Toby Hemenway: Scaling Permaculture Principles To Other Systems

When Chris was out for our event with Robb Wolf in northern California last month, we paid a visit to Singing Frogs Farm along with a group of Peak Prosperity members. Adding to the outing's embarrassment of riches, permaculture expert Toby Hemenway joined in.

We saw much that day that inspired us about the regenerative and productive impact humans can have on their farmland when using wise soil management techniques and leveraging natural systems.

Now, of course, not everyone has an 8-acre farm in the country to apply these practices to. Does that mean that permaculture is only relevant to rural farmers?

Not all all, says Hemenway. He has just released a new book, The Permaculture City: Regenerative Design for Urban, Suburban, and Town Resilience which explains how individuals, as well as society as a whole, can apply the same principles underlying permaculture to improve most if not all of the systems our way of life depends on:

There have been advances on several fronts, and one is that we are starting to get good data now. There were a lot of claims made in permaculture that were based on more theory in the early days, 20, 25 years ago. We thought this should work it is a great idea and people would sometimes talk as if it had worked when we really didn’t have good data. Now we know a lot more about what does work. We have toned down some of the rhetoric and are trying to be more fact based.

But another one of the huge developments is the big understanding that what we have learned in the garden: When you design ecologically sound systems for food you learn the same principals and the same guidelines for designing pretty much anything else using 'all systems' thinking. We have learned that we can design energy systems, water systems and even social systems and communities and even perhaps economic systems using permaculture design based on how whole systems work. It is based on natural systems design. So that has been one of the biggest changes and bits of growth in permaculture: moving out of the garden and into the rest of the human world where lie all of the things that we need to be working on. 

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Toby Hemenway (41m:28s)

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

My wife and I spent Saturday night sitting on the lawn at the Greek Theater in the hills at the back of the UC Berkeley campus, that (no longer such a) hotbed of free speech and rebellious student activity.  I hadn’t been there for a couple of decades, but we went to see Neil Young and the Promise of the Real on their Rebel Content Tour and weren’t disappointed.  At 69, Neil’s still cranking out a high energy wall of poignant and intense rock and roll, creative magic and ornery advocacy against the Powers That Be, including specific corporations and corporate control generally. 
He seemed to be just hitting his long haul cruising altitude about three hours into the concert when he said, as though surprised, that someone had just given him the 30 minute warning, so he’d better start playing again.  He’d stopped for a few minutes to engage in a mass act of law breaking by throwing hundreds of packages of organic seeds into the audience as well as having them distributed by helpers dressed as farmers.  It turns out, this is completely illegal under a new California law I hadn’t heard about that was passed recently thanks to Monsanto & related money that forbids any exchange of seeds more than 3 miles from their point of origin unless they’re packed under strict quality control and packaging constraints suitable primarily to corporate operations.  So, now you can sell, trade or give away packaged GMO Monsanto seeds anywhere in California, but it’s completely against the law to sell, trade or give a friend 4 or more miles away any seeds harvested from your garden or farm – something that, obviously, people have been doing for thousands of years.  He suggested to any police watching in the crowd that they should just arrest him rather than the crowd as a whole to avoid a logistical nightmare, even though any crowd members keeping the seeds are law-breakers, too.  Of course, no one was arrested, as that would draw too much publicity to just how corrupt and absurd this law actually is.

I was glad to see that, like me and some others, he just cuts to the chase and says “Monsanto is the Devil”.  It’s a good way to summarize the thrust of their business plan, and also let people know the more deeply their corporation falters, misses earnings and fails, the louder we should cheer.   To accentuate the point, he released a song and album this year called, “The Monsanto Years”, which goes after a few specific corps in addition to Monsanto, and calls out Citizens United, the Supreme Court’s legalized corruption which is perfecting the takeover of both parties and takedown of democracy in the United States by big money.  One of his other songs commented on bank earnings :wink:  “Too big to fail.  Too rich for jail…” and poses the musical question, “when will we take back our freedom?”  Good question, Mr. Young.

So, congratulations, Neil! In spite of a voice that some have called “whiny”, you’re not getting old and going down without a heavy fight, which seems to be more than can be said for much of the US population these days.  Here’s the less overtly political After the Gold Rush solo opener we saw, but recorded at an earlier concert on the tour this summer:  "…look at Mother Nature on the run, in the Twenty-First Century…"

Thank you, Chris, for making that observational comment about the modern day lack of bugs on our windshields.  About a month ago I was on vacation involving a road trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  On just one day, in one small area in this pretty wild, remote area of our country did my windshield get really plastered with bugs while driving down the highways.  At the time is was a bit of an annoyance, but also brought a touch of nostalgia from road trips with my parents as a child in the 70's when this was a normal part of trips.  Back then is was completely common to NEED to really clean off the windshield whenever we stopped at a gas station.  Your comment about this during the podcast really brought the change into full consciousness for me.  It's a change I've experienced but hadn't really noticed.  It's implications are rather frightening too, especially when I think about how clean my windshield generally was driving through the forests of northern Michigan.
I enjoyed the podcast as a whole, but that's one part that really struck me.

If I sold you a box that Looked like a TV but was in fact a liquor cabinet, what would You have? A TV or a liquor cabinet? From this we can deduce that an object is defined by it's function, not it's form. We are defined by what we do,  not by how we look. 
Two days ago I have my neighbor half a box of earthworms. (Very valuable things,  earthworms. ) I wanted to see how she would react. She was completely confused. I suspect that the worms ended up in the trash can.  The rest of the worms went into my Airhead toilet solids container.  They are very happy, and so am I. When the time comes to empty the can, I'll be dealing with something very valuable,  worm castings. ($60 per kg for people who grow,  ahem, tomatoes. ) I shall be casting around myself for a good place to do some guerilla gardening. Some time in the future some kid is going to wonder how that apricot tree got there. 

What goes around, comes around. 

I can't let this discussion wander off without raising a glass to Donella Meadows. She wrote "Thinking in systems."

Nor the significance of Paul Stamet's work with the foundation of life, the soil. (Mycelium Running.)

And of cause our own heroes,  Robbie and the rest of the men of the land.

Hi Chris and Massachusetts residents. Our own Department of Environmental Protection - last time I tried - would not allow a washing machine to drain into a garden. The DEP guy who told me 'no' explained that "A fly might go to the grey water and land on a pathogen and then fly back into your house." You mentioned Betadine at your local hospital and I was surprised too. But really I think that our public officials - especially DEP and Dept of Ag are not up to speed on latest scientific studies of bacteriolgy.

I travel a fair bit for work and I hadn't noticed the lack of bugs until Chris brought my attention to it.  Looking back on my last two road trips it's terrifying to think that I didn't have to clean the wind shield once.  Just this last week I drove from Cleveland to central PA and then back down to Cincinnati.  All told about 15 hours of driving through farm land, city, mountainous forests, suburbs and rural communities without a single major bug strike.  Back in July I drove from Seattle to Southern CA and back and I don't recall any bugs on the windshield then either.  When I was a kid I remember having to clean the windows almost every time we stopped for gas.  That is as strong a piece of circumstantial evidence as I need to conclude that something is very out of whack.
I like the comment that humans are not necessarily destined to be a blight on the natural world.  It is amazing to see examples of people restoring and even improving natural ecosystems in ways that produce a profitable yield.  I see it happening all over on a small scale and I'm encouraged by a few larger examples like New Forest Farms (Mark Shepherd - Restoration Agriculture).  We need to scale this up to such an unbelievable level over the next few generations that I can't think of a more exciting project to dedicate ones self to.  The challenge of course is doing so in a way that is competitive with chemical methods of agriculture and typical american lifestyles. 

I admit that the only place I really apply my convictions are at home…I still work in the old system and I probably cause more harm in that part of my life than I do good on our small acreage.  I'm guilty of waiting for collapse as a cure.  The thinking is alluring that as long as one have the skills and the tools ahead of time we can reset to a newer better way of doing things once the old system breaks.  There are too many holes in that logic to patch.  I/we need to be doing everything (EVERYTHING) we can now to shift the momentum while the resources to live an easy life allow us the luxury of choice.

I've stopped long ago asking for permission to do things when it comes to my property. I live in a city, and haven't figured out how to do a gray water system yet, but this past summer the city subsidized rain water collection barrels for citizens. One of the departments, I forget which one, wanted me to register my barrels with their department if I purchased more than 2 of them. Well, I guess I simply forgot to do such a thing. Shame on me. In Utah, the state doesn't "own" the water that comes from the sky as they do in Colorado. Maybe they wanted to know who has barrels so that when they change the law they can come take them from me. Who knows, but I'm not going to make it that easy for them. 

 I agree with you that the EPA/DEP is behind the curve. The government is always behind the curve, usually by 10-15 years. If you ask permission to do everything, nothing would get done in this country. The red tape that one must go through is absolutely incredible, especially if you live within city limits. Good luck to you on your gray water system. 

i wouldn't, Lambertad, say such out loud;-)

What is the bigger process we are in the middle of.  Or is there a big picture?  What is it? 
What are others seeing or suspecting?

My wife and I spent Saturday night sitting on the lawn at the Greek Theater in the hills at the back of the UC Berkeley campus... to see Neil Young and the Promise of the Real....

He’d stopped [playing] for a few minutes to engage in a mass act of law breaking by throwing hundreds of packages of organic seeds into the audience as well as having them distributed by helpers dressed as farmers.  It turns out, this is completely illegal under a new California law I hadn’t heard about that was passed recently thanks to Monsanto & related money that forbids any exchange of seeds more than 3 miles from their point of origin unless they’re packed under strict quality control and packaging constraints suitable primarily to corporate operations.  So, now you can sell, trade or give away packaged GMO Monsanto seeds anywhere in California, but it’s completely against the law to sell, trade or give a friend 4 or more miles away any seeds harvested from your garden or farm – something that, obviously, people have been doing for thousands of years. 

I think the process we're in is one of systemic overshoot on all levels.  The last few generations have seen almost uninhibited success.  Bureaucracies grow to consume the supply of available resources.  They execute their societal grift by creating regulations to funnel people through taxable channels and to channel profits to their preferred private sector counterparts.  That is the purpose of seed laws.  However, individuals and loosely organized groups move faster, are more flexible and have less to loose than giant bureaucracies and so we can usually out maneuver them as they move to enclose us.  Some choose direct defiance like Neil, some choose to break the rules but hide it (it's hard to police peer-to-peer seed transactions) and some seek out loop holes (imagine a network of growers all willing to supply seed within four miles of their farm connecting the entire state of California - an underground railroad for seeds).
The cost of them trying to keep up is growing exponentially against the available resources they can capture.  They have forced growth at unsustainable rates, bleed us near dry the whole way and now that the juice is running out and the returns are diminishing they are going to push even harder.  The result is that we get even more creative and bold in our evasion and they look ever more ridiculous and have to spin ever more complex lies to cover it (see Syria).  Eventually they fail and we win, but our prize is a greatly impoverished world (economically, socially, ecologically etc).

Great discovery with Toby H. Chris, that we can work hand in glove with nature rather than having to subdue or as Bacon put it "…put nature on the rack…"  This begins to open whole new vistas that, no doubt, have been sufficated by loudmouth commercial science and technology.  As Taoists might say: "Balance Heaven and Earth."

I live in Canberra, the nation's capital. We have a surprisingly and pleasantly pro-active government when it comes to urban agriculture. Consider:

  1. We are allowed to use grey water on our gardens, provided it is discharged 100mm below ground level. Plastic irrigation components exist to attend to this. It's a wise regulation: grey water is very unpleasant.

  2. Legislation is in preparation to permit widespread verge gardening, although sensibly with height limits for pedestrian and vehicular safety: no corn as high as an elephant's eye.

  3. The ACT government has been providing support—land, funds—for community gardens since the early 1970s. The Canberra City Farm gets a large allocation of land this Thursday (22/10) and the Minister for Agriculture will be signing the licence.

  4. Canberra is a keen participant in the development of a regional food economy.

  5. You may have seen recent news items about the class actions being filed against Monsanto over the (alleged) carcinogenic properties of Roundup, and the financial troubles that McDonald's is experiencing as people apparently turn to more healthy sources of food.

I agree with the argument in this podcast: not all people are a blot on the landscape. Perhaps even some of the artificial persons known as corporations may in time prove beneficial to the human race. Wouldn't that be nice.

As a sentient advocate of a more natural world, I feel somewhat sad after listening the your recent interview with Toby Hemingway.I also realize that my tendency to become a cynical curmudgeon is accelerating as I age. However,to think that watering a tomato plant with dishwater on the 15th floor of a condo is going to somehow save the planet is to ignore the somewhat "Kunstler-esque" admonition of Walt Kelly's, Pogo, when he says, "We have met the enemy, and he is us".
Urbanization is only a glaring example of where we have arrived in out species' evolution as we rapidly ply our dominance over this planet. He is absolutely, bang on when he comments that the main challenge we face is a socio-political issue. Rheba's and Lambertad's specific greywater comments only underline the situation. As we rapidly approach the plateau phase of the human growth curve, we need to recognize our need to reduce our "abuser" status and reduce our demands on the bio-diversity of this world. History is replete with examples, that I needn't bore this forum with, of the results. While Toby's book is filled with great ideas, the urbanizing trend of Monsanto style "clear cut" agriculture to feed Auschwitz style CAFO's and put energy bars in the palms of treadmill users, frankly, stinks. Adam Smith's invisible hand has got us by the throat and won't let go until, as CM suggests, we change the narrative. I hope I haven't depressed you all by spraying bio-degradable urine all over the discussion. Sorry 'bout that! But now I feel better. Back to the garden to finish fall cleanup.

One of the things I always look for when listening to podcasts such as this is how much overlap I find between the ideas expressed here and those expressed on other media that I listen to and read.  And one of the major themes that is popping up in so many places recently is anarchism.
I think that this is really an important development, because it highlights just how much existing institutions have lost legitimacy in the eyes of a sizable minority of the public.  So, people just decide that they are going to ignore the rules (so long as it does not infringe on others) and do the things that they see as needing done.  I really liked Toby's example of the squatters in an old factory who forged an alliance with the local elder living facility, so that when the police came to turn them out, it quickly became a situation that was impossible for the State to win through the application of force.  So the police simply backed down (and maybe ended up actually sympathizing with the squatters and elders in the process).

This brings to mind something I read from Nicole Foss a while back, likening this process to a herd of wildebeests crossing a river in Africa.  If the wildebeests go in one or two at a time, the crocodiles will just pick them off.  However, if they go across in one mass, they will actually confuse the crocodiles so much with the commotion that a smaller proportion of them get picked off and eaten.  She said that this is the attitude we have to take with willful disobedience or ignoring those laws and codes we find to be onerous and prohibitive of positive solutions – all of us who feel that way have to dive in at once, because when we do that we make it nigh impossible for the authorities to do anything to stop us.

For my part, I raised 37 chickens this year and culled the flock down to 20, even though I'm only allowed to have 10 per the town code where I live.  By buying off my neighbors with a meat bird each and eggs each week once they all start laying, I'm staving off any complaints from them – and maybe even setting myself up that if the town ever did try to come in and tell me I had to cut back my flock (which I also use to create about 1.5 CY of compost every 2 weeks), my neighbors would be there to stand on my side.

Greywater is another pet issue of mine in this realm.  I'm a licensed civil engineer and have read a good bit on these kinds of systems, and they are illegal in New York State where I live, unless they are subjected to chemical treatment first.  Which just about ruins the idea of greywater – you actually WANT all of those excess nutrients in the water, because they help to feed the vegetation you use to process it.  Well, I'm taking it on myself to design and install a greywater diversion system in my own house regardless of the codes, because it's something that needs to be done and is beneficial on so many levels (reducing aquifer use, reducing stress on the septic system, hydrating the landscape, etc.).

Don't ask permission.  Don't even ask forgiveness.  Just get s*** done.

Chris, your show with Toby Hemenway should inspire many urbanites.  Not mentioned, but very inspirational, was when in the early ‘90s when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba found itself cut off from petroleum products, their agricultural system, which depended on diesel and fossil-fuel derived chemicals and Cubans, with the help of others from as far as Australia adopted permaculture techniques and grew their food in downtown Havana and wherever they could.  Urbanites, indeed can grow much of what they need to feed themselves.
While I have it on my list of books to read, I have a couple minor, call it “picky”, issues with Toby and his farm experience in Oregon.  If he followed permaculture design principles as written by Bill Mollison and currently globally taught by Geoff Lawton (albeit financial restraints can enter the picture), Toby would not have a drive that took so much maintenance by designing it on contour.; could have cut his transportations to a fraction by producing most of his own needs, and possibly fuels, and other energy costs on his own property; totally eliminated his half-mile well needs (including the energy to pump water) immensely with water-capturing swale and keyline designed earthworks ponds and dams; and do as I do in not having any form of cable coming in (getting whatever wirelessly).  My apologies to Toby – you have done and continue to do great work.

Chris your introduction mentioning Singing Frogs Farm and the great work they have done is indeed absolutely outstanding.

However, your mentioning Farmland LP, without mentioning Restoration Agriculture Development, Inc. is an oversight.  Yes, I realize as I believe, you were at a West coast conference highlighting both Farmland and Singing Frogs, but the difference between Farmland LP (while admittedly headed in the right direction) and RAD, Inc. is just comparing ‘sustainable organic agriculture’ to truly turning the clock back, and restoring Nature the way it was several hundred years ago before we ruthlessly exploted and mined it in a highly degradable way – so that you no longer have to clean bugs off the windshield as I did back in the ’60 when I drove from Illinois to Colorado to go to school.

Me and a number of university studies have shown that if you want to get a financial return on your investment (if that is your only goal) organic poly culture farms like those RAD, Inc. develops is more profitable and resilient to environmentally caused crop disasters than the organic mono-crop, farms that it appears Farmland LP invests in.

I have been developing a reinvestment strategy where savvy equity investors, who are, and should be concerned about the current economic financial bubble, can reinvest into one particular tangible asset as well as the rental properties; individual residents (by the score – paying cash); collectibles; gold (questionable as to whether or not they would be able to hang on to it); and farm land.  That specific asset is existing, relatively healthy or land that has previously never been farmed that the investor would wholly own and have a company like RAD, Inc. develop and manage for them over a period of at least six years.  For this the investor/owner would get, an immediate first-year revenue stream, albeit offset by first year development costs, which would dramatically taper off to near zero from year two on; tax deductions as being a schedule F farmer; dramatically increasing cash flows by selling farm products smart, eg. Joel Salitin ways and Coops, rather than through the relative pittance in sales at farmers’ markets; and lastly huge appreciation to their investments, that are based on things people will always need – food, fuel, fiber, medicinals, water (including acquifer recharge), natural habitat, building materials and more.

Further, this month I realized that a 2010 interview with Jarod Diamond who wrote the books which were subsequently turned into documentaries Guns, Germs and Steel, which outlines the rise of humankind during the last 10,000 years including the development of agriculture; and Collapse, which ironically contributes collapse in every case in large measure to the development of conventional annual crop tilled agriculture, laid out 12 challenges that all must be rectified if mankind is to continue.  To a significicant portion restorational agriculture solves all 12 and more of societal problems (if requested I would be gladly provide my summation of that).

Therefore, Chris, I would highly recommend you invite Mark Shepard to be a guest and share most of what I have said better than I can.  I have never seen that Mark has been on Peak Prosperity since I became a member early 2013 and have filed all the MP-3s ever since plus a few others including some with Joel Salatin.


I second, JohnLevering, in the recommendation of trying to get Mark Shepard to be a guest.  I'd love to hear what he has to say in a podcast.

I'll add my vote to the list.  Mark would be an incredible guest.

Thank you John, David and TallestMan for the Mark Shepard recommendation.  Can't wait!


If you need another person to endorse bringing Mark Shepard on, I wholeheartedly endorse him and his work!
The one drawback about Mark as compared to Toby, though, is that his efforts are almost completely focused on the broad acreage farm scale, which is out of reach for the majority of people on this site.  This doesn't discount any of the amazing things that he's doing, just that it's something that doesn't easily translate into action for most listeners.

I think that Toby's value in these topics is that he looks beyond the agricultural component of permaculture and focuses on the social structure side of things.  That's something that few people are really able to articulate or model well, so it's badly needed within the broader movement.

i just listened to this podcast and was very disappointed.
if this man honestly believes conservation and severe behavioral changes are not a requirement for our species future, then he is simply promoting more techno-cornucopianism nonsense. to say we do not have to lower the heating on our houses or wear sweaters, or conserve or reduce our consumption is human hubris.

we live on a finite planet with finite resources, and suggesting we can have our cake and eat it too, is part of the same "off the cliff" thinking which has us in this mess. “magic green solar” is merely an extension of the unsustainable, and ecological destructive fossil fuel powered infrastructure.