Ecological Farming: A Conversation With Fukuoka, Jackson and Mollison

Published: April, 1987 

Last August, three leaders of the global movement for a natural, permanent agriculture (also called permaculture) gathered at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, for the Second International Permaculture Conference. MOTHER EARTH NEWS was there, too, obtaining the only three-way interview ever with the men our Seasons of the Garden columnists half-playfully labeled “the Holy Trinity” of ecological farming. The following edited discussion is a head-to-head exchange between men who are taking key roles in defining our planet’s future. But first let assistant editor Pat Stone, who conducted the interview, fill you in with some background on the three subjects:

Australian Bill Mollison created the concept of permaculture in ecological farming. A gravel-voiced graybeard, Bill has a dry sense of humor, a feisty temperament, and absolute dedication to his cause. Introduced before his keynote conference speech as “a great yarn teller who’s motivated thousands of people to action,” Mollison has held every job from seaman to Tanzania bush researcher to senior lecturer in environmental psychology. He left that secure university position two years before retirement to blaze the permaculture trail.

To Mollison, permanent agriculture means carefully designed, sustainable systems in which the array, organization, and interactions of plants and animals are the central factors. Perennial plants-especially tree crops-play a large role in his multispecies landscapes. A permaculture system takes much planning, and a good bit of work, to set up, but it should then almost run itself.

Wes Jackson researches perennial crop mixes in Salina, Kansas. A hulking midwesterner with broad hands and a ready smile, Jackson combines a warm nature, down-home humor, and impeccable scientific scholarship (he has a Ph.D. in genetics). For example, his favorite lecture title is “Herbaceous Perennial Seed-Producing Polycultures: Their Contribution to the Solution of All Marital Problems and the End of the Possibility of Nuclear Holocaust.”


Earth Restoration Peace Camps

Author: John D. Liu | Published: October 18

The sun rises on a glorious new day in an Earth Cooperative Restoration Camp. Although this particular camp is in what most would call a desert, in the early morning there is dew on the grass and the birds emerge from the vegetation to forage and sing. The camp is in an area that has been described as abandoned since the failure of agriculture, industry and consumer economy here. Looking out over the vista, a group of people are practicing the salute to the sun, a yoga exercise that comes to us from antiquity. In a quiet yurt are Muslims at early prayer. There is a great sense of acceptance and tolerance in this place.

Throughout the landscape, leaves turn to face the sun and drink up the nourishing rays and in doing so grow. Beds are being quickly made in the neat white yurts that look so natural and gentle in their impact on the Earth. The clean, fully functional and odorless composting toilets made of all natural materials are busy and welcoming. The kitchen crew is up early preparing breakfast for the camp. Up at the crack of dawn there are people brushing teeth, washing up and heading to work.

Most take a quick coffee or tea, some fruit and a homemade energy bar made from dried fruits, nuts, and honey. Teams are assembling to get some work done before it is too hot to be under the heat of the sun. As quickly as they can they’re off to the fields, the orchards, the ponds, the nurseries, the workshops, all to do two or three hours or concentrated work in the cool of the morning. The various teams move about their tasks with confidence and collaborative support, some with decades of experience and others learning while they share in the tasks.


Bill Mollison Obituary

Author: Matt Dunwell | Published on: October 10, 2016

Bill Mollison, who has died aged 88, was one of the co-creators of permaculture, an agricultural system that works with, rather than against, nature, on the basis that the natural world holds the key to stable and productive systems. Having developed the concept, he then travelled from his native Tasmania for 30 years to embed his approach worldwide. His ideas have spread widely – permaculture is practiced in more than 140 countries and by more than 3 million people – even though in the 1970s the idea was considered, in Mollison’s words, “the highest form of sedition”.

Much of what he espoused was based on his great respect for the wisdom of subsistence farmers around the world, who have long used sustainable methods to grow their crops. In agricultural terms, this means planting diverse sets of crops, using perennial species to form productive stable systems, and ensuring the conditions for soils to be regenerated.
Other characteristics that he observed in the Tasmanian wilderness informed permaculture, for instance that the interfaces between different habitats are the most productive and that elements such as plants and animals need to be placed together so they are mutually beneficial – as once when he pointed out: “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency!”

Mollison pointed to further beneficial ecological consequences: “The only safe energy systems are those derived from biological systems. A New Guinea gardener can walk through the gates of his garden taking one unit of energy and hand out 70. A modern farmer who drives a tractor through the gate takes 1,000 units of energy in and gives one back. Who is the most sophisticated agriculturalist?” He held that “although the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple”. Ecological systems would enable people to meet their own needs, take back control of their lives and reinforce nature rather than deplete it.


Michael Ableman’s 15-Point Urban Food Manifesto

Author: Katrina Blair

What if farms and food production were integrated into every aspect of urban living—from special assessments to create new farms and food businesses to teaching people how to grow fruits and vegetables so farmers can focus on staple crops.

That’s the crux of Michael Ableman’s Urban Food Manifesto, which has been ten years in the making and is spelled out in his new book, Street Farm. The book tells the story of Sole Food Street Farms, and the role it has played in revitalizing not only a neighborhood, but the lives of its individual farmers.

Read the manifesto below, and share it widely because urban farming — as told through Street Farm — is a story of recovery, of land and food, of people, and of the power of farming and nourishing others as a way to heal our world and ourselves.

You can also check out this Q&A with Ableman, where he describes in more detail the promise of urban farming.

I have been developing the following Urban Food Manifesto over the last ten years. Some of the ideas may sound radical; others will likely seem terribly obvious. Some are practical, some more ideological, but either way they are focused on the municipal and on individual ways to address what I consider to be some of the most prominent challenges in how we feed ourselves.

Every municipality should establish publicly supported agricultural training centers in central and accessible locations. I’m not talking about think tanks or demonstration gardens. I’m talking about working urban farms that model not only the social, cultural, and ecological benefits of farming in the city, but the economic benefits as well. We can talk about all of the wonderful reasons to farm in urban areas, but until we can demonstrate that it’s possible to make a decent living doing it, it’s going to be a tough sell.

Regular folks are now so removed from the work of farming that they need to literally see what’s possible. They need access to those who have maintained this knowledge and those who are serious and active practitioners. Every city should have teams of trained farm advisers in numbers proportionate to the population devoted to urban food production. Those agents should operate out of their local urban agriculture centers to run training workshops and classes; they should also venture out into the community to provide on-site technical support in production, in marketing, and in food processing and preparation.


Permaculture for Agroecology: Design, Movement, Practice, and Worldview. A Review

Author: Rafter Sass Ferguson and Sarah Taylor Lovell | Published on: October 25, 2013

Agroecology is a promising alternative to industrial agriculture, with the potential to avoid the negative social and ecological consequences of input-intensive production. Transitioning to agroecological production is, however, a complex project that requires diverse contributions from the outside of scientific institutions. Agroecologists therefore collaborate with traditional producers and agroecological movements. Permaculture is one such agroecological movement, with a broad international distribution and a unique approach to system design. Despite a high public profile, permaculture has remained relatively isolated from scientific research. Though the potential contribution of permaculture to agroecological transition is great, it is limited by this isolation from science, as well as from oversimplifying claims, and the lack of a clear definition. Here, we review scientific and popular permaculture literature. A systematic review discusses quantitative bibliometric data, including keyword analysis. A qualitative review identifies and assesses major themes, proposals, and claims. The manuscript follows a stratified definition of permaculture as design system, best practice framework, worldview, and movement. The major points of our analysis are as follows: (1) Principles and topics largely complement and even extend principles and topics found in the agroecological literature. (2) Distinctive approaches to perennial polyculture, water management, and the importance of agroecosystem configuration exceed what is documented in the scientific literature and thus suggest promising avenues of inquiry. (3) Discussions of practice consistently underplay the complexity, challenges, and risks that producers face in developing diversified and integrated production systems. (4) The movement is mobilizing diverse forms of social support for sustainability, in geographically diverse locations. (5) And scholarship in permaculture has always been a diverse marginal sector, but is growing.


John D. Liu Interview: “It is possible to rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems.”

Author: Riccardo Tucci

John D. Liu participated in the Permaculture Design Certificate Course conducted last May/June by the World Permaculture Association in Pisa (Tuscany, Italy) with Rhamis Kent as the lead teacher.

This event was convened in order to implement & initiate the World Permaculture Association mission: to mobilize and inspire people to achieve food security by improving human management of natural living systems through the use and application of permaculture principles.

At the moment the World Permaculture Association is mainly focused on building & developing international partnerships in order to augment efforts aimed towards the rehabilitation of large-scale damaged ecosystems as shown by documentarian John D. Liu in his acclaimed films.

The visit to Italy by Mr. Liu, organized in conjunction with the World Permaculture Association, was an opportunity to exchange ideas and knowledge pertaining to the promotion of ecological restoration and permaculture design. Let’s join in on the conversation:

Italian Agronomist Riccardo Tucci (, along with WPA Executive Director Rhamis Kent, interviewed him.


Riccardo Tucci & Rhamis Kent: It has been a great pleasure having you in Italy, John.

Do you think that this land, particularly affected by hydrogeological dysfunction due to degradation from long-term mismanagement, can provide a valuable testing ground for ecological restoration activities that you often show us in your films? What did you see that made an impression on you?

John D. Liu: Thank you – it was a great pleasure to be in Tuscany again and to share close communication with people striving to understand life and the Earth systems that life depends on.


8 Common Plants to Grow for Their Medicinal Benefits (All Great for Indoor Container Gardens)

Author: Jonathon Engels

Just about the same time I started getting into permaculture, I began developing an interest in the power of food as a preventative medicine. Permaculture appealed to me because it seemed obvious that the way we were cultivating our food with an overabundance of chemicals was destructive to the planet and to our own health. When it came to farming, doing what came naturally seemed, well, the natural solution. Letting food be my medicine paralleled this idea: We’ve become so accustomed to doping our bodies to ward off every cold or headache and boost our bodily systems that we’ve left ourselves in the same state as barren ground.

If the soil could be fixed by adding quality organic biomass, reinvigorating an entire ecosystem, then why couldn’t we do the same thing for our bodies, ecosystems in their own right? My wife Emma and I started watching documentaries like Food Matters and Simply Raw, reading books about herbal medicine and fermentation, and learning from people we were meeting through permaculture. We suddenly found ourselves thinking about enzymes, probiotics, gut flora, and antioxidants. We became fast fans of fresh herbs in every meal and including certain beneficial spices and veggies regularly. Undoubtedly, it felt right, and we felt better than ever.

What we found was that some of the most powerfully medicinal foods had been right at our fingertips all along. They were easy to grow, required little space (could work in pots, in fact), and naturally strengthened our immune systems, regulated blood sugar, steadied blood pressure, lubricated joints, prevented inflammation, helped our skin, and generally bettered our well-being. We adopted simple ways to include them in our meals throughout the day, and we started sharing our new dietary practice and home production methods. And, that felt right, too.

1. Garlic

Very common, very potent, and very medicinal—garlic is nothing new on the medicinal scene. It’s even available in pill form these days, but when it’s so easy to grow, that just seems silly. What’s more, raw garlic is where the magic really happens. We’ve always grown our garlic as an annual, often as much for the sprouts as the bulbs, but I’ve recently discovered new (to me) techniques for growing it as a perennial, i.e. the permaculture way. While it can be grown in a pot, it’s also a great companion plant

2. Ginger

Already something we used regularly to prevent motion sickness, ginger became a much larger feature in our everyday cooking. It pairs wonderfully with carrot anything, works well in oatmeal, and, with some citrus zests, adds a zip to rice. We also use it to make tea, again combined with a bit of orange or lime. But, by far, our favorite ginger practice has become fermenting ginger beer on a regular basis. It tastes great while providing both the medicinal benefits of ginger and probiotics. It’s a great shade-tolerant plant that works well in the tropics but can be grown indoors as a pot plant in more frigid locales.


Food forests manage themselves

Author: Andrea Darr

On a suburban Kansas lot at the corner of 55th and Mastin streets, an experiment is underway: A food forest is growing crops, creating economic value and, most notably, doing most of the work on its own.

The 10,000-square-foot garden is not tended to daily, at least not by human beings. Insects do the job of managing pests, some plants act as natural fertilizer, releasing nitrogen into the soil, and other plants form deep taproots that mine the soil for nutrients, bringing them up to the surface for the tree roots.

The area doesn’t have to be mowed, it doesn’t get sprayed and it doesn’t just survive — it thrives.

What is this system? The trendy term is permaculture, but it’s nothing new. It has been around for thousands of years.

“This is how nature manages itself,” says P.J. Quell, the property owner who has lent the site to Cultivate Kansas City to design, install, manage and harvest food grown from guilds of trees, shrubs and plants. Volunteers come annually to prune trees and spread wood chips. That’s about the extent of work involved.

Of course, it took much effort at the beginning of the project, designing for maximum sunlight, digging swales to capture and hold water, and planting. There are 39 varieties of fruit and nut trees and 12 varieties of shrubs, several with which people are familiar — pears and plums — but also many that are relative unknowns: pawpaws, jujubes, serviceberries and aronia.


Agents of Hope — the Story of Africa’s Chikukwa Community and TSURO Projects

In Zimbabwe, agriculture is a critical sector for the economy. It accounts for about 18 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 70 percent of employment. Sadly, this critical sector is failing. Rural and communal populations suffer from malnutrition, and chronic droughts, causing chronic dependency on food aid and hand-outs.

As a person with first hand experience of rural poverty, news of hopeful farming practices is always more than welcome. But the best, most hopeful practices are those that are scalable, and can be deployed anywhere, to bring about positive change.

That’s why the story of the Chikukwa Community project, which has influenced and continues to impact the whole of the Chimanimani District, is such a remarkable story of hope.

This story of hope started in 1991, in the eastern and mountainous region of Zimbabwe, at a small communal land called Chikukwa. This area is also part of the Chimanimani Key Biodiversity Area bordering Mozambique. The once-treasured land in one of the Chikukwa villages, Chitekete, had degraded into a desertified landscape, with a drying spring.

Seeing a dire need, the community sought out a one-week training in permaculture design. With that one step, their journey began!

In my 10 years of work as a development worker, I’ve learned this one truth about successful projects: Solutions do not come from outside, they lie within the community. Once people decide it is time for change, then it is time, and the change that follows is more likely to last.

The success of this one village project spread to beautiful six villages, which led in 1996 to the establishment of a community-based organization (CBO), named the Chikukwa Ecological Land Use Community Trust (CELUCT). Initially, this project had a positive impact on about 7,000 people and 110 households. The project now runs a communally owned training centre, the Chikukwa Permaculture Community Centre, a hub for training programs throughout the region.

The Chikukwa Project is designed to exist outside NGO and donor influences. In most cases, programs fizzle out as soon as their funding runs out, because donors and most NGOs really do not have time to build relationships, create ownership and allow communities to determine the pace as they lead the implementation process. However, in participatory and community-driven projects, money and social conflict don’t hinder progress, proving that old saying that “where there’s a will there’s a way.”

Projects that take a community-based approach are empowering as they foster self reliance. The Chikukwa Project has led to 80 percent of the community’s households using permaculture techniques that have made these households self-reliant when it comes to food. Not only that, but community members’ surroundings have been revitalized, as they continue to reverse rangelands desertification.

The Chikukwa project is communally driven (photo credit:Wikimedia

Now, after 25 years of permaculture practice, the Chikukwa Project has inspired the whole of Chimanimani region in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe. It has led to the creation of a new organization-TSURO (Towards Sustainable Use of Resources Organization). TSURO is a democratic member-driven grassroots organization with currently 154 subscribed TSURO village groups and a supporting CBO by the name TSURO Trust.

In 2011, CELUCT and TSURO received training in Holistic Land and Livestock Management at the Africa Centre for Holistic Management. Holistic Management (Holistic grazing) is a tool used to restore vast spaces of degraded land. CELUCT and TSURO have deployed these practices in five wards (a ward is a cluster of between 6-14 villages each). These wards are situated in the very dry area of Gudyanga, in the western low parts of the district, in the medium altitude of Chayamiti and Shinja and in the eastern high veld 1500 meters above sea level.

By combining the tools of permaculture and Holistic Management, both powerful approaches for rapid change, communities are addressing both immediate household level needs of food, money and stability, and the long-term needs of healthy land, good management systems and plans that will be ongoing in order to sustain a future of a healthy and self-reliant community. What I find most striking in this project is the building in of farmer led advocacy for farmer rights!

For example, in the Chimanimani District alone, land degradation was once viewed as a monster threat to communal dwellers. Through TSURO, the situation is slowly and steadily improving. TSURO works in all 21 wards of the Chimanimani district, where they have been facilitating a wide range of community-based initiatives, including the introduction of holistic management in five wards, and the establishment of more than 100 Farmer Action Learning Groups that focus on farmer-based research and experimentation. Research also includes climate change and watershed management.

The communities are also implementing community-based seed systems that address production, preservation, storage, saving and exchange. They use open pollinated varieties of seed. Chimanimani farmers are increasingly rejecting genetically modified seeds, which have caused problems in some other countries in southern Africa, and instead planting small grains. The district-wide project also implements household permaculture design, small livestock rearing and horticulture. Bee keeping and commercial marketing of rich organic honey as well as community based agro-processing and marketing, provide added economic benefits.

If 48 percent of Africa’s population depends on agriculture, and yet the agriculture sector has been declining continent-wide, then maybe we need to revisit agriculture strategies that no longer work, and implement new strategies that do work. The Chikukwa and TSURO projects are proof that lands can be restored, and the practices that restore them can be scaled up. If local people everywhere assumed full responsibility for solving their problems, we would see more land, economic and social regeneration across the world.

We will be making efforts to follow and document Chikukwa and TSURO stories, to share with the world just what is possible when local farmers—not big outside donors—take charge!

Precious Phiri is the Zimbabwe-based Africa coordinator for Regeneration International, a project of the Organic Consumers Association.