The Results Are IN [Part 2]

Preliminary Research Survey Selected Results

Last month I posted a blog reporting results of the preliminary survey for my ongoing research. I asked alternative agriculture practitioners in Western Canada to complete a survey online and the number of responses exceeded my expectations. My first report looked at the organizational structures and administration of respondents that self-identified their projects as “permaculture” sites. You can find that report here. This post presents data on the landscape management practices of this “permaculture” sample. The survey is still online and live. You can submit a responses regarding your alternative food production project in Western Canada here.

The data represented below is up to date with all the current responses as of May 10th, 2016. There are a total of 76 responses, 73.7% from Alberta, 25% from British Columbia and 1.3% from 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. If you are in a hurry, scroll down to the conclusion at the end of this post in bold.Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 10.12.02 PM

This chart represents the physical land area reported by the permaculture sites. Food production area ranged from 24 square feet to 480 acres. The average area was 12 acres, but this sample included several outliers making the median, 0.21 acres, or about 9,360 square feet, a better indicator of the common size of permaculture sites in Western Canada. Sixty-seven percent of sites reported a land area less than one acre. This data indicates that permaculture is most often practiced in small-scale applications, but is not limited to small urban landscaping. One-third of respondents reported 1 acre or larger, and 15% of respondents reported more than 10 acres. Permaculture is often publicized as a landscape management strategy that can be used in any scale landscape, and this data would suggest this to be true.

The following charts represent questions where the participants were allowed to check as many categories as applied. So, these charts represent the frequency of response for each category, not the percentage of respondents per category.

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Vegetables were the most commonly produced item with 71 responses, or 93% of respondents. The second most common products were fruits and herbs, both with 59 responses or 78% of respondents. This researcher was surprised to see ornamental plants as the next most common response with nearly 50% of respondents. Permaculture theory focuses on function over aesthetics; however, ornamentals could be considered functional as pollinator attractors or bee forage. “Other” responses included mushrooms, micro greens and sprouts, soil amendments and compost, nuts, pollinator plants, and more.

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The most common method of irrigation was collected rainwater with 64 responses or 84% of respondents. In the survey, this category was listed as “collected rainwater (ex. rain barrel or reservoir).” The second most common response was “infrastructure to facilitate rainwater absorption into soil (ex. swale system)” with 48 responses or 63% of respondents. Water harvesting is an important tenant of permaculture and so these two responses being the most common was expected. The third most common response was municipal drinking water which was reported by just over half of respondents. Tap water would generally not be considered a “permaculture” strategy, but is likely common due to its convenience. Write-ins for “Other” includes on-site creeks, grey water, and passive irrigation systems many pertaining to earthworks or soil health. Another repeated write-in for “Other” was variations of “mulch.” Though not a source of water, mulch helps to reduce evaporation and keep water in the soil accessible to plants. Mulching is a frequently taught permaculture strategy.

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The most common response for fertilization method was “Compost produced on-site” with 66 responses or 87% of respondents. This is logical given the emphasis on composting in permaculture training. Another commonly advocated permaculture tool is nitrogen fixing plants which was the the 2nd most frequent response with 64 responses or 84% of respondents. “Manure and produced on-site” (suggesting animal supported operations) and “Other” were the next most common responses with 45% and 43% of respondents respectively. Common write-ins for “Other” were worm castings (vermicompost) and free manure from neighbors. Other fertilization methods included mulch, different varieties of manure (including fish in aquaponics), compost teas and extracts, biochar, green manure, and healthy soil biology. This researcher was surprised to see 5% of respondents using synthetic fertilizer, but still reporting their projects as permaculture sites.

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The most common landscape management strategy indicated throughout this survey was “Manually picking weeds” with 73 responses or 96% of respondents. It would appear even permaculture practitioners can not escape the gardener’s drudgery of pulling weeds. The next most common weed suppression strategy was “Organic mulch” with 68 responses or 89% of respondents. Organic mulch is generally advocated throughout permaculture teachings as a way to retain soil moisture, increase the organic matter in soil, and suppress weeds; as such it was reported in the irrigation, fertilization, and weed control questions of this survey. Write-ins for “Other” (22% of respondents) included specific kinds of mulch (straw, cardboard, sheet mulch), cover crops, flame weeders, stale seed bedding, healthy soil biology, and eating the weeds. Again, this researcher was surprised to see one “permaculture” site report using synthetic herbicides.

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The most common method of pest control was “Pest repelling plant species” with 46 responses, or 61% of respondents. About 50% of respondents indicated using “Integrated pest management strategies” and “Introduction/fostering of pest eating predators.” Interestingly, one respondent reported using synthetic pesticides, but still considered their site to be a permaculture operation. Many staunch permaculturalists would avoid even organic pesticides, however 12% of responds reported using “store-bought certified organic pesticide.”

For the irrigation, fertilization, weed, and pest control questions the option was provided to check “No irrigation/fertilization/weed control/pest management strategies are intentionally used.” The pest management questions saw the highest rate of response with 22% saying they did not purposefully implement pest control. This could indicate a lack of pest issues in this region, a lack of willingness to deal with present pests, or that the permaculture designs are working as they are intended to. Some teachings of permaculture are that healthy soils lead to healthy plants that can better withstand pest pressure, and that the ideal permaculture system will confuse and deter pests through its biodiversity.

“Other” write-in responses included specifics on home pest remedies, selecting for pest resistant plants, companion planting or guilds, general increased diversity and soil biology, and physical exclusions like row covers.

In summary! Generally, data submitted by this sample of self-identified permaculture sites supported what an ideal permaculture system would be expected to look like: sites grew and raised a wide range of edible and functional products, harvested rainwater and attempted to absorb water into their soils, fertilized their land through natural means of compost and nitrogen fixing plants, used biological methods to control pests, and avoided chemicals and synthetic products to control weeds. This suggests those who identify their landscape as “permaculture” sites, are, in fact, holding up the tenants of permaculture. This could also speak to the success of permaculture education. As permaculture rapidly becomes more popular, foundational practices, such as catching and absorbing rainwater, creating your own compost, and utilizing fertilizing and pest repelling functions of plant species are being maintained. That being said, there was a wide range of responses given, including individuals using synthetic pesticides and herbicides which are substances disparaged in most permaculture circles. The range of responses indicates a potential sliding scale to being a “permaculture” site. Transitioning to more natural and self-sufficient means of food production seems to qualify a site as “permaculture” in the minds of the respondents, even if the site is not the pinnacle of permaculture practice. It is also possible a small population simply misunderstands what permaculture principles entail. This data is very limited, and does not indicate the success of these land management strategies. The complexity of ecology and humans systems makes defining “success” very challenging. Is success higher production, healthier product, improved soil health, wild habitat creation, creating community or a mixture of these qualities and more? This data helps us to vaguely understand what “permaculture” sites look like in Western Canada, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope this research inspires you to delve deeper into your local permaculture community, and experiment with ecological land management strategies yourself.  

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