Permaculture at Tierra del Sol

When I looked over the fence from Tierra del Sol into the next farm, I saw rows of corn stalks, withered and dried, stretching out practically to the foot of the hills – the remnants of the previous harvest. I saw an enormous monoculture, dependent on one crop, concerned with extracting maximum production from the land without any care for the fertility that must be returned to the land to sustain that production in the long term. I saw yet another tract of land that has been abandoned to corporate food interests, producing food at the expense of the small farmer, the poor consumer, the soil.

The fence separated not just different farms but different farming philosophies, different spiritual orientations towards the land on which we depend so much. On this side of the fence, just east of Oaxaca, Mexico, Tierra del Sol practices the principles of Permaculture, which stands for “permanent agriculture” or, as Peter Bloom of Tierra del Sol told us on our visit, “permanent culture,” in the sense that it places food at the center as the focal point of our entire culture.

From that fundamental building block – food as defining cultural element – permaculture spirals outward as a design methodology, a way to build a garden, a farm, a homestead. It touches on how to build, where to build, how to relate the various elements that are built. It ties together sustainability, economic solidarity, health and spiritual wellbeing into a coherent, unified whole. It is both a practical farming methodology to grow food and a manifestation of idealistic notions of how we can live more sustainably and harmoniously off the land and with the land.

At Tierra del Sol, there is no waste: there are enormous compost piles that are routinely flipped and aerated and turned into fertile soil in which more food can be grown. More fertility is returned to the land than is even taken out in the first place. The energy to run the farm is generated from solar panels and a large windmill. Tierr del Sol grows polycultures: there are diverse rows of vegetables and legumes, and they are rotated cyclically in this order, according to whether they add or remove fertility from the soil:

1)   Crops that take nutrients out the soil (these have fruit growing outside of the soil, like tomatoes);

2)   Crops that take a small amount of nutrients out of the soil (crops from which we eat the leaves, such as lettuce and spinach)

3)   Crops that use no nutrients and let the soil rest but produce food (crops from which we eat the roots, like beets and radishes)

4)   Crops that restore nutrients to the soil (legumes such as beans and peas take Nitrogen from the air and leave it in the soil)

This rotation is circular and cyclical, in direct contrast to the one-directional monoculture method of extraction across the fence. It leaves the land better off with each cycle and produces enough food to feed the people working the farm.

At Tierra del Sol, they do not sell what they grow, as they found that it was not a sustainable proposition to try to profit off what they grew. Why not, as Peter says, stay out of the cash economy where they can only hope to break even, and simply grow the food to feed the people here on the farm? Who decided that agriculture is a commercial pursuit?

One of our fundamental responsibilities as humans is to feed ourselves, and on Tierra del Sol they have accomplished just that, and have done it in a sustainable manner. When we outsource this responsibility to the big agricultural corporations that turn vast fields into rows of a single crop, and turn that into processed quasi-food products, we outsource our sovereignty and let down our side of the bargain that says we need to be in true harmony with the natural processes and cycles of the earth if we want to continue to prosper in this life and on this land. Tierra del Sol, and permaculture in general, point to a new way (which is actually an old way) to relate to our food: as the center of our culture, as our responsibility as individual humans trying to survive together, as something that irrevocably binds person to person and person to land.

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Monoculture in the next farm

Monoculture in the next farm

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The dried grass on the beds keeps the humidity in, prevents soil from drying out in the sun and decreases water usage

The dried grass on the beds keeps the humidity in, prevents soil from drying out in the sun and decreases water usage

Comments
2 Responses to “Permaculture at Tierra del Sol”
  1. Robin Fixell says:

    Hi, Eric–You’re a good teacher as well as writer. I love your specific examples that help to clarify! Love, Robin

  2. ehimmel says:

    Hi Robin,

    Thanks, I really appreciate that!

    -Eric

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