Student Research: Permaculture – Alternative Agriculture, part 2

Last year, students of the RCC Environmental Studies Certificate Program had the opportunity to attend a three-day workshop with Jochen Koller, Diploma Permaculture-Designer and Director of the Forschungsinstitut für Permakultur und Transition (FIPT). Students gained an insight into the ethics and design principles of permaculture, the diverse spheres of activity, and the practical possibilities. In this short series of posts, students reflect on their experiences at the workshop and on permaculture as an interdisciplinary approach to thinking, planning, and designing.

“Permaculture and the Hummelhof— A Philosophy for Life?”

By Stefan Bitsch

We are 14 people, driving through the calm and gentle landscape of the Allgäu to the first stop of our permaculture workshop. The first thing which strikes us as we enter the 17-hectare farm is that the garden has an unfamiliar feeling to it. It seems both peaceful and, strangely enough, busy, like no other place we will visit on that trip.

In front of the farm, whose façade is paneled with insect hotels, Mr. Hummel is already waiting to give us a tour.

Insect hotel. Photo: Lea Wiser.

Mr. Hummel starts, immediately grabbing everybody’s attention with a performance of Goethe’s image of nature in its original lyric form. “Nature on its own is vile and scary,” he says. “It needs to be cultivated, CULTIVATED”—and he lifts a warning finger—“meaning CARED FOR.” For the next hour we stand around him, captivated by his at times emotional—and always philosophical—monologue about balance in nature and the corruption of the natural system.  “What if…” he begins, and performs his own lyric which is even more shockingly inspirational than everything he has told us so far. It seems more like preaching than anything else and he knows it. He smiles wearily when he tells us that at least once a month he gets threats to burn his farm to the ground from people who completely despise his way of farming or thinking. But others love him for exactly that. And this discussion is the situation he wants: To create a farm that encourages people to start thinking about how they treat the land and why; to create a platform for information and inspiration, and the chance to learn from and with nature.

After his talk—during which the insect façade has exploded with life in the warmth of the sun—we start our tour of the farm. We begin at the wooden stable, plastered with clay for insulation, which was hand-built by Mr. Hummel with the help of Waldorf-school children of various ages. The roof has been installed so as to create a wild grassland on top of the barn—a home for bumblebees and other wildlife. None of the animals is in steel boxes, the calves are still lying close to their mothers, and both cows and the bull still have their horns. The stable is very clean, the animals relaxed. The usual stench and flies are absent.

The permaculture barn. Photo: Lea Wiser.

“How would you like standing in your own excrement?” he asks, with the same smile he had when talking about being threatened.

The tour continues through the vegetable garden which is located in front of his house—yet another principle of permaculture. Land used most often should be nearest the house, we are told, not just for convenience, but also so that the surrounding land can remain undisturbed for wild animals to come and interact with the ecosystem.

The soil is partly covered with straw and little wooden panels, an ideal hiding spot for snails and all kinds of insects, he tells us. “But why would any farmer want snails next to their salads?” we ask. However, looking at the salad, we are astonished to find it has not been nibbled at in the slightest. Snails, we are told, are the most important garbage-disposing animals in a garden and do not produce waste in the first place. It all depends on the soil. If the plant does not suit the soil, it is weak and gets eaten by the snails. Strong plants will be left alone. People only have problems with snails because they care about the plants rather than the soil. Instead of spending time collecting snails, people should be building up healthy soil. In a natural equilibrium no “parasite”—and he stops, for he hates that word, as every organism has its own role to play in the garden—will destroy the garden.  Quite the contrary: snails clean it up, creating space for biodiversity.

Mr. Hummel in discussion with the students. Photo: Ursula Münster.

The snail-friendly environment and the numerous insect hotels are not the only examples of his efforts to achieve a balanced ecosystem in his garden and to protect endangered species. He is also working on a bat tunnel. (Bats are endangered because of a lack of appropriate shelter during winter, but have a key function in nature, regulating the insect population.) “The bat is a very delicate animal,” he says. “It needs very special, constant circumstances so as not to freeze or starve to death when it is cold, something I am trying to create in this tunnel.” The tunnel is located on a small hill. The lowest few centimeters are covered with ground water to create humid air in the tunnel. The ceiling will be made of thick bricks containing small cavities, which the bats can crawl into. “When the roof is done, it will be covered with soil to insulate it naturally,” he explains. The aim is clear: to simulate the conditions of a natural cave. “Animals are smart,” he says. “Give them the right conditions to survive and they will come quicker than you can imagine. Only humans go to live in conditions where they do not naturally belong, altering their surroundings and, in doing so, changing the natural balance. And look at the consequences, which we are only now beginning to realize.”

The attempt to incorporate as much nature into his permaculture as possible is also visible in the extensive woods on the other side of the hill, which are managed according to the permaculture principle “Obtain a yield.” Therefore, the farm also produces firewood to bring in revenue from the “unused” land. The woods are seamed by natural finished grasslands, where a tremendous amount of dandelions blossom, coloring the field with yellow. “That’s a perfect example of soil regeneration,” he explains. “It’s the ‘jaundice’ of the earth. However, dandelions are not the sickness itself, they’re merely the symptom—a way for the earth to deal with the sickness. Dandelions settle where the soil is exhausted, depleted. With the help of the dandelions, new humus is created over time, bringing the soil back to a balanced state, without any chemical treatment. The only factor necessary is time and, once again, the willingness to observe and interact.”

Bat tunnel investigated by students. Photo: Ursula Münster.

After the tour, our group gets active, some helping with cutting the trees or crafting the bricks for the bat tunnel, others working on a treatment for the soil using only natural ingredients, such as spiraled water (water that has created an eddy) and quartz. Here, an esoteric element dealing with symmetry and geometry—namely the activation of water through its rising—comes into play, making it difficult for some of us to follow in earnest, since we are only accustomed to explaining processes scientifically.

The general concept of the farm is unquestionably great. The only open question we are still reflecting on is its practicality on a bigger scale where, sadly, the issue of finance comes in. The farm itself is run by the Hummel family, with the support of an association. Revenue comes from, for example, selling wood, providing the local Waldorf school’s cafeteria with vegetables, and renting small plots of land to people who want to contribute to the great Hummelhof project or simply do some gardening themselves. Mr. Hummel writes books about realizing his small ideal in the Allgäu, and profits from book sales also go to the farm. Yet the income from the farm is not enough to support his family, which is why he also works as a teacher at the Waldorf school he cooperates with. However, the farm as a source of income has never been the goal. It supports itself and is an educational farm. It not only has a lot to offer in terms of ideas, but also creates discussion that is desperately needed to develop as a community.

One Comment on “Student Research: Permaculture – Alternative Agriculture, part 2

  1. Pingback: Snapshot: Permaculture – Alternative Agriculture, part 3 | Seeing the Woods

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