Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Thoughts on the “permacultureVOICES Conference March 2014,” aka, PV1

Diego giving his inspirational message, "take on your
impossible," to open the conference
Right at the top, I must tip my hat to Diego Footer, the founder and organizer of the conference; he said that the preparation consumed a year of his life, and I can believe it. Diego has a full-time job, and together with his family, put permacultureVOICES together in his “spare” time; it must have required Herculean effort. I cannot recall a single significant glitch in the event organization, and with over 600 participants and a Who’s Who of permaculture in attendance, the success of the conference represents an amazing accomplishment. In his closing remarks, Geoff Lawton offered that in his 30 years in “this movement,” he has never attended a better conference. That is saying something. Diego has already indicated that there will be a PV2, so if you were not in attendance all is not lost!  http://www.permaculturevoices.com/

Flew into San Diego on Wednesday the 12th for the 13-16 March conference, then obtained a rental car and drove a little over an hour up I-15 to the Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, where the conference was held. The conference agenda was four solid days, opening at 8 a.m. each morning, and closing no earlier than 8 p.m. each day. By Sunday night my brain was fully saturated. I am drafting this post after 2:00 a.m. on Monday, because there is too much going on in my mind to sleep.

Joel Salatin.  "The High Priest of the
Pasture." -- NY Times
The opening keynote address Thursday was made by Joel Salatin. The subject of his talk was his book, Fields of Farmers: Interning, Mentoring, Partnering, Germinating. He went on in a second presentation entitled “Stacking Fiefdoms,” on the same subject, later in the day Thursday. Though I had heard of Joel, I had not read any of his books, so I listened with an uncluttered mind. He was passionate in his presentation and had me and the entire audience laughing out loud on many occasions. Basically, he argued that in a thriving field, the average age of its practitioners is in the mid-30’s, while today in the United States the average age of a farmer is approaching 60. Ownership of some huge fraction of farms is expected to change hands within the next decade or so. Who will buy or operate these farms? Who are the farmers of the future? How do we get young people back on the farm? And Joel argues, we do need to get young people back on the farm; in his opinion to do so the farm must be able to generate at least two white collar salaries, otherwise it is not a business, and it is not sustainable. I fully subscribe to the proposition that two white collar salaries are necessary to sustaining the family business of farming. A key idea I picked up from Joel, and will likely leverage, is that of partnering with other entrepreneurs in a “community of complimentary enterprises” on the farm, as opposed to employing them, through the use of “memoranda of understanding.” Other key ideas: add value on the farm as opposed to competing in the business of commodities; and to keep investment low and use portable infrastructure, rather building the equity in information, management and customers. At the conference book store I bought his book, Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World, (Fields of Farmers had sold out quickly) and made my way through a third of it reading in the evenings, thoroughly enjoying myself all the while.

Jack Spirko, The Survival Podcast
Jack Spirko and his “Survival Podcast,”  www.thesurvivalpodcast.com, were my entry point into permaculture; I still await each new podcast in eager anticipation. It seemed that there were at least 20 TSP’ers in attendance, and Jack and his wife Dorothy also made themselves available to us in the late evenings, which had to have made for some very long days for them, and which was also greatly appreciated. Jack’s address, “Building a Profitable Permaculture Business,” built seamlessly and well on Joel’s earlier presentation. The subtitle of Jack’s podcast is, “helping you live a better life, if times get tough, or even if they don’t.” From my point of view he delivers on that promise, and I greatly enjoyed finally being able to meet and talk a bit with Jack.  His wife Dorothy was perfectly gracious, infinitely patient with the masses, and a joy to talk to.

Toby Hemenway opened up Friday’s festivities with his keynote titled, “Why Agriculture Can Never Be Sustainable.” You can see a YouTube video similar to the presentation at http://youtu.be/_y_MleU8iNQ. Hemenway wrote perhaps the most popular permaculture book of all time, Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd Edition. You can find more information at his website,
Toby Hemenway
www.patternliteracy.com. While I had watched the video before the conference, I have not read Hemenway’s book. Essentially he made an argument that no civilization has survived when having relied on large-scale production of row crops for its bulk calories, and that agriculture has devastated every ecosystem it has been in contact with in the past 10,000 years. He describes foraging (hunting-gathering), horticulture, and agriculture as alternatives, the latter being unsustainable, and arrives at horticulture and permaculture design science as a possible answer to the problem of sustaining the food supply. Along this line of thought, more than one presenter cited Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, which is an excellent read; I might also recommend Fate of Empires, by Sir John Glubb. I have not come to the conclusion that agriculture is the sole cause of the failures of societies, though Diamond is thorough in his analysis of a number of possible causes, and most involve severe environmental degradation in combination with another factor or factors. My simple synopsis of Glubb’s work is that many empires have lasted seven generations more or less, and that the significantly longer life of an empire is unlikely; I will let you do the math as it relates to the United States.

Geoff Lawton (L) and me, John Newell
Geoff Lawton made four presentations: Reading the Landscape, The Permaculture Designers Manual in One Hour, Permaculture Earthworks, and the closing keynote, Permaculture and The Tipping Point & Closing, late Sunday evening.  I am a huge fan of Geoff, and I received my Permaculture Design Certificate at his first on-line PDC course in 2013. His videos are simply superb, and as a teacher he is without par. Of the presentations, I found the “earthworks” and “reading the landscape” presentations to be the most fun and informative. Geoff has his second online PDC open for registration beginning 29 March 2014; check at www.geofflawton.com for the latest free videos and information. After one of Geoff’s presentations I was able to get about 10 minutes of his time to discuss the Southwest Michigan Homestead, and for me that was a real high-light of the conference.

Allan Savory; this man is beyond humble, his mistakes earlier in life apparently having the effect of bringing that about. His talks (the keynote: “The role of lifestock in a new agriculture that can save city-based civilization,” and the keynote: “Why management needs to be holistic to avert tragedy beyond imagination”) were on “desertification” and “holistic management.” You can find him speaking on the subject of desertification at http://www.ted.com/talks/allan_savory_how_to_green_the_world_s_deserts_and_reverse_climate_change. Allan has a large web footprint (pun intended),
Allan Savory
so if you search on his name and either of the topics I just
listed, you will have more video-graphic, photographic, and written information than you would probably care to manage. As is always the case, he has his detractors; I leave you to your own research on the subjects. Allan’s recommended reading included the books The Watchman's Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse, and Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West.

Mark Shepard is a fellow Midwesterner, with his farm located in southwestern Wisconsin, roughly 30 minutes east and a little north of the Quad-Cities. He holds workshops on his farm, New Forest Farm, and wrote a beautiful book, Restoration Agriculture. Also, PJ Chmiel of Van-Kal Permaculture, http://www.vankalpermaculture.org/, has posted a very informative video of a presentation by Mark at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kb_t-sVVzF0. And check out https://www.facebook.com/restorationagriculture‎, and Forest Agriculture Enterprises at http://www.forestag.com/. Mark has been on his farm, and practicing permaculture, for the better part of 30 years; he speaks passionately, and from a deep well of personal experience.

Soils…a deep subject, and Dr. Elaine Ingham has spent her professional life as a microbiologist studying soils, as opposed to “dirt.” Dr. Ingham gave the keynote address, “Soil: It’s All About Life.” You might say that among other things she is a “consultant to the permaculture stars,” stars like Greg Judy, who spoke of her during his presentation. You can find her online at http://elaineingham.com/, and find an “Introduction to Soil Microbiology” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEtl09VZiSU. What she said rings true in me. Ever notice while you are on a round of antibiotics, prescribed to arrest whatever might be ailing you, that your guts have ceased to function properly? It stands to reason that proper digestive tract function, which relies heavily on beneficial microscopic critters, would break down when all bacteria in your body have been killed off; antibiotics do not distinguish between the good and bad in your body’s biology; the same goes for the soil as it turns out. It is as learned in an adult course of study I have more recently engaged in, “this is how the world looks when it’s working,” herbicides and pesticides result in dead soil, also known as “dirt;” why would we expect some other result? Dr. Ingham wrote the USDA's Soil Biology Primer, and also wrote books, including The Field Guide II for Compost Tea, and The Compost Tea Brewing Manual.

Other talks attended:
Pat Foreman, and Oprah Hen-Free on chickens, and I bought two of her books, City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-reyclers, and Local Food Producers, and Chicken Tractor: The Permaculture Guide to Happy Hens and Healthy Soil, Homestead (3rd) Edition; find Pat at http://www.gossamerfoundation.org/, and at http://www.chickensandyou.com/index.html.
Greg Judy, on mob grazing, http://www.greenpasturesfarm.net/
David Barmon, on urban lumber; see David’s Ted talk at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ju8mMQXA2d4
• and Paul Grieve, www.primalpastures.com, told the inspiring story of the start-up of Primal Pastures, and I learned from him on the subject of marketing; see Paul’s 13 tips at http://primalpastures.com/pages/guerilla-marketing
Finally, I met Sarah Beth Aubrey, another fellow Midwesterner, during the book-signing event, and had a great discussion on the subject of her book, Find Grant Funding Now!: The Five-Step Prosperity Process for Entrepreneurs and Business (Wiley Nonprofit Authority). I bought the book, which is one of at least three that she has published. She also has a business, Prosperity Consulting, at http://prosperityconsultingsba.com/.

It was a great conference, and that is a significant
Jack Spirko (L), a truly prolific and
tireless podcaster at TSP
understatement. There were presentations I was unfortunately not able to attend, and presenters I was unable to meet, even after 12 hour days for 4 straight very full days. In addition to all of the great presentations, I was able to network with and learn from other permaculturists, including one Michigander, Jesse Tack, of Whole Culture Repair, LLC, (http://wholeculturerepair.wordpress.com/) and “Abundant Michigan,” a Ypsilanti permaculture group, found at http://abundantmichigan.wordpress.com/. I hope to stay in contact and exchange ideas and plans with many that I met, it is truly a fun and vibrant group of people. I do not know that I will be able to attend PV2, but I strongly encourage each of you to consider the possibility.

As always, your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts. Please "follow" the blog.

-- John, 18 March 2014.


  1. The only downside to this whole event was the inherent lack of sleep caused by the shear volume of revolutionary data crammed into my head. Data so monumental my brain refused to allow sleep so it could attempt to process everything before the next day began.

    Great summary friend, pieces like this help to spread the movement even within the movement.

    1. Thank you for the comment Sven. I could not agree more. It was a very long, and at the same time very short, four days, if that makes any sense.

  2. Thanks so much for this report and for gathering the knowledge in your brain and for your SWMI Homestead and for us Michiganders. Look forward to connecting. Julian, Earthen Heart Permaculture CSA Homestead

    1. You are very welcome Julian. I look forward to connecting, and it looks like you are not much more than 20 minutes due south of our location. I will be in touch!