Obtain a yield; 3 development methods

Obtain a yield is principle number 3 in Permaculture as defined by David Holmgren.

A yield is a value addition, either intended to generate a revenue or settle a value added service for the ecosystem. A yield is a transformed (actualized) opportunity.

Here are 3 methods to accomplish this goal

Prototyping

Prototyping is a methodology concomitant to systemic approach. It is used either to test a solution and gain a know-how  or to develop a technical platform or process to produce a desired outcome at small scale. In both situation the prototype’s goal is to

  • validate the feasibility of the solution, technically or economically
  • analyze the impact and the scaling up capability of the solution (it could be a negative impact, unforeseen, or a positive impact showing new opportunities)

Prototyping is a very pragmatic approach adapted to the development of functions which did not exist in a specific context before. Prototyping may have different levels of completion, from the basic proof of concept to the beta version which modules will be enhanced over time with an evolving and best of breed design.

Usually the solution is settled at very small scale keeping in mind the possible impact of an up-scaling choice. The goal is to learn both on the validity of the function; does it produce quality and the expected quantity ? and the ease of integration of the function into a larger scheme, business (or operation) process orientated.

Example;

I wish to raise chicken for egg, compost and meat production. I never cared about chicken before but I assume they need an habitat and a space to move and find food. First step will be to build a chicken coop and let the chicken go errand to find their food. I will start with 10 chicks and build a 2 m2 house to protect them from the rain at night. After a while I notice that; predators catch my chicks during the night and they go errand far away either in dangerous places (dogs of the neighbors) or in places where they cannot find their way back. I decide to secure the chicken coop and close the errand area. The latter could become an important financial impact. I choose for a  cheap metal fence. Etc… I’ll continue to add new versions to the first prototype as long as they comply with my goals. At some point I’ll maybe choose to go for a complete redesign of an enhanced solution and recycle the prototype as material or as a structure for another feature.

Projects or Functions implementation

This second method implies a certain degree of self insurance assuming that no risks can be taken considering the simplicity of the feature to implement. Let’s include the same example ; I want to raise chicken and produce eggs, which is the most sustainable way to produce animal proteins. And I want as well to produce various fruits, which is a long term strategy for the farm… What methodology Permaculture will provide to streamline these targets ?

The main methodology to accomplish this goal is, practically; to define a  correspondence between the functions I want to implement and the necessary resources. What chicken (more specifically egg production), mango production, banana production, etc. needs?

Then you construct a matrix of relationships;

Chicken needs habitat, food, both vegetarian and insects or arthropod based, specific requirements like dust, perch to seat and feel secured and aerated, contemplating the world as a bird, clean water, a stable group with one roaster for approximately 10 females, space to go errand and test their leg and wings muscles, a protection against predators, a controlling fenced to prevent them to invade Zone 0 or Zone 1 for the least. Then you go further and define what is needed for mango trees to thrive and produce, the same for Banana trees. You obtain this way a list of resources and functions or projects you’ll need to settle and operate to accomplish your wishes.

This method has the advantage to define a Memorandum of Understanding of your program, highlighting the main resources (material, space and time-lapse) you’ll have to manage to reach a more or less precise goal.

The disadvantage of it is the lack of temporal structure. It will help having an idea on the spacial design and functionalities but will lack precision on the integrating processes; the “How to operate”.

This method is project oriented in the sense that it defines a scope of development and provide naturally with a Gantt of resources including critical path, labor (human resources) and material resources.

Business or Operational Process Implementation

This is the most precise and error free method but it requires an existing experience to be able to design a process in an accurate way.

The idea is very normative; defining a sequence of steps (events or functions) that will form a process with a specific operational or business goal.

Coming back to the egg production I have identified 3 sub processes;

  1. producing eggs with adult chicken “happy” in my farm
  2. raising chicks who will be the main actors of this production
  3. producing value added products with adult chicken which do not produce eggs anymore

Immediately the “time” dimension appears, putting us in a much more reality based experience, projecting us in the reality of future operations. This projection has an immeasurable merit ; to define or roughly assess the workload necessary to perform each step of the process from start to end, designing the associated logistic, the optimized route and emphasizing the necessity of sub contracting ( in a circular economy mode for example) some functions because out of reach. The visualization of this dimension is important in order to minimize labor. For example if some steps require a lot of (fossil) energy or labor it will be necessary to “re-think” the process and find different functions/steps or resize them. Sizing will as well take place in comparing the different functions (steps) of a process to be sure that the quantity of output produced in a step will be manageable as an input of the next step.

It will be a way as well to project your mind in the hybrid biological/technical cycles which rule Permaculture, a way to be more systemic in the way you manage your ecosystem.

Once familiar with this perspective you’ll not think so much in term of “function engineering”, instead you’ll start to think in  term of “processes and functions integration”, equivalent to biological cycle relationship and exchanges, finding synergies between natural and technical functions.

The process design allows to play the role of ecosystem architect using a transposition of biological cycles. Not only it helps to integrate the functions into a normative series of steps toward a specific goal but it may as well help to manage the evolution of functions. For example; if a swale is used at start for re-hydrating an area and stop erosion, once the vegetation is settled and handle the erosion on its own then the swale can be transformed in a diverting function for filling a reservoir with rain water. The ditch is mutating from the reforestation process as a swale to a channeling function of rain water in the process of fish production.

Comparing the methods

You will note a hierarchy in the 3 methods described here from basic to more sophisticated. The conclusion is that being non-experienced in the setup of a specific goal the best approach will be to use the 3 of them in sequence,  starting small with prototyping and using the process one only when (if) it becomes a business or operational focus for the farm.

Biomimicry and the inspiration from natural processes

If Biomimicry is the science of inspiration from nature we may consider

  • a scale in the levels of inspiration;
    • from pure inspiration (re-use or re-think a concept)
    • to transposition (replication of a function or structure using different materials or processes)
    • and duplication (direct use of natural functions to perform an activity)
  • and in the levels of integration
    • focusing on a simple function (being inspired by a natural function, e.g. producing humus with a warm farm)
    • or a set of activities; a Process …

Let’s develop this last possibility. Most of Permaculture examples are founded on functions settlement; create a dry toilets, a clay house, a garden bed using hukelkultur, etc… It is more convenient to develop such a perspective as it helps to create a Lego platform where all functions can be chosen and integrated as required depending on the elementary priorities, resources, means and objectives. However it may hamper the exploration of more complex biomimic replication.

An example where we do not only produce a function but few steps to reach a goal;

The creation of compost.

You’ll find many documentation on production of compost. Usually is start with; “how to make a compost pile” assuming that you already managed to gather nitrogen rich material, carbohydrates and green stuff as a microorganism inoculum. Already you may wonder; but how, where and when can I get these ingredients ? then start the questioning of a more complex process in charge of the production of these ingredients. Then after 18 days, following the hot composting recipe presented to you, you may encounter a doubt; how can I use this compost, where , on which plant in which quantity and when ? in the plant life cycle. There again some steps of a more complex process are hidden to your view and you may take the risk to misuse this compost and fail to get the most of it. A step by step view of a more interesting goal is missing; from resources production to plant production constrained by time dimension (life spam of biological resources, planting and harvesting periods, schedule of priorities).

Going further in the process vision

Let’s consider now a very synergistic process; the “Terra Preta de Índio” (Literally ; the black earth of the Amerindian)

or the creation of an hybrid soil made of earth and biochar, one of the most fertile and stable substrate on earth.

It is important first to differentiate charcoal (pyrolyzed carbon) from Biochar (enriched charcoal with nutrients). An interesting feature can be found here which raises a debate on the properties of Black Carbon and Biochar (it is necessary to read the comments of the article to tamper the study).

The following example is , I hope,  illustrative on how the research for synergistic processes can change the way you plan functions and better focus on yield and strategic opportunities.

Along the amazon basin in the settlements of Amerindian civilization were found deep black and fertile soil. The production of such a soil may be explained by the lifestyle of this population with the following activities part of various processes related to habitat settlement, food and utensils processing, and agriculture ;

  1. The use of fire for food cooking but as well in the process of clay cooking to produce dishes. This last activity has the particularity to require a long burning process with contained fire partly producing a pyrolysis type of combustion.
  2. Another burning activity was for the nomadic way of life to put fire to a new place before to settle, an easy way to remove vegetation and get rid of an aggressive fauna, thriving in the amazon. This kind of practice was sustainable (even beneficial by favoring the propagation of pioneers plants) since done with adequate periodicity (superior than 10 to 20 years) letting time for nature to recover through the different stages of succession.
  3. Another particularity of these activities was the fact that it was happening under rainy weather, confining locally the production of dioxide gas (dissolution of CO2 into the droplets of rain) and above all interrupting the combustion , which would have end up in ashes (highly soluble and removed by heavy rains)  if completed, to the production of a byproduct; charcoal, associated with partly burned wood. We may wonder, and it has to be tested, if the presence of non-burned wood had the advantage to help the transformation of charcoal into biochar by the attraction of bacteria and fungus, its degradation and its migration to the charcoal.
  4. Charcoal has a hygienic and curing effect by absorbing microorganisms and helping the erosion and absorption of greasy and carbon rich materials. Naturally it is a material of choice to absorb human and animal excrement (urine and feces) and food remains from the kitchen. It may have been used empirically for this usage, helping once again the transformation of charcoal into biochar.
  5. Another supposed technique was smoldering agricultural waste (burning agriculture waste and covering them to obtain a slow combustion).
  6. There is the hypothesis as well that an earthworm was the main agent in breaking and incorporating charcoal debris into the soil in the amazon.

Here we cannot define if this process of biochar production was desired or only a side effect of human behavior in a specific ecosystem. I tend to believe in the former hypothesis since a holistic way of life produce empirical knowledge and item 5) shows a sense of purpose . What we may agree with is that we remain in the paradigm of Biomimicry when getting inspired by these activities since the human behavior producing this biochar was entirely integrated into biological life cycles. The discovery (or let’s say the control) of fire was very close to natural functions, a superior animal would use to distinguish himself in the food web.

Now that the various activities at the genesis of biochar are defined (there are maybe more) we may go on and walk into the path of creativity and inspiration. These activities were part of a long and ancestral process with many outcome certainly impacting social and civilization aspects. What is important now is not to reproduce the same behaviors but to define the adequate process, adapted to our own way of life, in order to produce Charcoal, Biochar and cycle it into the production of food. The fact that biochar production is now becoming a byproduct in the fuel industry shows that the industry has already mimicked a very old process. We may just hope that charcoal production will not become a business goal in itself but remain a value added byproduct in a circular economy, as growing biomass solely for its mass production could represent an oxygen sink as described in the article cited above.

As we position ourselves in a tropical agriculture where the food forest is central we may count on an abundant production of wood, therefore the capacity to use this material for cooking purpose. The objective is not to be a “producer” of Biochar but more to mimic partly the ancestral process and consider biochar as a byproduct (a synergy or an emergent opportunity in the vocabulary of Permaculture) of our way of life to improve or regenerate in many cases the soil of the farm. (Adding charcoal to a rich humus has a negative impact and release carbon more than it sequester it).

Let’s consider the various elementary (Lego) functions available that we can use to create an operational process or hybrid natural/technological cycle to produce Biochar;

The question is not any more to define the elements that we need (function oriented approach) but the Processes at the source of these elements. I will give examples here which are context dependent and everyone will have to find its own process based on its local context, available functions and resources.

We need wood; how do we obtain wood ? We are here in a reforestation process, meaning that we have planted a lot of leguminous and specifically Acacia Mangium , a tree well adapted to pruning and wood production. We are now in the phase (the trees are 2 to 4 years old when this article is written) where pruning and collecting wood becomes necessary for;

  • clearing the paths
  • give some light to the young productive species (fruit trees mainly)
  • gather dead broken branches

Let’s note that the outcome of these activities (gathering wood) is a byproduct. The main purpose is not to get wood for fire but as cited above to improve path logistic and help forest succession. It is an example of synergy in Permaculture; often phases of transformation create an opportunity. We stick here to the philosophy of Amerindians; the process of Biochar production start by  using a byproduct.

We need a burning process; since regenerating the soil of Zone 1 (the closest from the center of the farm) becomes now the priority in order to produce sophisticated food and process these nutrients (both cooking and smoking) we decide that we will make a wood burning stove using clay. We already have experience in Adobe building and plenty of clay/sand mixture on site. Efficient designs are now common in Portuguese (we are in Brazil) and shared on Internet.We will make sure that the stove includes a chimney to avoid breathing smoke. That’s maybe the only new function we will add to the farm in order to complete this process. In the design of the farm we have located a large quantity of trees in the top of the hill making easier to transport logs to the center of the farm. The stove will produce a large spectrum of carbon derived byproducts from ashes to more or less pyrolyzed carbon and pieces of wood. This variety of sub products will either have a neutral effect on the end result compared to pure charcoal (qualitatively) or a positive one assuming that diversity usually has a positive impact (e.g. ashes rich in potassium, wood stimulating fungus development). We will still name this end product charcoal for the rest of the article to ease the reading and considering it contains charcoal.

Once again we may consider charcoal production as a byproduct of the food processing function.

We need to transform the charcoal into biochar prior to its addition to the soil to avoid negative impacts on yields; we may use;

  1. Nitrogen and other minerals rich nutrient
  2. Carbs
  3. Microorganism inoculum

There are 2 intensive sources of nitrogen in the farm; the chicken litter and the dry toilets litter.Another source is the waste coming from the kitchen which acts as well as an inoculum. The 2 litters are rich as well in carbohydrates, especially the one coming from the dry toilets since we operate a separation of urine and feces, reducing the Nitrogen/Carbs ratio in the compost pile.

When cleaning the chicken coop and gathering the litter on a pile to make compost we add the remains of stove combustion and the kitchen waste which are not intended to end up in the worm farm (fruits having a tendency to arm the worm farm because of their sugar concentration and acidic or aggressive nutrients). We add as well weekly some charcoal in the dry toilets pile and in the banana circle adjacent to the dry toilets where is diverted the urine.

Logistic wise the distribution of charcoal does not represent an important workload, either in gathering the charcoal or in distributing it to the different locations already visited frequently.

The rest of the process which consist in using the compost remains identical. We assume that the density of nutrients in the chicken manure (very rich in nitrogen and minerals) will quickly feed the charcoal and speed up the frequency of usage of the compost. The humanure from the dry toilets is used after a much longer period (large compartment filled in only after few months) in adequacy with the time necessary for charcoal to absorb nutrients in such an environment rich in carbs.

We may experience giving composted chicken litter with charcoal to the worms to help the “biocharization” meaning; speeding up the absorption by the charcoal of nutrient and beneficial organisms coming from the worms and possibly its fragmentation if we refer to the hypothesis that Pontoscolex corethrurus (earthworm) was helping to do so.

We may see that the implementation of such a process has influences on;

  • The landscape design; location of the trees up the hill, respective locations of the wood burning stove and the chicken coop. We could have as well imagined to develop more the giant bamboo vegetation as they are extremely efficient in biomass production or coconut trees as their nut is a wood product we may use in a sustainable way, without impacting the forest.
  • The choice of functions; for example if we would have made only a biodigestor we would not have had the potential of humanure to produce biochar
  • The road map of the farm development; we first decided to handle reforestation in zones 2,3,4 and 5 before to develop Zone 1 which could have been made in parallel and would not have benefited from this new soil amendment.

We may imagine as well that the setup of a wood burning oven will modify the way we prepare food and add some functionality to the transformation processes in the farm. For example since we have planted coffee trees in the young forest we will now have an adequate tool to manage roasting and produce our own coffee. There is a huge difference between coffee found in the commerce and fresh coffee, as explained in this video;

We will have a pretty good tool as well to smoke foodstuffs and improve our food preservation process. More than focusing on specific examples we may consider here than a biomimetic approach to settle processes will naturally create the emergence of connected  processes since we introduce elements having stacking functions in the natural world (here it is explained how.)

Conclusion

The objective of this example is mostly to show how the “Process thinking”, here using biomimicry as a drive, may lead the instantiation of the farm functions in a more integrated and global goal oriented perspective (business or operational wise).

Biomimicry usage (being inspired by the Terra Preta De Indio) helped as well to show the equivalence between natural cycles and Processes,  functions connected through time by flows of events and nutrients.

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