Warren Brush describes himself as a certified permaculture designer and teacher, a mentor and storyteller. He is co-founder of Quail Springs Learning Oasis & Permaculture Farm, a former cattle ranch located in California’s Cuyama Valley—one of the remotest places within a three-hour drive of Los Angeles you can imagine—where his team demonstrates and teaches permaculture design principles and practices.
Prior to creating Quail Springs, Brush and his wife, Cynthia Harvan, began a program for homeless youth in Santa Barbara, California, which they then expanded to include children and teens from diverse racial, social, and economic groups. Wilderness Youth Project (WYP), an independent nonprofit organization, mentors diverse youth and families by taking them into nature. Each year, WYP spends many days in the Cuyama Valley, tracking animals, learning earth skills, building shelters, tending fires, and stewarding the land.
The Wilderness Youth Project is still taking kids into the wilds, but in 2004, Brush and Harvan, with the help of a Santa Barbara foundation, acquired Quail Springs. They moved to the land to lead the caretaking and development of the ranch as a permaculture learning and demonstration project. Since then, many dedicated and inspired people have taken part in developing the organization that Quail Springs is today—and people have come from all over the world to learn permaculture design principles and practices. In addition to permaculture design and application for food production, Quail Springs teaches natural building, Earth-based skills such as foraging, sacred hunting, tanning, and fiber arts, and offers a Sustainable Vocations, a permaculture design-certification program for young people aged fifteen to twenty-five.
Brush and his permaculture design company, True Nature Design, are often called to consult and teach internationally. He recently returned from a five-country teaching stint in Europe just in time to teach a two-week permaculture design course for international development and social entrepreneurship. He was kind enough to speak with me by phone one afternoon while a local Chumash leader was teaching. His is a hopeful vision for the Future of Food. – Leslee Goodman
The MOON: You’ve been quoted as saying that permaculture is now feeding more people than all the world’s aid programs combined. That’s a pretty remarkable claim. Please tell us more.
Brush: That’s actually a quote from Geoff Lawton, of the Permaculture Research Institute in Australia, an organization created by Bill Mollison, who is considered “the father of permaculture.” Lawton made that statement four years ago, in 2009, from PRI’s own research. I find it a credible claim. Around the world, nearly two and one-half million people have completed the Permaculture Design course, which is a seventy-two hour course that teaches the basic methodology of permaculture, which is about consciously designing with nature to achieve highly efficient and stable systems.
The reason it’s credible is that, when you mimic natural systems, rather than the monocrop systems of corporate agriculture we’re accustomed to, we can produce up to ten times the nutrition per square foot. For example, when you plant food in multiple layers like you would see in a forest—even if you’re just planting a raised bed—you get ten times the productivity of a monocrop. And at the same time you’re building soil, you’re recycling wastes, you’re providing valuable ecological services that mimic nature, which the monocrop system does not. You don’t see monocrops in nature. You see diversity in nature.
The MOON: So why do you think that corporate agriculture hasn’t jumped on the permaculture bandwagon?
Brush: Because Permaculture is a decentralizing movement. It can’t be done on a large scale without involving many people, which is an entirely different way of farming that looks more like times past, when we had communities of small farmers. Rather than one farmer having five thousand acres, permaculture has a thousand people each farming five acres. Which is a much more stable way of producing food—for people, if not for profit.
However, a lot of corporate agriculture is starting to look to permaculture for improving efficiency and profits. Estimates are that the modern agriculture system uses ten calories of energy to produce one calorie of food. That is completely unsustainable. Yes, we’re producing a huge amount of food, but we’re mining resources in order to achieve it. At some point our caloric savings account is going to be depleted. We’re burning through energy capital at an appalling rate. We’re stealing from our children and grandchildren in order to produce cheap food today, which is something that no sustainable—or ethical—culture in the world has ever done, or would ever do.
A lot of people who are doing large-scale agriculture find that at first they get high yields, but over time, as the soil is depleted, they have to keep buying more and more fertilizers, pesticides, treated seeds, and so on, from a corporate suppler. If they were left to an open market, where their food had to compete without government subsidies, they wouldn’t be able to make a profit—and so they wouldn’t farm that way. So much of the modern agriculture system is surviving only because of government subsidies in support of corporate profits. But we’re starting to see farmers in the United States and all over the world who are really desperate for change. We get a lot of farmers coming to us who are looking for ways to wean themselves from the huge industrialized energy inputs that they have to pay for. The only way to have manageable scale profitability is to mimic nature as closely as you can. It’s only when you push against nature that it costs energy—which ultimately costs money.