Preliminary Research Survey Selected Results
For the past two months I have been asking alternative agriculture practitioners in Western Canada to complete this survey online for my ongoing Fulbright research. I have been wonderfully overwhelmed with responses achieving nearly 4x the number of submissions I expected. If this is the first you are hearing of this survey and you would like to submit information about your farm or other food production project, please do! The survey is still live and can be found here. The data represented below is up to date with all the current responses as of April 9th, 2016.
Of the total 112 submissions, the graphs here represent 75 respondents who self-identified their food production sites as “permaculture” operations. This post will report data on the organizational structure of these sites. A later post will report sites’ size and land management practices. Permaculture as a movement is spreading and becoming more mainstream, but what does that mean on the ground, in our communities? The purpose of sharing this information is to help us better understand the local permaculture landscape. (If you’re in a hurry, scroll down to the bottom for a quick summary of the results in bold!)
Per my survey results, 73.3% of sites are located in Alberta, 25.3% in British Columbia, and 1.3% in Saskatchewan. This data does not indicate there are significantly more permaculture sites in Alberta as it may seem. I am based in Alberta, so publicizing this survey has been most successful in my local region.
I asked respondents to indicate the main purposes for their food production sites, in an attempt to identify what motivates them in these ventures. For the primary purpose, over one third of sites reported “Subsistence” or providing for their families and themselves. To illustrate the diversity of motivators one may have for starting a permaculture project, I also asked for the secondary purpose. The second graph illustrates the response to primary and secondary purposes for their sites. “Environmental Restoration” saw the biggest increase by 8%, while “Subsistence” saw the largest decrease by 11% when all purposes were looked at collectively. Several responses for “Other” were “all of the above,” indicating as one respondent suggested, these categories are inseparable.
The majority of respondents, 37%, had permaculture projects on “private house garden[s]”. The second largest proportion of respondents listed the organizational structure as “other.” “Other” responses included “organic farm,” “urban farm,” “market garden,” “private acreage,” “land share/co-op,” and combinations of the given categories. If commercial urban farms, organic farms, and market gardens are included in the under “commercial farm,” the category represents 11% of responses, and “other” presents 19%. The percentages found are not surprising given more people have access to private house gardens than any of the other categories. An interesting element in this data is what is not represented: lands of public institutions like schools and hospitals, public parks and outdoor spaces, and outdoor landscaping of private companies to name a few. How can these and other spaces be utilized to restore the environment and produce food?
This piece of information may not seem important initially, but as a researcher this is one of my first concerns when investigating a site. If permaculture people want to convince the world to join the movement, they need to start with solid data that clearly demonstrates the success of these sites. In self-reflection, permaculture practices can’t be improved if practitioners don’t fully understand what they are producing, what’s working, and what isn’t. Anecdotes are valuable, but human perception is subjective, so methods to reliably quantify what is happening on sites need to be developed and implemented. Unfortunately, survey responses suggest consistent data recording is uncommon. The majority, over a third, said they only kept records “Somewhat.” Twenty-eight % of respondents don’t keep any records at all. If permaculture wants to spread across the world, I believe its practitioners need to increase the “Yes” slices of the pie significantly.
Interestingly, the 21% of respondents that say “yes, my site is a commercial operation,” does not match the 16% that previously reported the primary purpose of their site being “Commercial.” The majority of sites, 43%, do not sell any products produced on site. It is, of course, not necessary a permaculture site be a commercial operation in order to be an asset to a community; however, commercial sites offer some distinct benefits. Commercial operations have more incentive to keep records. Successful commercial sites offer permaculture business models and can help permaculture move mainstream by demonstrating that it is economically competitive. It is important to note that sites selling nothing also have economic impacts in a diversity of ways, including offsetting food costs with produce grown onsite and reducing garden input costs through water and nutrient recycling.
One critique of permaculture is that there is no way to certify a “permaculture” site. One way to address this critique is by demonstrating permaculture landscapes can be certified through other related organizations promoting earth and people care. Despite the majority of sites being private house gardens with a main purpose of subsistence, a full third of sites reported having some kind of ethical or environmental certification. From an economic perceptive, certifications are often considered methods to access wider markets and receive better prices for products. Nineteen % of respondents reported “Yes” to this question, but reported selling no products produced on their sites. This data suggests this question may have been misunderstood by respondents, as the incentive for going through expensive certification processes is very low for operations that do not generate revenue. However, the eagerness of individuals to mark yes, also indicates that these certifications are valued or desired by respondents, even if they are misunderstood.
A Permaculture Design Certificate course is the main method of permaculture training. This is a 72 hour course that covers the original Permaculture Designer’s Manual written by Bill Mollison. I was surprised to find that over half of respondents had no one with a PDC working at their sites. This data could be interpreted in several ways. In one sense, this is a positive discovery, because it suggests people feel comfortable starting permaculture projects without formal training. In other words, this may indicate permaculture is approachable, especially with the abundance of books and free internet material available on the subject. On the other hand, this may indicate a lack of access to PDC courses. PDC’s and other trainings can be expensive, and are often a two-week long time commitment. The high cost and time required for a PDC can be prohibitive, and a significant proportion of people attempting to practice permaculture may lack the background to do so successfully.
In summary! The sample of permaculture sites in Western Canada represented in this data suggests the main purpose for permaculture projects is subsistence, or providing food for oneself and family. Education and environmental restoration are also significant motivators. A majority of projects are private house gardens. This could represent an opportunity to expand permaculture’s reach, and find ways for the permaculture community to utilize other public and private lands. Nearly two thirds of respondents keep no or infrequent records, demonstrating an area requiring improvement. If the movement hopes to move mainstream, data definitely supporting the success of their strategies is necessary to convince the masses. Forty-three % of respondents do not sell goods produced on-site, 36% sometimes sell goods, and 21% identify as commercial operations. Non-commercial sites have economic impacts, including offsetting food costs with produce grown onsite; however, fully commercial operations have the added opportunity of demonstrating permaculture as economically competitive. One third of sites reported being Organic, Biodynamic, Fair Trade, Non GMO, or Rainforest Alliance certified, but it is likely the question was misunderstood, as a majority of these sites were not commercial operations. Over 50% of sites reported no one working on the site holds a Permaculture Design Certificate. This could suggest that permaculture is perceived as approachable and informal education is adequate for individuals to feel confident applying permaculture strategies. This could also suggest formal permaculture training is inaccessible to a significant proportion of people interested in practicing the strategies. Hopefully this data will be helpful to permaculture organizations in Western Canada, and inspire other groups observe the permaculture community landscapes in their parts of the world. This and related data is feedback that can be used to help obtain the greater yields that all permaculturists are seeking!