Permaculture, A Story
I have been hearing good things about permaculture but I'm less inclined to agree that animal husbandry can be integrated in any such endeavor...
To me permaculture is not just about making it in the current economy, it’s about planning for a future economy after unsustainable practices fail and leave us with nothing but the more sustainable ones, which is something that I think young adults today will see as they grow old.
Which made me come up this story, or parable, or fable, of our times:
Once upon a time... there was a city boy in his early thirties who moved to the hills to farm with his young wife. They started small and that all went well for a while. They wanted to farm in a sustainable way that was good for their own health and for Planet Earth. They talked long and late at night about organic farming and permaculture. They made love, a lot. Money, well, that was not talked about so much, at least not in the beginning. The wife started to take pottery lessons with a teacher nearby, and they raising honeybees and sold the honey in the wife’s pretty pots. After a few years, they had a couple of kids and the farm grew, and they bought a larger car to ship their vegetables and honey to the markets in a city nearby, and that all went well for a while.
The city boy didn’t like the high cost of gasoline, so they changed to a diesel car, and he tried to use used cooking oil instead. That all went well for a while, but it was a messy process, and the city boy started neglecting his fields in order to fine tune the engine and the mechanical system he built for purifying the fuel. The wife was busy with the toddlers and had less time to make pottery and care for the bees. Kids went to a local pre-school, and the wife wanted to get more serious about the veggies.
They decided to get a couple of goats to see if that could help clear the fields from weeds. That all went well for a while but the male goat and the female goat had one kid after the other, and there wasn’t enough room. Also, when the kids became adult goats, the inevitable happened – the male goats started having a go at the females, even though they were all related. That created offspring that were inbred, which had to be put down because they were unhealthy and didn’t grow up right. The city boy and his wife – and their children who were now about to enter first grade school - liked the goats, but this was getting complicated. Then the old goats died of natural causes, and needed to be replaced. But from where would they get new, healthy goats?
They decided to raise chicken instead, and ignore the weeds that grew in the fields. They got a couple of hens and a rooster, and the hens got eggs one after the other. That all went well for a while, and they could sell the eggs in the markets in the city nearby, but when they were away, some of the eggs hatched and suddenly they had lots of little yellow chicks, one after the other. And when they grew up, the rooster started having a go at the females, even though they were all related, just like the goats. And again, that created offspring that were inbred, which had to be put down because they were unhealthy and didn’t grow up right. The city boy and his wife – and their children – liked the chicken and the hens and the rooster, but this was getting complicated. All this slaughter was really getting too much. Then the rooster died of natural causes, and needed to be replaced. But from where would they get a new, healthy rooster?
The moral of this story: In any animal population, you need a certain population size in order to have a healthy gene pool. This in essence means you need a herd to raise even a few animals. If you can’t have a herd on your own farm, you need neighbors with animals of the same kind, but again, unless you are all working towards the same goal, inbreeding is always a risk. For larger animals like cattle or pigs the problem is even more difficult, as the diseases that result from the inbreeding are that much more serious, and there are all kinds of rules and laws that you need to follow.
And as each female animal will have a 50-50 chance of having male and female offspring, you will need to slaughter a lot of male calves and piglets or chicken. If you raise cattle, you can of course castrate one or two of the young bulls and use them as ox in your fields, instead of relying on a tractor and fossil fuels, but that still doesn’t take care of your male-female ratio problem. As for poultry, you only need one rooster for a cage full of hens, or the males will fight bloody battles over who gets to sit on the highest stick!
I don’t believe animal husbandry can contribute much to permaculture. There are some organic farms that raise chicken, small-scale, which can produce manure and egg shells that are great for the soil in the vegetable fields. Goats can be helpful to some degree, but you would have to be prepared to slaughter a lot of kids unless you keep your adult animals separated. And how would you make sure that you have a large enough gene pool to avoid inbreeding? Having just one goat is not permaculture.
I don’t believe purchasing animals should be regarded as part of permaculture, because it means you may end up depending on outside breeders with other, less sustainable goals for their animal husbandry than yours, such as the use of veterinary drugs and commercial feed.
Animal feed is a huge issue. Do you have enough feed on your own farm, or access to sustainably grown feed from neighbors? Or are you going to use commercial grade feed, which usually contains soybeans and other grains like maize? Will you need to transport the feed by car or truck, using gasoline or diesel, or used cooking oil from oil seed like canola, that is also usually imported? Is your feed imported from other countries? That is not compatible with permaculture either. Is it genetically modified? What kind of pesticides and herbicides were used?
These are hard choices to make, and as for the story above, I worry that the city boy and his wife would quickly forget about their initial inspiration, to farm in a way that makes a long-term contribution to healthy life and to the future for our precious Planet.