Applying Permaculture Principles to Conservation
The following is a blog post series highlighting AFT’s NRCS Conservation Planners. These planners work through NRCS to support Massachusetts conservation practices on farms.
When I went down to Peru in September of 2016 to pursue my permaculture design certificate, I never dreamed that four years later I would have the opportunity to apply what I learned in the Andes to a role as a conservation planner with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. The beauty of the twelve permaculture principles is that they apply whether you’re turning an old Peruvian coffee plantation into an ecovillage or addressing nutrient run-off on a dairy farm in Massachusetts.
For the past year that I’ve been working as a conservation planner with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, I’ve delighted in going on-site visits and assessing resource concerns through the lens of permaculture. How do the NRCS planning process and permaculture planning process overlap or share edges? The comparisons and applications are seemingly endless, so I thought I would start by doing a deeper dive into just one of the twelve permaculture principles as it relates to what we do working in partnership with NRCS.
But first, a very brief overview of permaculture for those that may not be familiar. In the literal sense, the word “permaculture” is a fusion of the words “permanent” and “agriculture,” as it addresses the question: “How can we perform agriculture in a way that could truly be sustained?” This is a question that was already answered, successfully, by Indigenous peoples all over the world for millennia. Permaculture is, to its very core, an Indigenous science repackaged by its “founders” David Holmgren and Bill Mollison. As permaculture becomes more of a buzzword, it is essential that we always take the time to recognize this. Because it is grounded in Indigenous science, permaculture works from a deep ecological perspective, in which there is no hierarchical differentiation between elements of an ecosystem, including humans. Permaculture design is not simply for the benefit of us humans; it includes humans. This is a very important perspective.
The twelve principles of permaculture are shown in the image below. For our purposes today, we are going to focus on “Using edges and valuing the marginal,” because edges are where all the fun stuff happens.
THE ECOTONE EDGE
Edges are everywhere. Where one thing bumps up against another, you will find an edge. In nature, we call this an ecotone edge, where one ecosystem with a distinct ecological habitat bumps up against a different ecological habitat. For example, where the forest meets grassland, land meets the sea, a field meets a marsh, etc. Often, ecotones are naturally occurring, but they are increasingly formed by humans. The effect is the same: species richness, abundance, and diversity tend to peak in ecotonal areas. In these edges, all the species that thrive in each of the two environments are present, plus new species that live in the transitional zone that comprises the ecotone, so the edge is richer than either side. Here, opportunities abound: warm sun or cool shade, richer hunting grounds, nutrient-dense soil, or a steady source of water, just to name a few. At the edges, many kinds of matter, both biotic and abiotic—leaves, wood, water, scat, stones, fungus, bacteria—are exchanged, creating opportunities for a fuller, more abundant flow of energy.
EDGES AND CONSERVATION
We can apply this same understanding of the importance of the ecotone edge in permaculture design to our work in farm and natural resource conservation. Studies are increasingly pointing to the importance of ecotones as sites for speciation. (Just think of us humans, whose ancestors were aquatic 359 million years ago before venturing onto beaches, an ecotone most of us are quite familiar with!) Furthermore, inhabitants of ecotones are inherently pre-adapted to changing environments, and thus may be more resistant to climate change. On top of that, the ratio of biodiversity in edges to the area of the edge itself is quite large, which would strongly suggest that focusing on ecotones is highly cost-effective when we consider where to focus conservation investment.
As conservation planners with NRCS, we have many opportunities to help farmers and private landowners address resource concerns by creating, restoring, and enhancing edges. Some of the practices that we can implement to address edge concerns include Hedgerow Planting, Riparian Herbaceous Cover, Riparian Forest Buffer, Filter Strip, Field Border, Conservation Cover, Tree/Shrub Establishment, and Wildlife Habitat Planting. The pictures below demonstrate a before-and-after successful implementation of the practice Riparian Herbaceous Cover. Like Riparian Herbaceous Cover, most of the practices listed above address the resource concern of “Inadequate Habitat for Fish and Wildlife.” Some also address Soil Erosion, Water Quality Degradation, and Air Quality Impact. In the example shown, we are decreasing sediment and nutrient runoff, providing food, cover and connectivity for wildlife, lowering water temperatures for aquatic life, providing litterfall for fish and aquatic organisms which animals in the edge can then feed on, and stabilizing the streambank. The payoff from this relatively simple practice is huge.
In our work as conservation planners, we often encounter the challenge of managing invasive or pioneer species. This is because exotics love the sun and disturbed soil, two qualities that are commonly found on edges where plowed fields meet forests that have historically been logged, as almost all New England’s forests have been. Often, we resort to the use of broad-spectrum systemic herbicides like glyphosate to control exotics, but as we look forward and anticipate a future without glyphosate, we must think about how to manage these species differently. With practices like Field Border, Conservation Cover, Tree, and Shrub Establishment, and Wildlife Habitat Planting, we can plant low trees and shrubs along these edges (such as alders, dogwoods, small maple varieties, and crabapples, to name a few) to soften their margins and to swallow up sunlight in order to eliminate the niche for opportunistic species to appear. The added benefits include habitat and food for animals and insects.
And finally, I would be remiss not to mention practices that we don’t see often but that I believe will be essential in managing the precious resource of water as our climate becomes more and more unpredictable. These include Contour Buffer Strips, Contour Farming, and Terrace. These practices serve many functions, one of which is to slow water’s movement across the landscape and capture as much as possible in the soil. By slowing water down in this way, we can increase the surface area of the edge where soil and water meet and thereby maximize water storage in the soil.
To sum it up neatly, edges = energy. Many permaculture enthusiasts say that once you have your edges figured out and under control, a permaculture design is much easier to create because assessing your edges means assessing what flows across them or is disrupted by them, or what edges might be missing entirely. Edges are the backbone of a permaculture design, showing us the big and important patterns of energetic flow across a landscape. They may very well hold the keys to the future of Massachusetts conservation practices in an increasingly changing world as well.
Learn more about AFT's work with NRCS in New England
American Farmland Trust and USDA’s NRCS Announce Agreement to Increase Conservation on Agricultural Land in Massachusetts