Sustainable farming isn’t a new idea. In fact, it’s what growers have been doing for thousands of years! What has changed is the amount that today’s farmers are required to produce and the techniques that they typically use to achieve this. Chemical fertilizers, strong pesticides, genetically-modified seeds, and heavy-duty machinery have increased the average grower’s productivity more than thirty-fold since colonial times. However, sustainability has now become a front-line issue in large-scale agriculture.

A novel approach to boosting productivity is to apply the principles of a natural ecosystem when planning out your farm design. Rather than pushing ever-more intensive monocultures, this novel approach — known as permaculture — produces higher yields through increasing diversity.

Permaculture — A New yet Old Approach to Organic Farming

While it may come across as the latest fad, the permaculture approach to sustainable farming really synthesizes what traditional cultures have always known. Producing food is part and parcel of managing the natural landscape. For example, the Gunditjmara-speaking clans in the Cape Otway area of Australia planted native potatoes in the bush environment for later harvest. Likewise, many indigenous tribes in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia practice shifting agriculture, clearing small amounts of forest for cultivation, and then leaving them fallow to regenerate. Far from destroying the forests, this carefully-managed practice actually contributes to their amazing biodiversity.

In the context of sustainable farming, permaculture means taking a step back to observe the patterns of nature in the local area. Based on the information collected, you will be ready to design a farm that thrives.

The 12 Permaculture Design Principles

Farm design with a black fine liner.

In the introductory blog about permaculture, we briefly mentioned the 12 design principles, as well as the three foundational ethics that underpin everything a permaculturist does. Here are some examples of how each principle could be applied to sustainable farming in California:

  1. Observe and interact

    Begin by observing your local environment, how it functions, and its specific opportunities and limitations. The warm climate in California lends itself to growing all kinds of exotic fruits and this selection can be increased even more with the use of greenhouses and microclimates.

  2. Catch and store energy

    Sustainable farming systems catch energy at its peak to provide for times of need. California enjoys a lot of sun, which can be harnessed in the form of solar power. Other forms of energy include timber from sustainably-managed woodlands and electricity from the wind.

  3. Obtain a yield

    Ensure that your efforts are producing a yield in terms of food, shelter, fiber, medicine, and aesthetic beauty. Planting flowers for pollinators can enhance the sensory appeal of your garden while attracting beneficial insects like butterflies and bees.

  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

    Notice the positive and negative feedback from your system and make the needed adjustments as you go. Pests and disease are certainly a nuisance, but can provide valuable information about the health of the soil and lead to new discoveries about less toxic sustainable farming techniques.

  5. Use and value renewable resources and services

    Embrace the renewable resources that nature provides, such as solar power rather than petrochemicals and muscle power when appropriate instead of machines.

  6. Produce no waste, minimize waste

    “Waste not, want not.” When thinking about your farm design, find ways to value and use by-products of your activities, such as greywater, compost, manure, and tree prunings.

  7. Design from patterns down to details

    First look at the big picture, including the resources available locally and the patterns of climate, wind, drought, and rain. Then incorporate this big-picture information into your plans to ensure you’ll be ready to handle extreme weather events.

  8. Integrate rather than segregate

    Position each part of the system strategically so that symbiotic relationships can form. This includes sustainable farming practices like companion planting and layered food forests.

  9. Use small and slow solutions

    Small systems are easier to maintain than larger ones and offer benefits for the environment and society as a whole. Consider using low-tech, human-scale strategies where possible, rather than fast and large-scale solutions.

  10. Understand, use, and value diversity

    Nature is extremely diverse and this is an important factor in being resilient. Consider making your plantings more diverse for natural protection against pests and disease.

  11. Use edges and value the marginal

    Lively and biodiverse exchanges often occur at the borders of an ecosystem, including ponds, hedgerows, and windbreaks. In your sustainable farming routine, pay special attention to maintaining the biodiversity of these systems.

  12. Creatively use and respond to change

    A willingness to remain flexible allows us to overcome most of the problems that we face. Being creative and ready to change allows us to adapt to new situations and keep things fun and interesting!

Embrace Sustainable Farming with Confidence

Whether you’re an established conventional grower or an organic farmer looking for new ideas, these 12 farm design principles could help you spot new opportunities while making your farm more sustainable and productive.

Established in 1907, Fruit Growers Supply Company has been keeping agriculture green with recyclable corrugated fiberboard boxes and now with our customized solar irrigation systems. Contact one of our friendly team members to find out how we can help your sustainable farming project succeed.


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