The Real Permaculture Fantasy: Transforming the Farm into Food
By Laura Killingbeck
On a small-scale permaculture farm, one of the main objectives is to produce an abundance of food for home and often community consumption. Regardless of your goal, if you are engaged in farming and are planning on home consumption of this abundance, you will need to transform the products you produce on the farm into usable food.
Many plants, animals, or microbes within a food system need to undergo some or many changes before they are recognizable as usable food. Yes, there are out-of-hand raw fruits and vegetables that can be plucked off the tree or vine or bush and popped into one’s mouth like tasty little miracles. Apples! Cucumbers! Cherry tomatoes! The image of a free-spirited, giggling Bill Mollison dancing through a food forest harvesting a homemade basket of ready-to-eat food is a popular and emotionally rewarding Permaculture Fantasy.
I love this fantasy! And it carries its truth: reaching out and plucking the fruit of your labor is a wonderful, soul-filling thing. You should stop to frolic, and enjoy it. But if you do not have an outside source of income, or if you would like to eat in the winter as well as the summer, you will need to frolic your way to growing and preparing food for storage, preservation, and market as well as for fresh eating.
Most staple foods require significant processing before they are edible. Grains need to be removed from the stalk, dried, hulled, and ground. Tubers and roots need to be washed, cooked, and are often fermented. Nuts and seeds need to be shelled and roasted. Legumes are shucked and cooked, and often dried and soaked. It is not until you process these plants into edible forms that they become real food. And it is not until you eat these real foods, share them, or sell them at market, that they become a practical implementation of permaculture food production.
Other foods that are commonly produced on a small scale, like basic fruits and vegetables, are often highly perishable and only available for limited seasons. Dairy, meat, and eggs are in most cases also only seasonally available. In order for an abundance of these foods to be fully utilized, they will require storage and/or preservation of some kind.
This means not only getting your hands dirty farming, but cleaning them again and spending some time in the kitchen. So gentlemen, strap on your aprons and ladies tie back that flowing hair. This is the real Permaculture Fantasy—transforming the farm into actual food, and then actually eating it.
Place-Based Eating, Place-Based Perspective
Now, if you’re like most permaculturists I know, you’re really into diversity. You planted, or are planting, lots of different varieties of edibles in order to build a resilient and dynamic integrated food system. You are a farming generalist, not specializing in just one monoculture or giant cash crop. (Though you may have monoculture sections and cash crops around.) If you are a generalist on the farm, you will also need to be a generalist in the kitchen. You will need to know some specialized information about how to process and preserve certain types of foods, but you will really be most empowered by your ability to understand basic, broad methods and patterns and creatively adapt them.
Many people get stuck on this part. For those of us raised in industrialized countries, we have been born into a globalized food system. This means that when we get our food (aka go shopping at the supermarket) we are able to pick the exact quantities of items that we want for specific things. We decide what it is we want to eat, find a recipe that tells us how to make it, and then buy each individual ingredient. This is completely backwards. When you grow your own food or eat locally, you get whatever is in season – in the quantity that survived the weather and the cucumber beetles. Once you assess what foods are available to you, then you can make decisions about how to use them. What you end up eating is the last part in the sequence, not the first.
You can manipulate this scenario of course, by planning and preserving. If you know you love dill pickles, you can plan your dill to be ready right around the time the cucumbers are juiciest. If you love to eat corn fritters with blueberry jam, you can put up jam for the time of year you’ll be eating your fritters. The starting point, however, will always be with the whole food as it comes off the farm, and an understanding of the different ways you can utilize that food.
Options and Efficiency
The more you understand basic methods and strategies for transforming the farm into real food, the more options you will have and the more efficient your food utilization will be. This means knowing the processing requirements for the edibles you plant; investing in the tools and infrastructure you will need to carry out that processing; and developing an understanding of basic methods of food preservation and preparation.
If the food you have growing on the farm requires processing, that means it won’t be edible (it won’t really be food) until you do that processing. This is a big deal. You, someone you pay, or someone who loves you very very much will have to actually slaughter and butcher those chickens, boil and peel those potatoes, and cook and grind that corn. These time and skill requirements should be taken into consideration as you plan your farm.
Tools and Infrastructure
Depending on the scale you are working at, you may need larger or smaller pieces of tools and equipment. Some equipment may be simple, like a bucket, or specialized, like a nut sheller. Some tools that will make your life easier might need to be developed and made at home. You will need some space to carry out these tasks.
Preservation and preparation
Food preservation means keeping food safe over time. This can be a little time, like making those blueberries last an extra day off the bush, or a lot of time, like having cheese to eat all winter long. Understanding how to preserve food for a little or a long time is essential for the utilization of local abundance. Understanding strategies and methods for preparing fresh or preserved foods for the table will be a foundation of daily life.
The real Permaculture Fantasy, is, after all, based in reality. We really can develop dynamic decentralized food systems that really do feed us. We really can grow food on a home, community, and regional scale. And we really can actually eat, live, and thrive off of that food. So when you’re planning your permaculture food farm, plan to spend some time in the kitchen – because that’s what this is all about.
Laura Killingbeck is the Director of Food Systems and Fermentation at Rancho Mastatal Sustainability Education Center in Mastatal, Costa Rica, and a Food Systems Consultant at Round the Bend Farm Center for Restorative Community in Dartmouth, Massachusetts.