The first thing you’ll notice as you drive by Grass Roots Family Farm is the orchard — an unlikely sight in rural Alberta, but somehow it seems right at home beside the sprawling vegetable garden.
In a paddock near the house, a sow nurses a handful of nearly newborn piglets, and just down the lane from there, free-range hens and roosters scratch for feed beside a little white chicken coop. Farther yet, a small herd of cattle graze pastures just below fields where fresh-swathed grain lines the hills.
But what you can’t see from the road is that this little farm is almost completely self-sustaining, thanks to a little-known farming system called permaculture.
“Permaculture is a design system that involves basically observing your surroundings and working with nature rather than against it,” said Takota Coen, who manages the farm near Ferintosh.
For more than 25 years, parents Michael and Laura Coen operated the farm using organic practices, producing certified organic cereals for Sunny Boy Cereal and pork for Sunworks Farm. And while the family still holds true to those ideals today, the younger Coen saw greater potential elsewhere when he came back to the farm two years ago.
“We hit the end of the rope with what we thought we could do with organics,” he said.
After stumbling on permaculture while researching alternative farming methods, Coen decided to put principle to practice and create a self-sustaining farm. And so far, he’s seen great success.
“By looking at a system like this where it’s not just input in and then line out, it becomes truly economically viable and sustainable,” he said.
“When you embrace nature’s diversity and understand it, then you can start designing ways for it to work for you.”
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Originally dubbed ‘permanent agriculture,’ the concept dates back to the 1920s and is based on creating a system that can sustain itself indefinitely with very little human involvement — which is a big part of its appeal, said Coen.
“With these perennial agriculture systems, you can design them in such a way that they are self-regenerating and self-maintaining,” he said.
Livestock plays a major role in the system.
“Our philosophy is that, in order to have a sustainable farming system, animals need to be a part of the farming system to contribute to fertilizer,” said Coen.
“We’re essentially making our own fertilizer on farm and selling to the factories.”
The Coens produce almost all of their feed requirements on farm, growing hay for the cattle and peas and wheat for the chickens and pigs. And even those crops help sustain each other.
“The wheat and peas were planted together,” said Coen. “The wheat provides the structure for the peas to climb up on, and the peas fix nitrogen for the wheat.”
Even though the crops have been planted in the same space, they “don’t really compete” for resources, he said.
“You get this complementary, symbiotic relationship where both the peas and the wheat benefit.”
Right now, Coen’s main crop is hay — small square bales of timothy alfalfa and brome — produced in a field established last year with a nurse crop of oats.
“You seed your annual grain crops — in this case, wheat and peas — and underseed it to hay or pasture mix, and the cereals act as a nurse crop to outcompete any weeds while the slower-growing perennials establish,” he said.
“It helps your pasture establish, it gives you a yield in the meantime, and it reduces any weeds that would be coming up.”
This year, he’s also experimenting with pasture cropping, where annuals are rotated into pasture land so the cattle can fertilize the field.
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“If we could find a way to grow annual crops on perennial pastures without breaking up the land, I think it would absolutely revolutionize organic farming,” he said. “It would provide another option for organic farmers to maintain fertility in their land with a lot less use of fossil fuels.”
But in order to adopt these systems throughout the farm, Coen had to change his definition of profitability.
“If you’ve got two things together on the same area of land, you’re not going to get 100-bushel-to-the-acre canola and 100-bushel-to-the-acre wheat in the same crop,” he said. “The yields aren’t bumper crops, but together, they are far greater than what they would get by themselves.”
It’s also a “far more resilient system,” he said.
“If your one crop fails, it doesn’t matter. By managing your land like this, it’s increasingly going to be a benefit to your bottom line.”
In recent years, conventional producers have implemented permaculture principles on their own farms almost inadvertently — moving to no-till systems to maintain the land and incorporating things like winter wheat or perennial crops into their rotations.
Coen said he believes it’s only a matter of time before more producers start adopting other permaculture practices on a larger scale.
“There’s only so far we can get with our abundance of fossil fuel energy and the amount of resources we have,” he said.
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“It will get to a point where we can’t keep buying three-quarter of a million dollar combines and sprayers to make a profit. The margins are getting slimmer and slimmer all the time.
“It really becomes a matter of designed transition or forced collapse.”
But that transition can’t happen overnight, he said.
“If we just all of a sudden decided that we weren’t going to plant annual crops anymore, there would be a lot of problems that would quickly start showing their heads,” said Coen.
Even so, he’s “hopelessly optimistic” that change will come, however slowly.
“We have some of the most brilliant minds that have ever existed on the planet right now, and we’re able to do absolutely fantastic things with the technology we have,” he said. “We can figure this out. But we’re never going to get there if we don’t start.”