A Report on the 1981 Permaculture Conferences

Picture accompanying From Our Hearts, With Our Hands, For The Earth - a report on the permaculture conferences By Mark Musick

A Report on the Permaculture Conferences

By Mark Musick
Tilth - Summer 1981

This spring Tilth, Friends of the Trees and Children of the Green Earth hosted two special conferences on Permaculture in the Northwest. Conferences were held both in the Interior and Maritime Regions to bring together people intimate with the varied climates and soils of the Northwest.

Close to 150 people attended the Interior conference, April 3-5, at the Sagle Community Hall, not far from Lake Coeur d’Alene in Northern Idaho. A few weeks later, May 8-10, over 250 people attended the Maritime conference at a camp overlooking the Columbia River east of Portland, Oregon. From the land of ponderosa pine and quaking aspen to the land of Douglas-fir and red alder, a total of over 400 people attended the two conferences to learn how we might heal the earth, practice sustainable agriculture, and build our sense of community within the region.


“What is permaculture?” was one of the recurrent questions during the conferences. Permaculture can be defined as the conscious design of self-sustaining agricultural landscapes. The term was coined by Australian Bill Mollison for the creation of agricultural ecosystems that embody the diversity, complexity and stability of natural environments. Our task is to learn to work with the abundance of nature to evolve a new, ecologically-based agriculture that is both bountiful and enduring.

Between the Idaho and Oregon conferences there were over 30 workshops devoted to specific aspects of permaculture in the Northwest. Topics included Windbreaks and Shelterbelts, Cottage Industries, Small Fruits and Berries, Budding and Grafting, Beekeeping, Seed Collecting, Edible Landscaping, Nitrogen-Fixing Trees and Shrubs, Market Gardening, Farmers’ Markets, Nut Trees, Dryland Permaculture, CO2 in the Atmosphere, Fungi, Integrated Pest Management, Permaculture in Forestry, Medicinal Herbs, Biological Agriculture, Ethnobotany, The One-Straw Revolution in the City, Aquaculture, Woodlot Management, Land Reclamation, and Livestock in Permaculture.

The conferences were intended as catalysts. The true mark of their success will be the new directions in agriculture and forestry that may emerge in the years ahead.

An Introduction to Agricultural Ecology

Larry Geno opened the conference series in Sagle, Idaho with an introduction to the principles of agricultural ecology. Larry is a researcher and ecologist who is currently developing a homestead orchard and nursery in Northeast Washington. In his talk he stressed the necessity of understanding ecological principles as the starting point for developing a permanent agriculture.

Larry first dealt with the problem of language. “The term permaculture is not clear,” he said. “It’s vague. People wonder if ‘permaculture’ is a new kind of yogurt or if it’s something you do to your hair. I like the term ecological agriculture,” he added, “because that is exactly what we’re talking about. We’re talking about an agriculture based on ecological principles.” Larry then went on to outline the basic principles of ecology.

The ground rules, he said, are the environmental determinants that define habitat types. These are commonly called limiting factors. They include moisture, temperature and soil nutrients—all the resources that determine what can be produced in a given area. From there he went on to describe the edge effect, ecological succession, and ecosystem dynamics.

Conventional agriculture, Larry noted, is based primarily on maintaining a disturbed site at the lowest stage of ecological succession. Pioneer species—grains and annual or biennial vegetables—-are emphasized because they yield the highest net productivity. We are all aware of the costs that have resulted from this approach to agriculture (soil erosion, dependence on chemical fertilizers, etc). However, Larry stressed that because of their high productivity, we must learn how to incorporate annuals in our permaculture systems “Later successional stages tie up a lot of energy and nutrients in their standing biomass, in their tree trunks,” he noted. “So I think the idea of utilizing only long-lived large plants in the permaculture system is over-stressed. We’re going to lose productivity in doing that.” He added that “we can still incorporate a lot of annual plants within a framework of longer-lived plants. We should still call for a self-sustaining system, but not sacrifice too much productivity.

"The keys to a sustainable agriculture, he said, are the encouragement of diversity and complexity. “The general conclusion among most ecologists,” Larry continued, “is that higher diversity and higher complexity tend to create systems that are more stable. Increasing diversity and complexity in our agricultural and forestry systems is essential for them to become more stable, more enduring and, in the end, self-perpetuating. However,” he emphasized, “that is a far off goal.”

“It’s hard to go from these basic ecological principles that are observed in natural systems to agricultural systems,” Larry added, “because we don’t have permacultural agricultural systems to observe and watch. I’m certainly as enthusiastic as any of you here ,“ he said. “In fact, I’m devoting my life to these things, but we’re going to have to be patient because there are going to be a lot of errors made. I don’t see any way out of it.”

In response to a question on how he would begin applying ecological concepts to agriculture, Larry said he would “begin slowly, but on a broad scale. Around our fairly conventional orchard (though we will be mixing in leguminous trees), I’m instituting a belt about 30 feet wide, primarily for wind control.” To increase diversity, he said, “I would start incorporating bee forage plants, pollen sources for beneficial insects, nitrogen-fixing shrubs, perennial food plants (asparagus, raspberries, etc) around the orchard site. I would do it on a broad scale, but I wouldn’t do it very quickly. I would watch the plants carefully,” he noted, “until I knew what they did where.”