alternatives. Rooftops are an excellent place to catch rainwater and ponds are a great way to store it. Jude suggests installing ponds as high on the property as possible so that irrigation can be gravity fed. The soil is another great place to store water. One way of doing this is with swales. A swale is a shallow trench laid out dead level along the lands contours to allow water to enter the soil (Hemenway, 2000). The down-hill side of the swale is then the perfect place to plant perennials and fruit trees which will gladly use that water to establish and grow, which in turn reduces soil erosion and produces more food! These are just of couple of the many examples of how water catchment systems can be incorporated into a small farm.

In designing sustainable farming systems, diversification is very also very important. For example, the beauty of incorporating poultry and livestock into a farm is that they turn the things that most people don’t like to eat, such as worms, insects and weeds, into fertilizer and food! Enhancing the diversity on your farm can minimize large pest out breaks, attract beneficial insects and pollinators, in addition to creating more potential income. By mimicking nature, the “outputs” of one species are linked to the “inputs” of another. For example, when housing chickens in or adjoined to a greenhouse, they warm it with their body heat in the winter and increase plant growth with the carbon dioxide from their breath, in addition to providing eggs, meat, and fertilizer. Utilizing this model of thinking for all the plant or animal species on your farms can help you make connections between components. Then, to enable a design component to function, you must put it in the right place, or arrange for some connections (Mollison, 1988).

According to Bill Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture, “the limiting factor of good design and yield is the imagination of the designer” (Mollison 1988). In this article we have barely touched the surface of the permaculture toolbox for farmers. If you are interested in learning more about how permaculture can potentially improve the efficiency, productivity, and profitability of your farm, there are multiple educational opportunities coming up in the Willamette Valley and all over the world. There is now an online Permaculture Design Course organized by Andrew Millison offered through Oregon State University from March 28 through June 10th along with many other courses coming up in Oregon listed in the chart below.

Hemenway, T. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. Chelsea Green Publishing Co. 2000.
Mollison, B. Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual. Tagari 1988.
Oregon Small Farm News Vol. VI No. 2 Page 5