Peter Bane has been studying permaculture for two decades and has trained over 1,500 students along the way. He lives on Renaissance Farm, a forest garden in Bloomington, Indiana, measuring two thirds of an acre, with fellow permaculture educator and activist Keith Johnson. Bane has acted as publisher and editor of the magazine Permaculture Activist since 1990, and in 2012, published The Permaculture Handbook, a comprehensive text for permaculture students. Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Bane about The Permaculture Handbook, and the personal journey that lead him to become a permaculture expert and activist.
You use the term “garden farming” a lot. Can you discuss the appeal of that term, and why you prefer it over “natural farming,” or even the term “permaculture?”
I don’t use it to substitute permaculture, and I don’t feel that it is equivalent, in any way, to “natural farming,” primarily because “natural farming” qualifies farming in a way of speaking of method, whereas “garden farming” qualifies it in terms of scale. And that’s an issue that very few people address in our society, in public discussions, [or] in any way at all. We’re basically hook-line-and-sinker, drank the Kool-Aid, head down the well, on large-scale in this country. Henry Ford won the argument, and nobody has looked back since. But it represents a colossal failure, in historical terms, even though it’s had an enormous[ly successful] run over several generations, leading us to [our] present disastrous condition.
The future of lower energy availability means everything is going to get smaller scale. It’s going to slow down. It’s going to become more local. And that means our agriculture, which is presently continuing to ramp up in scale, is going to break apart or fail in one way or another. And just as we saw that happen in the Soviet Union, in the late 80s and early 90s, it will probably happen here, but with perhaps a more clouded outcome. Most of the people in Russia had been living with the incompetence of Socialist farming for generations, and they knew that if you want sausages you had to get there early, line up, or know somebody…What they did was they used the little plots of land around the cities that they had for their summer houses and grew gardens. And that’s how they essentially got through the difficult transition away from centralized food distribution to a more local system.
We’re doing that by stages now. I’m trying to put my shoulder to the wheel and help people see a pathway for re-localizing agriculture, because our monocrop, mass-scale agribusiness basically already doesn’t feed us, and what it does feed us is toxic and unhealthy. The only food that’s really good to eat comes from a small portion of the land that’s cultivated, and a lot more of it could come from home gardens and edible urban landscapes. So garden farming is meant to address that need. Which is, large-scale society wise, a profound issue, and it addresses the need to change the scale and venue or location of our agriculture from far away to right at home, outside the backdoor or the front door.
For folks on the fence about starting a permaculture garden/farm, what is your advice for them to take the leap?
Don’t jump over any chasms. Take one small step outside and look around, and start that way. When people don’t know how to garden, I say, “Learn to grow five plants this year, five crops. Try things that you’re interested in that seem easy, and plant them at a small scale. And if you get three out of five to grow and the other two go away, without giving you anything, you’ve made an important step. Next year you’ll try eight, and you’ll win better than half the time. Pretty soon, in three or four years, you’ll have turned yourself from someone garden-curious to an actual gardener. And from there there’s no stopping you.”
The book is basically what it says [it is]. It’s a handbook to guide the uncertain and the inexperienced, and to take people through from knowing relatively little, but being interested, through the rather sophisticated processes that are imbedded in permaculture, the design processes — how to assess the land, how to assess your lifestyle, how to assess your assets, and then how to make the most out of them. And you can pick it up at any point along the line. You can say, “Well, I’d like to make my house more comfortable,” or, “Well, I’d like to grow some food,” or, “Well, I’m growing some food but I’d like to get better at it,” or, “I have plants, but now I would like to add animals.” All the steps [to address these] are in the book.
There are all kinds of ways to make a transition from whatever you’re doing now to the next place up the scale. And sooner or later we’ll get where we’re headed, which is [having] 50 million new farmers in this country. And they’re mostly backyard and side yard and front yard farmers. People doing it on empty lots in the neighborhood or on a patch of land just on the edge of town or on the outside of the ring of the city, not too far from markets, not too far from people, where the food needs to be used, and where it can be brought to town by burrow or bicycle or on the back of a pickup truck.
Based on your experiences, what is most misunderstood about permaculture?
I think that people don’t grasp that it’s a design science, even though that’s what it’s been all along, from the beginning, and at every step. They’ve confused it with some kind of fancy form of uber-organic gardening. And people often mix it up with things permaculture people do because they’re practical steps, like sheet mulching or water collection. But permaculture is about designing for conservation, and generation of energy. It’s a response to the decline of available energy in the industrial society, and that’s something most people don’t really want to confront. So it’s easy to ignore permaculture from that point of view. If you confront the reality of energy decline, it can get a little scary. It’s a slippery slope headed down towards Mad Max scenarios, for some people, if they don’t stop themselves. I don’t see it that way. I don’t think most permaculture people see it that way.
We’ve been promulgating solutions, but fundamentally permaculture is a toolbox for dealing with post-industrial society, its economic problems, and its energy problems, and to turn those into opportunities and solutions. So, because it requires system-level thinking, something most people are not prepared to do, they’re not educated to do it. They’re a little uncomfortable, psychologically, about it. And so it’s easy to cloud over a little bit, and pretend that permaculture is just another -ism or another style of gardening or another thing along the way, instead of a comprehensive look at, critique, and method for transforming society and the economy.
In the 20-plus years you have spent studying, practicing, and teaching permaculture, what has been the most life-changing aspect, event, or idea that permaculture has offered you?
Well, I suppose the most intense experience was actually the training that I took, initially, in which all of the, sort of, doors and windows in my mind flew open, and I realized what I needed to do. And I did that in a supportive situation with a couple of dozen other people all interested in intense study in self-improvement and self-development, with a great pair of teachers, in a really focused and essential way. Instead of, well, “We’re here for the duration of the 183 days, according to the Board of Education, and you will sit here from 8:30 until 3:30 in the afternoon, and we will have breaks and bells.” It was education based on our interests, and based on the realities of a world many of us apprehended, but didn’t really know what to do about it. And so it was extraordinarily empowering and exciting.
And then, of course, after that come the hard steps, the many years following in which you build up your base of knowledge and experience, and you address real life problems and solve them. They don’t happen that quickly. And so the experiences are more protracted — they’re more like a prolonged passion, rather than a passionate romance or something. [However], I think there was the romance of the course, and the prospect of all the good things that might come from it. My whole life turned inside out at the point that I did that— I got new work, a new family, a new set of friends, a new career, a new business, all kinds of things changed for me. And so in many ways that was the inflection point that changed my trajectory.
Along the way I’ve done a lot of interesting things, and I’ve had very intense experiences in community. I’ve had really exhilarating moments of teaching, that’s been an ongoing source of nourishment to me. I regularly re-encounter students now, instead of being one sitting in the audience, and partaking in that way. I’m often in front of the class or facilitating the group, but it’s much the same kind of joyous environment of learning and problem solving.
And now I think over the last half dozen years, or more, as we focus on building our own place — I had an idea from the early 90s that I was going to be in one place for a long time, but it turned out not to be the case, now [that] I came here to Indiana— I put my accumulated learning to work and have built up a system that’s become quite delightful to be in. And I am just wandering around in [the farm] today — showing visitors; harvesting Asian pears, peaches, and tomatoes; swapping eggs with the neighbor for this-and-that produce; [and] just playing in the garden, all the while on our little two-thirds of an acre, [which is] not even visible from the street. It’s quite grown up, and it’s all pretty much something we’ve put in there or we’ve tolerated, which is productive, rich, and nourishing.
I think that people ought to live this way. I think it’s what we’re meant to do. The more people do it, the more our society will transform to the way I think it ought to transform. People will be happy, they’ll be grateful, they’ll be connected to nature, they’ll have an abundance to share and trade with [their] neighbors. Communities will be more resilient. I mean, it’s just the way to go, I think.