Friday, April 14, 2006

Creating Resiliency & Stability in Horticulture

Can a hybrid/horticultural mode of production create adequate, diversified, resilient, and sustainable nodes of production? This post outlines a proposed model for creating minimally self-sufficient, low-order nodes. This post is a follow-up to the post “Envisioning a Hamlet Economy,” and serves to elaborate on the creation of minimal self-sufficiency through a hybrid/horticulture system at the node level: the 10-40 person extended familial group.

Evaluation criteria:

  1. Provide minimal food and energy self-sufficiency at the node-level with an average of less than 20-hours of labor per week, per person (adequacy and resiliency check).
  2. Diversification such that no more than 10% of needs are met from one discrete system (diversity check)
  3. Establishment of arboriculture surplus bank capable of meeting at least 50% of production one out of five years (resiliency check).
  4. Proficiency and access to replace at least 50% of production from hunting/gathering mode (resiliency check).
  5. Improve production potential of land year-on-year (sustainability check).

I certainly solicit feedback on these criteria, but for the time being I will proceed with them in mind.

Basic production layout:

1. Intensive Horticulture: Intensive horticulture, or gardening, is at the core of this model. “Intensive,” however, does not mean labor-intensive, but rather high yield per area of land. The use of efficient layout, soil growing processes, exploitation of edge (especially between “garden” and “forest garden”), and other principles well laid out in the fields of permaculture, Fukuoka method, and bio-intensive gardening show that high yields are possible with relatively low effort and little space. John Jeavons, a founder of the biointensive gardening movement, convincingly demonstrates that 4,000 square feet of garden can sustainably feed one person with no outside inputs of fertilizer or pesticide—and his technique includes approximately half of that space dedicated to growing organic matter to continually improve the soil. At Jeavons’s figure, 10 people could be supported by a one acre garden. If an extended familial node consisted of 20 people, they could theoretically be supported by 2 acres of intensive garden—something that could be fully tended to by one very hard working person, or 20 people working very, very leisurely.

While accepting Jeavons’s figure, this model uses roughly 10 times that space for gardening AND arboriculture (see #2 below) to account for a portion of production that improves standard of living, provides resiliency, but is not maximally calorie-intensive. Specifically, 8,000 square feet per person for intensive garden (half of which is dedicated to tasty but less staple items), 8,000 square feet per person for animal (mainly laying hens and dairy sheep/goats) production and specialty production for trade and exchange (beer, wine, cheese, etc.), and additional 32,000 square feet of forest-garden for food, fuel, and lumber production. This model, therefore, utilizes 1 acre per person for total production, excluding the contribution of the surrounding hunting/gathering space. Therefore, a familial node of 20 people would require 20 acres (4 acres of intensive gardening, 4 acres of animal support and specialty production, and 8 acres of forest garden). Five people working hard, or 10 people working leisurely could maintain this system, leaving 10 people to perform other critical node functions (accounting for children, whose are assumed as non-workers, childcare, elderly, information processing, specialty trade/craft, etc.). I think that these numbers are conservative, as the caloric production from additional systems will reduce the actual production requirement from staple crops, as will the continuation of some hunting and gathering. This conservativeness and internal redundancy builds resiliency.

2. Arboriculture Bank: A forest garden, while a contributor to regular production, should also represent a bank of potential production to make up for years when horticulture underperforms. This is possible because, after establishment, the only significant human input required in a forest garden is harvesting. Therefore, nodes should establish a forest garden capable of providing for their full food and resource needs, and thereafter only harvesting from that as necessary to make-up for horticultural shortfalls and to supplement standard-of-living with forest products.

3. Hunting/Gathering Reserve: The availability and proficiency to fall back on hunting and gathering is a critical feature of this model’s resiliency. No matter how carefully we work to avoid impact from systemic shocks, over time they will occur. Hunting and gathering is a proven means of surviving these shocks. But if hunting and gathering is so resilient, why not just rely on it alone? There is certainly disagreement here, but my assertion is that a well designed hybrid system of horticulture, arboriculture, and hunting/gathering will provide a superior standard of living to hunting and gathering alone. Because hunting and gathering will act as a savings account, the resiliency and capacity to provide of the wilds will regenerate during those periods when they are not needed. This will permit a (slightly) more dense settlement pattern than pure hunting and gathering, thereby facilitating more and faster communication between nodes, which will in turn allow society to leverage complexity more effectively. Also, let’s be honest here, I like many of the products of the garden: cheese, tomatoes, peaches, wheat & barley (for pizza and beer, of course), etc. While the diversity of wild food is astonishing, if the option exists to NOT give up pizza, I’ll take it! Perhaps more justifiably, the creation of an alternative that is immediately attractive to others will be critical in affecting the transition from today’s economy to the hamlet economy.

There is also the argument that hunting and gathering meets minimum subsistence requirements with much less time-input than does agriculture. Here is where, I think, hierarchal agriculture and rhizomatic horticulture diverge: It is my assertion that horticulture can **in most years** provide more efficient return than hunting and gathering, although this is highly location dependent. That said, I think that hunting and gathering must play a critical—and continuous—role in this hybrid model. The proficiency for a hunting/gathering fall-back option depends on two things: proficiency and capacity. The first factor, availability, means that there must be adequate land area per person, with appropriate distribution, to provide enough calories through hunting and gathering. This figure will vary greatly, from perhaps 10 acres per person in parts of the Pacific Northwest to over 1000 acres per person in dry savannah. The density and configuration of the rhizome lattice must adapt accordingly, as resource distribution is one of the terrain features over which the idealized structure (see “Envisioning a Hamlet Economy) must be draped. A hamlet, consisting of four nodes of 20 people each would, therefore, require roughly 80 acres under production and an additional 800 to 80,000 acres of wild land surrounding them. Even assuming 80,000 acres, the geometric separation between hamlets would be 10 miles, which is an easy one-day walk (and actual separation would probably be less, see graphic below):


The second factor, proficiency, means that people must maintain the skills necessary to efficiently hunt and gather without a learning period. This is accomplished simply by keeping hunting and gathering an important, if small, part of regular food and resource production, even in years when horticulture produces excellent yields.

Engineering Resiliency:

Resiliency is more than mere diversity—it is the need to decouple yield cycles and susceptibility to systemic shocks. As a recent comment pointed out, there is often a tendency for the yield of intensive horticultural systems and arboriculture to produce minimal yields simultaneously. A drought, for example, may hit both garden yields and forest-garden yields. While this system is designed to accommodate such an occurrence with a secondary fall-back, the availability and proficiency to engage in hunting and gathering, it is more resilient if that necessity can be minimized. Additionally, there is a standard list of systemic shocks that will occur with regular frequency, and this system must also consider special safeguards against them: extreme weather, fire, disease (both plant and human), and war. Evaluation criteria #2 (diversification) is specifically aimed at these concerns. However, more than simplistic diversity is required—the diversity must be carefully selected such that the risk profiles of the diverse segments are decoupled from each other. So if one segment is particularly impacted by drought, an antipode should be selected that will continue to yield well through the drought. Here are some initial thoughts:

- Drought: Life on Earth is dependent on water, and if fears are realized and weather does become more erratic, drought may become an even greater problem in the future. Ultimately, water is a critical resource that must be banked—in soil through the incorporation of organic matter, mulching, and swales, in plants that are selected for their drought tolerance (and yield during droughts), and in ponds and reservoirs (see, e.g., the “Key-Line” dam concept, where many micro-dams catch and store water without interrupting the local ecosystem). Cisterns are also advisable. In general, drought-resiliency strategy will be highly place dependent.

- Fire: Wildfire is a potentially devastating systemic shock. Perhaps fortunately, it is such a concern in Australia—the home base for the permaculture movement—that a significant body of counter-tactics has been developed (see Mollison’s “Permaculture, A Designer’s Guide” for an entire chapter on the topic).

- Plant disease & pests: Diversity, diversity, diversity. If you grow potatoes, eventually you will be struck by blight. But if you rely on potatoes for no more than 10% of your calories, it will be an easily absorbable shock. Careful nurturing of a diverse ecosystem—plants, animals, insects, fungus—will help to ensure balance and minimization of impact. And locusts are high in protein…

- Frost: Many crops, and especially orchards, are susceptible to late spring frosts—something that may increasingly become an issue if weather in general becomes more erratic. Diversity of production potential with a special consideration of susceptibility to frosts will help minimize their impact on yields.

- Human Disease: The flat topology of a rhizome hamlet-economy will provide an excellent barrier against the development and spread of infectious disease. Multi-day travel to the largest of festivals and fairs will also help to minimize exposure to contagion. It certainly isn’t perfect, however. General principles of resiliency will also help, such as the planned ability of a fraction of the population to meet the production needs of the whole through a surge in effort (planned 20 hour week surging to 40 hour week covers 50% incapacitation).

- War: it is a classic tactic to ravage the food production capability of the enemy as an army passes through. Even small-scale raiders have a nasty tendency to slaughter animals and set fields alight. Decentralization and diversification of production make this significantly more challenging and less efficient as an offensive tactic, but additional concerns are warranted. Arboriculture is particularly resilient because it produces a far lower return on investment to spend time chopping down trees than it does to ignite a wheat field—however, safeguards against fire in general will be valuable here as arboriculture not made safe against wildfire is equally unsafe against arson. Additionally, resource dispersal plans can further decentralize resources and make their destruction even more inefficient—this may be something no more complicated than releasing your chickens into the open. Some will fall prey to wild animals, others will never be recovered, but it is far superior to keeping them all in a small pen to be slaughtered.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

After I posted my comments, I thought of a way a forest garden could help buffer a vegetable garden in a bad year. If crops (nuts, acorns, whatever) from the forest garden had been saved from a previous year, then a previous year’s forest crop could be used as insurance against failure of the vegetable garden in the current year. The forest crop should have a shelf life of at least one year, preferably two. I think that’s probably what the early settlers in America were doing when they collected acorns. They probably didn’t collect them in famine years, or at least not in drought years. They probably collected acorns in good years as a buffer against crop failure in the coming year.

The oaks that grow in Texas are white oaks. I haven’t tried to store white oak acorns, but I’ve read that they can only be stored for one year. The early settlers in America were probably not harvesting acorns in Texas, and they were probably harvesting from red oaks. I have read that red oak acorns will keep for two years. Actually, in my experience, anything parboiled, dried, and stored on skewers (could also use strings) will store just about forever, as long as it stays dry. As an experiment three years ago I parboiled and dried some white potatoes and threaded them on skewers. I’ve kept them ever since, and their appearance hasn’t changed in the slightest, but I wouldn’t want to vouch for their nutritional content by now.

Moshe Bereznyak said...

A good model, theorethically. It might work very well if systemic shocks accur frequently enough to prevent population growth.

However, you offer high resiliency in food sources, but I read that as more food sources. What shall prevent a node who's population has grown (which is possible due relative to abundance of food) from keeping sustaining itself and then growing further by cultivating more of the land reserved for H-G and forest gardens?

That's the way we've come to be civilized, I believe.

ebbak said...

in an obituary for john kenneth galbraith,it was noted that he began his career an an agronomist, seeking greater agricultural productivity, but became an agricultural economist because of outside influence on agricultural profit to the famrer. therer were farmers in those long ago days. we seem to be coming full cycle in examining agriculture, looking at production methods, again. rip, mr ambassador.

jimdear said...

What I want your opinion on, Jeff, is this. Some people say that those other gardens--the forest gardens, wilderness, etc. are essential to the survival of the vegetable garden? Do you have any evidence backing this up, or is that untrue? There's a difference between creating something for resiliency, and it being absolutely essential to the project.

Anonymous said...

I think you're over estimating the requirement per person for hunter gathering. It just depends on what the people are willing to consume, and the level of management they have over there 'wilds'.

Even the prairies and deserts hold large amounts of food if you know where to look.

I'm in a transition prairie, and I supply most of my meat supply, by hunting and fishing.

Les Stroud of Survivorman, found lots of food in the desert (although not as much as the swamp, another 'waste' land).

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Matt said...

Carol Deppe's "Resilient Gardener" is a must read. She's a wealth of knowledge, a plant breeder and sustenance gardener. One point that she (and others, e.g. Steve Solomon) makes is that tightly-packed intensive gardens are often involve quite a bit more labor than larger gardens. She recommends that if you have the space, garden big, with larger spacings between the rows and plants. Root competition makes water uptake more challenging, so with less space you use more water. Wider (and regular) spacings also make hoeing much easier. Just a few thoughts. Read the book. It's fascinating. Another great read is chapter 2 of Braudel's "The Structures of Everyday Life," which has a lot of yield and calorie information for wheat, maize, rice, and potatoes in the 15th-18th century, as well as explorations of the production systems and social ramifications of various agricultural systems. Also talks about famine foods, in particular chestnuts, which of course is precisely your vision of the forest garden as backup.