Permaculture Practitioners Meet Academics: Designing Research for the World We Want

This post is a report on a course that explored the ‘fertile edges’ of permaculture action-research.

From 9 - 13 October 2016, Vale da Lama, Portugal. For a total of five days an educational farm and eco-resort was venue to the (probably) first Permaculture Research Design Course of its kind.

The main facilitators Rafter Sass-Ferguson and Hugo Oliveira with their colleagues from Lisbon University lead by Gil Penha-Lopes were taking a considerable risk.

Could efforts creating and running a Permaculture Research Design Course be fruitful? Given that many years before protagonists Mollison and Holmgren had decided to shun academic institutions altogether.

A gender balanced and age-diverse group of nearly 30 participants from five continents had gathered in the Algarve. After dedicating a minute of silence in memory of the recently deceased Father of Permaculture Bruce Charles Mollison, they committed all their creative energy into making their worlds of science serve the three permaculture ethics: Earth Care, People Care & Fair Shares.


The venue: Educational resort Quinta do Vale da Lama

Quinta do Vale da Lama lies in Southern Portugal just outside of Lagos, near the Atlantic Ocean and on the edge of a wetland ecosystem with beautiful patches of reeds and a brittle, semi-arid landscape dominated by shrub vegetation. It is owned by Walt Ludwick and Nita Barroca, managed by a diverse team of permaculture designers, educators, landscape architects, who partially live on site and take care of its vegetable gardens, food forests and bio construction projects.

The Vale da Lama farm is further energized by the involvement of permaculture designers, consultants and community members in a participatory planning process geared to make the 43-hectare venture financially viable. According to its mission, it ‘provides farm based experiences, which empower individuals of all ages and backgrounds to create positive social and ecological impact by living in a regenerative way’.


The course: A balanced mix of theory and practice with loads of food for thought... and delicious food from locally grown fruits & veggies

Course participants gathered on the Campo do Vale, the project's educational space offering workshops around regenerating the land, connecting with nature and developing the community.

"Have you ever asked yourself if permaculture really works? When I started my dissertation, I wanted to know: So what is the deal with it?"

With these pivotal questions Rafter opened the floor to participants and instructors comprised of a mix of academic researchers, researcher-practitioners and practitioners. During the days to follow, the group could benefit from various research-related topics such as:

  • History and frontiers of permaculture research;
  • Opportunities and career trajectories;
  • Assessment, monitoring and evaluation of projects;
  • Surveying and selecting research methods;
  • Farm-based participatory research.

Tom Henfrey illustrated to the audience the nature and outcomes of stacking as a technique in research design. He used the 7-layered model of a forest, where research yields would be harvested at all levels and should provide benefit at various scales. Group discussion led to some examples, e.g. with regards to the social condition, levels could start with:

  1. the individual, followed by
  2. family,
  3. community
  4. nation and
  5. a politico-economic union like the EU.

Within the environmental condition layers could range from:

  1. soil food web
  2. plot of land,
  3. farm,
  4. catchment,
  5. biome or
  6. continent.

Keeping these scales, dimensions and layers in mind, research assures a systemic approach that can sometimes be fractal in a sense whilst adhering to the ethics.

The sessions had been put together in a skilful manner whereby subgroups were guided through a process of ‘getting practical’ and developing a total of four research projects of their own.

According to Rafter, as researchers we should remember to follow a successional process of solidarity.

This succession usually begins with those who have 1. influenced us in our life trajectory (e.g. friends, parents) followed by 2. receiving direction by those for whom our work is meaningful (e.g. peers, supervisors). At some point we might take up 3. leadership in our niche and 4. accountability, leading to 5. ongoing collaborations. It seemed important not to look at the glossy side of projects only, but to cherish the dark sides and failures alike.


Research strategy: connect with 1. the most affected, 2. the most local and 3. the most organized

Extreme weather events, droughts, and heat waves are some of the impacts of climate change that southern Portugal is already facing. In line with Walt’s desire to be an integral part of research for climate change adaptation and regeneration, Vale da Lama is partnering with the University of Lisbon.

A 7-hectare showcase project is currently being set up to start a permaculture research station and trial effective strategies for dry orchard regeneration.

On the south facing slope, the driest area of the farm, a combination of swales and hugelbeds are being monitored whilst creating a productive food forest landscape with mulberry, fig and quince trees in combination with sheep Holistic Planned Grazing.

The system is designed to be irrigation-free in a few years’ time, recreating the Algarve’s traditional rain fed mixed orchard and agro-silvo-pastoral system. In the context of water scarcity, Vale da Lama has also implemented an efficient solar-powered, gravity-fed and electronically timed irrigation system.


Systemic Monitoring Indicators: cool temperature, happy connections and fair investment

Course participants discussed that research in permaculture would need to be both, interdisciplinary and participatory, listening to the people most affected by their current situation whilst linking research up with the most local and the most organised practitioner groups, so as to give our work the required traction.

Group photo from the courseCreating the world we want through the research we design would neither come from complacent perpetrators and the bandwagon effect nor from opting out of mainstream society, leaving us victimised and ineffective. Human activities should be less detrimental and enable a life with a low carbon footprint. At the same time we have to complement this with a high carbon handprint that fosters regeneration.

Intense discussions arouse around initial assessment, ongoing monitoring and evaluation of permaculture initiatives, whether focused on education, environmental restoration or agroecological production, including upscaled commercial farms. Using well stablished assessment tools with hundreds of reductionist indicators addressing the ‘triple bottom line sustainability concept’ are important to fully understand the multiple components of a project but seemed cumbersome and unproductive to some.

One project group identified the need for complementing these existing tools by reducing monitoring to a few systemic indicators framed within the permaculture ethics: (1) Cool Temperature for earth care, (2) Happy Connections for people care and (3) Fair Investment to assure a fair share. This systemic index idea is being followed beyond the course with the goal of validating it. Mollison's legendary quote could also be applied here: “Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”


Research should lead to flow and be as enjoyable as having a party!

The course ended with a cheerful and relaxed gathering: playing music, singing, dancing and enjoying local wine from Quinta do Vale da Lama grapes donated by Walt. For any next event of this kind the organisers hope to attract a larger number of female instructors and more research projects led by women.


Immo Fiebrig, Ph.D. - researcher at CAWR, Coventry University, UK

Katy Fox, Ph.D. - permaculture teacher, researcher and practitioner, Centre for Ecological Learning Luxembourg (CELL)


Find more information on Vale da Lama.